The Wanderers

By Joel Doonan




He was a dangerous looking man, thin and wiry. His ear length hair hung dark and tangled. Several daysí beard growth partially obscured the small claw-like scars that marred his left cheek. His baggy green army jacket was patched at the elbows and his large right pocket bulged oddly.

"Like to look at a fishing reel," he said to the Stan Mart sporting goods clerk. He read the clerkís nametag. "Bob," he said, "itís the blue and chrome one on the very, very bottom." He pointed down through the glass counter, tapped his finger, smiled.

A long stack of boxes towered close behind the counter, new stock to be set out. The clerk was a heavyset man but he squeezed between boxes and counter, pulled a cloth from his back pocket and wiped the smudge from the countertop left by the manís finger. He squinted through the glass. "Echo 250," He said. "Good reel." He squatted in the narrow space between the counter and boxes; caught his name tag on the counter edge and tore his shirt pocket. "Damn," he muttered, "second one this week." he stood back up, turned to glance at the wall clock behind him. "Itís almost midnight. My help is out sick. Iíve got new merchandise to put up. Could you stop back tomorrow?"

The rough looking customer shook his head. "Leaving town soon," he said. "I may not return."

Bob shrugged. "Iíll see if thereís one in the back." He hurriedly stepped away and disappeared between double doors into the stockroom.

Ava casually noticed the exchange from an adjacent isle, but she turned to watch closely as the rough looking man suddenly leaned over the counter and grabbed a box of rifle cartridges. He stuffed them quickly into his jacket pocket just before Bob returned.

"I'm afraid that's the last one," he said, crouching back behind the counter, "I'll try to fish it out for you."

"Never mind," said the wiry man, "Youíre busy. I may stop by tomorrow."

Relieved, the store clerk nodded and began opening boxes as the customer stepped away from the counter.

The man turned and with hands held low and close, pulled a remote control sized device from his coat pocket. One end glowed pale blue, the air around it fluorescing softly before he switched it off. Suddenly he noticed Ava staring at him. He caught her gaze. With intensity he made a quick study of her before she slipped away.

ĎSurely they have him on camera,í she thought as she hurriedly followed a long aisle. She expected Stan Mart Security to arrive at any moment. She glanced around and then behind as she stepped to the checkout counters but did not see the man again. No alarms sounded. Store Security did not arrive.

Things had changed in Avaís life. It had been little more than six months since her motherís passing, when word came that her only brother was among eight who succumbed to hydrogen sulfide asphyxiation at a cotton patch drilling operation west of Midland. He had only been a driver, delivering drill string to the rig.

It was a late night eighteen years ago - the same, hot time of year - when her dadís pickup ignited a patch of methane which had settled low in a dry wash. It was a still summer night on a gravel road less than ten miles from home. Even the slightest breeze could have prevented the dangerous accumulation of gas. The charred remains of the truck were scarcely identifiable but for the oddball steering wheel her dad had adapted from a Ď69 Rambler.

Low oil prices had slowed the local economy and many young people traveled East or North for employment. Ava, with a business degree from a technical college, migrated east toward the central part of the state - hopeful for a job with one of the centers of government, business or education.

City life presented new and unexpected challenges. Shortly after her apartment was robbed, she was rear-ended by an uninsured intoxicated teenager, ripe with ardor and spirits following a football victory. Now the left front wheel of her 88 Volvo shuddered and rattled every time she turned right, aggravated by repeated interactions with a monstrous pot hole in front of her apartment. Recent international events added a feeling of darkness; and often it seemed to her that the whole world was unraveling.

One week ago after more than two dozen résumés and six interviews she finally found work with the State of Texas; and on this hot Friday evening, dizzy from diesel exhaust after forty minutes in traffic behind a Sanchez Brothers dump truck that listed with an overload of asphalt, unfortunately not destined for her apartmentís parking lot, she met with co-workers at a downtown jazz club.

"Pre-stressed beams are the ones cast with a curve. Iím sure youíve seen them hauled around on trucks. They weigh tons. When set in place their own weight partially flattens them out. If it werenít for the upward curve, theyíd sag in the middle like an old bridge."

The noisy cacophony of music was difficult to talk over and Paul was near shouting as he used his hands to scribe arcs in the air in a suggestive manner. Ava shook her head and turned to Beth.

"So how is jury duty on ĎThe State versus Sanchez Excavationí?"

"I fell asleep again," she said. "It should be illegal for Engineers to testify."

"So this is your one week anniversary with the State of Texas," said Paul. He smelled of malt liquor and jalapeno nachos. "Have another Blue Stripe?"

She shook her head. She had barely finished the first one.

Martha returned from the dance floor and planted herself in the squeaky wooden chair. "We were talking about Ďyouth violenceí and the importance of families," she said, "I think we could borrow a few ideas from primitive societies. They have effective ways of dealing with social issues."

"To Primitive Tribes!" added Paul, raising a bottle. "We need `rites of passage' for young people. Cultural rituals. Bare breasted native women dancing slow around the fires. Thatíll straighten the boys out!"

"Have another beer," said Beth.

"Think Iíll do just that." He flagged a waiter.

"Most of our problems come from a lack of communication," said Ava. "People are too isolated. They should switch off the electronics and go visit their neighbors. Talk. Discuss. Get involved with something positive. Work things out. In contrast to us, tribal people interact with each other constantly."

Paul leaned back and started another River Steam. He shivered. "Nasty," he muttered. He thumped the bottle on the table top.

"I feel like something is going wrong with the world," said Ava, "but I canít quite figure it out. Weíre not on a sane path. There is something subtle and disturbing going on, like dark threads weaving through our social fabric. Makes me feel uneasy." Ava scooted back her chair.

Martha rolled her eyes and glanced toward Beth.

Ava stood up. "I need to go," she said.

Paul stood up, swaying. He steadied himself on his chair back, burped. "I'll walk with you."

"I'll be fine," she said, "It's only a few blocks."

He waved her on and sat back down as four musicians started a double paced, off-time rendition of "Blue Moon". The others turned toward the stage as Ava departed.

She pushed open the huge glass doors leading out onto Congress Avenue. Late night offered no break from the heat. An old Chevy chugged by running on five of six cylinders, one headlight dimmer than the other, leaving a monoxide stench swirling in its wake. She fanned the air and walked south.

At the railroad tracks she crossed Congress and continued down Fourth Street. A pole light at the corner illuminated warehouses in ghostly blue, blending into shadows and the pale light from a waning crescent moon. She barely noticed a group of youths as she passed, sitting silent atop a flight of concrete steps. Their dark silhouettes appeared two dimensional against the steel grate windows and graffiti marred walls, with only the bright glowing ends of cigarettes moving hand to mouth in the darkness. She wasn't far past when three of them rose and began to follow her.

She hastened her pace. They hastened theirs. The street lighting was better up on fifth street and she turned north at the corner. She could hear them quicken to catch up.

There was a light just ahead above a restaurant's service entrance, sending a bright flood between trash bin and brick wall. She was almost there when suddenly a tall figure stepped out directly in her path. He stood half in shadows, a stained white apron over a sweat soaked T-shirt. She paused. He looked vaguely familiar.

"Someone bothering you?" he asked.

She nodded nervously, glanced around.

He stared into the darkness behind her. She could hear them stop. They cursed quietly, smashed a glass bottle on the concrete then retreated.

"They will leave you alone now," he said. "I just finished my shift. You should eat here sometime. My cooking is good, my restrooms are clean - everything you want. I know what youíre thinking, never trust a skinny chef. I cook with the best of them." He untied his apron and tossed it into a laundry box beside the door. "I'm Steffen Waters," he said in a soft voice.

He was kind, unthreatening, and she felt at ease. They walked together toward her car.

"IĎve been assistant chef for six months," he said. "This is my last day. It's time for me to travel."

"So where will you be going?" she asked.

"Home," he replied.

They were near her car. She searched her memory trying to place him.

"Where are you from?" she asked.

"Not really a place," he replied, "a different world. It would take some explaining."

"Do you need a ride there?" she asked, half-joking as she unlocked the door.

"I room across the street," he said, "You're welcome to come up for a cup of tea. I have some from India which I picked myself, last year with a group of Tibetans." He turned, and in the blue glow of a street light she noticed scars across his left cheek. She suddenly remembered.

"I canít stay long, but Iíd like to hear your story," she said, overcoming her apprehensions, "We could learn a lot from primitive societies. Simpler living may offer an answer to many of our problems. My name is Ava."

Rickety wood stairs ran diagonally up the side of an old hardware store that led to a converted storage room.

"Itís hard to beat two hundred fifty dollars a month," he said, opening the door. He flipped the light switch, illuminating his makeshift apartment.

The ceiling was sloped to one side following the building's roof, down to a single window which looked out over fifth street. A musty old couch doubled as a bed, covered with a worn, carefully mended quilt. A large oval rug filled the central floor and a broad shelf served as kitchen counter, just wide enough to accommodate a small sink. Huge maps of the world papered the walls - geological survey charts showing precise details of mountains, forests, and rivers. Stacks of vintage electronic equipment placed upon board-and-brick shelving in a shadowy corner gave an eerie green glow and a softly audible hum. Spread out on a plywood stand beside it lay an assortment of quartz crystals, spools of wire, electronic components, and empty rifle cartridges.

"Are you a member of some ĎOrganizationí?" she asked.

"Iím not really a professional chef," he said. "There was a time when I taught Spatial Physics. Always preferred macro-spatial physics to micro-spatial physics. I prefer large scale structures. The tiny stuff gives me a headache. Now my work takes me around the world." He filled a pan of water from a plastic jug and set it on a hot plate. A curl of smoke rose from the elements as it heated. "I've been busy these past few years."

She sat, uneasy, on the end of the couch closest to the door. He lifted a cloth bag of Indian tea from a cardboard box and held it open toward her. She peered in as a rich, smoky smell emerged.

"Strange tea," she said. "Nothing odd in there, I hope."

"Just tea," he said, putting a healthy pinch in the hot water. He sensed her uneasiness.

"What is bothering you?" he asked.

"Bothering me?" she said. "How about the society we live in. How about violence. Care of the Elderly. New diseases seem to be cropping up everywhere. Cancer rates. More and more weird chemicals in our air, water and food. And People; why do they seem so mean and crass. Things used to be a lot nicer."

"Seems like it wouldnít really take much effort to create a better world," he said.

She nodded.

"Let me tell you a story," he said, "about the world that you have experienced, and a new one that is becoming.

"People create the world they live in, Ava. Do you ever think about the little ill-willed thoughts that most people cast off so easily toward others, their neighbors, the driver in the dump truck in front of you? Even household appliances, animals, and the land itself are often subject. Most people do this by habit without knowing or caring.

"Thought and Action work together to create your private life. This energy also cumulates in mass and has a reinforcing effect, worldwide. Aggression, competitiveness, fear, jealously; these resonate throughout the world you know. They have an effect. A profound one. The energy of the worldís population combines. It effects weather patterns and agricultural yields, and lends a strong influence on both human and animal behavior.

"You could divide the entire human race into two main groups: those who choose to pursue their goals beyond the point of self-destruction, even if it means the demise of the individuals and the rest of the world around them; and those who will always stop short of self-sacrifice in their personal pursuits. The first group values their experience above personal well-being. The second group values their health and well-being above experience. After years of careful thought and observation Iíve realized that it is just this simple."

"Consider the concept of Patriotism," said Ava. "Can any idea thought up by people - weather it is philosophy, theology or political - actually be more important than the people who thought it up? One of my personal quandaries."

He nodded and stirred the tea.

"Not everyone casts hurtful thoughts," he said. "Some live their lives with a determined feeling of hope and consideration. Flowers bloom in their steps."

"So who are these people?" she asked, "Where are they now?"

"Remember the two basic attitudes," he said. "While our physical environment tries to mirror this energy, it is impossible for these two opposing perspectives to exist simultaneously on one world. As a result the planet is splitting."

"It's hardly tearing in two," said Ava.

"That's not what I meant. Nearly sixty years ago a reflection of the Earth began forming an Ďalternative material realityí in response to this increasing difference in energies. At first it was translucent and dream like, only perceived by a few individuals, but it gradually became more and more solid."

Steffen rose from the couch and pulled a key from a nail by the door. "Rest room is downstairs," he said. "Iíll be back shortly." He slipped out the side door.

Ava explored the room. She looked at the huge maps, his collection of old electronics and the projects on the table beside them. Empty rifle cartridges had their ends sawed off. Several had magnet wire wrapped carefully around and two had crystal rods placed neatly inside. There were several partially assembled circuit boards; then she noticed a small notebook lying open with lists of names and addresses. Some had red check marks, some question marks, some ĎXís. She flipped through it and her eye caught her own name: Ava Lynn Alison. There were two crossed out phone numbers beside it Ė old numbers she still remembered - and a red question mark. She heard him coming up the stairs and she closed the notebook and quickly returned to the couch.

"Tea time!" he said.

Standing by the sink he used a strainer and poured two cups full. A pair of grapefruit crates served as a table and he sat down at the other end of the couch.

"About ten years ago things really began to get interesting," he said. "People who held, and practiced, caring attitudes for the world around them, simply awoke one day in the new world. They transferred automatically."

"Does this explain some of the mysterious disappearances we read about?" she asked.

"Probably some of them," he said, "but when people transfer, even the memory of them quickly fades from the world they left as if they were never there. Space-time is an odd sort of fabric.

Good Tea?" he asked.

"Unusual," said Ava. "Please continue."

"One world is becoming brighter and lighter, the other, coarser and harsher, responding to the emotional energy of each worlds' inhabitants. The dimensional rift between worlds has gradually become too great for spontaneous transference; but there are places, dimensional coordinate points, where the two worlds still interface.

"Natural planetary geology creates these. Rock and mineral structure relative to the planetsí spin. There used to be many, but one by one their effects have weakened until now only the three strongest remain. Individuals who determinedly adopt a caring attitude can still enter the New World, but not for much longer. The passageways are closing down.

"Iíve developed a way of reinforcing them artificially. I place rods of natural quartz inside brass tubes, and then align the lattices in a particular orientation. When you wrap magnet wire; I use AWG28; around the tubes you can charge it with a pulse at a sub-harmonic of the quartís natural resonance. A piece of trimmed foil forms a capacitive tank with the brass."

"I have no idea what you are talking about," said Ava.

"Put a bunch of these together beside the coordinate point and they will amplify the natural resonance. Iíve already been to two of the remaining portals to add the enhancements and show the others how to maintain them.

"Others?" said Ava.

"I'm one of a group who came here to act as guides. Wanderers. I am number five."

"So, Wanderer Five, why are you here?" she asked.

"I transferred one morning six years ago. Woke up alone in the new world. My wife did not transfer with me. When we discovered the coordinate points I volunteered to return here. But I could not get her through. She never believed me. Barely remembered who I was." He paused, turned to gaze out the window.

"Iíve stayed behind to help others. Been here as long as I can tolerate. My work is done.

"Ava, there is something you must decide. I usually do this gently, slowly, to gain the confidence of the prospect, we were told in training, but thereís no time left to do this gently. You have a choice. You can go with me."

"Might be interesting to see one of your coordinate points," she said.

"How about tomorrow? I need to enhance the last one."

She looked away.

"A field trip," he said, "to the west. We could pack a picnic lunch. Itís not far."

"I donít know you," she said.

"Sometimes we must take chances. Tomorrow is Saturday. You wonít miss work."

She noticed three cans of beans and a half eaten loaf of bread on a shelf beneath the sink.

"Iíll pack lunch," she said. "You pay for gas. Weíll take my car. Iíll drive."

Dawn's first light brightened the bluffs of interstate 10 as they passed the exit to Junction. Gold highlights gilded the valleys, sending long blue shadows from mesquites and junipers, accenting each detail of dry wash and cliff. Cool air rushed through open windows bringing the dry smell of dust. They passed Sonora, then Ozona.

They stopped for fuel and took sandwiches and fruit from her picnic basket. It was mid-afternoon when they turned off the interstate at Balmorhea and headed south toward Fort Davis.

Autumn came early to the Davis Mountains. Pale gold grasses softly carpeted the high, rounded hills, setting off massive natural hexagonal columns of black basalt. Ancient cottonwoods bordered the roadway, pervasive canopies turned brilliant yellow by early frosts. Gold leaves covered the ground beneath and swirled about the road behind them.

"This road winds up into the higher country," he said, sitting up straight. "Stay on it for twelve miles."

The road took them up valleys and around more outcroppings of basalt. Smaller ranch roads branched off from time to time. Steffen motioned for her to slow.

"Next road to the right," he said.

She turned into a rutted, dirt road.

"Stop here for a moment."

He stepped out and pulled a weathered plank from the roadside. He wiped it clean on his pants and re-nailed it to the fence post with a rock. It displayed only one word; Gateway; hand painted in dark blue. Beneath it, an arrow pointed ahead.

Billowing white dust trailed behind as she dodged ruts and chuck holes.

"Turn in here," he said.

It was only an opening in the fence with tire ruts leading down into a winding ravine. She drove slowly. Car springs creaked and tires slipped on loose rocks. The trail led to a small meadow where a curious collection of other vehicles were parked. Unlike a salvage yard, all vehicles seemed perfectly serviceable. Neatly parked. Some were dusty, perhaps there for years while others were clean. She pulled in beside a white Cadillac - less chance of door dings.

She expected to see other people, but soon realized that the two of them were alone. Late afternoon brought a chill to the air and Ava took a blanket from the back seat. Steffen carried the picnic basket and his shoe box collection of handmade technology. She locked the car and they followed a trail steeply uphill which wound through Madrone and Wild Persimmon trees. Something inside Steffen's shoe box began to rattle and buzz, then let out a high pitched whine. Ava slowed and remained cautiously behind.

Two rough columns of glassy white rock stood at the crest of the hill, an arm span apart and standing nearly seven feet high, gilt orange-gold by the low sun. Beside them sat a gray metal box and a solar panel. She noticed a curious assortment of items set randomly about the site; books, backpacks, a radio, even a pair of shoes. Some things were faded and weathered, obviously years old, but others were practically new and could not have been there for more than a week. She unfolded the blanket on soft, straw yellow grass. She set out the picnic basket's remaining contents as Steffen opened the grey box and began working inside. He replaced two small circuit boards and began connecting the new array of crystal tubes. Ava handed him the last sandwich.

"Stand in front of the columns and tell me what you see," he said.

She stepped back. "Just a valley," she said. "And three pronghorns grazing near a stream."

He made an adjustment. "And now?"

Something was odd. She blinked and squinted. She walked around the pair of columns.

"When I look through from this side, I see something odd. The pronghorns are there, but they are hazy, whitish, transparent. Now I also see two small cottages. There is some large rounded object hovering in the air. Itís coming down to land. Someone is getting out. I see two children. Someone is tending a garden."

"Thought you'd be able to see it!" said Steffen. "One of our ĎSeersí places.

Ava, Iím going to pass through the portal and Iíll not be returning. You can come with me. The portal is weakening faster than I thought. Might last only another day. Itís a one way journey."

Steffen shifted the solar panel to better face the autumn sun and then closed the box.

"Your World will continue to become harder and darker. Our ĎSeersí have envisioned this. Within a few years it will be intolerable for someone like you."

"What about the picnic basket?"

"Leave it," he said, "we need to travel light. The less stuff we try to carry through the dimensional rift, the more certain it is to make the transference."

"Iím not leaving my grandmotherís quilt."

With the blanket folded and held tight under one arm, she grabbed Steffanís arm and they stepped between the stone columns. A wash of cold gave her chills, like entering a dream as they walked steadily through.

Their images began to fade, translucent like the homes down below.

"Tell me about the scars on your cheek."

"That's quite a story to tell," he said, his voice growing faint like the wind, "In India there are still tigers in the forests."

As they walked down the grassy slope and into a new world, a man and a child came up from the homes below to greet them; while from behind came the distant sound of motorcycles - approaching.

The End

Copyright © 2004 by Joel Doonan

Growing up in the rainforest area of Eastern Peru offered time and environment for imagination and wonder. I've had a love of writing since childhood but made no serious effort toward being published until ten years ago when I began chronicling stories from my youth; stories that include: cannibals, dangerous wildlife, unusual spiritual rituals; archeology and ancient history, even ufo's. (I'm serious.) Science Fiction with a metaphysical twist has always held fascination for me, and the concept of weaving truths into the fabric of a story.

E-mail: traveler@jump.net

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