Author’s note: “The Stranger” was an original short story which later served as inspiration for my webseries Broken Mirrors produced for the NYU Writer’s Lab West. My original story is reprinted below in its entirety.
“I think he’s in the witness protection program.”
Jamie rolled his eyes. Everyone had theories about old Mr. Forman, including himself, and Sarah must have had twice as many. Ever since the strange man moved onto the old Kensington farm a few years ago, all the kids started making up stories about who he really was. He was rarely seen in town, and no one seemed to know anything about him. At least, none of the adults would tell, and if there was one thing teenagers did best it was being sure adults were lying to them. On any other day, Jamie would have joined in on what had become a pastime for them, but he had exams tomorrow.
And this had been Sarah’s idea. However, when she popped open a can of Dr. Pepper and stared out at the empty soccer field, Jamie knew she had gotten bored with it. She was the one who invited him to “watch practice after school” (their code for studying at the picnic tables across from the field), and Jamie did not object. He always preferred being outside this time of year rather than in the cramped library. Burying his head back in his physics textbook and thanking the cool autumn breeze, Jamie knew he would have to dismiss her quickly in order to get back on track. Plus, he’d already thought of the witness protection theory, and he didn’t want Sarah to get the credit for this one.
“He’s not in the witness protection program,” said Jamie.
“Think about it,” Sarah insisted. “He has enough money to buy up a farm but not enough common sense to hire hands. He keeps to himself, and whenever he’s in town he avoids talking to people as much as possible. Plus, when was the last time you saw his face. Nobody can really say what he looks like. I bet he’s afraid people will get a good picture of him, and he’s probably had plastic surgery. No one’s that secretive unless they’re a criminal. Or running from criminals. Forman isn’t even his real name.”
“Don’t you have to study?”
“I’m done studying,” Sarah said with confidence.
“What do you mean you’re done studying?”
“I’ve been over those notes a millions times,” she yawned. “I can’t possibly learn any more in the next day than I did all quarter.”
Jamie shrugged. This was probably true. The most infuriating thing about Sarah was her ability to remember absolutely everything. She also had a remarkable ability to change the subject on a dime whenever she got bored with the one she was on, which was often.
“Come on, Jamie, you know I’m right.” Sarah squinted her eyes and smirked as she sipped her Dr. Pepper, her usual sign of triumph. Knowing he was getting nothing done until he finished this, Jamie closed his books and stepped up to the challenge.
“First of all,” Jamie said in his best lawyer-like voice, “you don’t know Forman is not his real name, and there is no evidence to support otherwise. Secondly, his being independently wealthy or secretive, a number of other reasons could explain that.”
“That does not disprove it, though.”
“Finally,” Jamie said, this time being the confident one, “as much as you have observed him, as much evidence that you’ve amassed against him, you’ve never actually seen him with anyone from outside of town.”
“So, if he were in the witness protection program, he would have a handler, someone to introduce him to the town, someone to check up on him from time to time. It’s called witness protection. Who’s protecting him?”
Sarah thought for a long moment. This seemed to stump her. “He could still be on the run from the mob.”
“He could be on the run from a lot of things,” Jamie countered.
“That’s not a refusal.”
Jamie nodded, conceding that one point. “Can I go back to studying now?”
Sarah playfully grabbed Jamie’s books and scooted into the seat next to him, flipping through all his notes with him. “You were never good at science anyway. As soon as we get through this, you owe me a malt at Mel’s.”
* * *
About twenty miles away, jet black and gleaming from a fresh waxing, a brand new Lexus RX, a vehicle that looked like it had no business turning onto a bypass frequented by tractors and weathered pickups, did just that. The driver, whose Armani suit was just as out of place where denim and a Stetson would suffice, checked his directions and cursed the GPS that inadequately mapped this primitive location. The failings of the GPS aside, he trusted his directions and the signs on the road that lead toward a small, out of the way town, that was his best definition of nowhere.
He grinned at the appropriateness of this thought. This man had traveled quite a bit in his day, more than his fair share. He would even go so far as to say he had been everywhere, but he had never been nowhere before. It had been ages since he had heard that: “I’m going nowhere.” Now, he finally understood what it meant. If someone, anyone wanted to get lost or simply disappear, this would be the perfect place.
The man had no intention of stopping in town, but as he approached the small strip, two things overcame him. As well marked and labeled his directions were, the dirt roads were unmarked and turned further off into nowhere. And he needed to complete his research before weighing in on the world’s best cup of coffee.
* * *
Jamie studied his physics notes with Sarah until even he was sick of it. Sarah was certainly patient enough, but there was a point when even Jamie knew he had maxed out on the amount of studying he could do. At times he envied Sarah’s aptitude for math and science, but then it gave him the excuse to ask to study with her. Plus, he was much better in English and history, so they traded off nicely.
As promised, Jamie bought her a chocolate malt shake at Melanie’s diner in town, not that she had to twist his arm to do it. Miss Melanie made the best shakes (as well as sundaes, burgers, fries, and just about anything else), and the two of them were regulars here most days regardless. Before they even sat down at their usual booth by the window, Melanie had spotted them from behind the counter and whipped up a fresh chocolate malt for them. She always left two straws, though only one was ever used. This had been a game between Jamie and Sarah. One of them would get a malt, the other an order of fries. Then, they would steal from each other in this sly way as if the other was only taking one fry or one sip of the malt, but they never acknowledged they were sharing. On more than one occasion, Jamie had thought about tearing the paper wrapping off the second straw and dipping it in. He had even hoped once or twice that Sarah would pick up the second straw when it was “his” malt, but she never did. Somehow, having only the one straw in there meant that it belonged to only one of them, not both.
Jamie also got to thinking about how long this little routine of theirs would last. Ever since the third grade, they had been the closest of friends in a town so small that they surely knew everyone. Jamie was not a jock, and Sarah was not a cheerleader. Neither of them wanted to be, which was probably even worse a crime among their peers than trying out and not making the team. Jamie had wondered on a few occasions how his life might turn out different if he had been interested in sports, particularly if he was a good football player. He didn’t worry much about Sarah. She was a genius, no doubt about it. She was sure to snag a scholarship to any great college. Her parents might even be able to afford it if she didn’t get a full ride. For someone like Jamie, however, the only way out of town was a football scholarship. He had decent enough grades but nothing spectacular. He was the editor of the school newspaper, and he figured he might go to the community college or get a job at a local paper, but he knew deep down that he could not be happy in this small town, particularly once Sarah went away, and he knew she would.
“What are you thinking?”
Jamie snapped back to reality as Sarah stole another one of his fries. “What? Oh, nothing,” Jamie shrugged it off.
“Come on,” Sarah nudged with that sly grin of hers. “I can always tell when your mind goes somewhere else. You get that serious look.”
Jamie did not particularly want to tell Sarah what he was thinking. About this last year of high school. That this might be the last year for them to be friends. That he didn’t want their friendship to end. Jamie tried to think of some way to deflect her question or shrug it off, but she did that so much more easily than him. Then, he realized that his short pause was turning into a long, awkward silence, and he thought of some way to broach the subject, to actually tell Sarah what he was thinking. Before he could, however, Sarah’s short attention span was caught by something else.
Jamie turned to see a man who was certainly not from around here, dressed in a tailored gray suit with slicked back hair and dark sunglasses, walk into the diner. Jamie noticed the Lexus parked outside, which must have been this man’s car, and his journalistic inquisitiveness started the gears in his head turning. Jamie snuck a quick look back at Sarah, and he could tell she was thinking the same thing.
“A cup of coffee, please,” the man said as he sat down at the bar, Melanie already sliding over to take his order.
“Can I interest you in a slice of pie,” said Melanie with a smile. “Cherry, apple, key lime. All homemade.”
“Just the coffee, thank you.”
Melanie poured the man a fresh cup, and Jamie and Sarah watched him with curiosity out of the corners of their eyes so as not to seem like they were staring. Jamie struggled to keep a straight face as Sarah stared back at him with little squints and nods trying to get him to talk to the stranger. Looking away from Sarah’s egging looks, Jamie glanced back at the Lexus the man had driven into town in. He noticed the shiny black SUV was almost devoid of any dirt or dust that it must have driven through to get here. Yet, its license place was somehow obscured, and Jamie could not make out what state the man was from.
Looking back at the man, Jamie realized he had still not yet taken a sip from his coffee. He was just staring at it. No, he wasn’t staring; his expression was more focused than that. The man was studying the coffee. He held it, looked at it, took a whiff of its aroma, but he did not sip it. This went on for more than a minute. Even Miss Melanie, who was the least nosey person Jamie knew, looked curiously at this man and his coffee until, finally, he reached for the cream and sugar. Even then, he did not simply pour in some cream and sugar and enjoy his coffee like everyone else. He so meticulously poured in the cream, followed by the sugar, he must have been strictly measuring it in his mind. Then, he stirred the cup’s contents carefully with a spoon and finally took a sip.
The whole diner, which was maybe half a dozen people, waited in rapture as if the world depended on this strange man’s verdict of Melanie’s coffee. As the man’s lips curled up into a grin and he set down the cup, the entire room deflated. It was not until now when the man removed his sunglasses that it had dawned on Jamie that his eyes had been obscured behind them all this time.
“Excellent,” said the satisfied stranger. “Excellent, and I have had many cups of coffee. I cannot quite judge whether this is the best cup of coffee I’ve ever had after only one sip, but I will say it’s in the running.”
“Thank you. Very kind of you,” Melanie beamed.
“I think I will have a piece of that key lime pie, Miss,” said the man, finally with some warmth. “Anyone who takes that much pride in her coffee couldn’t possibly disappoint with her pie. And after a long trip, it’s about time I was allowed to indulge myself, don’t you think?”
“Yes, sir,” said Melanie with her service friendly smile and in no time presented him with the best slice of key lime pie she had. “Where are you coming from, if you don’t mind me asking?”
“You know, I travel so much, it’s hard to remember sometimes,” the man deflected with a grin. Jamie was noticeably disappointed that the stranger had not opened up after the success of Miss Melanie’s coffee and pie. Whoever he was, he was being secretive about his destination, which only made Jamie and Sarah more curious. When it seemed like the man was simply going to eat his pie and go, he spoke up again, causing Jamie and Sarah to almost jump out of their seats.
“Do you know where Kensington Farm Road is from here?”
Even Miss Melanie’s ears perked up at this question.
“Sure, that’s the second dirt road on the left, the other side of town,” Melanie said. “Mr. Forman’s farm.”
“That’s what my directions say,” the man said, looking at his folded paper.
“It can be confusing with some of these old roads, not marked properly,” Melanie reassured him with a smile. “Do you have business with Mr. Forman?”
The man looked up from his pie and seemed to be considering his answer, Jamie thought. “He’s an old friend. Haven’t seen him in years. Do you know him well?”
Sarah kicked Jamie under the table.
“About as well as anyone else in town,” Melanie shrugged. “Very private man, your friend, but then you know that.”
“He can be tough nut, but then— Well, like I said, it’s been a long time.”
And just like that, the man stood up from the counter, plate cleaned, coffee cup emptied. Jamie did not think he was there for long enough to finish both the pie and coffee, but the man looked satisfied with his food.
“Thank you for the pie and coffee, Miss Melanie,” the man said, covering his eyes again with his dark sunglasses. Then, he gestured, confirming his directions. “This way? Second dirt road on the left?”
“That’s right,” said Melanie, courteous as always.
Sarah kicked Jamie under the table again as they watched the man stride to the exit. She had a triumphant grin on her face. Jamie kicked back, intent on getting a better look at the stranger and his car, but it was somehow dustier outside. That and the glare off the road made it difficult to catch the car’s license plate. Jamie almost stood up to get a better look, but the instant he shifted in his seat, he noticed the stranger stop and turn back. Jamie turned back so as not to look too conspicuous and hoped the man did not see him.
“By the way,” said the man from the door, “it is the best.”
* * *
The Old Kensington Farm (though it was now owned by Mr. Forman, that is what it was still called) sat on a decent sized piece of land a couple miles outside of town. The Kensington family had built the small house and barn that stood on the property and had owned the land around it since the Civil War, or so it was said. Everyone in town thought that Mr. Forman was very fortunate to acquire the property from the late Mr. Kensington, and though most were wary at the thought of an outsider owning what was considered family property, many were relieved that Forman had brokered the deal before Old Man Kensington passed. Though Mr. Forman was an odd man, he seemed reasonable enough to take over the farm from Mr. Kensington, who had no kin and would surely have lost it to the government or some big, unfriendly corporation.
The land was ideal for Forman for several reasons, not the least of which was because of location. He had always enjoyed the notion of settling down on some farm or vineyard, some private, out of the way place where he could be at peace and the only worry he ever had was the weather. He could have settled himself in anywhere in the world, of course, and he had not intended to retire quite this early, but when opportunity knocked, he had to answer. Old Mr. Kensington was a nice enough fellow, and there was something about this place that he just fell in love with. Forman also knew that he was so far out of the way here that there was little chance of anyone coming to bother him. So when he saw the cloud of dust pushing up the road and the black Lexus at the front of it, he was more than a little annoyed.
“You are some piece of work, Forman. This place isn’t easy to find.”
“That’s kind of the point, Jack.”
Forman stood, holding his stern expression in the doorway until he finally cracked a smile and embraced his old friend.
“Look at this place, though,” Jack said, feigning awe. “It suits you.”
“Thanks, and you’re doing a good job blending in.” Forman nodded toward the still gleaming black Lexus.
“It has four wheel drive,” Jack shrugged, then looked around, the dust from his drive finally cleared. “Are we going to stand out here all day?”
“Alright, come in.”
Forman led his old friend inside to his favorite room in the house, the kitchen. Forman found he spent most of his time in here. Besides enjoying a great view of the front of the house, he also had a new found love for cooking. “If I had some warning, I would have prepared something for you. How about a cup of coffee?”
“No thanks. I just had the world’s best cup of coffee, and I don’t want to ruin it.”
“So you stopped by Miss Melanie’s,” Forman nodded in understanding. “Have the key lime pie?”
“Well, I can’t top that.” Forman stood next to the refrigerator and leaned against the counter, a perfect vantage to the window and the rest of the kitchen, which Jack was calmly pacing. “So, what brings you out here?”
“Can’t I visit an old friend?” Jack asked innocently.
“Come on, Jack,” Forman pressed. “Why are you here?”
Jack finally sat down at the kitchen table, crossed his arms, and looked at Forman with a serious expression he had held back until now.
“I think you know exactly why I’m here.”
* * *
Somehow, Sarah convinced Jamie to come along. He was just as curious as she was, but the last thing he wanted to do was just go knocking on Mr. Forman’s front door or, worse, get caught snooping around outside the house. He knew it was crazy. How could Mr. Forman or his friend fail to notice them drive up the road a mile away? There was nothing else for a mile around. Jamie tried to convince Sarah otherwise and failed as usual, so he had to come along to keep her out of trouble. He suspected this was her plan all along, but she almost always got the better of him.
“You’re the journalist,” she said to him. “Don’t you want to find out who that guy is?”
“I want to find out as much as you do, but—”
“So, what’s the problem?”
Jamie sighed. “Don’t you think there are better ways of going about this than driving up to the house and knocking on his front door?”
“You said yourself that they’ll see us driving up the road,” Sarah said. “Not knocking on the door would be even more suspicious.”
“What I mean is, can we go about this a little more stealthily than driving right up to the house?” pleaded Jamie, though he knew it was futile.
“Well, if you didn’t want to come along,” Sarah scoffed, “you shouldn’t have gotten in the car.”
How could Jamie argue with that? He certainly wished he had a little more guts than Sarah sometimes. He did want to know more about this stranger, particularly about Mr. Forman. This was a risky plan, but it was certainly direct. Sarah would drive them up in her Jeep right to the front of the house. She would then knock on the front door and distract them with whatever benign nonsense she could think of while Jamie snuck around and saw what he could find out. Of course, this would mean Jamie had to hide himself as best as he could next to the seat so as not to be spotted when Sarah drove up to the house. Then, he would sneak out after Sarah had gotten Mr. Forman’s attention.
Jamie figured the thing he had going for him was the breeze. It was not terribly windy, but there was just enough of a breeze to consider himself lucky. The weather was often oppressively hot out here, but this was thankfully a cool day. Otherwise, Jamie would never have agreed to ball himself up in a corner of the Jeep, much less traipse around Mr. Forman’s property in broad daylight. The breeze also helped with all the dust that was kicked up from the car ride. It was not fun to breathe, but it gave them both good cover.
Sarah was certainly more confident about this plan than Jamie was, and she let him know it with a sly wink as she parked her Jeep and jumped right out. If it were Jamie, he most certainly would have hesitated or psyched himself up or something. Sarah just went right to it, no hesitation. Jamie took a deep breath for her. He was practically holding it as he waited for some sort of sign that everything was going to plan. He heard her knock on the door. He would not have been able to recognize Mr. Forman’s voice, but he was certain he could hear her speaking with someone. His big moment was coming up. He watched as the dust cloud swirled around him, and he looked for the best route to take as he snuck out of the Jeep. The time had to be just right, though. Then, Jamie heard the door close, and his mind went blank.
Did Sarah go inside with Mr. Forman? Was that her plan? What was Jamie supposed to do now? What was he going to do originally? He could not remember. What they were doing had completely escaped his mind. The dust cloud swept over the Jeep, and Jamie was lost in it. Then, the door to the Jeep opened, and Sarah hopped back in.
“What?” Jamie had no idea what was going on, but he did not want to move. He knew that much. Then, he realized Sarah was standing at the open door on his side of the Jeep pushing him over. As he sat up the fog lifted. “What happened?”
“Just get into the driver’s seat, hurry,” she insisted, “and stay down.”
Jamie ducked back down in his seat as he scooted over. He had no idea what Sarah was up to or how she was going to squeeze into the Jeep next to him like this. Then he realized she was not getting into the Jeep. “What’s going on?”
“Drive back to town,” Sarah instructed. “They have to think I’m leaving. And try to stay down.”
It dawned on Jamie what she was doing. “You’re not staying.”
“Somebody’s got to,” she said sounding reasonable enough. “They’ve already seen me, and if I get caught there’s no point in you getting busted, too.”
“How are you going to get back?”
“Don’t worry about that.”
Jamie had almost bought into it. After all, he was the one supposed to be sneaking around Mr. Forman’s place. There was no reason Sarah couldn’t just do it instead. But why did she want to do it instead? And why should Jamie leave her here out in the middle of nowhere.
“Wait,” said Jamie, “this is stupid. Even if you don’t get caught sneaking around out here, are you going to walk all the way back to town. Let’s do this together, or we’ll find another way.”
“That’s ridiculous,” Sarah said in her usual, logical tone. “We can’t both stay here because they’ll see the Jeep. Besides, if Mr. Forman’s friend goes back to town, you can corner him for questions. Go home first, wait about an hour, then meet me back at Mel’s.”
“Hurry,” Sarah almost shouted in her whisper. “I need a good cloud of dust for cover.”
Before Jamie could think to say anything further, Sarah closed the door. He could see she was sneaking around to the backside of the Jeep. He had no chance of talking her out of it now, even if he could find the right words. The only thing to do was to follow this plan of hers and drive back to town. He only hoped Sarah knew what she was doing.
* * *
Forman watched as the Jeep sped back down the dirt road, a cloud of dust following in its wake. He knew Jack was watching as well, just to make sure. Forman wondered if Jack suspected what he did. As usual, Jack’s cool demeanor betrayed nothing. Forman tried not to think of the young girl that had just knocked on the door. He recognized her from town, and though her story about selling tickets for the school football game sounded convincing, it was not convincing enough. Still, there was something else familiar about her; he just couldn’t place it.
“Do you suppose Miss Melanie can package one of her pies to go?”
Forman was surprised to see Jack already heading toward the door. He had expected his old friend to impose upon him much longer.
“It’s a long drive back,” said Jack from behind his sunglasses.
“I don’t suppose I can convince you to stay for dinner,” Forman tried his best to sound friendly. “For old times sake.”
Jack looked back at him from over his sunglasses. “I don’t suppose I can convince you to come back with me.”
Of course, Forman had no intention of returning with Jack, but it was uncharacteristic of Jack to so easily let his prey go. Forman had hoped to be done and retired. He had hoped he had gone far enough away that no one would come to bother him. He knew deep down that would not be possible, that someone would come after him. He even had the fear that it would be Jack. When Forman saw Jack walk up to his front door only twenty minutes ago, somehow all the fear and anxiety went out of him. He was ready for anything Jack would throw at him, any attempt to convince him to leave. Forman expected it. He did not know why Jack would so easily give in, and that worried him.
“Sorry, old friend,” said Forman, again sounding as though nothing worried him.
“No worries,” Jack smiled. Forman was all too familiar with that smile. “You take care of yourself… old friend.”
Forman made extra care to be sure Jack got back in his car and drove toward town and that it was not an illusion for his benefit. If Jack suspected what he did about their young visitor, if that had been the reason he left, what is it he hoped to gain?
* * *
He knew Sarah had told him to go home first, but Jamie drove straight back to Mel’s after he left her behind at Forman’s farm. Waiting there instead of at home wouldn’t make any difference, but he knew he would just be too anxious to sit still at home. Somehow already being at the diner made him feel just that much closer to Sarah’s return. At least, that’s what he thought. Once Jamie sat down at the counter, he immediately knew he felt worse than he would have at home. Miss Melanie did not help.
“You took off so suddenly earlier, I didn’t expect you back. Where’s Sarah?”
Jamie could tell she looked at a loss for what to bring him. He and Sarah were always here together, and Miss Melanie always brought them the same thing. With Jamie here alone, Melanie had no idea what to do. Jamie tried to play down the obvious awkwardness of Sarah’s absence.
“She’ll be here. I had to bring her Jeep.”
Melanie seemed to accept this answer. “Shall we wait for her?”
“She’ll be a while, I think.” Then, Jamie did not know what came over him to order. He would have been happy with water, even a Cherry Coke if it came to it, but he asked Miss Melanie for a Dr. Pepper. He never had Dr. Pepper. He didn’t even care for it all that much, but it was Sarah’s drink Perhaps he was even more worried about Sarah than he thought. By the time Melanie got him his Dr. Pepper, however, Jamie was no longer worried about Sarah, and he now hoped he had stuck to the plan and gone home first. Miss Melanie, who always hid her surprise, now showed it again for the second time in the past few minutes. Jamie turned to see that she was looking at the stranger in the black Lexus walk through the door again and sit down right next to Jamie.
* * *
Even Sarah was surprised at herself. She wanted to know the truth about Mr. Forman at least as much if not more than Jamie, and she admitted to being gutsier (at least, more willing to get into trouble) than Jamie, but even this was a bit out of her element. Though Jamie might disagree, Sarah was not one for improvisation. That was something Jamie was much better at. He just made it seem like thoroughly calculated plans. That’s what made him such a good reporter. Sarah, on the other hand, may have had more of a reputation for getting into trouble, but it was all very calculated on her part. It was a tribute to her personality that she made it look spontaneous. Normally, she probably would have sided with Jamie and given up for a later chance, but she felt strangely compelled to investigate Forman herself. She chalked it up to her own rabid curiosity. So, here she was, alone at Mr. Forman’s farm, and she had no idea what she was getting herself into.
Sarah made a quick dash to the side of the house while the dust cloud Jamie had kicked up still settled. Sneaking around the perimeter, she attempted to determine the basic layout of the house and where Forman and his friend might be to avoid attracting their attention as she snuck around. Though, a part of her was thinking to listen in on their conversation. However, before she knew it, the front door opened. Forman’s friend was leaving. Sarah also found herself caught in the middle of Forman’s back yard. She had two options to both avoid them spotting her—sneak into the back of the house or make a mad dash to the barn and hope they didn’t spot her.
Again, she did not take the path of least resistance. Even Sarah admitted that she was a risk taker, tempering her logic with her intuition, but something beyond herself seemed to compel her to run into the barn. She rationalized that the back door to the farmhouse was probably locked and that she’d be in even more danger there. So, the barn it was. She slid inside the door, praying neither Forman nor his friend saw her. She meant to close the barn door behind her, but it creaked much louder as she started to close it than it did when she opened it.
Once inside, this seemed to Sarah the most obvious choice for her to have made. Somehow, she thought, if Mr. Forman had anything worth finding out about, surely he would hide it in here. As she looked around the barn for any clue as to Forman’s past, it became warmer and more inviting, as if drawing her in. Sarah felt at home here. She almost forgot that she was trespassing. Then, she realized something. There were not horses in the barn. Perhaps they were out in the pasture, but she did not remember seeing them outside. Very curious. Also curious was how clean this barn was. Plenty of these old barns had no livestock, but even they were cluttered with all manner of other junk, like over large garages. Then, Sarah noticed the trap door at her feet. This was the secret of Mr. Forman. Whatever was down there would tell her everything she wanted to know. She was sure of it. But what could it possibly be, and did she really want to know?
“You don’t want to open that.”
Sarah spun around, horrified to find Mr. Forman standing at the barn door. She did not know what she found more startling, that he had found her here or that he did not look angry at all. In fact, his manner was perfectly courteous. Forman smiled, and Sarah was surprised by how young he looked. She must not have been paying attention when she knocked at his front door, but she had always seen him from afar as an older man, well, middle aged at least. He reminded her of a teacher she’d had a crush on.
“Sorry,” Forman said. “Didn’t mean to startle you.”
Sarah didn’t know quite what to say. Now, it seemed to be he that was studying her.
“I didn’t recognize you initially. Sarah. You’re Harry and Jill Cooper’s girl, aren’t you?”
“Good people, don’t you think?”
Mr. Forman was being so nice to Sarah that it scared her. Was the reclusive Mr. Forman really friendly with her parents? She didn’t think so, so what was he implying?
“This is the part where I’m supposed to call them to pick you up, right? I’d much rather not, you know. I’m a very private man, and I don’t want to cause a fuss. I must admit I’m impressed by your little charade. Very clever. You hadn’t planned on being the one to stay, though, did you?”
Sarah shook her head.
“Well,” Forman shrugged, “I know you and your friend, um—”
“I know you and Jamie are very curious, young people are like that, but—” Sarah was startled to see Mr. Forman suddenly go white. “Jamie? Not James Smith?”
“Yes, how did you—”
“Where did he go?” Mr. Forman had an urgency about him that was a complete about face from his previous demeanor. “After he left here, where exactly did he go?”
“Home,” Sarah blurted out. “He went back to his home.”
“Are you sure?”
“We were planning on meeting later at Miss Melanie’s Diner, but he was going home first.”
“And you don’t think he went directly to Miss Melanie’s?”
Sarah thought hard. She had no idea what was going on, but she was sure Jamie was going home first. Why wouldn’t he? Still… “I don’t think so.”
“Are you sure?”
“No,” Sarah said plainly. She was not sure. She was not sure of anything at that moment. Was Jamie in some sort of trouble? Why Jamie? Because of Mr. Forman? Nothing made any sense. And then Mr. Forman opened the trap door.
* * *
Jamie lay awake on his bed. He was tired. Tired enough that he could not remember how he got home. Was it night already? No, out the window Jamie could see it was still afternoon. What was he doing? That’s right, he was interviewing someone for the school paper. What was his name again? No, wait, he was most definitely speaking to someone, but it wasn’t an interview for the paper. There was a mystery about something, though. That’s right, he and Sarah were at Miss Melanie’s when—no, he was alone. Where was Sarah? But he must have been speaking to someone. It was a man. A stranger. What was his name?
Jamie walked through the house and was surprised to find no one at home. Surely, his mother should be home now. There wasn’t even any sign of the dog. Outside. They probably left him outside again. Then, he opened the front door and stepped out into pitch-blackness. Jamie stepped back inside and closed the door. Looking out through the windows, he saw the same sunny afternoon he was expecting. He shook his head and opened the front door again. This had to be a dream.
“It’s not a dream.”
In the doorway, with the blackness beyond, stood Mr. Forman. For some reason Jamie was not too surprised to see Sarah standing next to him, though she gave Jamie an uncharacteristically confused look that told him she was just along for the ride as well.
“Step back from the door a moment,” Forman firmly commanded, “but don’t close it.”
“Do you want to come in?” Jamie tried sounding polite through his befuddlement.
“No, I’d better not,” Forman said as he carefully examined the frame of the door, never crossing the threshold.
“Can I come outside?”
“I don’t think so.”
A lot of help he was being, Jamie thought as he gave Sarah one of his signature looks that usually demanded she give him some kind of explanation for the trouble she landed him in. She could only shrug and flash that adorable grin that always managed to convince him to let her off the hook. This time, he wasn’t so sure that would happen, and by the sound of her voice, Sarah was not her usual confident self, either.
“Hi Jamie. This is Mr. Forman, by the way.”
“Yeah, I guessed that.” Then, he added, so as not to be rude, “Nice to meet you.”
“The pleasure is all on this side of the door,” Forman grinned sarcastically.
“Okay, what is going on?” Jamie finally asked out of frustration. “If this isn’t a dream, where are we?”
“Where are we?” Forman repeated, finishing his examination of the doorframe. “That is an interesting conundrum. We are, in a way, nowhere. You,” he pointed at Jamie, “seem to be in a very convincing facsimile of your own home.”
“So, I’m not at home?” Jamie asked.
Forman turned to Sarah. “Does he always ask questions that were just answered for him?”
“Not always,” Sarah responded, “but often.”
Jamie shot her another look.
“That is actually a good idea,” Forman interjected. “People will often lie to you the first time you ask them anything.” Jamie actually felt complimented for a moment until Forman turned the tables again. “And stop giving her that look. It’s not her fault. If you’d gone straight home like she told you to, we might not be in this mess.”
“That’s right,” Jamie started to remember. “I went to Miss Melanie’s, ordered a Dr. Pepper—”
“You ordered a Dr. Pepper?” Sarah sounded surprised. “You never drink Dr. Pepper.”
“I was worried about you,” Jamie admitted, though he wasn’t sure why. He usually kept his feelings about Sarah to himself. Still, he had never seen her smile at him like she just did.
“Yes, that’s all very sweet,” Forman interrupted. “What happened next?”
Jamie racked his brain, but the images that had only just started coming back to him quickly faded away.
“I was afraid of that,” Forman said with a frown of understanding. Then, he quickly shook it off and turned back to Sarah. “It’s alright. You can go through, but don’t close the door behind you.”
Jamie caught hold of Sarah’s hand as she stepped over the threshold. It was warm and familiar. She was definitely real.
“Aren’t you joining us?”
“Not until I figure out how to get back out,” Forman said with a matter-of-factness that startled Jamie. “I was able to create a temporary tunnel. Unfortunately, it only goes one way.”
“Then, why did you let Sarah through?” Jamie was getting exasperated, though he could tell from Forman’s face that the wheels were turning furiously. That put him as some ease.
“Calm down, you aren’t even who he wants. You just ask too many questions, like all good reporters.”
“Who?” Jamie felt like he should know whom Forman was talking about. Then, it occurred to him, if he was such a good reporter, why wasn’t he asking the right questions? “Mr. Forman, who are you?”
Jamie had wanted to ask that question for a long time, and Forman could tell. Suddenly, the man who had been such an elusive mystery to him and Sarah relaxed all pretenses and laid it all out.
“I am, as you have probably guessed by now, not from your earth,” Forman explained. “Prior to my retirement, which I chose to spend in your lovely little town, I worked as a Pan-Dimensional Investigator. In other words, when things went wrong with the universe, I fixed them, or I fixed things that didn’t necessarily need it but generally made them better.”
“Better for who?” Jamie asked.
“The people in charge.”
“Of the universe?”
“Mostly. More recently I was a bit of a freelancer. Pro-bono stuff. That was worth it for a while.”
“Pan-dimensional?” Sarah asked. “Meaning, across space and time?”
Jamie was getting the picture and had to interrupt. “So, you changed to course of the history of the universe for whoever was paying you? For their own benefit or yours?”
“I worked pro-bono, too,” Forman corrected, sounding reasonable enough.
“So this stranger,” Sarah asked, “the one that came to see you—?”
“Jack. He was my handler.”
Jamie could feel Sarah gloating next to him. “I told you.”
“I’m not in a witness protection program,” Forman asserted with some exasperation. “Yes, I’ve heard what you people say. I don’t know why you think that. I’m retired.”
“Then why did this Jack come to see you?” Jamie asked.
“His retirement was not very popular,” a voice said from inside the house. Jamie and Sarah turned around where they were standing. From here, they could see the stranger, Jack, in Jamie’s kitchen—or more appropriately the replica of Jamie’s kitchen. “My friend here was very good at his job, and there were many people, including myself, that did not want him to go.”
“People?” Jamie asked in an aside to Forman to be sure of Jack’s meaning.
“Aliens, demigods, ethereal beings. It’s all very relative.”
“I came here,” Jack continued, “to convince him come back to work. I can be very convincing, you see, but he can be very stubborn. It was hard enough finding out exactly where and when he had he had gone. You see we didn’t exactly plan for his retirement. He didn’t even announce it, just disappeared one day, vanished from history. I’m the only one that actually remembered him. That’s how good he is. I was ready to dig in for a long winter. Just think how relieved I was when you two showed up. Two nosey kids that I would just have to use against him because they learned things they shouldn’t have.”
“You approached me at Melanie’s,” Jamie realized.
Jack nodded. “A minor miscalculation on my part. I thought I could transplant you here to lure Forman in then take you back without you being any wiser. I didn’t count on his tunnel ruining the illusion. He got here a little faster than expected. He’s that good. You see he figured out who you were—at least who you will be, Jamie Smith.”
Jamie rolled his eyes with more than a little skepticism. “So, I’m important in your future?”
“Don’t get full of yourself now. Some of your future work, investigative reporting, has helped us quite a bit in our jobs. When it comes to history, it becomes very difficult to determine the truth.”
“By telling us that,” Sarah interjected, “doesn’t that change the future?”
“Don’t get so technical. I’m going to erase your memories again anyway. That is if my friend comes with me quietly. If not, well, even with your memories altered, you’re too much of a liability, so I’ll have to erase you completely. By that, I mean from history, as if you were never born. You’re families, too. That can usually get a little messy, but this is a small town. Oh, why not, I’ll just erase the town.”
“Wait,” Jamie said quickly. “I thought you just said my future work has been important to you?”
“That’s why I have him,” Jack pointed at Forman. “So what do you say, Forman, are you coming in or not?”
Then, a confident grin crept across Forman’s face that almost made Jamie smile. “No,” Forman said, “I think I like it better over here.”
“Might I remind you,” Jack said more firmly this time, “that your young friends are over here.”
Forman stood his ground. “And might I remind you that this is a one way tunnel. No matter how hard you try, you can’t come this way.”
“Come on, Forman, even you’re not that heartless.”
And they just stood there. Jamie did not know what to expect, but he did not like a standoff. He could tell from Sarah’s expression that she didn’t either. It made him feel helpless. He wanted to do something. He felt like he had to do something. He certainly couldn’t just stand there while these two men, if that’s what they were, had a staring match that would decided his and Sarah’s fate. Then, finally, like an answer to his prayer, Forman looked at Jamie.
“You can close the door now.”
Jamie didn’t think. He didn’t hesitate. He saw the truth in Forman’s eyes and followed his instruction without even thinking that by closing the door, Jamie and Sarah were trapped in this house with this man Jack. The door closed, and Jack was not pleased. Though somewhat scared by the shriek of anger that Jack let out, Jamie was relieved to realize that Jack suddenly seemed to forget about him and Sarah altogether.
Jack ran immediately to the door and opened it again. Not more than a second or two could have gone by since Jamie swung it closed, but it was enough time for the black expanse that had been outside the door to be replaced by what Jamie still saw outside the window—his own front yard. Jamie had no idea what this meant, whether this was really his front yard, his own town, or if this too was a convincingly detailed replica like this house. Luckily, Sarah had been paying attention more than he had because Jamie completely failed to notice that Jack had stepped outside of the house onto the front porch. Before Jamie realized what she was doing, Sarah closed the door behind Jack.
Then, they waited. Jamie still did not quite understand what was going on, but Sarah was a quick study, so he trusted her ability to figure things out. He only hoped she had made the right move. Oddly, it was Sarah that expressed the first doubt about her actions.
“You don’t think we’re stuck here, do you?”
Jamie didn’t think so, and his confidence in Sarah was confirmed a second later by a knock at the door. After a brief moment of hesitation, a quick, knowing look was all they needed to know that they both agreed on what was on the other side of that door now.
“One way tunnel,” Mr. Forman said with a smile. “That is definitely one of my better ideas. Did you see the look on Jack’s face?”
“Does that mean we can leave?” Sarah asked. “We can go home now?”
“Don’t worry,” Forman assured them. “Everything will be back to normal before you know it. Of course, you won’t remember any of this. It will be like I was never here. No one in this fine little town will remember me. Every trace of me will cease to exist. It’s all very complex.”
“So Jack will just keep chasing you then?” Jamie asked.
“He might even find me again. He is good at his job. Unfortunately, that means I can’t enjoy my retirement here. I did grow quite fond of this place. I don’t have much time, but I wanted to say something. What Jack said about you, James, about being an important journalist, there’s a little more to it than that. You see, you are very important to some people, to me. You’re my main line of information. It’s very hard to find a good reporter out there. You’re very good at what you do. I wanted you to know that now, even if you aren’t going to remember it later. I thought I owed you that courtesy.”
Forman looked about to leave, and then he suddenly remembered something and turned back. “Sarah, you invent the internet.”
Sarah raised an eyebrow. “You mean, I go back in time and invent the internet? That’s kind of cheating, isn’t it?”
“No, I mean the other internet,” Forman said with a wink. “You’ll see.”
And like that, he was gone.
* * *
Jamie heard Sarah pop open her can of Dr. Pepper, and he immediately knew she had gotten bored with studying. He looked up from his physics textbook to where she was sitting on the floor next to his bed, and he saw that cute little grin that meant her mind was already onto the next thing, even though this had been her idea to come over to study. At his desk, Jamie tried keeping his nose in the book. Sarah might be a genius when it came to science, but he needed to get more studying in before their exams tomorrow. Still, he knew it wouldn’t last.
“I think it’s cursed.”
Sarah threw out the question as though they were already on the subject. They were always on the subject, it had become one of their pastimes, but Jamie really needed to study. When he saw that look in her eyes, he knew that was not doing to happen. Jamie knew Sarah didn’t believe in curses—she said it because she knew he couldn’t resist the subject any more than she could—but he figured he couldn’t learn much more in the next couple hours than he did all quarter. He closed his book and swung around in his desk chair to face her.
“You think what’s cursed?” Jamie asked, knowing full well the answer.
“The Old Kensington Farm.”
All stories by Peter Di CiccoTweet