[REDACTED] Texas – 1959
Agents Argus and Beausange stood on the sagging porch of a squat farmhouse, smoking and sweating. They had doffed their flannel suit jackets, rolled up their shirtsleeves, cursed their luck at receiving this assignment. Their exact location was known to a necessary few, as was the purpose of their visit. The landowner, one Calvin Haft, had been reported to exhibit a peculiar and potentially useful talent. The agents had come to investigate. Evening sunlight dwindled in a wash of gold, tarnished to an eerie green by an approaching weather system.
“Are you sure we should proceed?” Argus asked, adjusting his wire-frame glasses as he scanned the atmospheric violence on the horizon. “This storm is really cookin’. We’re in proximity to a number of potential High Energy Events.”
“High Energy Events,” Beausange acknowledged passively.
”Lightning, tornado, so forth. If the subject is under the influence, in the presence of a High Energy Event, the results can be – unpredictable. Remember that earthquake in Berkeley? One of those kids never returned.”
“Well, I’m not spending the night in this backwater, let’s just get on with it,” Beausange replied, crushing out his Camel.
These two, slipping past the screen door like afternoon shadows, entered the farmhouse, where a third public servant of lower rank waited with the Subject of Interest. Agent Clark brought little to the proceedings beyond driving the car, and menacing silently. Subject Haft was seated at his kitchen table, though hardly at ease. He was a volunteer, for the record, but in fact had little choice to participate in the evening’s activities.
Beausange began, addressing Haft, “On behalf of the U.S. Government, and the Clandestine Service, we appreciate your cooperation in this test.”
Haft, stooped and balding with age, maintained a genial composure, but glanced around nervously, evaluating his predicament. Beausange sat opposite him, his rangy frame splayed casually across a small chair, but his sharp jaw set assertively. Clark was a stout, crew-cut gargoyle at the kitchen doorway. Argus stood at a counter, preparing what Haft anxiously assessed to be a medical syringe.
“I’m happy to – cooperate, as you say” Haft offered, weakly.
“But of course, Mr. Haft,” said Beausange.
“People call me Cal.” Haft’s voice dwindled as he looked to Argus again, who drew a solution from a glass vial with a typewritten label:
“Cal, it is reported you are possessed of a special ability, which has been deemed worthy of our attention.” said Argus as he finished fixing the shot. He turned, faced the room, spread his arms.
“We simply wish to better understand your talent, to focus it and put it to productive use. You have demonstrated a significant ability to gain insight from objects, to intuit facts about an object’s owner, circumstances in which it has been present.”
“It is my gift, this is true,” said Cal, “I have helped locate stray children, livestock. I once helped a man, wrongly accused, walk free. I have helped many of my neighbors, I’m happy to do it. I don’t use my gift in the interest of avarice, or harming others. Only for good.”
“But of course, Cal,” said Beausange.
“This,” said Agent Argus, indicating the loaded syringe in his hand, “is a recently discovered chemical compound.” He bore it, unintentionally, in the attitude of flicking the bird.
“We intend to observe its effect on you, on your – gift, as you say. We would like you to investigate a test article. This item was recovered from the scene of a long unsolved crime.”
Beausange brought out a revolver, placing it carefully on the table. This noticeably discomfited Cal. Argus’ eyes stayed fixed on him as he continued.
“Easy, Cal. It’s not loaded. It’s been rusting in evidence storage; probably doesn’t even fire anymore. The man who owned it belonged to an influential family. That’s why this happened across our desk. The owner of this item was found dead, with it nearby. Presumably suicide, except that evidence indicates the presence of a second personage. The family was more comfortable burying the victim of an inexplicable murder – rather than a self-destructive derelict – so the case was filed as an unsolved homicide.”
“To preserve the family’s reputation, you understand,” added Agent Beausange.
“But of course,” said Cal.
Lightning flashed. Clark, counting to himself, but audible in the heavy silence, got to three-Mississippi when a report of thunder shook the house.
“The storm is moving this way, sir, and fast,” said Clark.
“Close the door and stand your post! Let’s finish this. We can be in Dallas by midnight,” ordered Beausange.
Cal was relieved to know these men meant to leave his home so soon, but he wondered in what state they intended to leave him. He clutched the arms of his chair.
As Clark elbowed the door into its warped frame, Argus caught one last glimpse of the brewing tumult. The house instantly became muted, stagnant, hermetic. Accordingly, Argus modulated his instructions in a precise sotto voce.
“I’m going to administer this solution, Cal. Then, I want you to proceed in your usual fashion. Handle the gun, and tell us what you see.”
Argus planted the needle, deployed the plunger and removed the syringe in one deft movement. Beausange nudged the gun toward Cal, and he took it in his gnarled hands. He pored over it, and his gaze drifted into a fuzzy middle distance. His posture slackened, and he leaned forward on his elbows. Each finger, like a braid of whip leather, worked about the surface of the revolver, as one without sight might regard a strange artifact.
Cal experienced the usual glimmers of insight, sensory impressions like bursts of radio static. The gun’s owner was a man, a sad young man. Cal waited for more. The injection took hold swiftly, expanding his impression like a soap bubble, adding sharpness, depth, clarity. He marveled at the effect, the augmentation of his natural gift.
What if it could be like this every time? Cal thought. Fantastic!
Focusing his attention, Cal realized he was fully immersed in an environment apart from his kitchen. He stood near a beach, atop an embankment, a paved road curving along its edge. Could this be Galveston? He’d only seen postcards. Sweat started about his wiry eyebrows in the humid, briny air. Music echoed from a nearby source, he tried to place the tune. It was When You’re Smiling, performed in an unfamiliar instrumentation, with a raw feeling, as though it might have just been composed.
Cal became aware of a vehicle, an old Ford, its ragtop down, revealing the driver. The driver raised his hand – a greeting? No, the very pistol Cal had been holding, moments before, glinted in the driver’s hand. Cal saw a second man. Had he been there all along?
He tried to yell, but made no sound.
An intense light appeared from beside the car, throwing a shadow on the beach below, highlighting foamy crests on brown water. Cal heard the thundering waves, then, emerging from that, the sound of a train.
Argus observed Cal intently. He seemed frightened and very far away, but still clutched the old revolver. Beausange waited, poised with a steno pad to record anything Cal might say. Clark remained by the door, which clapped against the jamb with the strengthening gusts. The storm rumbled and seethed, then, abruptly, all three agents looked to the ceiling. An unmistakable chugging sound dinned outside. The agents looked at each other, then all about the tiny farmhouse, seeking a place of refuge.
“Stop Him!” yelled Cal.
Beausange reflexively brought his pencil and pad together, then they were blown apart, as was everything. A whirling column of howling destruction collided with the farmhouse. Its force surged beyond the realm of the Texas plain, and broken timbers, and the ruined bodies of the agents. The massive natural force of the tornado focused through the aperture of Cal’s displaced consciousness, as he temporarily abided with the strangers in the car by the moonlit Gulf. The phenomenon projected through that moment, and into a space which could be observed only by one who hovers between the world of the living present, and the unknown infinite. One man alone occupied that space, and he saw.
Alton Barbeur’s body lay in a coma ward in the Red River VA hospital. He had suffered severe head trauma in an unsuccessful tactical maneuver in Wonju. A scar parted the front of his hairline, a souvenir from the brink of demise. His soul dwelt in a place without time, or light, or any senses. There was thought, and a haze of memories from a life he wasn’t sure was his own. All at once, he was bombarded by what he recalled to be a color. It was gold, and it surrounded him. A host of other impressions overwhelmed him, and he struggled to sort out which was a smell, a strain of music, a hot breeze. The sheer force of it pushed him toward a place he had sought, but not been able to find.
Alton opened his eyes for the first time in eight years. A nurse, who stood nearby, was startled to hear a stirring from behind her. She spun around, disturbing a tray of supplies, knocking a freshly sanitized, metal bedpan to the floor. It struck the floor at a peculiar angle, producing a chiming tone of unusual clarity and duration. It seemed to hang in the air, just above the floor, resonating, then landed on its flat side, with an unremarkable clunk.
Alton croaked at the nurse, “Paper! Paper!”
The nurse halted a moment, not understanding anything that was happening.
Alton swatted his hand against the bed and gasped his demand again, “paper!”
Regaining her presence of mind, the nurse thrust a blank medical chart pad, and pencil, into Alton’s shaking hand. In a matter of minutes, he had filled the page with strange diagrams and indecipherable garble. Alton had returned to the living present, lodged back into corporeality by a force he would spend years trying to understand and accede to. The nurse stared at the paper, then at Alton. He smiled.
“I’ve received a message.”
Portillo, TX – Present
I am Kyle Blyte. I’m finishing up some Bondo work on a Chevette. Restoring the body to perfection, without blemish. I’m getting better at it, but even under the most practiced hand, in the end, it will still look like a Chevette. No es mi culpa, blame Detroit.
Danny Momus is due back to finish his masterpiece, per our agreement. He is puntual this time, and he proffers a slim, sad hamburger in orange wrapping, from a bag of a half-dozen. They are barely edible, but the price is right. I complete the final details, and make him clean the spray gun, to wring a bit more out of the bargain. I’m not sure how well the new paint job serves as a billboard for Nemo’s visión extraña, but it’s a handsome enough design, if I may say so. El Capitan graciously offers to let me ride bitch with him down Center Street, as he debuts the new enhancement to his bodacious mini-truck. Nemo activates the Rockford Fosgate, and Viddi Moliddi slams out. The lead single “Girl” spins non-stop now on Hot 93. I hear it from a passing car, as well. Everybody loves it, but I feel like it was written straight to me, it speaks to me; it makes me feel like somebody out there understands my condition. Vincent and Morris know what’s up, they are for real.
We turn out of the parking lot and the flare at Air Today is still blowing. The dragon got some bad Sizzlin’ Quick, blarf. What if Nemo is on to something with that crazy message? Maybe there’s a hole between here and the Other Place, hidden in that chemical plant. That’s why it’s always fire and smoke and stink coming out of there. I see it in the rear-view mirror, rattling from the bass. We pass the new Sol-Mart that’s opening next week, and Luncheon Lou’s, and the pawn shop. “Girl” gets to the final chorus, it’s genius:
Girl, girl, girl, g-g-g-girl.
Another mini-truck passes opposite us, across the median. It’s Matt, from geometry class. He throws a peace sign to Nemo. Respeto.