Peter Nalan glared at the screen in front of him, tapping his fingers
against the desk in irritation. He was so close, and yet...
"Save," he muttered.
"You got it." The female voice was friendly and conversational. “What next, Peter?” Peter ignored her and focused on the text.
'The Neighbor You Thought You Knew,' read the title, and beneath it,
'How Much Do You Really Know About the People in Your Town?'
"Not enough," he said. "Still not enough."
"Say again?" came the reply.
Peter's eyes looked briefly skyward, then his gaze returned to the
screen, but he no longer saw the words. The pale grey letters sank into
their blue background, and he was looking at a face. Small dark eyes
set wide apart under bushy eyebrows. Low furrowed forehead accentuated
by uneven black hair. A narrow prominent nose and tight fleshless
cheeks. A nervous twitch that curled the mouth up periodically in a
half smile. The hunted look that moviemakers had been trying to capture
for decades, without ever coming close. John Trebert.
"Damn it." Peter heaved himself out of his chair and looked around the
room, ignoring the entreaties of the computer for command
clarification. The study looked as though it had been torn apart by the
FBI. For three months now all his energy had gone into this book, the
culmination of two years of interviews and painstaking research. He had
tried to convince himself that it was finished; but without John
Trebert, it was a joke.
"What are you all about, John?"
Peter paced, threading his way between scattered mounds of papers,
unconsciously skirting overflowing wastebaskets and precarious stacks
of binders. In a town of forty thousand, a character like John Trebert
stuck out like a red apple in a bin of bananas. So far, all Peter had
on him amounted to about one page of generalities and mysterious
rumors. No more than most people in Belmot knew already. The man was
the key to the book. Belmot City Press, the town's publisher, had
supported Peter's efforts with the implicit expectation that John
Trebert's story would be the central element in the book. There had to
be a way to get him to talk.
Peter had tried, but the man was almost impossible to track down. He
lived on the street and was forever on the move. He had money,
according to the bank, yet he refused to settle. Peter had spoken to
several Belmot Transit drivers who said that Trebert slept on the
automated all-night buses, switching routes at the exchange points,
never staying on one bus longer than an hour. He held down several
jobs, all delivery work, and walked or took transit wherever he went.
Peter had managed to track him down twice.
"John. John Trebert," he had said the first time. He'd caught him as he
boarded a bus heading from downtown to the industrial district. "Might
I have a word with you?"
"If you want," John replied. He sat, and Peter did the same.
"I know you're busy, but I'd like to find out a bit about you," Peter
said. "You're something of a mystery around town, you know."
Trebert's mouth twitched, and he shifted nervously in his seat. Peter
sensed a primal energy about the man, an agitation that communicated
itself through the air like the electric crackle of power lines in the
rain. It gave Peter a thrill of fear just to be close to him.
"I'm on the move more than most," Trebert said quietly. "Doesn't take much to be different in this town."
"You may be right. Belmot people are a rather homogeneous lot. I know that better than anyone. I'm--"
"I know. Writing a book. About the unusual inhabitants of Belmot. A
local gossip column in hard cover. I'm not really interested."
"Ah, well--" Peter was caught off guard. "It's not quite like that. I'm
trying to tell people more about their fellow human beings. Especially
those that are a little different. Or those with interesting life
stories. Like for instance Bill Ingrham who works at the library. He
grew up in a small village in South America, without any exposure to
hyper-network computerized communications until he was sixteen. And
look at him now. The source in town for information on the networks and
how to access almost anything."
"Kind of makes you wonder if it's all necessary, doesn't it?"
"I think it's amazing. He's been an invaluable resource to me. But what I really wanted to ask you, John, was--"
"I'm just a little eccentric, OK? Leave it at that. Got itchy feet when
I was a kid, and never lost the call." He stood abruptly and headed for
the door. The bus was slowing for the next stop.
Peter followed him. "But most people I've talked to are fascinated by
you, John. Maybe even a little scared. All I want to do is give them
some of your history, let them know more about you, so they can
understand what you're all about." He decided to be blunt. "After all,
you're an outcast," he said. "Wouldn't you feel more comfortable if
everyone was friendlier?"
John Trebert stepped down onto the sidewalk without looking back. "No," he said. And walked away.
The second attempt had been much less cordial, and considerably
shorter. Peter had just come out of the library when he'd seen John
Trebert crossing the street, heading for the town hall. With an effort,
he had caught up and matched his pace.
"Mr. Trebert," he said breathlessly. "I've been meaning to talk to you. I thought maybe--"
"You already have enough about me for your book. Like you said, Mister
Nalan, I'm a bit of a mystery. I assure you it's better that way."
Peter grabbed Trebert by the arm. The man spun and glared at him. Peter
would never forget the look in those eyes. Not so much anger,
annoyance, or even frustration. Fear.
"You tread a dangerous path, Nalan. All of you. Have a care lest you lose your way."
Peter stood stunned as Trebert turned and mounted the steps of the
hall. It took him several moments to shake off the sense of doom that
had fallen on him. By the time he followed Trebert into the building
the man had disappeared.
Peter shook free of his reverie as he stumbled into a pile of binders,
spilling them across the floor. He threw his hands in the air.
"Alright. If that's the way it has to be," he shouted. "I'm going to tell your story, John Trebert. One way or another."
He kicked off his slippers and stepped into a well-worn pair of
quik-tite sneakers. The shoes snugged, slackened, and settled into
their optimum fit. Then he yanked a light green spring jacket from the
hall cupboard and went out the door, pausing only a second to press his
palm against the security lock scanner before he set off in search of
It was nearly midnight before he found Trebert. A long wearisome trail
led him along several delivery routes, then through six bus transfers.
At last he spotted him boarding the Eastern loop line at the downtown
station. The bus doors stayed open just long enough for him to leap
"I've been expecting you, Peter."
Peter scanned the bus. Only Trebert and himself. Very few people used
late-night transit. He wondered briefly how the town justified
maintaining the service. But his mind was not really on bus
utilization. Trebart had addressed him.
"I won't take no for an answer any more, Mister Trebert," Peter said.
"I'm writing your story if I have to scour every corner of the
"I don't think so. At least, you can scour it if you want, but it won't
help you. And, I'm quite sure you will not be telling anyone my story."
Peter scrambled up the steps and steadied himself in the aisle as the
bus turned a corner rather faster than he'd expected. "Trebert, I don't
think you understand who you're dealing with," he said. "I've been a
news reporter around the world. I know more about getting the
information I want than almost anyone in this state. And I don't give
Trebert looked at him sadly. "I know. And I'm sorry. I warned you, and you didn't listen. Now it's too late."
A cold thrill ran down Peter's body, and his heart began to race. "Too late for what?" he said hoarsely.
Trebert indicated the seat across from him. "We can stay on board for a while yet. Take a seat."
His eyes fixed on Trebert, Peter felt for the edge of the seat and sat stiffly.
"When I was young I lived by the ocean," Trebert said. "Used to be very
fond of scrambling over the rocks, watching the surf crash in, lying
and listening to it roar as it sprayed foam out into the little pools.
Then my family planned a move to the city. I didn't want to go. I left
a note saying I'd be alright by myself, and they should go without me.
Then I hid in the caves down by the water. Stayed there for days. When
I came out and headed along the beach to the village, I spotted someone
walking towards me across the sand. I wanted to hide, but almost before
I knew it he was beside me."
" 'Good to meet you at last, John,' he said. 'I'm here to welcome you to your future.' "
"I was scared half to death. I'd never seen the man before, but it was
like I'd known him forever. He was very old, but he moved fast, almost
in a blur. He smiled. I wish he'd not smiled. Can't stand people
smiling at me."
" 'There's not much time,' he said. 'Follow me. I'll set you on the right path.' "
" 'What do you mean?' I said. "
" 'You chose to alter your life's course. Stepped off the track, so to
speak. Things have changed, John. Your future lies ahead. Come. Let me
show you.' "
" 'I don't want to. Leave me alone.' "
" 'Ah, but that's the whole point. I can't do that, can I? You've made a shift, and what's done is done.' "
"He glanced past me, over my shoulder, back the way I'd come. Then he
looked quickly down at me, and there was urgency in his eyes."
"'Hurry, John. Or it will be too late.' "
"He grabbed me by the arm and pulled me along. Kept glancing back,
pulling me harder. Finally, I yanked my arm free and turned to run."
" 'Stop, John,' he said. "
"I stopped. That was the last time. I was fifteen. And I've never stopped running since."
Peter stared at Trebert in confusion. "Running? Running from what?"
"He told me that if ever we met it would be the end. If he even saw
me." John Trebert clutched his fists to his chest, tension straining
every muscle. "Believe me, Nalan. Believe him. It's true. You've
stepped over the line, pursuing me. Shifted, like me. It's too late to
go back. Never, ever again."
Trebert rose from his seat, and Peter did the same. The bus was
slowing, preparing to stop. They stepped down together, Trebert in the
lead. Then as the bus pulled away Trebert turned and faced Peter.
"You're on your own now, Nalan. You won't see me again. Just remember.
Never stop. Don't let him see you." He paused. "Twenty minutes. That's
about all you have. Don't waste it."
He made to walk away, but Peter put a hand on his shoulder.
"Trebert. Trebert, how old are you?"
Trebert did not turn. "Two hundred and seventy-nine," he said. Then he strode off and was lost in the darkness.
Peter Nalan stood beside the bus stop sign, staring into the blackness
ahead of him. What did it mean? Never stop, he'd said. And the time.
Twenty minutes. How was that significant? It was...
Peter glanced at his watch. Twelve twenty-nine. He'd been standing here
for fifteen minutes. He peered up at the bus stop sign, with all the
arrival times listed. Twelve fourteen. Twelve thirty-four. One thirty.
Almost an hour. But the next bus was due at twelve thirty-four. That
was twenty minutes.
A distant roar announced the approach of a vehicle. The autobus would
be exactly on time. Its lighted interior was bright against the feeble
glow of the streetlights. He could see inside clearly as it came
nearer. Two passengers. No, just one. Wearing a light green jacket.
Closer now. He could almost see the face. The bus was slowing to a
stop. For an instant, terror seized Peter Nalan as he stood frozen to
the spot. Then he turned and ran off into the darkness, dashing ‘round
the corner of the first building he came to. He kept running.
Peter Nalan stepped off the bus. He hadn't had any luck finding John
Trebert. Maybe if he waited for the next bus, he'd get back in phase
with the man's movements. As he turned to walk to the next stop, he
thought he caught a glimpse of someone disappearing ‘round a corner
just ahead of him. But in the weak light of the streetlights, he
couldn't be sure. Probably nothing.
© 2017 Roderick D. Turner
Bio: " I like writing stories, and get really fired
up when I enjoy what I have written. That's the best part of writing -
you are, after all, most often your only audience. What's really
inspiring is when you start writing about a character and they take
over, almost literally writing the story themselves. Then you read it
through and the characters and events surprise even you. Several of my
stories have appeared in Aphelion, most recently Smoke
in April 2017.
For more of my material, both prose and other media, visit
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