29 January, 1991
0415Zulu (7:15am local)
Near Um Qsar, Iraq
What was happening to me was way beyond my understanding, but I knew I didn’t like it at all. A tiny, out-of-the-way portion of my mind vaguely remembered being human, and though I didn’t exactly feel dead, “alive” probably wouldn’t be the first word that popped into my brain if I had to describe my status. I longed to whimper, to retreat from this horrible existence, but as my humanity struggled to regain control, I caught myself, (I think) before anything came out. In reality, I doubt I could have made a sound if I tried.
My mouth had been filled with a collection of dirt, rock, and powder, which combined into a dirty, smelly sludge that choked off any chance for a single, unobstructed breath. Seconds passed, and I began to be aware I possessed a body, arms, legs, and oh shit, a head that hurt so much, without the mouth-filling sludge, I would be full-on crying in pain, not caring who heard me. The limits of my body were being charted for me once again, and I kept waiting, seemingly in vain, to recover control of a part that didn’t hurt.
Once my ears began working again, they began registering a low frequency droning coming from everywhere at once. Concentrating on it, however, I finally realized the sound came from within, rather than from the outside. I stirred, and tried to push myself off the ground, pausing on all fours to begin the process of spitting the dirt out onto the ground, once, twice, then three times, and on the last attempt, I had cleared my mouth out enough to taste blood, which I took to be a good sign. I would have given everything I owned for a single drink of water to wash out the remnants of the crap still coating the inside of my mouth, hiding among my teeth.
As I tried to lever myself off the ground, a jolt of pain knifed through my head, pushing a groan from my now functionally cleared of debris mouth. “Shit,” I managed to croak, as I collapsed back into a sitting position. I raised my hands to the source my most extreme discomfort, my head, and as I tried to check for obvious injury, my hands stopped short when they struck something hard. That’s right, I’m wearing my flight helmet. Using both hands, I unbuckled the strap and pulled it off my head, setting off a new and even more intense wave of pain, this one morphing into nausea, forcing me back to all fours, the sickness in my gut sending signals to wretch and vomit, impossible, since I hadn’t eaten anything since early in last night’s mission.
Where the hell am I? I asked, gathering the strength necessary to stand up, at the same time amazed I had accomplished the task. The deep ringing had ceased now, and as the seconds passed, the sounds of the world resumed. I began to be aware of the sound of voices, nothing in a language I understood, but by the sound of them, those talking were agitated and…seriously pissed. I had dropped my helmet when I collapsed back to my hands and knees, and it had hit the ground, rolled away, displaying an ugly, dark, dirty gray gash in the smooth white finish. The left side was marred, which made me as angry as the voices I could hear, the flight helmet being a source of pride and accomplishment for me, a black and yellow heraldic shield depicting a lion, a sword and a lightning bolt, covering most of one side. The dark gray, almost black, curved plexiglass visor hung from a single fastener, the violence done to my most important personal protection device infuriating me. What the fuck?
The memory of what had happened came back in a rush, and I turned to the right, my eyes moving to where an obviously dead body lay on its back, one eye half open, the other closed, a small, neat hole an inch or so below his hairline, halfway between the centerline of his nose and left eye. Laying next to the dead man was an AK-47 rifle, butt in the dirt, the muzzle across its former owner’s right thigh. There was enough light to see the rocks behind where the dead man had been standing hideously painted with blood and other things I didn’t want to think about. Had I done this? The thought immediately ran through my mind yes, Richard, you did that. I looked down at my right hand, but I held no gun. I’d had a Beretta 9mm auto at some point, but the weapon was nowhere to be found. As I began to frantically search for my misplaced pistol, I found another AK within arm’s reach, and knew even though the rifle didn’t belong to me, I had fired that one. I remembered the texture of the carved wooden pistol grip in my right hand, the smoother, finished wood of the fore stock in my left, and the loose, noisy way its action worked as it fired.
I continued the scan of my surroundings, and as more memories flooded back in, I quickly turned to my left toward where the other body lay, the sight seeming to flip a switch in my brain, downloading the rest of my memories.
The second man I hadn’t killed. He was dressed exactly like I was, same flight suit, with the same patches sewn on. The heraldic insignia, lightning bolts, lion rampant and the words “ATKRON 145” on the bottom. His helmet, which I knew displayed the same design as mine, was twisted around, hiding his face, but I knew what it looked like.
How had this all happened? How did I get here? I’m a 47 year old software designer, I’m in a cover band who plays gigs one weekend a month. I have a wife and a daughter, and I do not wear a uniform, and fight with other men in the desert, sometimes killing them. What the hell is this all about?
Recovering alcoholics and drug abusers talk about how having a “moment of clarity,” which usually starts them back on their journey to normalcy. Is that what this is? I asked myself. A moment of clarity? A final realization the world I’ve been living in for these past…What, 15 years now, isn’t real? Or, was this “clarity,” just the intense desire to extract myself from the horrifying situation I suddenly found myself in. No, this really horrifying situation I had gotten myself into. There was no one to blame here but me, no one responsible for these two dead bodies but me. 15 years ago, I woke up not where I should have been, but someplace I never thought I would see again. Waking up there was not my doing. The things I’d done since then, the decisions I’d made since the spring of 1976 though, all my doing. As awareness of my situation kept returning, I remembered there weren’t just two dead bodies I was responsible for, there were four. I closed my eyes, a rising tide of dark despair filling me. My life wasn’t supposed to be this way. What the hell had happened?
Enough of me had returned to feel accountable, and responsible. I had failed my friends, but the failure hadn’t been because I hadn’t cared, or wanted to succeed. The dice had been tossed and my friends’ numbers had come up, killing them. I still felt a crushing responsibility though, an emotion as raw right here, right now, as they were across so many years and miles.
In the desert that night though, I had to play it all through. Rebooting out wasn’t an option. I had been in this world, real or not, and only one exit existed. Nobody gets out of here alive, the saying goes.
Or do they?
As if in answer to my question, a shockingly loud tsunami of sound washed over the small, enclosed circle of rocks I shared with two dead men and I looked up just in time to observe the tail of a jet black helicopter streak over, slicing the blue/gray early morning sky.
Time to go.
* * *
“Hon, you better get up,” the voice said, more insistent than a few seconds ago, which I saw from the clock on the bedside table had actually been 12 minutes ago. Another snooze cycle. Funny how our minds work. When you are asleep hours can feel like seconds, or sometimes, no time at all, even though events seem to happen quite normally in dreams. But when you’re back in the “real” world, the clock seems to reassert its power over you.
“Getting up,” I answered my wife, Molly, who was at her dressing table in the adjoining bathroom, “her” bathroom, getting ready for the day. Even though her commute was just down the hall, since she worked from home, Molly was almost always up before me, spending more time getting ready for the day than I ever would, ironic in that her considerable beauty was already in evidence before she applied the first bit of eye shadow, blush, or whatever makeup women used. Molly was never disheveled, never less than magnificently presentable, a truly beautiful woman who used makeup for subtle enhancement, not deception or repair. Her television background taught her that fine art, even though several years had passed since she had been on-camera.
I stumbled out of the bedroom, pulling on a t-shirt and heading to “my” bathroom, which by design belonged to the guest room, but in practical use, served as mine. The guest room’s closet housed my clothes, since our home, fairly spacious for middle-class San Diego suburban life, didn’t have enough closet space. So, the master bedroom’s two closets belonged to Molly and her well maintained and ordered wardrobe, also habits born in her television career, all fine with me, since my clothing needs were minimal, consisting of a few shirts, mostly Polo, several pairs of khaki Dockers, and a manageable inventory of underwear, socks and shoes. Two sport coats, three belts and a rack of ties numbering probably 40, the vast majority of which I’d never worn, completed the collection. With regard to wardrobe, I am a simple man.
The clock in the bathroom informed me 7am was history, and further down the hall I could hear the water running in our daughter Samantha’s bathroom, as she got ready for school, the last Monday of the semester for her, since Sam’s 2006 Christmas Holiday would start after a half day on Tuesday. We were all looking forward to the holidays this year, to our trip to Coer d’Alene, Idaho where we would wear parkas and, mittens, sit in front of big fireplaces and look at or play in lots and lots of snow. Both Molly and I grew up in the Midwest, where we had experienced enough snow for a lifetime, but Samantha had spent her 13 years so far in Southern California, where the snow is a day trip you Can wear shorts to and from. She wanted to immerse herself in a colder lifestyle, and we were all too happy to oblige. Molly’s job was going well, plenty of writing and editing for her to do, her television news background had prepared her well for the growing online news industry. My company, LeftCoastX Development, creates software for Apple computers, server and data mining applications for the most part.
I had founded LeftCoastX with my best friend, Gary Danner, an engineer, mathematician and a former “Googler,” who had worked for the search giant in the company’s infancy and had an employee number higher than 20 but lower than 50. Always the pragmatist, Gary had cashed his Google stock options at a time that he had determined was best after calculating the present value of the cash, what his algorithms predicted the stock price would do over the next two years, and hell, for all I know, the position of the stars. Gary took the money and didn’t look back. He hadn’t been one of the youngest members of the Google team, but there weren’t many at the company who were smarter, and after weeks of begging Gary to stay, the two founders of Google, 10 years younger than Gary, finally offered him something he wouldn’t be able to resist; An “emeritus” position, first right of refusal for the purchase of his portion of LeftCoastX, and a promise to travel with the founders the next time they flew their private jumbo jet around the world to observe a solar eclipse.
Gary used a tiny portion of his Google money to help found our company, along with a much more substantial codebase he had written in the two months after leaving Google. We had to make sure none of the code duplicated anything he had created for the search company, even going to the unbelievable (to me, anyway) length of emailing the code to one of the company’s founders to make sure he wouldn’t have any legal claim to what would be an important cornerstone of our company. I, of course, told Gary no corporation in its right mind would fail to say “OURS” when someone asked, but of course, Google isn’t a corporation in its right mind. Apparently, the founder dropped whatever he had been doing, pored over the code for at least half a day (even a super genius would have needed several hours to understand it all) and sent an email back to Gary with the simple message:
“I love how u propose sorting feedback in lines 1,045 to 2,889!
Never seen it before in my life.
Go for it.”
Gary rendered me speechless late on the same afternoon, when he forwarded me the email from the Google founder. I had figured we’d be lucky to get a response from Google in less than a couple months, and in all probability, there would be a number of problems with the codebase. When I expressed my shock they hadn’t held us up and claimed ownership of a chunk of code we couldn’t do without, my friend, puzzled, asked “Why would they do that?”
To quote another geek I know, “Code is Poetry,” and I guess appreciation of good poetry is more important than ownership of it.
By the time I finished in the bathroom, showered, shaved, teeth brushed and “So-Cal” presentable, Samantha had dashed out the door to school and Molly was hard at work on her computer in our shared office. Life on the West Coast isn’t always the laid-back experience the cliches suggest. Being three hours behind the East Coast means you’re always trying to get up earlier, groggy, sleep-deprived but still three hours behind the East Coasters. Dressed in one of my darker Polo shirts and standard hued Dockers, I kissed my wife on the cheek, looped the strap of my messenger bag over my shoulder, and left for work.
We like living in San Diego a lot. Molly loves the sun, the outdoor activity, and the beach. Samantha, her mother’s daughter, agrees, adding in a partiality for surfers, much to the concern of both of us. I would be happy living anywhere. I Have lived everywhere. I grew up in Indiana, and went away to college as fast as possible after graduating from high school. Before my injury and subsequent…complications, my life had been charted for me, and would include college basketball paying for my education (even though my family could afford tuition) and then a good job. Those plans didn’t end up working out, so without the rudder I always expected to have, I wandered a bit. States I’d spent time living in, included Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia, Oregon, Michigan, Florida and Georgia. I’d loved the Pacific Northwest, hated the south, and tolerated the midwest. The eastern states were ok. Neither good nor bad, just places to live, places to work. In a couple cases, they were places to screw up good jobs and get fired.
For the most part, my life hadn’t been particularly epic, but couldn’t be called a complete disaster, either. I’d saved a little more money than I’d squandered, but not close to enough, considering all the money I’d earned. By the time I moved to San Diego in the late 80s, a little wiser, but still fairly screwed up and directionless I wasn’t particularly worried about not having changed the world, yet.
I met a girl who changed that, however, a girl with whom I fell in love and married. For reasons beyond my understanding, she gave up her dreams for me and did something inexplicable.
She married me.
* * *
“Jeesh, I really don’t want to go to Cincinnati,” I told Gary pinning my Blackberry to my left ear with my shoulder as I slipped out of my SUV, a Jeep Grand Cherokee. The annoyance I felt with my partner was partly due to his insistence on using a bluetooth headset while driving one of the ragtop jeeps he bought, modified and then crawled all over the Texas outback in, requiring the person he was talking to work hard to pull his voice out of the heavy background noise the headset picked up. Most of the annoyance on this day, however, was because of his insistence I be the one to spend several months (winter months, no less) in Ohio, setting up an installation of our software which represented the biggest single sale of our company ever.
The company, a Fortune 500 behemoth that produced hundreds of different products and services, in hiring LeftCoastX to build its in-house research and data-mining system, did three things. First, by moving from Windows to the Macintosh platform, a huge blow would be struck against Redmond, Washington’s Microsoft. Second, by hiring us to build out the software running this part of the enterprise, they were making LeftCoastX a major player in the industry.
The third thing our getting this job did, while not part of the public knowledge base of the transaction, would be to confirm a long-time friendship between two graduates of an exclusive Chicago prep school, one of whom happened to be Gary Danner, my partner and half-owner of LeftCoastX. Yea, the old-boy network at its worst. Or, at its best, if you happen to be on the team of one of the old-boys. On the one hand, the fact that Gary and the Chairman of the Board of the client went to school together would make Gary the obvious choice to go to Cincinnati, but, as he argued, this was exactly why he couldn’t be the partner who made the trip. My going would make the arrangement less about the relationship between him and the Chairman (or, to be more accurate, Chairwoman) should their history ever come to light. If it did come to light, certain assumptions would be made regarding the nature of their relationship in the past and today, assumptions quite correct, Gary made clear to me. LeftCoastX got the company’s business for perfectly sound business reasons, but reality would be beside the point. It would just be best for everyone if I went to Cincinnati and Gary stayed as far away from there as possible.
That didn’t stop me from trying to avoid a six month posting to Ohio, though, and as I slid out of the Jeep in front of a Chula Vista convenience store called, ironically enough, since the owners were two Chaldeans from Iraq, “Pancho’s,” I tried one last gambit to avoid the trip. “Dave would be so much better for this, Gary. He’s what, 28, 29?” I said, pitching our top Development Lead, Dave Shuttman. “He’s young, sharp, hungry for this. Hell, he’d…”
“And they’ll hire him away in about a week,” Gary interjected. “We can’t afford that. It’d be a mess. You’d have to end up going there anyway, and have to replace him in San Diego.”
“Right,” I said, raising the white flag, as I walked into Pancho’s, silently waving at Terry, one of the Iraqi-born owners who, as usual, stood working behind the counter. I made my way to the back corner of the shop, to where the energy drinks were cooled and stored.
“Okay. I’m on it,” I agreed. “I’ll fly out right after the New Year,” I said.
“Awesome,” Gary replied. Strangely enough, he didn’t just sound appreciative, he sounded…Relieved. Hmm, I thought, maybe there’s more to this thing than I thought. But, I put those thoughts aside and made the decision to tell Molly that night I’d have to go to Cincinnati for no more than six months. I’d checked flight schedules, and found it wasn’t the easiest trip to do non-stop on a regular basis. The best connections were Delta, and I hated flying Delta.
I paid for the Rock Star energy drink, talked to Terry for a few seconds about the economy, the war in Iraq, how his remaining family was making out there, and a couple minutes later was back in my Jeep, crossing the trolly tracks, driving down Anita Street to our South Bay data center.
So, in January, 2007, after the holidays, I travelled to Cincinnati on behalf of LeftCoastX for a six-month site setup. Even though the work took me away from my home and family and barely allowed me to commute every other weekend to spend time with said family (and home, of course), the money and prestige working for this client brought our company made the sacrifice worthwhile. Also, the job was only a couple hours from where I’d grown up, and I thought checking the place out might be fun, since I hadn’t been back for over 10 years. My parents had moved right after I graduated from High School, and still live on the West Coast not far from my home in San Diego.
All went well, we completed the project three weeks early so I took a couple extra days to get ready to ship my things, including a new car, purchased while in Cincinnati. With one more weekend to go before returning home to San Diego, since I had already visited my hometown a couple of times, I decided to drive a little further west and visit both the lake where my family had owned a summer home and my father’s hometown, a little village about half an hour away from the lake. The spur of the moment trip, conceived of after an early Saturday morning latte at Starbucks would absolutely and profoundly change my life.
The weather perfect and the traffic light, I skirted Indianapolis to the South, and an hour later passed through Avon on Highway 36. More than 20 years had gone by since I last drove the road, and much had changed. Traffic increased, but moved at a pretty good clip, and I was surprised and delighted to see an antique police car up ahead, and after a few minutes caught up with him. I’m not a car buff by any stretch of the imagination, but this particular classic squad car really impressed me. Little did I know at the time, but this particular sighting would be a foreshadowing worthy of a bad bit of short story sci-fi. Fortunately, I had my digital camera and was able to snap a couple pictures as we drove west.
* * *
The drive to our old summer home, a cottage near a lake US 36 crossed over was uneventful, though how little the place had changed shocked me. It had been 26 years since my family sold it, but it looked as though time had hardly passed. A tornado had taken out several big and old trees on the property, opening the view to the lake and destroying a portion of the deck that ringed the two story chalet. The owners had rebuilt the deck and added a larger sitting area on one corner.
The son and wife of the man who purchased the house and land from my father still owned the place, and were there when I drove up. They warmly welcomed me in and despite my not wanting to impose, insisted I take a look inside. We walked in and I stopped short. Not a THING had changed. Maybe the carpet and some furniture were different, but little more. The appliances in the kitchen were the same, the goofy colored glass light fixture over the dining area. All the same. None of this prepared me though, for what I saw when I reached the bottom of the stairs leading down to the walk-out basement. For the second time since starting the day, a bit of foreshadowing would intrude.
My family sold the cottage in 1979, when we moved across the country to San Diego. My parents had had enough of midwestern winters and wanted to spend the next phase of their lives in the sun, near the ocean, where they remain today, retired. For the most part, it represented a new start and except for some cherished pieces of furniture and heirlooms, we sent truckloads of stuff to auction. Halfway through my four years of college, I had decided to transfer to the University of San Diego. I’d had my fill of dorm life and decided apartment-living sounded much better, so we set aside a few pieces of furniture me, a sofa, big round oak table and to go with it, some cool (at the time) very 70s rustic chairs that looked like they were make out of barrels. My barrel chairs were actually part of a set that included a bar and bar stools, but only the chairs made the trip west, then elsewhere with me (until my wife made me give them away as a condition of marriage – they were truly hideous). The rest of the grouping stayed in Indiana. When I walked down those stairs, I learned the bar and barstools had remained in exactly the same place we had left them. Seeing them gave me a momentary, hint of vertigo.
For a second, 30 years hadn’t passed at all, but the feeling only lasted a couple seconds and just as quickly, I was back to the present. It was very odd.
A short time later, I made my goodbyes, getting assurances from my new friends, who promised to get in touch if they ever decided to sell the cottage. I’m not sure why, since there’s no way in hell my wife would ever consent to moving there with our daughter, but I asked anyway. An interesting, if slightly disturbing, experience out of the way, I continued west, next stop, Belton, Indiana.
* * *
In in the years just after the Great Depression, Belton was a reasonably prosperous place to be. Home to a clay tile factory and surrounded by rich farmland, before World War II Belton had about 1,000 residents, 12 grades of public education and its own high school, Belton High School. It was every small town from the movies of the time. Depending on your perspective, a large Hickory (the town in Hoosiers) or a small Bedford Falls (the town in It’s a Wonderful Life).
I drove down the main street in Belton, and had the oddest feeling I could almost see my grandparents and great-grandparents going about their lives, walking into the post office, standing on the sidewalk talking, in this now mostly dead town. I passed the vacant lot with the remnants of a house burned down decades before I ever visited, the fireplace and a few bits of concrete still visible. I used to play with my cousins around the ruin, 35 years ago when we’d all come from Indianapolis to the old family hometown for the weekend.
One of the Harper houses slid by my passenger window, then a left turn and I drove to my great-grandmother Margaret’s home. My grandfather, Harrison “Harry” Girrard was born in another house, still standing today, still solid and sturdy looking, though no one’s lived in it for years. Remarkably, Margaret’s place is still quietly occupying the ground it has for well over a hundred years now, looking like it was built after World War II, even though the foundation was dug long before Japan even began to think about attacking Pearl Harbor. I peeked in the window, past the real estate “for sale” sign and was surprised to see a large woven rug I remember from my youth in the middle of the living room. After a few minutes and a handful of pictures, I got back into the car and drove to my father’s boyhood home.
The brick, one story house my father grew up in was one of the nicer on a block that consisted of only two other residences and a restaurant that had closed long ago. A tree Dad told me they planted when he was a boy towered stately and mature in the front yard, reaching over the top of the structure.
I pulled up to the curb opposite the front door, seeing three people sitting on the porch, a man, his back to me, and two women. The three, none younger than 60, were sitting around a table, covered with a flowery outdoor cloth. They watched me as I got out of my car and crossed the street toward them. I walked up the sidewalk and as I got closer to the house, noticed one of the women, whose gaze was the most direct of the two, was much older than the other. She was at least in her 80s, and probably older than 90. I said “excuse me, I’m sorry to bother you, but my father grew up in this house.”
“Richard?” Asked the older woman.
She smiled at my puzzled expression. “I have something for you,” she said, and pointed at an object I couldn’t see, that was on the table in front of her. I hesitated, but she said “Come on up. You’re welcome here,” and again waved at something on the table. I didn’t know what to say. I’d never seen these people before, and seconds out of my car, this ancient, but bright-eyed woman almost demanded I approach!
I walked up the four short steps to the porch and looked at what the woman, clearly old enough to be my Grandmother, if not Great-Grandmother, was gesturing toward, and now I could see she was referring to an envelope on the table in front of her. Smaller than a standard #10, it looked sturdy, but brittle. Yellow tinged the edges of the envelope, and there was a faint round ring about the middle as if a small cup had rested on it. I looked at the envelope, at my hostess, and then at the younger woman sitting next to her. They appeared to be at least 25 years apart in age and had exactly the same smile, so I assumed they were mother and daughter. “I’m Richard Girrard,” I said, smiling through the puzzled look I’m sure I still had on my face.
“We know,” the younger one said. “I’m Liz Monahan, and this is my mother, Annie Bennett. We heard you were coming.” Her smile and the quick glance at her mother told me I was in the presence of an inside joke.
I looked around at the house, the street and back at my rental car, trying to make sense of the fact they knew who I was, and had apparently been expecting me. I didn’t even know I was making this trip until a few hours ago when the thought occurred to me while sipping a Vanilla Latte this morning in Cincinnati. I took a closer look at the man sitting on the porch with Annie and Liz He looked to be past 60 as well, balding and a bit distracted. He smiled, but said nothing. “I hope I’m not intruding…” I began. Liz shook her head.
“No, no, no. As I said before, we knew you were coming.”
We knew you were coming. Again. I couldn’t figure this out. The only person I’d spoken to since leaving Cincinnati a few hours before, had been the drive-up window attendant at McDonalds in Avon. I hadn’t told anyone where I was going. Unless someone watched me drive into town a few minutes before, recognized me, knew my destination (my father’s old house) when even I didn’t know it, there was no way these women could have known I would be here. Yet I stood looking down at an envelope that two women, whom I had never laid eyes on until about two minutes ago, said that they had an old envelope that was mine.
“Go ahead,” Annie said. “It’s from your grandfather.”
The vertigo I’d experienced at the lake cottage returned in a rush, and I stepped back, shaking my head, not understanding. After a few seconds, I picked up the envelope, handling it gingerly, and saw that it had been covering a gold coin. I didn’t know if the coin was part of this, or whether the letter had simply been laid on top of it, so I only focused on the envelope. On the front, under the faded cup ring was a faint, but legible word, written in pencil. It read “Richard.” I again eyed the aged Annie who still had a slight smile on her lips. Liz didn’t seem nearly as comfortable, now that the object, obviously central to this situation was in my hand. Her eyes suddenly seemed to contain discomfort and just a small bit of…I don’t know, perhaps fear? Apprehension, for sure. The man, who I’d almost forgotten about, despite the fact he was sitting with his back to me, not three feet away, stood up, ducked his head in soundless communication with the ladies he had been sharing he porch with prior to my arrival. His eyes briefly met mine as we exchanged nods, and it became clear to me that he had Down’s Syndrome. Without introducing us, Liz and Annie both said “bye, Johnny” almost in sync. Then he was gone, as if he’d never been been there at all, and I again looked at the envelope in my hand. Taking care not to damage it, I lifted the flap, which gave easily. The glue had long since dried out, so it opened without tearing and the paper inside was as old and brittle as the envelope. Uninvited, I sat down in the chair Johnny had been occupying just a minute before, and extracted a single sheet from the envelope, now empty, that I laid back on the table. Glancing up once again at Liz then Annie, I met each of their gazes, and then carefully unfolded the letter. My eyes adjusted to the faint pencil the words were written in, and I began to read.
To say I couldn’t believe what was written, is the grossest of understatements. To this day, there are times I am convinced that there was no letter, that it has all been a dream. Other times, I admit I’ve been convinced I’m insane, because what I read couldn’t possibly be true. But when those doubts are at their strongest, I go to the floor safe in my home office, take out the letter and reread it. I’ve had my wife Molly read it. In doing so, I’m reassured I didn’t dream this whole thing, and I’m again convinced that I am not insane. Here’s what the letter said:
November 17, 1933
The purpose of this letter I am writing is twofold. First, it is to demonstrate you are in complete control of your mind and faculties and are as far as I can tell, sane. Second, to urge you to follow the signs you are seeing and know a very interesting adventure awaits you. In your shoes, I would no doubt be bewildered and unsure about what I should do, but I know you have a strength of character and constitution that will make it possible to explore this most strange situation. How do I know this? Because I have met you, and am convinced of it. I am not sure how I know this, but what you told me about how you came to be here is true.
Let me describe you. You stand a shade taller than myself and I am six feet one inch. Your eyes are brown. Your hair is brown as well, cut very short and retiring in the way the Harpers gradually lose their hair. To me, you look like a Harper, but also resemble the Girrards through your eyes. Your build is full, and I would estimate you weigh all of 200 pound.
I do not fully understand how you came to visit here, but though it is tempting to ascribe the experience to the supernatural or even evil, I must confess that I do not go in much for that idea. I believe the natural world is a strange enough place without needing faeries, demons and leprechauns to explain it. And since it is obvious to me who you are, I can only take your explanation of how you came to be here as the truth. You are claiming that through a process even you do not completely understand, for the pas several months, you have been traveling to the past, but can’t control how or when it happens. You asked me to write down that the future waiting for me is a good one, but not without difficulty, and you also insist “there are no god-damned flying cars.” You laugh when you say that.
As for details of the future, you are not nearly as forthcoming, though I understand why. I am comforted when you tell me our son, Tom, will thrive and the health problems he has will not plague him as he grows. Though my wife Doris seems somewhat relieved by this, she is far more skeptical about it. Your emotion at seeing her was enough for me though, and I know you to be our grandson, as odd as it is to write those words.
To know what I write is beyond reproach, you have given me some facts to include I could not possibly know of. Here they are:
You live in San Diego, California.
George W. Bush is the President in the time you come from, and his father also named George, was President before him
Your e mail address is Richard Girrard at yahoo dot com.
You love coffee from Starbucks, and though it is hard to believe, you pay over three dollars for a cup of it.
Though you told me about your life, the above facts are all you have told me about the future, but I understand why. I am happy you visited us and hope you find your way back here after you leave tonight, which you say you must. Although, you also say this journey is the longest you’ve had, you laughed when you said for all you knew, you might not be able to get back to your home. I hope you can get back, but I also think if you cannot, you would be happy to stay and see what you call your past occur.
You will read this letter on the fourth of June in 2008.
Harry H. Girrard
Underneath his neatly printed name was his signature, though to be honest, I don’t ever recall seeing anything signed by my grandfather. Most of my memories of him are of holidays – a summer fishing trip. I remember him as a larger than life, joking bear of a man, but since I was barely six when he died of a sudden stroke, a great deal of those memories are influenced by photographs. To read his words, serious and measured, seemed strange. They didn’t match any recollection I have of Harry Girrard. What the hell is this all about?
And then it him me. I don’t know how they’d done it, but there was something going on that didn’t involved my Grandfather writing a letter in 1933, including information in it he couldn’t possibly have known. Some sort of scam was being perpetrated, at my expense . These thoughts flashed through my mind in a matter of a couple seconds, and I directed my gaze at Annie.
She must have seen my suspicions clearly, because she returned the gaze calmly. “You don’t believe this, do you?” I shook my head, not able to say anything. “Look at the envelope,” she said. I glanced down at it on the table. “The back.” I picked the old envelope up and immediately saw the same faded penciled lettering, only in a different hand. It was a date, matching the one in the letter. November 17,1933, but this one was in a hand I recognized. A chill spread from my stomach up to my head, and I felt my skin prickling and the hairs on the back of my neck stirred. Directly underneath the date was a hand-drawn smiley face and a signature.