Authors: Billie Sue Mosiman
Billie Sue Mosiman
Copyright Billie Sue Mosiman, 2012
All rights reserved.
THE FIRST TIME I noticed the world was changing was when I was talking to Vernon and turned around to pick up my beer from the table. We were standing in the Alibi Club at the line on the floor, throwing darts, and it was his turn.
The beer bottle wasn't there. I looked around for Millie, the waitress. I saw her at the bar, filling her round tray with drinks. "Hey, Mill, you pick up my beer?"
She hadn't. She came over after serving the other customers and said, haughty-like, "I did not touch your stupid damn beer."
"Just your mouth is going to cost you the tip, whether you took it or not."
She sniffed like a hound and turned away. Millie never did care for me, probably because she'd married my unemployed younger brother, Davey, and never could forgive me for not trying to warn her what a lowdown rat of a nothing he was. Which he wasn't. That's just what she thought of him. Well, he had died in Iraq anyway, and it seemed his death should have softened her up toward me, but I guess it hadn't.
I left her a fiver as a tip, crumpling it in a wad so she'd have to un-wad it to see I wasn't a complete cheap ass, and once Vernon had beat me in the dart game, I said, "I have to go, got work tomorrow." Tomorrow was Saturday, but some of us couldn't get by with a five-day paycheck and had to work Saturday overtime at Herb's Full Service Motor Repair just to have walking around money.
"One more game?"
"I already paid you thirty bucks in lost games, that's my limit, Vernon."
When he frowned his eyebrows came together over his eyes and made him look comical when he meant to look like a bad boy you don't refuse.
I waved good-bye and left, forgetting about the missing beer bottle.
When I got to the house--the house of my dead brother Davey--something else was strange enough to leave me sleepless.
I unlocked the door and stepped inside. It always smelled stuffy and old in the house, probably because I'm not the best housekeeper and the last girlfriend I had was a slob, too, so it never got cleaned properly. Millie had sold the place to me because she said she didn't want the damn thing, it needed painting, it needed some plumbing repair, and the roof was so old and worn there were shingles completely missing to expose the plywood beneath.
I liked the house, though, it reminded me of my brother and remembering him gave me a warm glow. I had done some things to the house. I fixed the roof to stop all the leaks. I put a new coat of paint on the outside. And the plumbing wasn't that hard to cobble together so it worked. But now, walking in the door after midnight, there was something missing. The coat rack that had stood in the hallway where I hung my coats and hats wasn't there. It had been there as far back as when Davey was alive so I guess he hung his things on it too. But now it was gone.
I stood a minute in the dark before turning on the light, thinking. Wondering if I had had too many beers, even if it was a Friday night and I deserved it. Then I switched on the light so quick my hand was still trembling when I brought it back to my side to hang there like a shivering old man's hand, the fingers dancing. The hallway was flooded with pale yellow and I could see for sure the coat rack was gone.
My first thought was,
why would anyone want that damn old scrawny wooden coat rack?
My second thought was what made me move. I thought:
A break-in. What else did they take?
I stomped through the house with as much noise as I could make in case the burglar was still there. I went into the kitchen, the dining room, the living room. Nothing seemed out of place or missing. I didn't hear anyone making a break out the back door. They had to be gone. Why hadn't they taken the TV or the antique desk with the roll-top? I ran up the stairs and checked the two bedrooms and all the closets. Nothing wrong there either. Nothing missing that I could tell.
I went down the stairs slowly, and stood at the bottom looking into the lighted hall to where the coat rack used to stand near the wall, just inside the front door. It was gone all right.
The old post office style clock on the hallway wall chimed once for the half-hour to indicate twelve-thirty. I had to get to bed, it didn't matter if the coat rack was gone--for whatever reason--and it didn't matter I couldn't puzzle it out. Oil and tire changes at Herb's didn't take a lot of brain power, but it did take someone who wasn't sleepwalking. I needed sleep.
The next morning I felt groggy and a little hungover. I passed by where the coat rack had stood and wondered briefly why anyone in the world would want to steal it and nothing else. It had been worth maybe two bucks at a garage sale, nothing special about it. But I was in a rush. I didn't have time for puzzles. I got a big travel mug of coffee to take with me, jumped in the truck and drove to Herb's.
The place was hopping. Saturday always was, what with the farmers and ranchers bringing in their trucks and cars for minor repairs, and the townspeople bringing in vehicles they didn't have time to see about during the work week. I stayed busy until noon and my lunch break, so busy I never even got to finish my cup of morning coffee.
When I walked out, lighting a cigarette, to make my way to the pharmacy cafe around the block, I wasn't ready, not at all ready, to come around the corner and discover it was gone. The pharmacy wasn't there. In its place was a steak house called Big Boy Steaks with barn boards above the windows to make it look rustic. I stopped right on the sidewalk, the sun making me squint, and the cigarette fell from my lips.
This wasn't at all right. Then I remembered the beer bottle. It had been there and then
there. The coat rack in my house had been there when I left for the Alibi and, again, wasn't there when I returned.
And now the pharmacy cafe, that was called Partners, and had been in our town since 1904 was replaced with...Big Boy Steaks? Like overnight? No one could have even refinished the front of the building that fast, even if they had worked all night. Because I had eaten lunch at Partners the day before, on Friday. I had driven past it on the way home to take a shower and hurry off to the Alibi to meet Vernon for darts.
I couldn't go forward and I couldn't seem to make any other kind of move. I wasn't hungry anymore. In fact, I felt a little queasy as if I'd already eaten something bad and it wasn't going to stay down. "What the hell?" I whispered, and then looked around to see if anyone was nearby. I stared at Big Boy again. Across the street everything looked the same except for the change of a pharmacy with a cafe that had been around more than a hundred years into a steak house that was festooned with barn lumber.
It took a minute more to realize something else was different and my first assessment had been wrong. The little local radio station in the brick building a block down from what was now Big Boy Steak was no longer KTBR. It had new gold script letters scrawled across the two big dark windows. It said
I had to walk over to the courthouse across the street--a little shakily I admit--and sit down on one of the metal benches under the portico. From there I could see Main Street and look as long as I wanted at what was quickly causing an anxiety attack--two businesses that I had driven past, lunched in, and looked at for twenty-nine years that now were not the same two businesses.
I puffed up my cheeks and blew out wind, shaking my head. I reached for the pack of Marlboros in my shirt pocket and had one shaken out when Johnny came out the courthouse door. He paused, said, "Hey, Lane, what's going on?"
Johnny worked as a janitor in the courthouse and often took smoke breaks out front on the benches. We had gone to high school together, but he wasn't the brightest bulb in the bunch of kids produced by the Shannons so janitor was his best shot at a normal life. "Johnny, when did Partners Pharmacy become Big Boy Steaks?"
Johnny looked across the long manicured lawn of the courthouse square to Main Street. He glanced back to me and said, "What do you mean?"
"Johnny, come on now. What's wrong with you? Partners had been there for a hundred years. What happened to it? It was there yesterday. I freaking ate there yesterday. I had their special jalapeno burger and fries. Now it's some steak house. And how did KTBR become..." I stared down Main at the dark windows. "...KTAH? I feel like I'm having an acid dream, but I don't do acid."
"But it's always been Big Boy's and KTAH." He said this with a little awe and a little worry in his voice. It wasn't him that wasn't acting right this time, we both knew that, it was
When Johnny said that I knew it was God's truth. At least for him. Because Johnny has no lie reflex. He just doesn't lie, never did, didn't have the ability. If he thought Partners had always been Big Boy, then, at least for him, it had been.
Which meant...I didn't know what it meant. It meant something bad was going on and I didn't like it.
When Johnny went back in to work, I sat a while longer but the more I tried to think through the problem, the more confused I became. Were things really disappearing and sometimes disappearing to be replaced by something similar, but different? What on earth could that mean? Or was I just more hungover than I originally thought? Something was either not right with the world or not right with me and I didn't know which one it was.
Back at work I kept my nose down and my mind blank. I had work to do and if I didn't do it right, I wouldn't get paid. Tonight was payday and I needed the money, no way around it. I deliberately drove down another street toward home so I wouldn't have to look at the two odd businesses on Main.
I worried the problem now I had free time, worried it like a bone, chewing hard, busting my molars on it, and still nothing was coming to me. At home, through the front door, and...
...and where the coat rack had been now stood a tall, skinny wooden cabinet with dull silver knobs.
I froze, holding my breath. I finally got the door closed behind me. I stood looking at the cabinet, a piece of furniture I had never seen before in my life. This was feeling serious. And bad. Worse than bad, like maybe a catastrophe. I brought my hands up and rubbed my cheeks hard. The cabinet still stood there, a silent reminder that it existed just as much as I did, as if to say,
Get over it, boy, I'm here, so accept it
I went slowly to it and took a silver knob in my fist. It turned easily. Inside the cabinet were shelves. On the shelves were things I recognized and some things I didn't. On the top shelf was my baseball cap printed with the legend, WOLVERINES, our high school baseball team. Next to it was my beat up catcher's mitt I hadn't seen in probably ten years and which I thought was in a box of things still packed in the attic. On the second shelf was a small collection of rocks I did not recognize. They weren't mine anymore than the cabinet was. Next to the pile of rocks, was a stack of photographs. I was afraid to touch them, but nothing could stop me from sliding them into my hands and flipping through them like a man in a hurry. Here was a picture of my mother and father when they were first married. Here was a picture of me sitting in a field with my legs around a giant pumpkin my mother had grown for the fair we had every fall. A photo of Davey on his first day of school. Davey and I swinging in the back yard swing set. The rest were like that, old photographs I hadn't seen in years, but that had originally been kept in an old suitcase in the closet of my bedroom. And now they were here, neatly stacked next to somebody's rocks.
I put them back and carefully inspected the third and last shelf. It held a pair of work boots that had seen better days, but they hadn't seen those days with me. I had never owned those boots. Next to them was a .38 caliber Smith and Wesson with a pistol grip.
I stepped back as if the gun were a venomous snake. I didn't own a gun. I hated guns. I had refused as a kid to go hunting with my dad, much to his displeasure, with him saying Davey was a hunter and he was a hunter, what was wrong with me? I didn't join any military service because unlike Davey, who went off and got himself blown up to a thousand million pieces, I wasn't going to have anything to do with guns and killing people. Just wasn't my thing and I can't explain it more than that. I just didn't like the damn things. Guns were destruction. Guns were weapons. I didn't need any weapons.
But there was a gun in a cabinet that didn't belong to me in my house that
belong to me now that Davey was gone.
"Are you here, you bastard?" I yelled it at the top of my lungs and the cabinet door fell shut. I stalked through the house, mad now, madder than I should have been because it was too crazy, too confusing, and I kept yelling in all the rooms, "Are you here? You bastard, do you hear me? Where are you hiding? What the hell is your game?"