Aphelion Issue 245, Volume 23
November 2019
 
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Crossroads

by George Schaade




The sparse, sun-baked desert was peppered with bush grass and cactus that stretched all the way to the horizon. The air was stifling from the dry heat waves that rippled up from the ground. The small creatures of the landscape sat still and isolated in the few shadows they could find or else the rays from the unwavering sun would torment them. Nothing dared move except when a light breeze kicked up some sand and sent tumbleweed rolling away in the wind.

Shading his eyes from the sun and squinting to see beyond the heat distorted air, Jim could just make out a solitary building in the distance. As he got closer he could see that it was a shabby, wood structure grayed by time and the relentless desert sun. It sat on the corner of an intersection of two worn, dust-covered roads. A faded sign stretched across the top of the porch and simply read, Crossroads Cafe.

The boards of the porch creaked when Jim stepped on to them and this gave him pause. He looked around but all he saw was a dented, unmarked van sitting to the side of the building. This led him to believe that someone might be inside, so he opened the squeaking screen door and stepped in. The place was set up like an old cafe. To one side was a long counter with stools while the opposite wall was lined with booths. Between them were a few tables and chairs.

A rugged, heavily tanned man in a brown khaki uniform sat in the farthest booth. He never looked up from his plate of food when Jim entered or when the young waitress walked in from the kitchen.

“Gadzooks!” she cried. “You gave me a start. I didn’t hear you come in.” She went behind the counter and pointed to a stool. “Sit yourself down right there. I’ll get you a glass of water. That’s what most people want first.”

Cautiously Jim moved to the counter and took a seat, but he didn’t hesitate to drink the entire glass of water. The liquid cooled his body and refreshed his spirit. When he finished he slowly looked around the cafe and finally focused his gaze on the girl across from him. She was a small, slip of a girl with shoulder-length blond hair, a tiny, pixie nose, and large, sparkling, green eyes. But it was her beautiful smile that touched his heart and caused a returning smile.

“What can I get for you?” the waitress asked.

“I don’t know. I don’t even know where I am.”

“Well, this is the Crossroads Cafe,” explained the girl, “and we can serve up most anything that you want.”

Jim scratched his head and said, “I guess what I really meant was that I don’t know how I got here. One minute I’m running through a thunderstorm and the next I’m standing in a desert.”

“Oh, you poor thing,” the girl said. “I bet you’re all mixed up and confused. I’ll explain it all to you. First off you’re what’s known as a storm drifter. We don’t get many of them here anymore but don’t you worry, everything’ll be just fine. What’s your name?”

“I’m Jim Boykin. I don’t understand. What could…”

Before Jim could finish his thought, the waitress reached across the counter and shook his hand. “I’m Patchy,” she said. “My real name is Patricia but everyone calls me Patchy.” Jim started to speak again but the girl began yelling into the kitchen, “Hey, Dad, come out here a sec.”

A short, broad man with a full gray beard and bald head emerged from the back. His sweaty face was spotted with smudges and he wiped his hands on a dirty towel. “What is it, Patchy? I’m right in the middle of cleaning the grease trap.”

“This here’s Jim,” she said. “He’s a storm drifter.”

The older man raised his eyebrows and eyed Jim. “Oh, we haven’t had one of those in a long time. It’s a pleasure to meet ya, son. I’m Elmer T. Fogg. Excuse me if I don’t shake hands right now… grease, you know. I guess you’ve already met Patchy.”

“Pleasure to meet you, sir,” said Jim.

“As I’m sure you’ve guessed, I do the cookin’ around here and Patchy takes care of the customers… uh, when we have any.”

“Gadzooks, Dad! We’re doing just fine. Besides Jim’s got his own problems and shouldn’t you be cleaning that trap?”

Elmer got the hint, said his goodbyes, and went back to the kitchen.

“Sorry about that,” said an embarrassed Patchy. “Dad’s been kind of preoccupied with the café ever since Mom passed and business fell off. But let’s get back to you. When are you from?”

“Miami, Florida,” said Jim.

“No, not ‘Where’, but ‘When’. When was that thunderstorm?”

“Today,” said Jim. He got a blank stare from Patchy so he added, “December 3, 1947.”

Patchy turned to the shelf behind her and began to fiddle with the dials on a radio. There were squeals, squawks, and static as she searched for the right station. Finally she found what she was looking for.

“A severe time storm warning is in effect for the northwestern portion of Miami-Dade County. Torrential rainfall is occurring with this storm, and may lead to flash flooding. You can expect wind gusts up to sixty miles per hour and quarter size hail. There may be sporadic time skips resulting in temporary departures for as long as two hours. For protection against the storm move to an interior…”

Patchy clicked off the radio and turned back to Jim. “Well, there you go. You should be back home in a couple of hours.”

“I’m sorry, Patchy. I still don’t understand what’s going on.”

She reached across the bar and again took Jim’s hand. Giving him a consoling look she said, “You poor dear, I imagine you’re very mixed up right now but I’ll explain it all to you. You see, Crossroads is a special place where…”

“Patchy!” Elmer yelled from the kitchen. “It’s almost time for Bobby.”

With a great deal of disappointment Patchy sighed and reluctantly released Jim’s hand. “Gadzooks,” she whispered to herself. Then she dropped behind the counter and quickly reappeared with a whiskey bottle and a glass. She filled the glass half full of whiskey then pulled a glass of water from under the counter.

“Bobby’s kind of a special customer,” Patchy explained. “You want to help? Carry the water and follow me outside.”

Patchy led Jim through the cafe’s screen door and out to the edge of the road. For a while they just stood there silently. She held the whiskey and he the water. Jim assumed that someone was going to drive up so he began looking up and down the road. A minute passed and finally Jim could see a small dust cloud in the distance. As the cloud got larger he could make out a figure on a motorcycle that eventually pulled up next to the two of them. The bike was a vintage Indian Scout with a sidecar. The old man in the driver’s seat was wearing a leather aviator helmet with goggles.

Patchy yelled above the loud putt-putt of the idling motorcycle, “Hey, Bobby. This here’s Jim. He’s a storm drifter.”

Bobby moved his goggles to his forehead and removed a glove to shake Jim’s hand. Taking the whiskey from Patchy, he downed it in one gulp. His eyes brightened and he shook his head.

“Thanks, Patchy. I really needed that.” Then to Jim he asked, “Is that water for me?”

Jim handed him the glass of water and at the same time realized that there was a large sea turtle strapped into the sidecar. Bobby threw the water in the turtle’s face. Jim stared mostly because he was surprised to see a turtle in a sidecar but also because it wasn’t a normal looking turtle. It had a pig-like snout.

Arvinachelys goldeni,” said Bobby. “It became extinct 76 million years ago during the Cretaceous Period.”

“But Bobby’s changing that,” added Patchy. “He’s transplanting them to Utah.”

“That’s right,” the old man said. “I’m going to save the species one by one. I better get going. There’s a lot to do. Nice to meet you, young man. See you on the way back, Patchy.”

Bobby pulled down his goggles and revved up the bike. With surprising speed Bobby and the turtle quickly became a cloud of dust heading toward the horizon.

Turning back to the cafe Jim held the door for Patchy. “That was very weird. You’re going to have to explain it to me, aren’t you? Actually I’ve got a ton of questions.”

Patchy gave him another inviting smile. “I’ll answer all of your questions, Jim. Take a chair at one of the tables and I’ll get you an iced tea.”

Returning with the tea Patchy sat with Jim and began to explain. “Okay, first of all…”

The screen door swung open and shut with a bang. A middle-aged couple dressed all in red walked in and eyed the cafe carefully. When they spotted Patchy in her waitress uniform, they moved toward her with big smiles.

“Can we sit anywhere or should we wait to be seated?” asked the man.

Patchy looked at the couple for a moment then turned to Jim and silently mouthed the word, “Gadzooks.”

Seating them at a nearby table, Patchy fetched some water and took their orders which she took to her father in the kitchen.

The man leaned toward Jim and said, “We’re on our way back from Coahuila. It was a pilgrimage to see the spaceship and the temple.” He paused to see if there was any reaction from Jim. “We’re Michaelites. Are you familiar with the Book of Michael?”

“Sam, leave the boy alone,” said the woman. “My goodness, we’re wearing nothing but red, of course, he knows we’re Michaelites.”

“I thought he might want to see the holopics of the spaceship,” responded Sam.

Patchy came out of the kitchen and waved at Jim to follow her through a door at the back of the cafe. Jim excused himself from the pilgrims and made his way to the door and into what appeared to be a storage room.

“Okay, let me explain this before we get interrupted again,” started Patchy. “Crossroads is a place where special travelers pass through to their destinations. And I’m talking about very special people, like time travelers, dimension jumpers, universe migrants, alt-Earth explorers, hyperspace tourists, and wormhole gypsies, not to mention the occasional storm drifter.”

“I don’t know what all of that is,” said Jim, “but it sounds like stuff from pulp magazines.”

“Gadzooks, now you’re getting it. For example, Bobby travels to the distant past, gets those sea turtles, and takes them to a time and place in the future where they won’t go extinct. Crossroads is that place between. It’s a rest stop for those special kinds of travelers.”

“Okay, I think I get it now,” exclaimed Jim, “That’s amazing!” Jim thought for a second and said, “But there aren’t very many people here. Why’s that?”

Patchy lowered her eyes and her shoulders sagged. “Some time back a thruway was created that made travel faster, safer, and more economical. Those special travelers are bypassing us,” she said sadly, “but isn’t it just as important to enjoy your trip? I wish they would take a long look at the beauty of this desert and spend some time sharing a good meal with their family and friends.” She paused. “I’m sorry, Jim. I shouldn’t be burdening you with these things. You’re a drifter and will be gone in an hour or so.”

Maybe it was the shock of suddenly appearing in this place or the realization that traveling through time and space was real but Jim would always think it was that infectious smile from the pretty blonde waitress. He pulled Patchy close and held her tight. “It’s okay. Being here and meeting you is the best thing that’s ever happened to me. Even if it’s just for…”

A crash from inside the cafe broke the moment. As Jim and Patchy left the storage room, they were surprised to find a dozen ten-year-old children running around the cafe. The kids were knocking over chairs, spinning on the stools, and darting behind the counter. Just at that crazy moment the pay phone on the wall began ringing.

“Should I get that?” asked Jim.

“No,” said Patchy. “Conway’ll get it.”

“Who’s Conway?”

She pointed at the rugged guy in the khaki uniform who despite the chaos casually rose from his booth and answered the phone.

“Who is that guy?” Jim asked.

“He’s a repairman. He fixes time machines, dimension splitters, and hyperspace conduits; that sort of thing. He’s also great with toasters.” Patchy pointed. “I’m going to get those kids behind the counter. You see if you can find who’s in charge of these kids.”

Jim was heading toward the Michaelites when a small boy grabbed his hand and started talking faster than Jim could follow.

“Is this a food vending place? I’ve never been to one of them. My mom uses a food machine to make me muffins. I like muffins. Do you like muffins? My teacher is Ms. Cray. She says I should eat more vegetables but I don’t like them but I do like Ms. Cray. She took us on a field trip. You know where we went? We went to the Museum of Reticulation. It was fun. I bet you don’t know what reticulation is. It’s a pattern or arrangement of interlacing lines resembling a net but it’s more than just a net. It’s a way of thinking. Most people think in a straight line but some people think in a network, like a spider web. I don’t like spiders. Tesla and Hawking reticulated. Did you know that? I think I reticulate… Hey, where you going, mister?”

When Jim got to the pilgrim’s table he found a second woman sitting there. This woman had a prune-like face that gave her a perpetual frown and a disapproving aura. Her gray hair was bound up in a bun and her nose was too large for her face. Jim assumed this was the children’s teacher.

“Ms. Cray? We need to do something about the kids. They’re running wild.”

“Of course, they are,” sputtered the woman. “They’re ten-year-old children. Running wild is what they do and we wouldn’t want to impede their social development, would we.”

“What can we do?”

“There are two possible solutions,” said Ms. Cray. “One would require the administration of high doses of powerful drugs and the other is bribery.”

Jim thought for a moment then asked, “Are there any children with food allergies?”

“Of course not,” screeched Ms. Cray. “Those things were removed from human genes ages ago.”

Jim found the fast talking kid that had bothered him before and lead him to the counter where Patchy had just removed the last stray child.

“Give this boy an ice cream cone,” said Jim. The youngster’s eyes lit up and he quit talking. Then to the boy Jim said, “If you stay on that stool until it’s time to go I’ll give you another ice cream to eat on the way home.” The boy nodded sharply. When the other children saw the ice cream, they flocked to Jim who signed them up for the same bargain as the first. Bribery did work.

Elmer walked out of the kitchen holding a boy at arm’s length like he was radioactive. He almost dropped the boy when he saw all of the other children. “What the heck is going on? I caught this boy trying to crawl into one of my ovens and now they’re all over my cafe.”

“Unhand that child, you bounder!” cried Ms. Cray. Elmer gently put the boy down who promptly ran off to get his ice cream.

“Children cannot be manhandled like that, sir,” continued Ms. Cray who pulled a hankie from her pocket and wiped a smudge from Elmer’s cheek. “You can guide them, direct them, coax them, persuade them, but you can’t force them. They must have freedom.”

“You can’t have true freedom without discipline,” mumbled Elmer, his eyes fixed on the strange woman.

Ms. Cray was obviously stunned by Elmer’s response. She tilted her head to one side and gave him a second, more detailed, look. She found herself instantly drawn to this odd man with an obvious insight into the educational domain. He could also benefit greatly with a good, soaking bath.

“Yes, but… but…” she struggled to reply. “What’s your name?”

“Elmer T. Fogg, ma’am. My daughter and I run this establishment.” Elmer then noticed that Jim and Patchy were staring at him and Ms. Cray. “Are these your children?”

The teacher smiled which seemed to be an unfamiliar expression for her. “Oh, dear, no,” Ms. Cray giggled. “I’m a widow lady. These are my students. I instruct them in all manner of aesthetics.”

“Uh, do you know anything about cooking?”

“The culinary arts? Why it’s my second profession, Mr. Fogg.”

Nervously Elmer said, “Perhaps you’d like a little tour of my kitchen.”

Ms. Cray took Elmer by the arm. “I’d love to see it,” bubbled the teacher. As they headed off to the kitchen, Jim and Patchy were left staring in disbelief.

“What just happened?” asked Patchy.

“I think it might be love at first sight,” said Jim.

Patchy gave Jim a smile and jokingly said, “Imagine that.”

As they laughed the screen door opened and two silver-suited astronauts came in. They looked around and then headed for one of the booths. They were soon followed by an Australian Aborigine with what appeared to be a clockwork arm. Then came twins dressed in Victorian high fashion, then a robot, and finally a time lord with a companion. They all sat and began to study the cafe’s menus.

“Gadzooks,” said Patchy. “What’s going on?”

“I can tell you,” said Conway who had walked up behind them. “That phone call I got was from MUCUS.”

“Mucus?”

“The Ministry of Universal Conveyance and Ubiquitous Shipping. They’re the agency in charge of the movements of entities and merchandise though space and time. They’re calling in all repairmen like me to help with the catastrophe that recently happened. It seems the usual expressways have been closed and everyone is being detoured through Crossroads.”

“Gadzooks!” said Patchy. “What happened?”

“It started with a time storm that somehow flooded the time tunnel. This shorted the temporal conduit which resulted in the release of a quasar that destroyed the primal wormhole. Without the primal wormhole all the singularities swallowed the dimensional bridge and put a huge hole in the hyperspace pipe. It’s all a big mess.”

“You said it started with a time storm,” said Jim. “That’s how I got here.”

“Well, the way things are,” Conway said, “you’re here to stay.”

Patchy smiled at Jim and said, “That’s a good thing for several reasons. With all of these customers I’m going to need you to help take orders.”

“And I bet Ms. Cray wouldn’t mind helping your father in the kitchen.”

“Conway, how long will it take to fix all of the thruways?”

“Oh, I’d say that this is going to take at least half of eternity.”

Jim and Patchy looked at each other and simultaneously said, “Gadzooks!”



THE END


© 2019 George Schaade

Bio: George Schaade is a former teacher that has been writing science fiction, fantasy, and humor most of his life. He loves exploring the quirks of human nature and pushing the boundaries of his own imagination.

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