Quantum Meat

Hank had no idea that the steak he was grilling had become quantumly entangled. Hank didn’t even know that quantum entanglement was a thing. He had bigger problems, such as his depression, which had become so deep that he had given up on his own happiness altogether. He was living vicariously through his one-eyed tomcat Boots, whom he was unknowingly about to poison.

Hank stood squinting on the sunny patio, chilly and naked except for sandals, grilling a filet mignon to perfection-—for Boots. His beloved cat perched with its black and gray tail lifted on the patio railing, sniffing at his dinner. Hank stroked Boots’ black and gray fur and then turned the steak over with a spatula. He sprinkled more catnip over it. He worked it into the meat with his palm.

Thanks to Animal Planet, Hank knew that cat hierarchy revolved around the amount of meat each cat has eaten. They can tell by smelling their respective urine. Boots could use the help. After all, a fisher attack had left him blind in one eye, and he had a bad habit of licking patches of fur right off of himself. Boots was not pretty to look at. But he would have the best smelling urine in town, if Hank had anything to do with it.

In the cat world, it’s not how you look. It’s how much your urine smells like meat.

Boots ate half of his chopped-up filet mignon, and then trotted up the street to find neighborhood felines, no doubt. In the three months that Hank had been feeding Boots top quality meats he’d not once seen another cat. He’d expected to hear female cats in heat caterwauling at all hours, clinging to the window screens and scaling the siding to get in. Instead, Boots was gone for hours at a time. For all Hank knew Boots was squandering the best years of his life. Following Boots would be no good—-Hank just didn’t have the endurance to be trailing a cat all over.

Hank had packed on 30 pounds in the year since his wife and baby had died in labor. A former high school English teacher, Hank’s four days of bereavement leave had blurred into a year. He had blown through all 90 sick days he’d accumulated and not even the almighty teachers’ union could save his job after that.

Sometimes he awoke late at night, the words “clot buster” on his lips.

The surgeon had remarked to Hank afterward, “You know, if we’d been able to reach you, and administered the clot buster in time, we might have actually saved her.” But they hadn’t administered it, because deploying a clot buster is risky, and Hank was not there to authorize it. Kathleen, six months pregnant, had suffered a massive stroke while shopping. Hank’s goddamned phone hadn’t had service. He’d missed the call from the nurse. By the time he reached the hospital she was a vegetable, the left hemisphere of her lovely brain wiped out by an ischemic stroke-—a blood clot that had dislodged from her precious, malformed heart and blocked her brain’s blood supply. That night, when the emergency C-section was performed, she hemorrhaged and died, and so did the baby.

She had been Hank’s favorite paradox, and he loved paradoxes. That was one of the reasons he became a teacher. Take Macbeth. “Fair is foul, foul is fair.” What? How could it be both? Well, let’s talk about it. He taught Macbeth every year, and relished it. He had relished the paradox that was his lovely Irish wife. Fair-skinned and delicate looking, she would sometimes stop the car just to get a look at a puppy, but she’d once knocked a drunk man clean out after he had slapped his girlfriend in a bar. She was fair, yet foul-mouthed. Her temperament and strength were his personal proof that Vikings had indeed invaded and settled in Ireland.

It took a strong woman to love a man like him despite his morbid fantasies and dark desires. He’d ended more than one marriage before he tied the knot himself, screwing married women. But Kat, she put up with none of it-—she had saved him from himself.

Now his only remaining paradox was Kat’s cat, Boots. That cat had to be an absolute stud based on his meat ingestion-—yet there was no evidence of virility. Why? Hank thought and thought, and finally came to a solution. His tiny digital camera. It was a portable, tiny little thing he’d bought to strap around the neck of his newborn’s stuffed animal, so even if he was at work, he’d be able to turn on his iPad and see his little one.

Now all I can do is use the iPad to spy on my cat’s sex life. Talk about pathetic.

The following morning Boots came back. This time, Hank clipped the compact camera to Boots’ collar. After eating half of a rare, catnip-infused, imported Kobe sirloin, Boots trotted off as always, up the street. Hank hurried inside, fetched an ice-cold bottle of Yoo-Hoo, and placed it on the only space available on the coffee table. The rest was cluttered with cellophane donut wrappers and empty Yoo-hoo bottles. He turned on his iPad and opened the Wireless Camera app. On the screen was a cat’s-eye, or rather cat’s-neck, live stream of his road. A close-up of a green bush filled the screen—-he must be sniffing. He wound around the bush, and a black and brown robin stood pecking on the grass.

“Don’t get distracted, Boots,” muttered Hank.

The camera rushed toward the bird, but the robin sprang into the air and chirped angrily as it flew toward the pines. After a few more minutes of sniffing, Boots continued across the lawn and up the street. There was the Nickersons’ basketball hoop. Boots was almost to the top of the hill. But the camera turned left, down the driveway of the perpetually abandoned house at the top of the hill. Hank actually liked the house-—it was bigger, with a spacious backyard. He had tried to convince Kat to buy that one rather than his current house. She had been right of course. It was about ready to collapse judging by the sagging roof.

Boots seemed to have a definite destination. He reached the back corner of the house, turned right—-and the screen went black. Then the picture came back, and suddenly there was another cat standing before an open cellar window. Finally! Hank leaned forward and rubbed his hands together. The cat was black with gray legs, like Boots. And its right eye socket was pink, where its eye should have been. It looked exactly like boots, down to the pink and blue-studded collar. Was it a mirror? No—-ice froze Hank’s gut. Boots was looking at a replica of himself. The other cat’s gray front legs filled the screen, and then the other cat turned and jumped through the open basement window.

The screen shook as Boots also jumped down into a dimly lit room with a dirt floor. There were clothes on the floor, as well as a person.

A young woman: silver duct tape over her mouth, lying on her side on a thin mattress, arms bound behind her.

Hank leapt up and sent the iPad clattering to the floor. Oh God. He knew her from her face. For the first time in a year Hank felt urgency. His mind catapulted into a frenzy of rapid thought, like a starved dog that was suddenly tossed meat. As he squeezed into a pair of too-tight jean shorts, his mind cast out a line and hooked on a reason. A reason his wife and son had been taken from him. Maybe, just maybe, there was a purpose.

Maybe he was meant to save this girl.

Hank dialed 911, reported the girl’s location, and hung up on the still-talking operator. There might be a captor with the girl and Hank needed a weapon. He opened his closet and grabbed a hammer from the tool bag. He did not bother with shoes or a shirt. It was April after all. He jumped into his Corolla, backed out and rocketed up the hill. In ten seconds he turned into the driveway of the vacant house.

Hammer in hand, Hank ran down the driveway, sweating and breathless. At the back of the house was the cellar window, but it was closed. Did they know he was coming? Someone must have seen the camera on Boots’ neck. Hank knelt in the dirt and shattered the cellar window with the hammer, and then cleared the jagged glass away by running the hammer around the edges. He laid on his stomach and looked in. The sunlight streaming in showed only a dirt floor. No mattress, no girl. No cat.

The ipad’s screen had turned black a moment—-he must have missed something. The girl was deeper inside. Hank turned and crawled backward through the window, ignoring the burning pain from the broken glass cutting his chest and substantial belly. He let himself down onto the cool, damp dirt floor and then turned, hammer brandished. More filthy cellar windows emitted just enough sunlight to see by. Heart hiccupping, Hank advanced, and turned the corner to find another bare dirt floor.

The air rippled, and Boots stepped out of nothing.

Hank shook his head, and then leaned on the wall for support. Was something wrong with him? But wait-—if Boots was here, the girl had to be too. Hank moved to the bottom of the stairs, and then ascended, stepping on the sides of each stair to decrease creaking. It was no use. In the silent house each creak might as well have been a gunshot.

At the top of the stairs he turned the metal knob and shouldered the door open upon an empty kitchen. A dated yellow stove with its ancient refrigerator counterpart were the only inhabitants. A siren wailed in the distance and grew louder as Hank moved through the first floor of the empty house. Shit. They had to have brought her upstairs. Hank hesitated at the first stair—-the police would be here any moment. But they wouldn’t rob him of his chance to show his quality, to garner some jewel from the rubble of his life.

Perhaps they had her upstairs. Maybe they even had guns. But Hank’s advantage was at once great and terrible. He didn’t care if he died. Death was the only place where he had (an admittedly slim) chance of seeing his wife and unborn child. This, then, would be his legacy.

Hank charged barefoot up the wood-plank stairs, crossed the hall and slammed the first door open. He ran screaming into the room, and then the second, and by the third, his scream had dwindled to a wheeze, abruptly dying out. Nothing. Nothing, but pounding on the door downstairs, and a man’s voice shouting to open up.

Hank plodded down the stairs, half-naked and bloody, hammer in hand, and opened the door. A police officer stood there, hand on his holstered gun.

“Get on the floor!” he commanded.

“I thought—-” began Hank, gesticulating with the hammer, but he suddenly changed his mind about explaining what he thought.

A few minutes later Hank lay prostrate, arms cuffed behind him. He told what he knew, between gasps, to a different officer who was not listening. The other officer’s footsteps echoed as the man ran downstairs, then upstairs, all while Hank lay staring at his mighty weapon, the rusted hammer, which had taken on a devious look now. A hammer is the weapon of a desperate man, he admitted to himself. But how had she not been here? He had been sure. Where was Boots? When did these shorts get so tight?

“Would you let me know if you see my cat?” He yelled to the officer.

Later, as a friendly young EMT blotted the minor cuts on Hank’s stomach, Hank took stock of the situation. There clearly had been no one in this house. No one but him. He had no evidence of seeing the girl, had not recorded the live stream from Boots. The police found him bloody, wielding a hammer, practically naked and alone. Things did not appear promising.

In the subsequent police station interview, it became immediately clear that officers already knew him. In this small town the tragedy of his wife and child had become well-known, and as this was his third run-in with the police this year, a consensus hung like an albatross about him: grief had driven him over the edge.

The first two run-ins were the natural result, he conceded, of a man who had ceased caring. In January, a police officer found him nude in the street, staring up into a sky of falling snow. He had only wanted to watch the flakes swirling down. His nudity was just a coincidence. He was always naked, well, almost, he told the grimacing detective who was interviewing him. And then of course he’d been spotted retrieving his mail from the end of his driveway while naked. The children in the house across the street had seen him doing so many times, and so he was warned that indecent exposure charges could be brought.

The problem was that it sometimes took Hank hours just to work up the ambition to get a Yoo-hoo from the fridge. He did not possess the fortitude required to dress anymore. He had to manage his dwindling ambition carefully. He could not be bothered with meaningless facades such as clothing.

At the police station, Hank tried to summon the will to care when the faceless social worker informed him that further frightening behavior could get him institutionalized, at least temporarily. But that sounded better to him than he cared to admit. After a warning that property damage charges would be brought by the homeowner, he was released later that same night (he could pick up his impounded car in the morning).

When the officer dropped Hank off, he found Boots waiting for him on the porch. So, Boots had made it back. But his dinner! Poor kitty. Hank microwaved the other half of the Kobe and served it to him with a side of cream. He was exhausted, but he knew sleep would elude him. He’d probably watch the History channel and cry, as usual, because he couldn’t work up the gusto to be interested in the fall of Rome or anything else anymore.

Finished with the Kobe, Boots yowled at the door. Hank checked the camera on his neck—-thankfully it shut off automatically after an hour. He flicked it on and then let Boots outside.

Hank turned on the iPad and fetched a cinnamon donut and a Yoo-hoo. Neither seemed to have much flavor.

Even my taste buds have left me, he thought. Can’t blame them.

Hank remembered to hit the “record” button on his iPad this time. He stared at the black screen-—had the battery died? Then bouncing pavement appeared on the screen, bathed in grainy light. The street light. Then it was dark again. Small lights appeared, and then a car rumbled by. Careful Boots! Darkness once more. But Boots was creeping up the street again.

Hank sat transfixed by the darkness.

The screen blacked out again, and a shiver prickled Hank. It wasn’t buffering, but something else. It was what he saw before—-a disturbance–a glimmering in the air. Then the screen showed a bare light bulb. He was looking through the open basement window. Again, the screen blacked out for a moment as Boots jumped down.

The girl lay there, this time with her knees drawn up to her chest. She wore nothing, save duct tape over her mouth, her rope-bound hands around her drawn up knees. Long blonde hair curtained her shoulders. That hair-—those eyes. The checkout girl-—that is where he recognized her from. The girl was looking at something out of camera shot and shaking her head. The view panned as Boots turned toward what the girl dreaded. A man. Shirtless, paunchy, sandy-haired, with glasses. The man was looking down at the cat, at the camera. A sense of recognition revolted Hank, and he leaned down toward the screen as if he might fall into it.

The man on the screen was him.

Hank stood up suddenly. What? No! He had truly lost it, now. Bile tickled his throat. He shook his head. This was real. He wasn’t crazy. If he could prove it was real, then he could prove he was not crazy.

Hank scarcely knew he was running naked outside. How did he get a screwdriver in his hand? His car was gone-—stolen? Impounded, that’s right. He wheezed as he jogged up the street. When did this hill get so steep? Headlights washed over him as a car passed, slowed down, and then sped off. When he finally reached the driveway, he turned down it and ran to the back window, heaving.

The window had been boarded up. No light emitted from it.

Hank shook his head. He walked around to the other basement window at the back of the house. There was nothing but darkness within. Suddenly the driveway-—mere yards from him-—was awash in red and blue lights and there was the crunch of tires on dirt. Hank turned and skulked into the woods behind the house and slowly, painfully, bumped and cursed his way back to his property, through prickers and muck. When he got to his back door, he didn’t even bother picking the myriad thorns from his body before he collapsed face-down on the couch.

Me. There was no mistaking it, but even fatter somehow.

Blessed sleep ambushed him. A persistent pounding noise as of someone knocking on a door invaded his dreams, but it stopped eventually.

In the morning Hank took an Uber to the police station to pick up his Corolla. Then, for the first time in weeks, Hank pulled into the parking lot of a store. He was not there to shop. He still had at least thirty cases of Yoo-Hoo left, and plenty of donuts and canned soup, which were all he ate. He wanted to see if the checkout girl was there, if she was OK. There would be no mistaking her naïve blue eyes-—she seemed to be in perpetual surprise. He had always suspected there was something wrong with her. She was 18 or 19, probably, seemed to be the kind of girl who would go along with anything. She’d always flirted with him when he came in. He’d thought of her at times in ways he’d never admit to anyone.

She was the first person he saw when he walked in. So, she is safe. She was staring at nothing, seemingly, standing before her register. God, she’s strange. He picked up the first thing he found, an Easter basket filled with candy, wrapped in cellophane. He rounded the corner, entered her lane and laid the basket on the black conveyor belt. She was still staring straight ahead, but then she turned her head so that her wide-open blue eyes fixed on Hank.

She shook her head, saying, “Gawd, isn’t that cute?”

“Hm?” said Hank.

She shook her head again, pointed. “The picture, dummy!”

Hank looked at where she’d been pointing. On the wall behind the courtesy desk hung a poster featuring an orange and white kitten in the palm of someone’s hand. “Take Care!” admonished the poster.

“Yeah,” said Hank. “Say, are you doing ok?”

“Fine, thank you,” she said, smiling and looking down. She tucked a strand of blond hair behind her ear.

She thinks I’m flirting.

“What about you?” she said, looking up. “How are you doing, mister?”

“Fine, fine,” he lied.

“In the mood for something sweet?” she asked.

“What? Why?”

She stared down at the Easter basket emphatically.

“Oh yeah,” he said. “Getting ready for Easter.”

“Easter was last weekend, you goose.” She laughed. She picked up the brightly colored basket. “This is on clearance.” She looked at him, twisted back and forth childishly, in a way that simultaneously revolted and excited him. “I do so love sweet things.”

“Who doesn’t, who doesn’t,” said Hank, blushing. “Say, do you have an older sister?”

“No . . . there’s just little ol’ me. Why? You think I’m too young?”

“No, no, you’re . . . fine. You’re just right.” Hank fumbled for his debit card. He put the card into the machine, and then stared at the little screen while waiting for it to register. He scrawled a rapid signature and left.

He took exaggerated strides as he hustled out of the store. He was opening his car door when she arrived behind him, breathless.

“You forgot this, sweetie,” she said.

“You-—geez, thanks,” he said, accepting the basket.

“Guess I’ll see ya, sometime,” she said, biting her thumbnail.

Hank got in, slammed the door, dumped the basket on the passenger floor and backed out. She stood and watched him drive away, thumb still at her lips.

Hank’s pulse was still throbbing when he got home. He fetched his mail and as he walked he pulled out all of the bills, but one. He tossed most of the bills onto the pile of soggy mail on his front lawn. They were mostly from the credit cards he had been maxing out on Kobe Steak. When one was declined, he’d just get a new one, for as long as that lasted. But he had saved the envelope from Kobe Industries, from where he purchased Boots’ steak. That was one invoice he always paid ahead of time.

Boots was curled up in a furry ball on a faded green patio chair, one Kathleen had picked out. Hank had neglected to take it in over the winter, just as he’d neglected himself and everything around him, save Boots.

Hank caught his reflection in the back-door window; carrying the Easter basket, he looked like a man with a child, with a family, which he was not. He allowed himself a brief, tight-lipped smile.

Inside, Hank flicked on the iPad once more, tore the cellophane from the basket and began stuffing marshmallow Peeps in his mouth. While the iPad was turning on, he opened the bill from Kobe Now!. It was not a bill, but rather a recall. A refund check for the steak he’d bought accompanied the letter which explained that, while there was probably no cause for alarm, a small number of Kobe Now! customers had reported hallucinations and dizziness after consuming recent shipments of steak, and the livestock may have drunk water tainted in the recent Fukushima nuclear reactor meltdown.

Great—I’ve been poisoning Boots. Maybe I should eat the rest and get it over with.

Hank pulled out the iPad and found the recording of the previous night’s escapade. In moments he had paused it on her duct-taped face. So, it was real. He was not crazy. And yet those cracked black bricks on the basement wall in the video told him he had the right place-—what was going on? He pushed play and the camera panned up to the face that was his. His stomach sank. He pushed pause. There was no doubting it-—but the glasses were different. That was his paunchy belly, if even bigger-—but no scar! Where was his scar? Hank pulled off his pajama shirt, looked down-—sure enough, a bright pink scar ran across his chest, from when he had tripped over Kathleen’s bag a few years back and crashed through their glass coffee table.

Hank had often wondered what might have become of him had he not met Kat. She had civilized him, urged him to quit washing dishes for a living and complete his teaching certificate. Even then he had hidden his dark side from her. He had used to contemplate suicide fairly often, before they had met. He had been so lonely, so depraved, he had even had lurid fantasies about kidnapping a girl. But Kat had believed in him, brought him to life, as surely as her death had killed him. He did not want to be this Hank, the Hank he was. It was only a matter of time before he became that Hank on the screen. Kat, his only antidote for himself, was gone forever.

Hank abruptly vomited over the side of the couch. He’d clean that up later.

How could this other him exist? He’d watched TED Talks on theoretical physics and had thought the theory that alternate dimensions may be spawning every second ridiculous. But now, not so. Could that be what’s happening? Had he, or rather, meat-stuffed Boots, stumbled upon an alternate reality?

Strangely, Boots had seemed to be able to enter and exit this other dimension at will, though for Hank it did not appear. But wait-—the steak. Could it be that this allegedly hallucinogenic meat had imbued Boots with dimension-crossing ability? Hank laughed abruptly, then sat up.

That was exactly what had happened.

Boots, God bless you, you have shown me the way back to Kat, back to myself, the self I liked. The self that cared. And maybe If I can time it right, I will get to see you as a kitten again!

But how did the meat work? Let’s see. Boots eats the meat, crosses dimensions. But why that dimension?

That other cat. Boots always sniffed his way to that house. Can cats smell across dimensions? God, what am I saying? But Boots wants to be in that house . . . because he smells himself. His other self, alternate-dimension self. So, the meat doesn’t allow you to travel in space, only the same location in a mirror dimension, and perhaps at a different time. So, if I go to that hospital, and I want to go to another dimension, as badly as Boots wants to see himself . . . god, what a narcissistic cat.

Hank got dressed, grabbed a hunk of leftover Kobe, and jumped into the truck. He bit off a hunk of cold Kobe steak and chewed laboriously. This is not the way Kobe was meant to be eaten. But the cat nip does add a certain tang. He bit off another hunk and accelerated through a red light. After all, no one was around. What was the point?

Hank parked in a handicapped space at the hospital. He was at this point, he knew, essentially handicapped. At least emotionally. Didn’t that count for something?

Inside the hospital, Hank ignored the friendly looking receptionist’s gaze and proceeded left down the corridor. He was nauseous and he didn’t know if it was the Kobe or the memory of sprinting down this very corridor to find his beloved a living corpse, along with their stillborn baby.

He walked down the stairs to the emergency level. It was a shabby affair with only white curtains separating patients. His wife had been in the last bed on the right. Hank strode up to the curtain and threw it aside. The hospital bed was empty. He drew the curtain back, opened it again. Nothing.

“Can I help you?” asked a woman’s voice from behind him.

He turned to find a familiar face-—the dark-haired, olive-skinned nurse who’d cared for his wife over a year ago.

“Just looking for my wife, thanks,” said Hank. He walked away from her bewildered expression.

Back in the stairwell he closed the door behind him, leaned against the wall and waited. He had to want it. He had to make it happen, somehow. He thought of Kat, lying as she had been the night she died. He opened the door, strode out onto the Emergency floor again, to the same bed, threw open the curtain, and closed it. He pulled it open, closed it once again.

The double doors from the lobby opened, and a towering police officer emerged. He was bulky in his under-shirt protective armor, and a little big in the stomach. He approached Hank. “Sir, who are you here to see?”

Hank leaned to the left, in order to look around the officer and down the hall. From the doorway of an office, behind the policeman, the nurse he had recognized was poking out her head and watching.

Hank stepped to the side so she could see him fully. “I’m not here to hurt anyone!” he cried. “You remember my wife?”

“Ok, ok buddy,” said the officer, taking Hank by the arm. “You’ve just got people here a little nervous.”

Hank pulled free. “Hey, just a bit longer. My wife died. Now I just need to stay to see if the meat works.”

The officer arched an eyebrow. “No can do. You can wait outside. What’s the harm?”

He reached for Hank again, but Hank shoved his hand away. “Look, I’m staying here. I won’t hurt-—”

The officer grabbed Hank’s arms and wrenched him sideways, pushed him to the floor. In a moment he was on his stomach, hands cuffed behind him. Even on the floor, Hank craned his neck, looked around for a change-—it had to happen. Why hadn’t it happened?

“I’m gonna pick you up now,” said the big officer, and he hauled Hank to his feet. He did not resist. Hank was beyond caring about pride or abuse. He was trading in this life for his wife and child, or nothingness.

“Look,” said Hank. “I’ll be good. I will. But can you just tell me if you see anything—anything strange?”

“Oh yeah,” said the officer. “I’ll keep you posted. Say, you on any medication?”

“Yeah,” said Hank. “About nine ounces of contaminated Kobe steak.” He continued to look around.

“You feel sick?”

“Oh yeah,” said Hank, looking around. “But I don’t care. Just trying to find something . . .”

“All right. You know your pupils are about as wide as trash can lids. You’re serious about that food poisoning, aren’t you?”

Hank nodded. The officer sighed, guided Hank over to a glassed-in area, where nurses and doctors were watching.

The officer’s grip relaxed on Hank’s arm slightly. He said, “Heya, the perp here claims he has food poisoning. Can we get—-”

Hank made a break for it. He lurched away and put his head down, bulled head-first through the double doors. Head ringing and arms still bound behind him in cuffs, he turned left down the corridor, toward daylight: the emergency room entrance. The officer’s big footsteps slapped the linoleum behind him as the automatic doors whooshed open.

We’ll be together soon, Kat.

He sprinted out into the parking lot and straight into a glimmering patch of air that looked like static rain.

Suddenly it was dark outside. The cool night air prickled his skin. He stumbled into a parked car and found his hands were no longer bound. He was wearing his old short sleeve polo shirt and khakis. Car keys dangled from his fingers.

It worked!

Exhilarated, Hank turned and strode toward the emergency room doors, which opened for him. He felt more awake. He patted his stomach—-slim. Even his scruffy beard was gone. This was a different him. But which him was he?

He walked past the night receptionist, an older woman he recognized. She glanced up at him, her face drawn with sympathy.

“I’m so sorry honey,” she said. “Is there anything else you need?”

“Is she-—gone?” he asked.

She blinked. “Yes, honey-—do you not remember? Dr. Sykes is still here, if-—”

“No no,” said Hank, waving her off.

I’m so close—but I had imagined her as she was already dying. What an idiot.

Hank walked back out into the night but the glimmering patch was gone. What had he done before? He had to will it. It’s about intention.

The shimmering appeared once more, but fainter. Was the Kobe wearing off?

He braced himself, stepped into the field of faint sparkles.

Suddenly it was light out again. Hank stumbled, nearly tripped. He was breathing hard, his hands cuffed behind his back. Fifty yards ahead of him stood the big officer, a radio to his lips.

“What the hell?” the officer barked.

I forgot to imagine when I wanted to be!

Hank ran for it, the officer in pursuit. Can’t match his strides for long. He ran over the lawn and out onto the pavement. This was where Hank had grown up; he had walked this way to school as a child. The officer’s footfalls were getting louder behind him now. Intention! Must go back earlier! The glimmering appeared just as he ran through.

It was daytime, at least. But something was off-—he felt shorter. On his narrow, hairless wrist was a Transformers watch-—his prized watch! He hadn’t seen that since he was ten. Good Lord. He also felt a backpack weighing him down. He turned. Behind him the air glimmered faintly. Beyond it, other boys walked along the road, on the way to school.

What if I stayed here? If this really was 1986, I could…invent the Internet! Maybe. Or at least found Google. Maybe write The Joy Luck Club. Amy Tan would be pissed! I’m sure I could think of something.

“Come on, Henry!” said a blue-hatted boy, snapping gum. Geez, what was his name? Mark. Boy, did he turn out to be an asshole. But if I stayed, I’d grow up a different person. I’d have to manage to stay back in fifth grade again, nearly drop out of high school, then pull my head out of my ass in college just in time to meet Kat in that hiking class. I could do it.

But I’d be a different person.

And Kat, intuitive Kat—she’d sense it. She’d fallen in love, somehow, with the finding myself, screwed up me. And she helped fix me. If I found her things would be different. They couldn’t be what they were, and what they were is what I need. Even if I founded Google and Yahoo and wrote all the songs for the goddamned Backstreet Boys (Who couldn’t?), it wouldn’t be enough, because she wouldn’t be Kat. My Kat.

Got to get back. Hank raced once more into the fading portal, and emerged running, hands cuffed behind him. He sprinted as fast as he could. He knew, now, where he had to go.

“Hey!” someone hollered behind him. The officer, no doubt. Hank looked back, saw him emerge from a backyard. He must be confused as hell. Hank ran hard. He was wheezing when he reached the top of Pine Hill. Almost there.

Hank ran, bent-back arms aching, slightly hunched. He was almost out of time. He wished he had that year of disuse back-—before he lost Kat, he’d been running a few miles a day. Now he gritted his teeth to hold back vomit. This sprint was killing him. So be it. One way or the other, he was cashing in this life. In the distance, a siren wailed.

Hank ran blindly across Main Street and a pickup truck screeched to a halt, honking angrily. The siren grew louder as a police car rode up on the sidewalk next to him, blocking his route. Hank put his head down and plowed through a hedge to his right, stumbled, scratched but upright, into the parking lot of Zesty! the supermarket. The very place he’d been when the hospital had called. Oh, to be back there and then–

And then suddenly he stopped. The siren went dead. The car before him disappeared, and a different car was suddenly driving toward him. It too stopped. His hands hung by his sides. What had happened?

A portal. So faint had the glimmer become, he’d walked right through it unknowing. The shirt he was wearing was a blue polo, the same one from that awful night-—only now it was the day. He plunged his hand into his pocket and found his smart phone. The car before him honked, but he paid it no mind. His smart phone had no service.

“Fuck!” he yelled. The car before him whined as it backed up, found another route out of the parking lot.

Hank turned around and stopped-—he nearly walked right through the same path that brought him here. He sidestepped several feet, just in case that glimmering patch was still there, and found his trusty old Corolla sitting there. He had to control his thoughts—-thinking of jumping dimensions seemed to cause the portals to appear. He tried to focus only on what was before him. He climbed into his car, roared out of the parking lot, up Pine Hill, to the hospital. He left the car running right up against the emergency room doors.

He rushed past the questioning receptionist, turned right and slammed the Emergency Room double doors open. In an office to the right stood the nurse from earlier, next to a white-coated man. Dr. Sykes.

The doctor furrowed his brow at Hank.

“Dr. Sykes—my wife here?”

“You are her husband? Did you check in-—”

“Here! Hank ripped his wallet from his back pocket, retrieved his driver’s license and thrust it at the nurse next to the doctor. “I’m Hank Garner. Please-—give her the clot buster.”

The doctor exchanged a surprised look with the nurse. “Well yes, sir, your wife is here. She has suffered a stroke, though we’re not sure what type— “

“Ischemic!” said Hank. “It’s Ischemic.”

“Possibly-—but sir, let’s slow down. You need to listen. We’re going to perform a CT scan to determine the type of stroke-—”

Hank stepped close to the doctor. “You fucking listen to me. It runs in the family. It’s an Ischemic stroke. Her aunt died of one,” he improvised. “I do not give you my permission to CT scan my wife’s brain. What you are going to do is administer a clot buster.”

“Mr. Garner, as your wife is on blood pressure medication, there would be significant risk-—”

“I know the risk. Do it. Do it, or I will sue you. You will be delivering fucking pizza this time next year.”

Dr. Sykes looked at the nurse, shrugged, and nodded.

The nurse turned and walked away with an eye roll.

The doctor Looked at Hank. “There could be massive-—”

Hank nodded. “Hemorrhaging, I know. Due to the blood thinner. I’ll risk it.”

The doctor nodded, and then looked at the floor.

“Look, I’m sorry,” said Hank. “I’m under a lot of—-”

“Stress,” interjected the doctor. It’s alright.”

The nurse returned holding a clipboard. She handed it to Dr. Sykes, which he glanced at and then passed to Hank. He scrawled approval to administer the clot buster-—thrombolytic therapy, it was called.

Hank turned and walked to the white curtain. He shoved it aside. There she lay: his deathly-pale beauty, in all her ivory-skinned, bump-bellied glory. Her fire-gold hair was tousled about the pillow like a wild halo. The thin blanket rose and fell. She lived-—but for how long? He walked to the bedside and knelt. He laid one hand on her swollen belly, and then lifted her cool left hand to his face. He pushed her fingers against his lips and began to weep. Ah, her skin cream. Even if she dies, if they all die, just smelling her again made it worth it.

Ron Kaiser has received a Silver Honorable Mention in the Writers of the Future contest, as well as two honorable mentions. He has been published more than twenty times in a variety of publications to include Chicken Soup for the Soul and New Hampshire Magazine. Ron holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Southern New Hampshire University, where he also teaches writing. Ron is a high school English teacher living in the foothills of New Hampshire with his lovely wife and ten-year-old son.

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