by Heidi Beierle, 1291 words
When Bilan faded into the background, the owls noticed. In that instant, Willoughby ran. Downhill. Toward the water. He ran as he’d never run before. He’d show them.
Alex sped toward the diner in his firetruck, sirens wailing. Given the different stories twittering about town, Alex suspected the blond man who started the diner fire had paranoid personality disorder, depression with psychosis, maybe borderline personality disorder. Alex wasn’t a mental health specialist, but he’d worked enough with unhoused people to know that mental health disorders were pervasive. The 911 call from Phyllis cemented his opinion that this man was suffering in his own way – not that it excused violence and violent behavior. He was still human.
Ahead on his right, Alex registered a lone figure running and tumbling downhill. In a snap, he hit the brakes. The truck squealed, and Willoughby crashed into the side. The truck shuddered.
Alex hopped out of the truck and snapped on blue nitrile gloves as he scrambled around the vehicle’s side to check the man’s vitals. Willoughby was alive, breathing on his own. Alex sighed with relief.
Three crewmembers carrying a backboard and spine immobilization gear joined Alex in the slice of road between the hill and truck where Willoughby was crumpled and motionless.
“Sorry about the abrupt stop,” Alex said to them. “Are you ok?”
“Sure thing,” Mina said. “Unconventional intervention. Are you ok?”
“Yeah. Let’s stabilize this guy.” Alex pointed to Willoughby’s forehead, “Preexisting contusion.”
They straightened Willoughby using the traction in-line method to prevent spinal cord injuries, put on a cervical collar, and log rolled him onto the backboard. As they were velcroing the shoulder stabilization straps, Willoughby came to swearing, flailing and kicking. “Fuck off!”
Alex focused on holding Willoughby’s head still, grateful that his shoulders were already secure to the board. “Hey now, buddy,” Alex said with his practiced calm voice. “What’s your name?”
“Jeff Smith. I’m dead.” Willoughby thrashed.
Alex didn’t know if this guy knew his name, but he wasn’t dead. “We’re here to help you,” he said.
“The fuck you are,” Willoughby spat, kicking the crewmember holding his feet.
“No, really,” Alex said. “If you’re aiming to kill yourself, keep on wiggling around like that. You crashed into our truck at high speed.”
“The fuck I did.” Something about how Alex was looking at him confused Willoughby. He tried to move his head but couldn’t. Instead, he lifted an arm and whacked Alex in the face.
Alex was unfazed. “Look buddy, do you want this over easy or over hard?”
The owls flapped in confusion above the diner ruin.
Officer Pfeffer and Dwayne stood at the edge of the parking lot looking down the hill at the activity around the firetruck. “Doesn’t look like he’s dead,” Officer Pfeffer said.
“Dead?” Dwayne hazarded. He started to feel tingly all over and closed his eyes.
“Whoa now,” Officer Pfeffer said. He steadied the swaying Dwayne with his hand. “Are you gonna pass out on me?”
Dwayne opened his eyes. “That was weird. Like electricity crackling all over my body. It didn’t burn, but it was like my skin was squirming or something.”
They looked at each other the way people do when they hope the other person can explain something inexplicable, like Zen koans or imaginary numbers.
Out of nowhere, Jerome appeared among the burnt bits of the kitchen. His legs seemed to crumple, and he made no effort to get up. He held his head between his hands, gently massaging his temples, eyes closed.
“Jerome?” Dwayne said with disbelief.
Jerome dropped his hands to his lap and took a deep breath. He slowly raised a finger to his lips, “shhhhhhh.”
“Officer,” Dwayne whispered, reaching for Officer Pfeffer’s arm. “It’s coming on again.” Dwayne’s skin prickled and his hair stood on end. “Do you feel it?”
Officer Pfeffer looked between Jerome and Dwayne. He didn’t feel anything. It was a normal late afternoon. The air temperature was mild, the day dry, the sky white. “No.”
Dwayne tightened his grip Officer Pfeffer’s arm.
The ground rumbled.
A bed appeared in the diner ruins where the back booth would have been. A small woman in a ragged pale blue nightgown and furry old slippers slept on the bed, hugging herself. She rubbed her head into the pillow as if suddenly pained.
A barred owl landed on the top of the bed’s headboard and crooned, “Who-cooks-for-yoooooooooo.”
“Officer,” Dwayne whispered again, eyes wide. “Do you feel it?”
“No, Dwayne.” Barney looked over at the young trainee.
The ground rumbled again. A sofa appeared in what used to be the Excelsior’s main dining area. A reclined Bilan held her phone to her ear and blinked. “Tawfiiq? Tawfiiq!” Bilan sat up, looked at her phone, then shook it. She put the phone to her ear. “Tawfiiq? Waxaan joogay guriga oo hadda waxaan ku suganahay burburkii uu dab ka kacay. Maxaa dhab ah? Maskaxdu waa iga luntay. I caawi!” Dwayne and Officer Pfeffer looked at each other.Bilan took in the charcoal bits of the diner and her ruined life. How could she be here? How did she even know where here was? She must be having a bad dream.“Jerome,” she said, “Where are we?”Jerome winced. “Not so loud, Bilan, I have a pounding headache.”“I do, too. All day. Get up.” She reached a hand to help him to his feet. “What is this mess?” She gestured to the ruin of the diner. “This will not do. You must cook. The people will return, and we will have jobs.”“Cook what, Bilan?”“I do not know, Jerome. Cook whatever you like. In a dream anything can happen.”“This isn’t a dream, Bilan.”“How do you know this?” Bilan raised her voice. “Tell me. How do you know this is not a dream?” She shook her fist at the ruin of the diner and at Officer Pfeffer and Dwayne, as if they were the sole members of a theater audience. “Look, there is even a sleeping person in a bed, in the diner! In a dream anything can happen. I am not crazy.”The woman in the bed rose slowly and stood up straight as a cedar. She took a few deep breaths and screamed loud enough for all the critters in the woods to hear, “My name is Alice Smyth and I am looking for my family!” Meghan pedaled up on her bike. “No, Bob.” Jerome looked straight at Meghan. “I will not go with you. This is my family.” He grabbed both of Bilan’s hands and knelt before her. “I will cook for yooooooo?”Megan turned to Dwayne and Officer Pfeffer. “What’s going on?”Officer Pfeffer shrugged. “I could hazard a guess, but maybe, Dwayne, you have some thoughts?”“Umm. There’s a wormhole here, and our time-space continuum folded in on itself?”Officer Pfeffer folded his arms across his chest and nodded. “Plausible. I think a few too many people have lost their ability to distinguish what is real and what is not. It’s a kind of group psychosis brough on by a variety of stresses colliding at the same time. Sort of like a rogue wave.”“Well reasoned,” Megan said and turned to the diner. Her new twin connection was like an eczema flare up, hot and crazy itchy.Alice pumped her fist in the air and yelled, “My name is Alice Smyth and I am looking for my family!”
Meghan woke in a cold sweat scratching the inside of her left thigh. It burned, and she’d dug bloody gouges in her sleep. She felt like she was having a panic attack. Was it possible to have one while asleep? She took a couple breaths.
Alice! Where was Alice?