Aphelion Issue 283, Volume 27
May 2023
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Two of Hearts

by Joel Doonan

            From the perspective of a soaring bird, the land beneath it has no borders or boundaries. It can canvass the terrain above fields and forests, searching for signs of prey or the odor of carrion, following the rising air along ridges and hills, and using the updraft of thermals to gain altitude.

            On this particular day, a lone black vulture circled high above a rocky hilltop above a wiry patch of post-oak, prickly pear and yucca. There was no discernible reason for it to circle around this particular hill, but as birds often do, it followed instincts and intuition as it watched and waited.

            Far below, rays of yellow light began to beam from around tree limbs and under-story brush. The light brightened for a time and then began to fade as a single figure, a young man carrying a briefcase, stepped out from under the tree cover. The man paused briefly at the woodland's edge and looked up, shielding sun from his eyes as he watched the large black bird circle high above. The vulture suddenly shifted its wings and sailed directly east. The man continued downhill toward a dirt road and began walking in the same direction.

             Mid-summer is typically hot and dry across the land northwest of Del Rio, Texas; an area not far from the U.S. / Mexico border. While the region's lower valleys host some of the state's most productive farmland, the higher hills and slopes are usually home to hard-scrabble ranches and rocky wilderness.

            The man continued along the little-used gravel road, accompanied only by the sound of his foot falls, the wind, and the moving shadows cast from tall dry grass that waved along the roadside.

            A two-story ranch house sat back from the road, one with ship-lap siding and corrugated roofing. It had been built long ago and was ornamented with hand-cut gingerbread trim at the eaves and roof peak, typical of German immigrant craftsmanship.

            Nearly every part of the old home needed repair or painting, from the rusty tin on the roof to the weathered posts that lined the broad front porch. A grand old barn stood nearby, with traces of the original red-iron paint. The barn's huge sagging doors, bolted to worn iron hinges, strained to support their weight.

            A mailbox beside the road sat atop a loose post that leaned to the side and teetered with the breeze, and beside it stood a hand-lettered sign on a wood stake: “Help Needed. Room & Board Available. Inquire Within.”

            The young man paused by the mailbox, eyed the house. He stared at the “Help Needed” sign for a short while, then pulled it from the dirt, grabbed it by the stake and proceeded up the narrow walkway to the front porch. At the front screen door, he held the sign up in front of him, knocked and waited.

            A heavy oak door behind the screen slowly creaked open. A tall, thin, old woman stood in the shadows and they looked at each other through the screen for a few moments.

            “You here for work?” she asked.

            Her hands were white and dusty with bread flour and her long kitchen apron was stained from berry jams and fruit pies.

            “Yes,” he replied. “Here for work.”

            “You also need a place to stay?”

            “Yes, I need a place.”

            He lowered the sign and leaned it against a porch post as she held the screen door open.

            “You look like a decent young man. Right now, you can help clean up.”

            He followed her into a large kitchen that smelled of fresh bread and cooling pies. There were tin trays of oatmeal cookies on a hardwood counter and she pointed toward a large scrub-sink full of pans and utensils. With his arms up to the elbows in dishwater and a towel over his shoulder, they became better acquainted.

            It had been decades ago when her son left for the Afghan war. He was a member of the National Guard, and even with the ever-present danger and unpredictable events of any wartime effort, everything went well enough until his third and final tour. He never made it home, and barely two months later, her husband also passed away.

            “My husband, Benny, died of a broken heart,” she said, “but that's not what was on the certificate. I've been doing my best to hang on to this ranch ever since. It's been hard.” She glanced toward the young man as he rinsed mixing bowls. She spoke to him frankly.

            “You look like a Spanish fellow,” she said, “You come here from across the border? I need to know, and I'm alright with it, if you are.”

            “Yes, you could say that I'm from across a border,” he replied, “I'm what you might refer to as a travel agent, or more accurately, an agent that travels. You can call me Josephus-Arenas.”

            “I'll just call you Joe,” she said, “and if anyone asks, we'll say you're a travel agent, visiting from across the border.” She tipped a fresh loaf from a baking tin onto a folded towel. “You can call me Mary. Or better yet, Ms. Schneider.”

            She noticed him eyeing a pie that was cooling next to a window nearby.

            “All this is for a fundraiser at Twin River Methodist. You can have a cookie or two for now. We'll have a proper supper this evening like normal folks. We do have rules around here. We get up early. We work hard. We eat well.”

            Mary glanced at a calendar that hung from the side of her fridge. “Keep forgetting to change this thing,” she said, flipping over to a new page.

            The month was August, the year, 2038. It was Friday, and the bake sale was scheduled for the following morning.

            With the kitchen clean and tidy and the baked goods cooling, ranch chores were next. As instructed, Joe went to work with an old flat head shovel to clean out the chicken coop. He spread fresh straw in the nest boxes and refilled feed and water, while Mary tended her several pigs. They worked together to straighten and tighten a fence that nearly circled the barn, and packed stones tightly around the base of loose posts.

            “Had to sell most of the cattle earlier this year,” she explained as they worked, “I had a feeling that it was going to be another dry summer. Turned out to be correct. Sold them while they still had some weight and before feed became too expensive.”

            The sun began to skirt the western horizon, sending long bluish shadows from distant hilltops and giving color to a near cloudless sky. It was time to put away the tools and clean up for dinner.

            Joe was given an upstairs bedroom, one with a slanted ceiling and a small window that looked out toward the front road. A handmade quilt covered the twin bed and inside a narrow dresser were plenty of men's work clothes. The overalls and plaid shirts were a bit over-sized, but he was free to wear them as he needed. He slipped the briefcase, his only luggage, beneath the bed and with a clean shirt and overalls in hand, proceeded to the bath.


             They sat at opposite ends of a long, dark dining table, one draped with a vintage, hand-embroidered, white lace table cloth. Steam rose from platters of fresh cornbread, red beans and roast chicken. Joe sat straight in the wooden chair that was designed more for posture than for comfort, with his black hair, long on the top and short on the sides, slicked back.

            He noticed a large framed print of Jesus on the wall behind her; a portrait with folded hands and eyes that gazed toward heaven. Mary closed her eyes to pray.

            “Dear lord,” she began as Joe folded his hands like those illustrated in the picture. He turned his eyes toward the ceiling. “Bless this bounty that you have had the grace to bestow upon us. Protect and keep our loved ones from evil, and if it be your will, let the rains fall again to water the grass. And also if it be your will, grace us with enough money to cover this year's taxes. Amen.”

            “Amen,” added Joe.

            “I attend church every Sunday without exception,” she said, passing a platter, “but I will not require you to accompany me. I supposed you're probably a Catholic, anyway.”

            Joe nodded. “Yes. Probably a Catholic.”

             He retired early to his room and sat atop the bed with his only luggage, the single briefcase, in front of him.

            Thumbprint activated security locks were built into both sides, and once unlatched, the case smoothly opened. A yellow light brightened his face; a light coming from a source more ephemeral than from a simple monitor screen. A glow of energy infused the air and he spoke toward the light so softly that he hardly made a sound. The short conversation with an unseen source lasted only a few minutes. He nodded and spoke audibly, “I know that I am here at my own risk, but I must find Aurora.”

            He listened for a while longer to instructions and advice, then closed the briefcase.


             Morning sun was just peeking above the eastern horizon as Mary opened the back door and stood atop the landing to shake out kitchen floor mats. She noticed Joe sitting atop a line of stones that had been gathered and stacked long ago to divert water from the barn's foundation. She heard the call of a hawk and looked up to watch it hover high above him. Joe also watched the bird for a while until it flew west across the back pasture. She turned her attention to shaking the mats as he arrived for breakfast.

            “I say morning prayers,” he explained.

            Mary nodded and re-positioned the mats. He wiped his shoes before stepping inside.

            The kitchen was filled with the aroma of bacon and pancakes, and Joe set plates on a small kitchen table and took a seat as Mary joined him.

            “There was a bird high above you,” she said, pouring coffee.

            “We know them as messengers,” Joe replied, “We share the same spirit. We are all part of nature, and if your mind is right and you learn how to watch the signs, birds can give you direction.”

            She nodded, approving any commitment to a higher power, no matter how unusual.

            “You Catholics are indeed a strange lot,” she added.”

             After the routines of morning chores were complete, they prepared for an excursion to town. Mary pulled an old farm truck close to an elevated bulk tank and Joe filled the gas tank. In the back were cardboard boxes of baked goods and several shopping bags filled with used clothing for donation at the fundraiser.

            “You know how to drive?” she asked as she took the driver's seat.

            “I know how to drive,” he said, pulling his door closed.

            “Got a license?” she asked.

            “I will have one very soon,” he replied.

            She pulled out their driveway and onto the gravel road, and a trail of dust rose behind as they continued east toward the city.

             “All the newer cars and trucks are electric,” she explained as they continued. “That's alright with me, no problem with keeping the air clean, but what I don't care for is the fact that law enforcement can use their radar controllers to disable your vehicle any time they see fit. I don't like being subject to their whims. Sometimes I need to get somewhere in a hurry. I's my own personal business.”

            Mary stopped at an intersection and turned east, following a paved, farm-to-market road.

            “Police refer to old vehicles like this one as rogues, or gas-burners,” she continued, “any car or truck that does not have modern electronic parts and can't be controlled. They don't like it, but for now it's still legal to drive them, particularly in ranch country where folks have agricultural equipment and vehicles that need petrol fuel.

            “Not sure how the laws are where you come from, but new cars on this side of the border don't even have license plates anymore. Everything is recorded electronically and each one can be tracked. We still do, although, need AG exempt plates for farm or ranch use, or any older vehicle we need to put on the road.”


             Twin River Methodist was a fine example of mid-century Gothic architecture, built by skilled masons nearly a century ago, and constructed primarily of limestone and granite. Smooth limestone blocks formed the walls and chiseled granite arches coursed above each tall window.

            The parking lot was bordered by a dense, tall hedge of wax-leaf ligustrums, and broad old oaks provided shade for cars and trucks on this busy Saturday morning.

            Volunteers helped unload boxes of baked goods and hand-crafts while tables were set up along either side of the main walkway. Others were accustomed to Mary having temporary ranch hands, and let Joe know that he was welcome to join their congregation, regardless of his faith.

            Mary's plans in town included more than dropping off goods to support the fundraiser, with a lengthy shopping list of household necessities and groceries. They soon departed and continued farther into town.

            “Need to stop by the bank, first,” she said, “I prefer to pay cash for groceries.”

             Richland Bank's outdoor kiosk system was secure and convenient, and all banking transactions and account access could be conducted using their automated teller system.

            Mary faced the screen and touched a button to begin the facial-recognition security process. She entered a pass-code, and waited as the system scanned and authenticated her identity.

            Joe stood nearby and noticed how the system operated. He also noticed that her ranch account had little more than $785 remaining balance.

            “Looks like they haven't made the deposit yet,” she said as she made a modest cash withdrawal, “From the spring cattle auction. Wonder what's holding things up?”

            “Some things just take time,” Joe reassured.

             That evening Joe helped prepare dinner, and amidst the sizzle and smoke, Mary soon realized that he was an experienced cook. With his handmade flatbread, BBQ beans and novel use of fresh tomatoes, citrus and peppers, they produced a meal with an uncommon, spicy ethnic quality.

            “Like dining across the border,” Mary reminisced as they sat down together at the dining table, “Been to Juarez, a few times, when I was much younger. Used to have fun back then.”

            “I also used to have fun,” Joe added.

            “This has become a fiesta, of sorts,” said Mary, “Something to celebrate.”

            She rose and opened the cabinet door of an old buffet and brought out a dusty bottle of wine; not a fine French import with a cork stopper and a red-wax seal, but one with an aluminum screw-top that had been bottled in El Paso, and left over from a neighboring church's communion supper.

            Mary proposed a toast to the State of Texas. Joe then proposed a toast to the National Guard. They both made a toast to Jesus, then one to St. Valentine, and finally a blanket toast to every nation and province that lay anywhere south of the US border.

            “Soon I'll be needing a vehicle of my own.” said Joe, “There is personal business in town that I need to take care of, and a work associate I need to contact.”

            “Well, there is an old car in the barn,” she said. “Look under the tarp between the hay bales. It was my son's car. It's been sitting for so long it probably won't run, but you are welcome to try and fix it up. Probably take a lot of sweat and effort to get it roadworthy.

            “He tinkered with it for years,” she added, “It was his second love. Second only to a cute young lady named Alice that he met at Rio Diner.”


             Later that night, Joe opened the brief case and held his hand up to the yellow light. “Agent request: State of Texas vehicle operator’s license.”

            “Wait for identification,” returned a soft voice. Joe held his hand steady. “Identity confirmed. Face screen for imaging.”

            He held steady and looked directly into the light. A series of low tones emerged and he reached inside and withdrew a new Texas driver's license.

              At an early morning hour, sunlight found paths between gaps in the barn roofing to brighten the darker recesses where the old vehicle was stored.

            Nearly an inch of dust lay atop the heavy canvass, mixed with pigeon droppings and strands of loose grass from bales of hay. Propped against the sides were ranch tools, shovels, and a rock bar. He moved the tools and glanced up toward a line of pigeons, roosting on a beam directly overhead. He clapped loudly, and with a noisy flurry of wings, the birds exited through the upper loft. He grabbed one end of the tarp and pulled it back.

            It was a 1936 Ford, 3 window coupe. Even after decades of storage, the yellow paint was still bright despite patches of oily dirt that had seeped through the canvass. The tires were flat to the dirt, rubber cracked and crumbling, but the alloy wheels still looked fine. The car's interior had been professionally restored at one point and thanks to proper storage, was still in good shape. He unlatched and opened the hood.

            A Small-block V-8 fit perfectly between the inner fenders, and dual carburetors sat atop a high-rise intake manifold. A polished aluminum air scoop rose neatly through the hood.

            There was something painted on the doors and he knelt down by the driver's side for a closer look. With a cloth he wiped away the dust.

            Hand painted by a skilled artisan was a pair of playing cards, both the same suit and number, and an arched banner that spanned the lower half had the words, “Two of Hearts”.

            He opened the driver's door and slipped into the seat. Holding the steering wheel with one hand, he worked the sifter with the other. The wooden front dash had analog gauges for speed, rpm and oil pressure, and a simple toggle switch and starter button replaced the original ignition.

            Many years ago, Mary's son had built a custom street-rod that after decades of storage, deserved once more to feel the rush of wind and road.

             Late that evening, he once again accessed his briefcase for assistance. “Display vintage Ford automotive design and maintenance.”

            Images began to flash across his face, slow at first, then in rapid succession. Joe closed is eyes as the images continued, preferring to use a process of direct memory transfer.


             By now, he routinely wore plaid shirts and baggy overalls. He looked at home in the old ranch truck as Mary sent him to town for animal feed, and while the ranch supplies could be put on Mary's credit account, he would need to find his own way to pay for car parts and tires.

            He arrived and parked at Richland Bank, and with his briefcase in hand, walked up to the outdoor kiosk.

            From the case he withdrew a palm-sized object, smooth and featureless like black onyx. With the briefcase at his feet, he stood in front of the automated teller's screen and pressed the case against the metal surface directly beneath it, maintaining close contact. He held the palm-sized module up to the screen and spoke softly. “Access banking system. Analyze encryption. Create new account. Josephus-Arenas.”

            The automated teller began to respond as if unseen hands went to work. A touchscreen keyboard appeared, and then with his new driver's license inserted into a slot, his identification was authenticated and displayed as the keys softly flashed in rapid sequence. A web-work of fractal mapping flashed across the driver's license image, creating an electronic fingerprint.

            “Digital identity established,” came a mechanical sounding voice from the automated teller, “New account created. Enter currently available account balance.”

            Joe thought for a moment. He needed adequate funds for the possibility of an extended stay, but not so much as to alert international banking regulations from a sudden appearance of funds. He believed that the trigger threshold was fairly high, and began at first by entering a modest dollar amount; but then with a flush of confidence, added several extra zeros.

            “3.85 million. That should be plenty to get by on for now,” he thought.

            “Available funds credited,” said the automated teller, “Create new pass-code for future transactions.”

            Joe created a new pass-code, and withdrew the cash he needed for auto parts and supplies.

             The billboard above Ramón's Tire & Wheel read: Parts & service for gas-burners. If you need it, we got it! If you want it, we can get it!

            The shop smelled of chassis grease, naphtha, and perfumed hand cleaner. The floor was dark and slick in places from years of dripped oil, dust and foot traffic, and while one customer's pickup sat high on a lift for transmission service, another sat atop jack stands for brakes and tires. The sounds of air-tools mixed with constant background music, and the stiff wind from a large-bladed fan tossed his hair as Joe stepped inside with the Ford coupe's alloy rims.

            Always ready for new experiences, it was not long before he departed with grease on his hands, tire marks on his overalls, and all the supplies he needed from spark plugs and ignition wires, to tires, battery and motor oil.


             It has been said that if you offer a wild hawk the choice between a million in cash or a nice plump mouse, it will choose the mouse every time. The cash will later be used for nesting.

             From a bird's eye view, passing high above the arid ranch-land with its thorny brush, prickly pear cactus and sparse clump-grass, all the efforts and labors of humans are of little concern. One might look down from high above to see the huge doors of the old barn swing open, and then watch as the dusty yellow car was pushed and rolled outside on brand new tires.

            You might also notice the plump field-mice as they scurried between the side of the barn and nearby chicken coop, helping themselves to chicken feed and unaware they were being keenly observed, as just around the corner, the '36 coupe was washed for the first time in over thirty years.

            Over the following days, in his spare time he began bringing the old car's drive-train back into operating condition.

            With the spark plugs removed, he poured a little motor oil into each cylinder. A long-handled socket wrench helped turn the crankshaft, breaking loose the dry bearings and slowly working the pistons to loosen the rings. Camshafts rotated and valves raised and lowered. Gradually, turn by turn, lubricant worked its way back into seals and bearings.

             When the engine fired off for the first time, clouds of smoke poured from the twin tail pipes as it burned off the oil that had lubricated the pistons and rings. It ran rough for a while as Joe stood by the open hood and feathered the fuel with a hand on the carburetor linkage. Then as the engine warmed and began to idle smoothly, smoke and steam rose from hot exhaust headers, burning off decades of dusty residue.

            Smoke was thick inside the barn and he opened the doors for fresh air as Mary stood nearby at a clothesline. She dropped the laundry basket and ran inside. She shook her head. “Thought something was on fire,” she said, turning back to tend the laundry, “My son did the same thing, a long time ago. Brings back memories.”

            The yellow car was soon timed and tuned, and nearly ready for new adventures; but there was one final detail still to be addressed.

             An old Ford Ranchero sat behind the barn next to the chicken coop, with the hood propped open and wheels up on blocks. Chickens had adopted the interior for a comfortable summer roost and feathers covered what was left of the seat.

            With effort applied to several rusty screws, he was able to remove license plates from front and rear.

            The original plates on the '36 Ford were long expired, and while borrowing plates from a different vehicle was not technically legal, these were AG exempt and with no expiration date.


             A police cruiser had just exited the Rio Car Wash's automated tunnel. Officer Cleats used a hand towel to dry the side mirrors while Sgt. Badger sat in the passenger seat with the door open, checking a dash-mounted display for notifications and alerts.

            This was a boring town in which to conduct police work. The citizens were almost always compliant and drivers rarely exceeded speed limits. The little crime that did occur was often no more than teenage mischief or alcohol induced misjudgment.

            Both officers instantly noticed the vintage '36 as it approached and slowly passed, and felt the low rumble that only comes from a gas-burner performance engine.

            Sgt. Badger raised and aimed the hand-held Control Max 2100 radar ranging and surveillance unit and waited for a transponder return. The screen on the unit displayed the message: VEHICLE ANOMOLY. NO RECORD FOUND.

            “Yep, it's a rogue,” commented officer Cleats, “just like I thought. No electronics. We'd better keep an eye on that one.”

             Joe had his own form of surveillance with him, and listened to soft tones coming from the palm sized device as he slowly wove his way along the grid-work of downtown streets, past retail shops and offices for professional services. At one point the scanner began to hum louder and the pitch began to raise. He paused in front of Atom City Tattoo, pulled to the curb and parked.

             A woman with long black hair stood at a workstation. She was cleaning tools and preparing for the next appointment when the doorbell sounded. Glancing up, an expression of shock and surprise flashed across her face as he stepped inside.

            Her long dark hair lay in a thick single braid down her back and a distinctive pair of interlocked hearts was inked across her forearm. She was unmistakable.

            “Aurora,” said Joe as he approached.

            She steadied herself on the workstation's seat back, looked down and took a deep breath.

            “Finally,” she said, “It's been almost two years. Thought I'd never see you, or any of the others again.” She took another breath and looked up.

            “You've been difficult to locate,” Joe said, “Your tracer is barely working. But I was convinced you were still here, somewhere on this side of the border.

            “When you never showed up at the interface, the council decided you had turned rogue, or were perhaps even deceased.”

              Aurora led him to a quiet corner of the shop. She spoke softly.

            “It was a dangerous assignment,” she said, “I was conducting surveillance, recording in an unsecured location. My intrusion was detected and I was detained for several days. There was no way for me to make the rendezvous.

            “There are definite communications between the U.S. Department of State, and an entity from the Parallel – with someone on our side. The State Department has no idea who they are communicating with, or how dangerous it could be. It's a clear violation.

            “When I was detained, as a precaution my briefcase was deactivated and the internal interface, shifted back. Federal agents eventually let me go. No evidence.

            “I had to stay here and earn a living. Hoped someone would try and find me, but after the first year, pretty much gave up. Glad it was you who finally came through.”

            “I never stopped looking,” said Joe, “Couldn't loose you, and never lost faith. It was hard to figure out where you were located – what town or city. Good idea to stay in a smaller, rural community.”

             Aurora stepped back and stared at his baggy overalls and plaid shirt.

            “You've got an interesting new look and style,” she added with a smirk.

            “I'm a farmer now,” he smiled. “This is what all of us farmers wear.”

            She glanced up and out of the shop's front window, squinted through the bright sunlight toward the yellow coupe parked outside by the curb.

            “Somehow, you always seem to find the coolest cars.”

             “We need to leave tomorrow,” said Joe, taking her by the hands, “while we still can. Before things get too risky. You should take care of whatever affairs you need to settle, and say goodbye to any associates. I will stop by and pick you up.”

             That evening back home at Schneider ranch, Joe wrote a letter to Mary, sealed it an envelope and placed it inside his briefcase.

            The following morning after helping with routine chores, he departed once more for town.


             Ramona's Drive-Thru was famous for their quarter pound, chili-cheese three-meat burritos, and officer Cleats and Sgt. Badger were dining royally for lunch, having ordered the “Rambo Triple-X Meal Deal,” served, or course, with fries and a soda.

            Officer Cleats was sporting a new blue necktie – the latest in “skinny tie” fashion.

            “This is what I call 'the thin blue line',” he explained, tucking several paper napkins around and a few more into his front collar.

            Ramona's burritos were notoriously greasy, and the napkins they provided were not the finest in paper products. Their Triple-X Meal Deals had just arrived at the cruiser's windows when the '36 Ford slowly rumbled past.

             “Let's run the plates,” said Cleats, with a burrito in his hand. Sgt Badger aimed the Control Max at the rear license plate just as Cleats bit in. An electronic readout quickly returned.

            “That car is definitely not a '78 Ranchero,” said Badger.

            “Damn this thing!”

            Officer Cleats' three-meat burrito had spurted a stream of chili-fat from its low end. “Quick, more napkins.”

            Unfortunately for the thin blue line, the napkins stuck to the grease, and when he tried to wipe it away, his fingers ripped through.

            The grease had a formidable viscosity, stronger than what the paper could handle, and shreds of napkin joined the chili grease, creating drifting patterns across his clean tan shirt and bright blue tie that could have passed as high art among the better educated.

            “We better Follow this guy,” added Officer Cleats, frowning, looking down at his stained shirt, “He's bound to be up to no good. And now he owes me a new tie.”

            Joe was just barely beyond their line of sight when he approached Twin River Methodist. He sensed that he was being followed, and with a sharp turn into the church parking lot, he was saved. Not so much by church doctrine, but by the tall row of ligustrum hedges that encircled the lot.

            He watched through small gaps in the foliage as the police cruiser speed past, and then drove across and exited through a rear alley.

            Aurora was with a customer when he stepped inside Atom City Tattoo. She looked up and nodded, continuing to ink the final flower on the shoulder of a young woman client.

            “We are all done,” she said, “Finally finished the last rose.” She blotted away excess ink to reveal a unique creation of vines and roses.

             As the client departed, Aurora gave a wave to the business owner. He blew her a kiss and ushered her on.

            “We need to get out of here fast,” said Joe, “Things are getting a little tight. But there is one small issue I must take care of first.”

             At Richland Bank's outdoor kiosk, he accessed his account. He transferred all his remaining financial assets into Mary's ranch account, then once more placed his briefcase directly against the kiosk's metal surface. He held the palm-sized scanner.

            “Delete personal account information of Josephus-Arenas,” he said, “Erase all identification references and transaction records.”

            Aurora stood nearby, leaning against the car and keeping an eye on passing traffic as he began to remove all traces of his actions and identity from the banking system.

            “All records and transactions erased,” soon came a soft voice, “Identity structure dismantled. All hidden account data-threads discovered and removed.”


             By this time, officer Cleats' police cruiser was docked at the Fast-Charge filling station, recently revamped with new high-speed power-ports for electric vehicles, and broad awnings that offered customers a comfortable place to relax or conduct business while their vehicles' power banks were filled.

            “There he is again!” said Cleats as the yellow Ford sped rapidly past. “Now he's definitely breaking the law. We've got to finally get this guy.”

            Cleats slipped into the driver's seat and motioned toward Badger to join him.

            “But we're not charged yet,” said Sgt. Badger.

            “This won't take long,” Cleats replied, “Pull the plug!”

            Badger did as Cleats requested, slipped into the passenger seat and flipped on the chase lights. He held the Control Max 2100 and aimed straight ahead as they pulled into the flow of traffic. Cleats was instantly annoyed by the congestion.

            “Get some of these cars out of our way,” he said.

            Badger took aim at a commercial van.

            “Fiona's Flowers, no time for wedding showers. Bam! There you go to the curb.”

            The van slowed to a stop, automatically turning to the roadside.

            “Next up is Jose's Plumbing. Take a break, the toilet can wait!”

            “You are quiet the poet today,” said Cleats.

            “I love this thing,” said Badger, shutting down several passenger cars at random. “Police business in progress! Everyone to the side of the road!”

             Unable to electronically track or control the yellow Ford Coupe, they had no option but to try and maintain visual contact while weaving through traffic. They maneuvered and struggled to close the distance, but Joe was able to stay well ahead until they came to the edge of town where traffic thinned and speed limits were eased. The cruiser rapidly accelerated.

            Joe could see them coming up fast from behind as they traveled toward the higher hills that lay north of town. He pressed the gas and the coupe responded with a low thunder and immediate traction, coursing up and over a steep rise in the road. For a few moments the police lost visual contact.

            Aurora had been watching the sky from the passenger window; watching a pair of hawks circle high overhead. With her arm out the window and hand open, she could feel the feathers and wind across wings – see the land below through their eyes. The birds suddenly left their circling pattern and proceeded directly west.

            “Take the immediate next exit,” she said, “Turn left at the crossroad.”

            Joe swerved to catch the exit, tires squealing as they turned sharply and dove beneath an overpass. The police cruiser passed swiftly overhead, siren blaring as Joe and Aurora turned west following a smaller, farm-to-market road. He floored the gas pedal.

             There is a distinctive sound; an inrush of air and fuel into wide-open carburetors that comes from the engines of performance vehicles. This is followed a fraction of a moment later by the application of horsepower against concrete or asphalt.

            The new rear tires gave a quick chirp and wind poured through the open windows. The wiry scrub on either side became a blur and the faded yellow stripe ahead of them rose and fell with the contours of the road.

             The police cruiser slowed and stopped. Cleats and Badger realized they had lost track of their target and spun around to retrace their path back to the previous intersection. They noticed the 36 Ford atop a distant rise, and the chase continued.

            The cruiser was designed and built for high-speed pursuit, and they were slowly closing the distance; up until the vehicle's main power bank began to fade. They slowed and gradually rolled to a stop, even as the cruiser's lights continued to dimly flash.

            Stranded in the middle of the road, they stepped out and watched the yellow coupe gradually disappear in the distance.

            Joe turned onto the gravel road that led toward the Schneider ranch.

            They came to an abrupt stop in front of the old farm house and Aurora watched as Joe stepped out and slipped his letter into Mary's mailbox. Then he paused for a moment, tilting the mailbox with its loose post left and right. He stepped over to the roadside.

            Gathering a handful of flat stones, he returned to the post and with the heel of his shoe, pressed them into the gaps around its base. He pounded them down until the post was straight and solid.

            Joe looked one last time at the old house, then slipped back into the driver’s seat. Together he and Aurora continued west toward an alternate world, leaving only a trail of dust behind as evidence of their passing.

             The yellow street-rod slowed as they approached the forested hilltop.

            Joe turned onto a trail that wound up around the hill – a path used primarily by deer and other wildlife. It was barely wide enough to accommodate the '36 coupe and he continued slowly uphill over loose rocks and around clumps of cactus, barely fitting between gaps in the branches as they entered the forest.

            “The interface has been expanded since the last time you passed through,” said Joe, “It's much larger now, and I'm tired of going back empty handed. This time, we're keeping the car.”


             As seen from above, once again light began to beam out from around forest limbs. At this same time, for some reason, a tall cloud also began to grow high above the hill.

            Perhaps it was a reaction between atmospheric moisture and the radiating energy from an extra-dimensional passage, and as the cloud continued to rapidly grow, a pair of soaring birds arrived to take advantage of the uplift. They circled higher as wind increased and the cloud became a thunderhead.

            With bright final pulses of yellow light, the dimensional passage faded away. At this same time, lightning began to flash between the cloud and hilltop, and rain began to fall.

             Across the surrounding hills and plains, more thunderstorms began to develop. They spread out in patterns of waves and rows, far across the land in a sympathetic response to the first original storm.             Patterns of atmospheric art were being created on a grand scale, as if the towering clouds were having a conversation of sorts, spoken through the wind, in a language only they could understand.

             Mary arrived home from visiting a neighbor and rolled to a stop beside her mailbox. She quickly noticed that the post was now solid and straight, and inside the box along with flyers advertising a great sale price on vinyl windows and leaf-free gutters, she found the letter from Joe. She had a feeling about it, and opened it on the spot.

            “Thanks for your hospitality, fine dining and enlightening company,” it read, “and while I have enjoyed our time together, it is time for me to once again cross the border and return home. I am forever grateful for your generosity.

            “You will soon discover that you did extremely well at this year's spring cattle auction, and you will no longer need to worry about your property taxes. Perhaps now you can travel like you did when you were younger, and have fun in Juarez or El Paso. Someday we might meet again, and I wish you all the best. Josephus-Arenas.”

             By this time, clouds had spread through the sky across her ranch as well, and a light rain began to fall as she parked the truck.

            Autumn rains had come early this year, ushering in a change in weather patterns that would persist over the next several years. With milder conditions and improved annual precipitation, ranching would become much easier.

           Now with the addition of this unexpected gift of rain from Nature, all of Mary's prayers had finally been answered.


© 2023 Joel Doonan

Bio: Joel Doonan owns and operates a small signs and graphics business in central Texas. A writer since childhood, his early formative years were spent in the Amazon basin area of eastern Peru.

E-mail: Joel Doonan

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