Aphelion Issue 252, Volume 24
July 2020
 
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The Shaking

by J. E. Deegan




Lauren Taylor filled Anthony Oldham’s cup with another dose of coffee, splashing a bit into the saucer. Lauren wasn’t the most polished waitress in Jade’s Eatery, but she was considered the most cordial. Always chatting, always smiling, always chomping away on half a pack of Spearmint gum. Co-workers Jackie Hoge and Victoria Falco, though quite sweet, took their duties more staidly, but the fact was that none of Jade’s regulars gave a hoot about how quick or slow the service was. Time in Doanville advanced neither quickly nor slowly, and folks didn’t give much thought to it. At Jade’s Eatery, the pleasure of cheerily engaging in neighborly conversation over a bite of breakfast invariably superseded service and the time it took to get it.

Doanville was a laidback-type hamlet so small that it had no intersections and no stoplights. The entire town consisted of but five small, tidy, white buildings joined in a strip on one side of the town’s sole street, which was hidden beneath a thin blanket of snow. It was said that Doanville was named after a woman named Hanna Doan, who supposedly had done something noble in the town’s past. No one, however, could precisely remember what that noble act was, and no one cared. To its citizens, Doanville seemed a fair enough name for their quaint little town.

The first building in the strip was the Sheriff’s office, which also housed the Town Clerk and a small library. Next in line was Leonard Wasiliewski’s hardware store, which Leonard liked to call his Fix-Em-Up shop. Jade’s Eatery was the middle building, followed by Wilkinson’s Drug Store. Burnett’s Bakery was the last in the strip. None of the structures sported signs – no need in such a small town – but Ryan Burnett often said that if he had one for his bakery, it would read Fresh As Every Sunrise.

“Got a hole in ‘ya, Anthony?” Lauren Taylor quipped. “Or you plannin’ to make caffeine your high today?”

Anthony Oldham nodded spiritedly. “Just like every day since the you-know-what, Pumpkin.”

Lauren smiled and chomped away on her Spearmint. “And you’re gonna keep it that way, aren’t cha.”

“You bet he is,” inserted Ivan Davis, who gently shook his cousin’s forearm.

Anthony gave a sharp, confident snap of his head. He was quick to boast about overcoming his preference for more serious types of addiction after totaling his Chevy Silverado on an abutment of the Havens Creek Bridge. Anthony smiled his broad, toothy smile at Lauren. “No doubt about it, Pumpkin.”

No one but Anthony called Lauren Pumpkin, and as far as she knew she was the only girl in town so labeled by him. At times she considered asking him why she had been so chosen, but always thought better of it. After all, pumpkins were sort of plump, and since she could stand to drop a few pounds, she invariably decided to avoid that possible insinuation in whatever Anthony might reply.

As always, Aiden Rogers occupied the table that faced the Eatery’s sole window. A coffee cup sat in front of him, filled with the wrinkled dollar bill he had stuffed in when Victoria Hoge had placed the empty cup on the table. He stared intently through the window and mumbled in a throaty sort of wheeze, his hands moving this way and that. He was never a bother, thus no one paid him any mind.


*****



The shaking was sudden and brief. Crockery and cutlery rattled like castanets on the tables and the hang-down lights swayed crazily from the ceiling like faulty pendulums. It ended in mere seconds.

In the immediate wake of this unprecedented happening, the patrons and employees of Jade’s Eatery sat or stood frozen, appearing as so many round-eyed, slack-jawed mannequins. More than a few moments slipped by before the entire gathering let out a synchronous gasp and looked awkwardly around.

The first to speak was Erick Mejorado, Doanville’s self-proclaimed handyman. “Wh… what the devil was that?” he stammered while staring at the puddle of oatmeal in his lap.

Becca Lussier, the town’s loquacious Librarian, quickly spat out follow-up questions in her loud, squeaky voice. “Was it an explosion? Did something outside blow up?”

“Don’t think so,” said Jarrett Dapretta, staring bug-eyed from the cup in his hand to the pond of coffee covering his over-easy eggs and sausage. “There wasn’t any sound.” Jarrett was Doanville’s Sheriff, a man who repeatedly but affably bragged that he had the cushiest job in town. No one could remember the last arrest made or ticket handed out in Doanville.

“Could have been an earthquake… or at least a tremor,” offered drug-store owner Ben Wilkinson, a thin fidgety man with dark scarecrow hair and horn-rimmed glasses that covered half his face.

Town Clerk Mark Madewell held a squeeze bottle of ketchup over the table and stared dumbfounded at his left arm. The shaking had occurred in the midst of a squeeze and the ketchup had ended up on his sleeve rather than on the four strips of bacon that were his intended target. “That wasn’t long enough to be an earthquake, was it?” he asked in a near-gasp.

In the corner by the window, Aiden Rogers picked himself up from the floor and gingerly rubbed the lump that was blooming on the back of his head. He righted his overturned chair and again sat facing the window.

Jade Hopson, the Eatery’s owner and chief cook, popped from the kitchen, vigorously wiping her hands on a badly soiled apron. Close on her heels came assistant cook Sam Couvillion, holding his spatula like a weapon. “What the devil was that?” Jade shouted.

“That question’s already been asked.” Jackie Hoge shrugged her narrow shoulders. “Don’t know seems to be the answer.”

“There’s something you don’t see every day.” Those words were spoken calmly, evenly, and loudly enough to draw everyone’s attention. It wasn’t what was said that pulled every head in the Eatery to the table in a corner; rather it was who had spoken. Aiden Rogers hadn’t uttered a decipherable word for as long as anyone could remember. It was widely held that at one time or another he had tripped and cracked his head on the sidewalk in front of the Sheriff’s office. But no one could express absolute certainty about that.

Amidst a small chorus of incredulous mutterings, Jade’s patrons sprang from their chairs and roughly pushed them backward, creating a near unified rasping scrape across the seriously yellowing linoleum floor.

Jade Hopson stiffened abruptly and stared wide-eyed at the barricade of backs that suddenly filled the Eatery’s window. Eyes agog, faces pinched with bewildered surprise, everyone looked toward Aiden Rogers, who continued to stare out the window.

Lillian Turner stepped from the crowd and approached Aiden. A Licensed Practical Nurse, everyone nonetheless called her Doc Lilly, for it was said that she could treat minor injuries and infirmities quite proficiently. She placed a slightly trembling hand on Aiden’s shoulder. He winced while again rubbing the back of his head.

Doc Lilly stared narrow-eyed at him and whispered, “Aiden… you hit your head when you fell. And you spoke. You said something.”

Aiden turned to her, his face wrinkled with the look of a man who had just been asked a profoundly absurd question. He looked past her to the befuddled crowd. “Glad to see the rest of you folks aren’t deaf either.” He looked again through the window and jabbed a finger toward the open field beyond the street.

All heads wheeled toward the window.

“Merciful Heavens,” whispered a voice.

“Would you look at that,” breathed another.

“Look at what?” Jade Hopson elbowed her way between Jarrett Dapretta and Victoria Falco. “Well, glory be!” she exclaimed in a rush of breath.

The patina of snow covering the street and the field beyond was swirling upward from the ground in small spiraling clumps that spread in all directions as it rose. It was as though gravity had somehow reversed itself. Yet at a certain point, the strange uplift stopped and the twirling flakes hung in the air to form a creamy veil glistening with countless sparks of deep silver that blinked on and off like a Christmas tree.

Every mouth save Aiden Rogers’ gave up a loud, hissing gasp.

“What in the world is happening?” Ivan Davis asked of no one.

Aiden’s response was for everyone. “What is pretty obvious. Why isn’t.”

“Does this have something to do with that awful shaking we just experienced?” asked Anna Scoggins, the town’s seamstress.

Aiden found Anna in the crowd. “Yes,” he said firmly, “which means that something beyond our little world is at play here.”

Anthony Oldham issued a gruff chuckle that didn’t quite cover the uneasiness chewing at his nerves. “That make sense to any of you?” His head swiveled side to side. “For crying out loud…it’s snow! Big deal! And what’s with this beyond-our–little-world crap?” He chuckled again. “If you didn’t believe Aiden was a bit addled before he cracked his head this morning, how about now?”

Jarrett Dapretta threw an annoyed look at Oldham. “Back off, Anthony. That kind of talk won’t get us anywhere.”

Anthony’s eyes creased to angry slits. “Don’t stand there lecturing me, Jarrett! You saying you’re putting stock in the ramblings of an old fool who’s been off his rocker for… for God knows how long?”

Dapretta turned away without responding.

All heads shifted again toward Aiden, who continued to stare out the window. Had a snapshot then been taken of the crowd in the Eatery, it would have revealed a score of faces reflecting expressions that ranged from fear to confusion to incredulity to stupefied indifference. On some faces, however, emotion regularly shifted like the patterns in a kaleidoscope.

“You know something the rest of us don’t, Aiden?” asked Jackie Hoge, her expression morphing into crusty suspicion. “If so, how about sharing it?”

Aiden showed a pained grin while rubbing the billowing knot at the base of his skull. “Okay…if you insist,” he said, looking Jackie squarely in the eyes. “We’re trapped here…you, me, the whole lot of us.” He swung his hand in a wide circle. “Trapped in a tiny world that extends no further than the confines of this room.”

There was some laughter at that, but it was weak and troubled.

“Trapped? Trapped by what exactly?” Ryan Burnette asked curtly.

Aiden shook his head. “That part didn’t come to me.”

“Didn’t come to you?” Burnette said, almost laughing. “Anthony’s right, Aiden. You are mad! You expect us to believe that someone or some thing conjured up Jade’s place then just plopped us in it?”

“I’m telling you what I believe,” said Aiden stoically. “You believe what you want.”

Ivan Davis came forward, his arms folded smugly across his chest. “Since you have all the answers, Aiden, tell us how and why this something pulled off this bit of creation magic.”

Aiden shrugged. “That part didn’t come to me either.”

Ivan snickered. “So, this revelation about our tiny isolated world just came to you when your head hit the floor during that… that… whatever it was?”

“Far as I can tell, Ivan.”

Lauren Taylor stepped to the window. She looked at Aiden then to the crowd. “Why are we listening to this insanity?” She slapped the window with an open hand. “Our world is out there… in all of Doanville and everywhere beyond it. We were born and raised out there. Our families, our homes and our jobs are out there.” She looked quickly around. “This… Jade’s Eatery… is simply a place where we gather at times to… to dine and socialize with each other. Isn’t it?”

“Know all that for a fact, do you, Lauren?” Aiden asked.

“Why… why of course I do,” she replied, her voice quivering. “We all do.”

Aiden turned to the window. The veil of shimmering of snow was beginning a slow descent. He wondered if anyone else noticed.

As though on cue, everyone looked out the window.

It took but a minute or two for all but a few straggling flakes to reach the earth. The Eatery was silent save for some nervous breathing. All eyes were glued to the window as if it were a movie screen.

Leonard Wasiliewski said, “Am I seeing things? Or did the snow just fall back down.”

“Yeah, it sure did,” said Victoria Falco, pressing her hands and nose against the window. The question she then asked swung a few heads in her direction. “But snow is supposed to fall, isn’t it?”

Jade Hopson interrupted a wave of troubled chuckles with a stern reply. “Of course it is, Victoria. But it’s not supposed to rise up from the ground then tumble back down like a yo-yo.”

“Probably just some freakish turn of nature,” said Ben Wilkinson without much certitude. “I think we’re back to normal now.”

“Want to explain normal, Ben?” Aiden asked.

“There you go again, Aiden,” shouted Anthony Oldham, “blabbering loony gibberish! Why don’t you try explaining yourself in a language we can understand?” He took a threatening step forward.

Aiden eyed the crowd a few moments then pointed toward the door. “Beyond that door none of us exist. We came into being right here, and here each of us subconsciously invented… concocted… manufactured – use whatever word you like – who and what we are. Everything about us - our names… what we look like... what we talk about… what we know of ourselves and each other – exists only in this room and the space within our skulls. We don’t exist anywhere else because for us there is nowhere else.”

Anthony Oldham took another step toward Aiden. “Hear that, folks? He’s claiming we created ourselves without even knowing about it.”

Aiden waited while the crowd grumbled incoherently, shuffled nervously about, and moved closer together like fish squeezing into a tight, protective ball.

“There’s more,” he said unhurriedly. “Until that strange disturbance knocked everything out of whack, existence for us was nothing more than reliving our actions and conversations of this morning over and over, like a film on a continuous loop.”

Gasps, murmurs, and a few shocked shrieks filled the room as the citizens of Doanville looked at each other, waved their arms, shook their heads and twisted about like a herd of corralled cattle.

Anthony threw his hands in the air and shouted, “You nutcase! The only thing out of whack is you, Aiden!”

“Need proof, Anthony? Okay, let’s start with you. Everyone in this room knows you, right? But what exactly do we know?” Aiden looked at the crowd, at faces creased with bewildered numbness. “Think about this. The image… the perception… we have of Anthony is the same for all of us. It doesn’t vary because it’s the one Anthony created of himself and repeatedly displays to us.”

Jade Hopson pushed between Ben Wilkinson and Jarrett Dapretta and spoke in a remarkably composed manner. “Aiden, how in blazes did you come up with such an utterly ridiculous idea as that? This self-manufacturing business… this loopy-loop silliness… was that your thinking before you cracked your head on my floor?”

Aiden rubbed the back of his head and shrugged. “Before is a total blank, Jade. But what I’ve told you was there when I picked myself up, and it’s there now.”

He turned again to Anthony Oldham, who was showing clenched teeth, and said in a clear, steady voice, “Tell us about your accident at Haven’s bridge.”

Anthony’s mouth loosened, but Aiden raised a palm-out hand at him. His other hand continued to rub at the swelling on the back of his head. “Not the accident itself… not how it made a better man of you. We know that part. Tell us what you haven’t said…where you were going that day… how you got back to town... where your Silverado is now. Go ahead, Anthony. The floor is yours.”

Anthony’s jaw dropped and stayed dropped. His eyes began a rapid side-to-side dance as though in search of something that wasn’t there. “I… I can’t think straight right now. You’re messing with my mind.”

Becca Lussier broke in. “He’s right, Aiden. This nonsense of yours is confusing us.”

“Okay, Becca,” Aiden said quietly. “Your turn. You’re the town Librarian, right?”

Becca nodded dumbly.

“How long have you been at that job?”

“Why for years. I’ve… well, I’m not exactly sure, but for quite some time.”

“You’re not sure, Becca, because before now all you’ve ever thought about and told us about is what you do, not how long you’ve been doing it.”

Becca Lussier’s face turned pale with shock. She had no reply.

The crowd issued a communal gasp.

Jarrett Dapretta spoke out next, his hands raised like a pacifying messiah. “Calm down everyone. Just calm down! Nothing will be gained by letting your minds run wild.” He turned sharply to Aiden and mustered up his most authoritative voice. “Aiden, I don’t know what’s gotten into you, but you sound like a blithering idiot.”

“That so, Jarrett? How about telling us what you did before you became Sheriff?”

For a moment Dapretta’s lips flapped silently together. “What kind of fool question is that?” he finally said.

“That one too tough for you? Try these then. What does your office look like? What color are the walls? The carpet? Have any pictures in there?”

His eyes wide and vacant, Dapretta looked around for help. His plea was met with blank stares. He shuddered a second then gathered himself. “Hold on!” he yelled. “I remember now. You had my mind going blank for a time with your crazy questions, but it’s clear now. The walls are beige, and the one behind my desk holds a painting of a three-masted sailing ship bucking a rough sea. There is no carpet; the floors are wood... a dark, smoked-oak color, if I recall.”

“That just come to mind, Sheriff?” asked Aiden quietly.

Dapretta looked imploring around the room. “Ain’t that right, folks? You’ve all been there one time or another.”

Heads snapped to and fro. Eyes narrowed, widened then narrowed again. Mouths opened and closed. Bakery owner Ryan Burnett spoke up. “Sure, I’ve been there.” He paused then added, “Not sure I remember why though.”

Aiden laughed roughly. “Oh, you’ll think of something, Ryan.”

Everyone stared bug-eyed at Ryan while his face turned a blotchy pink. “But it’s just like the Sheriff said, isn’t it?” He hurried though these last words as though trying to escape them.

Suddenly a mixture of whispers and shouts rose up and mingled into a waft of muddled words, among which could be heard: “Yeah, that’s right!”… “Of course it is!” … “I’ve been there, too.”

Ivan Davis elbowed his way to the front of the crowd. “Aiden,” he said, his voice quivering. “Are you saying that the Sheriff just made all that up?”

“That’s what I’m saying, Ivan. Just like each of us has done. The thing is, before now we didn’t realize that’s what we were doing.”

“That’s insane!” Ivan shouted. “You can’t possibly believe that.”

“I do. But since you don’t, open the door and step outside. Let’s see what happens.”

Ivan looked curiously at Aiden. “And you know what’s going to happen?”

“Not for sure. Not until you go outside. Then we’ll all know. Except you, maybe.”

The mumblings this time were in earnest, threaded around and within uncertain laughter and a few ribald phrases not normally heard in Jade’s Eatery.

“Go ahead, Ivan,” said a voice from the crowd.

“Yeah,” said another. “There’s nothing to be afraid of.”

Yet another added, “Show him, Ivan. Nothing will happen.”

Silence then draped the room like a cloak.

Ivan rubbed his hands on his thighs, pursed his lips and gave a vigorous nod. He stepped to the door and slowly reached for the knob.


*****



The shaking began again…more violent this time.

The room twisted and turned like a rogue wave on a roiling sea. People grabbed wildly at those around them for support but succeeded only in wrestling each other to the floor. Overturned tables and chairs became whirling missiles that careened crazily about before smashing into each other and into the helpless bodies on the floor.

Aiden grabbed the edge of his table and futilely tried to hold his ground. The table tore from his hands and he was thrown backward. As he fell, he saw that the covering of snow that had settled to the ground was again swirling crazily upward. His head then collided with the floor and the world went blank.

As before, the shaking ended in mere seconds. Everyone rose dizzily to their feet and gazed empty-eyed about the room. In the corner by the window, Aiden Rogers struggled from the floor and righted his overturned table. He placed his chair behind it and briefly rubbed the back of his head before sitting down. He then stared intently out the window and began mumbling in a throaty sort of wheeze, his hands moving this way and that.


*****



“Darcy Alina Gergen! Come down here this instant! You know very well you’re not supposed to be up there!”

Nine-year-old Darcy turned quickly at her mother’s voice rumbling upward from the base of the pull-down stairs that led to the attic. She grimaced, knowing that she and her brother Shawn had been told not to start exploring their new home until her parents had checked every nook and cranny for possible hazards. Her mind swirled in search of an excuse that might reasonably account for her insubordination. Mere moments later her eyes brightened with the thought that she might placate her mother’s anger by showing her what she had found in a dust-covered box deep in a corner of the otherwise empty attic.

Clutching the object to her chest, Darcy began a careful descent of the stairs. “Look what I found, Mom. Isn’t it pretty?” As her feet hit the floor, she turned and with a wide, bright smile extended the object toward her mother, whose sour expression softened somewhat.

“Well, I should say so, Darcy. It is very lovely indeed. But this little treasure you found doesn’t excuse --”

“And watch this!” Darcy hurriedly exclaimed while giving the softball-sized glass globe a vigorous shake.


*****



In Doanville, the shaking began again.



THE END


2020 J. E. Deegan

Bio: My published works to date are: THE MOMENTS IN BETWEEN, a volume of poetry; LIMBOLAND, a collection of SFFH short stories; WHEN I WAS A LITTLE GUY, a collection of children’s stories; and CHRISTMAS POETRY, narrative poems written for my wife. A number of my short stories and poems have been published in anthologies, in print magazines and on internet sites.

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