Gloria rubbed her eyes open, her fingers scrunching through the dried tears that had clotted in her lashes. She reached over to her left, beginning the Saturday morning cuddle ritual that began with her burrowing under Benny’s warmth and ended with…
Her hand hit something soft and small, but definitely not warm. She squinted in the midmorning sun beams that managed to poke through the closed blinds. One of her mother’s spare pillows, fluffy and wrapped in a 300-thread count case, stared blankly back at her.
She rolled on her back and examined the pristine white ceiling of her mother’s guest bedroom. Tendrils of fresh brewed coffee wafted up her nose, and the crushing grind of a blender hummed through the closed door. Her mother would be in the kitchen, her makeup already on, her hair already coifed, drinking coffee, whirring up juice, pouring tiny bowls of granola and grapefruit. Gloria should feel homey, she should want to wander down the hall in her socks, she should love to sleepily inhale a mug of coffee just like those old Taster’s Choice commercials.
But granola wasn’t pancakes, steamy coffee wasn’t herbal tea, and her mother certainly wasn’t a source of warmth and comfort. She whined at the pillow and buried herself under the covers.
A rap on her door thumped through her depression. The door slid partway open, spilling unfiltered light.
“What?” Gloria groaned.
“I made breakfast,” came the whisper from the door, “but if you want any you have to get it now before I have to go to work.”
Frowning, Gloria peered over the top of her bedsheets. Her mother didn’t work, and she hadn’t made anyone else breakfast since 1983.
Instead of her mother’s pursed features, however, it was Annie’s face smiling wanly at her. Yet it wasn’t Annie at all. Annie was plump, round, joyful, happy, caring. This mockup of her sister was pale, drawn, tired. An element of sweetness was still there, but it lay weakly underneath a patina of premature age.
Gloria rushed out of bed, stubbing her toe on the nightstand and noisily brushing a decorative kokopelli figurine to the hardwood floor.
“Annie, what are you doing here? Are you all right? Do you need me to take you to a doctor?” Gloria reached out to touch her sister, her heart stopping as she saw Annie’s frame seemed to have dropped thirty pounds overnight.
“I live here, dummy,” Annie replied, pushing Gloria’s hand away. “Now come on. If you want the car today, you have to take me to work.”
“What work? Since when do you work?”
Annie rolled her eyes and turned down the hall toward the kitchen. “Since the last rat stopped making child support payments. Jeez, Glor’, it must’ve been some crazy dream you were having.”
Gloria stumbled down the hall behind her sister, trying to figure out what dream could mess with real life like this. Did she dream her mother was a cranky old matriarch living it up on alimony payments? Did she fantasize a happily married stay-at-home-mom of a sister?
Finally, awareness trickled into her brain. The real world hadn’t gotten messed up — well, not any more than it already had been. She was dreaming right now. That was all. It wasn’t a nice dream, though, that was for sure. Hopefully, getting fired and finding Benny playing wild stallion for some other woman was all part of the mad, mad, mad, mad nightmare she was having.
Relief flooded through her. Soon she would wake up at home, Benny snoring next to her, a transvestite hollering drunkenly on the downtown street below, and she would know that all was right and good and just in the world. She’d trudge through her normal weekend routine and bemoan the alarm clock come Monday morning.
“Where’s Mom?” she asked as she plopped into a chair at the breakfast table. She was interested to see how her subconscious would twist the all-powerful Evelyn Walker.
“In her room, as always.” Annie tossed a bowl, spoon, a box of cereal and a jug of milk in front of her. “Which reminds me, could you go to the drugstore today? Her meds are about out, and I don’t think I’ll be able to get out of the cafe before the pharmacy closes.”
Interesting. “Sure. Which meds does she need?”
“The pain meds and anti-nausea. I can’t ever remember what they’re called.” Annie piled several glasses of juice, a mug of coffee, and a handful of pills on a tray. “Just don’t let them tell you the insurance isn’t covering it. Doesn’t seem to matter how many times I tell them, they always want to get cash. Bastards.”
Gloria nodded, and Annie carried the loaded tray down the hall. Pain and nausea, Gloria thought. That could be anything.
She went through the motions of pouring her bowl of cereal, chomping through it.
She heard the TV in the sitting room click on loudly, and the furiously paced music of a Saturday morning cartoon blared briefly.
“Shhh!” someone whispered urgently, and the volume quickly receded.
Gloria padded over to the doorway, peering through the shuttered gloom. Three half-sized bodies crowded around the set, two of them struggling for the remote.
“I said give it to me!” the one she recognized as Allie said through clenched teeth. “You’ll wake up Grammy.”
“She’s already awake,” the smaller, who must be Matty, replied. “Mommy went in there, I saw her.”
Gloria realized the tiny drooling body must be Jack, but it was only their ages, genders, and resemblance to Annie that allowed her to come to any sort of conclusion. Allie was no longer a studious, mousy little thing — instead, her lovely green eyes had a distinct tilt, her mouth was full, her hair was not brown but a curly black. Matty had red hair now, and little Jack…well, all babies looked alike to Gloria. None of them looked anything like their father Mateo any longer.
Annie had said something about the “last rat.” Gloria supposed that in this bizarro dream world of hers, Annie’s beloved kids all came from different sources.
Bizarro-Jack pushed himself upright and tottered over to her, a gnawed teddy bear dangling from his hands. She smiled at him as he grinned with all his pearly little milk teeth. Gloria crouched, holding her arms open to him.
“Hey, there, kiddo. How’re you doing this morning?”
The older kids turned at the sound of her voice, and Bizarro-Allie cried, “Don’t!” while Bizarro-Matty snickered.
Before she could gather the toddler into her arms, his maw gaped wide and his chubby sausage legs launched him at her. Those pretty little beads of teeth chomped firmly on the soft flesh of her thigh, and even through her pajama bottoms Gloria could feel her skin tearing.
She shrieked, fighting the instinct to whack at the kid like he was a rabid squirrel. She tumbled over backward, hitting her butt hard on the floor, and crab- scrambled away.
Bizarro-Jack plunked onto his bottom, his diaper making squishing sounds. He blinked angelically.
“What the hell was that?” Gloria shouted.
Bizarro-Allie shook her head. “He likes to bite.”
Bizarro-Matty chortled. “Hell!” he repeated, picking up on Gloria’s slip. He leapt to his feet and ran a tight circle, muttering “hell” over and over with glee.
“Matthew, sit down! I’ll get Mom,” Bizarro-Allie warned.
Gloria rubbed at her leg, frowning. This dream was not only weird, it hurt.
Stomping footsteps echoed toward them, and Gloria stood up quickly, hoping to remind her red-faced sister that she was the adult and surely far too old for a spanking. Who knew what could happen.
“What are you all doing?” Annie hissed. “Do none of you care a damn about your poor grandmother? Your mother?” She glared pointedly at Gloria.
“He bit me,” Gloria interjected. She immediately regretted her tone, as it sent her maturity back to grade school, in the age-old “he started it” defense.
“Don’t give me that,” Annie snapped. “He’s bitten you three times a day since you moved back here. I’m sick of hearing about it, and I can’t do anything about it. Matty, dammit, shut your mouth or I’ll wash it out with soap, I swear to God!”
Bizarro-Matty wound down, breathing heavily and whispering one final “hell” as his eyes spun dizzily.
“Gloria, is that you I hear?” her mother’s voice called. It trembled and cracked as it made its way down the long tiled hallway.
“Go,” Annie said, nodding toward the bedroom. “She’s having a good day.”
Wondering what a bad day was, Gloria slowly made her way down the hall, leaving Annie to sedate her children.
She paused in the doorway. The room was inky black, and it took her eyes a moment to realize the windows were covered with heavy drapes to suffocate the sun. The air was stale, tainted with disinfectant and an underlying cologne of sickness.
Evelyn lay in the middle of her huge bed, barely making an ant-sized tent in the heavy duvet. But as she drew closer, Gloria could see her mother’s slight shape was not brought on by hours on an exercise bike or a life of fat- and sugar-free living. This Evelyn was eaten away from the inside, as though a creature lived within who was desperately hungry and sucking her body inward, devouring first the fat, then the muscles and tissues, the organs, liver, gall bladder, intestines. Her blood was nowhere to be seen, leaving her a pale wraith, consisting only of bones and skin that would soon be consumed.
This was no flu, no recovering surgery or accidental injury. Death hovered over this room.
Her mother’s hand reached out, wavering and trembling. Reluctantly, Gloria grasped the paper-thin fingers.
“Hey, there, sweetheart,” Evelyn smiled. “Are you staying with me today?”
“I-I think so,” Gloria stuttered.
“Good. I’ve missed you. We were only halfway through The Wizard of Oz. I love the way you read it.”
Gloria’s heart thumped. The novel had been the first — and only — book her mother had ever given her, when she was nine years old. She’d read the tale over and over, until the covers fell apart and she’d had to keep the pages together with a large rubber band. When she was fifteen she’d come home from school to find Evelyn had thrown the beloved tome out in the garbage while preparing to move house yet again.
She felt tears running down her face as she spied the book lying on the bed table, its old worn covers held in place by a strip of duct tape.
Throat closed, unable to speak or even swallow, Gloria pulled away, dropping her mother’s frail hand.
“This isn’t happening,” she whispered. “I need to wake up.”
“What was that, sweetheart?” Evelyn said faintly, even as Gloria backed out of the room. Her eyes fluttered and she drifted away on medication and disease.
Gloria raced back to the guest bedroom, flinging her pajamas off and hurriedly tugging on a pair of jeans and a T-shirt. She hopped into her tennis shoes and fled back to the kitchen, stuffing her hair back in a ponytail.
Annie was loading the dishwasher, and the urchins all had their heads buried in breakfast bowls. “We need to leave in about five min– Gloria, where are you going?”
Gloria paused with her hand on the back door knob. “I don’t want to be here anymore. I have to wake up.”
Bizarro-Matty giggled, and his older sister looked at her solemnly, as if she completely understood, but had accepted her strange world long ago.
“Gloria, I need you to stay with the kids and Mom today,” Annie insisted. “If I miss one more day down at the shop, that a-hole Abrego will fire me. Mom’s insurance only goes so far.”
“I’m sorry,” Gloria said, shaking her head in denial. “I have to go.”
Annie started toward her, but Gloria pushed through the door, banging her hip — that was going to leave a mark. With her shoes untied, she ran down the street, feeling the blood pumping in her long legs.
She closed her eyes as she ran, telling herself it couldn’t hurt, she was only dreaming, the worst that could happen was she’d fall out of bed. At least she’d wake herself up doing that.
And then she fell out of bed. Onto hot asphalt.
She opened her eyes. Nope, still on the street, the hot New Mexico sun beating down into her, reflecting off the macadam like a convection oven. Sweat poured from her pores, soaking her flimsy T-shirt — where had she gotten a Rainbow Brite shirt? — and her jeans were torn and bloody from the curb that had tripped her and rammed itself through the flesh over her knee.
She peered at the wound, picking bits of gravel out of it, her tears blurring her vision and heating her face to near melting. Wanting to wake up had never seemed so important before, nor nearly as impossible. She sobbed, letting the sun bake the back of her neck, letting her tears dribble endlessly onto her clothes, merging with the panicked sweat. Sitting in the gutter, she huddled and did her best to wish herself back to her calm, sane, world, where she could brush her teeth, throw on a Ross Dress For Less suit, and go off to do other people’s paperwork. She longed to march tiredly home at six o’clock sharp and watch TV for a few hours before engaging in hanky-panky-by-rote and dropping off to bored and exhausted sleep.
A cool breeze danced over her back, raising goose bumps in her flesh. She pulled back, and stared blinkingly upward, wondering if the world had mustered up a thunderstorm just to further ruin her life.
But when she looked up, it wasn’t a fat olive thundercloud hanging over her. Instead, she saw a man who could have been Indiana Jones, Aragorn, and Dracula all rolled into one. The sun behind his head cast him into complete silhouette. He brought shadows around him, darkening his face even further until she wasn’t even sure he had one. His hair was so black it didn’t even reflect the white morning sunlight. He wore a dark suit, dull and bureaucratic, and wild thoughts of the sun frying him like a burrito scampered across her mind. Gravity pulled her gaze downward, all the way to the wingtip shoes, polished and shiny just like a 1930s gangster’s, parked inches away from her.
Unable to see his eyes, she still felt them boring into her, and she thought they might be black, too, so dark the pupils wouldn’t even show up.
“Uh, can I help you?” she offered, feeling confined, trapped, like a poor defenseless, weeping, sweaty beetle about to be squished ‘neath a descending shoe.
A shadowy hand hovered before her face. From the area of the silhouetted face, the man asked a question in a language so unfamiliar it sounded unearthly.
Startled, Gloria considered her position. His voice wasn’t a booming god-like menace, didn’t reverberate to her bones like a bass drum beaten in the middle of the night. Instead, it was young, a little scratchy, like the lead singer in a hot new rock band the morning after a concert. It disarmed her, and she felt the early tension of terror ebb away, replaced by a new pile of confusion.
She tentatively took his hand, and he smoothly pulled her to her feet.
From her new angle, she studied the face revealed by sunlight. He was more attractive than Dracula, less rugged than Indiana Jones, his bones refined, his face granite. His eyes weren’t black pits, but sparked with the green of fresh spring shoots. Despite that, she figured he wasn’t very old. Maybe college age. At nearly thirty years old, it had been a long time since she’d looked at a man that young and thought anything other than “Is that guy even old enough to drive?” Sharing airspace with this particular guy, however, only made her wonder how long she’d have to live to see the things he’d seen.
He asked another question in a lilting tongue, the words sounding like a digital meshing of French and Hindu. One black eyebrow raised in the inkling of a smile.
Gloria cast her gaze about uneasily. Few families living in her mother’s neighborhood spoke anything other than English and a smattering of Spanish. Oh, and the couple on the corner who usually spoke to one another in Arabic. This guy was definitely not Middle Eastern.
He asked his question again, his brow knitting in concern.
“I’m sorry,” Gloria stuttered, cutting him off mid-question. “I can’t understand you. Do you speak English? ¿Habla Ingles?”
An expression of pure shock dashed over his stern features, and then a brief hint of a startled laugh rumbled from his throat. He held a finger up and fished something out of his pocket that would have been at home in any Radio Shack-stocked tinkerer’s basement.
Clicking a button on the device, he again spoke his question.
Gloria began shaking her head, still not understanding, but before she could speak, a tinny reproduction of the man’s voice burst from the device in his hand. Only this time, the question was in English: “Are you Gloria Walker?”
“Who wants to know?” she blurted, then winced at the pseudo-bluster implied in her De Niro inspired performance.
He flashed what might have been a badge at her, might also have been a tin can lid. Speaking through the translator-recorder, he replied, “Sullivan Oscar Timon, Special Traveler Unit. I’m sorry about the language barrier — travelers aren’t usually without a form of translator. Here, if you will put this in your ear, it will be easier for us to communicate.” He held out a tiny ear bud in his palm, its bright blue light flashing intermittently. It resembled a blue tooth hands free earpiece more than anything, and Gloria wondered if it was linked to brain cancer just like cell phones, radar guns, and MTV.
The man shoved the bud at her. “Trust me,” he insisted. “It won’t hurt you.”
Reluctantly, she took the bud and stuck it in her hear. When he spoke again, she learned that while the translation was not instantaneous, and she could still hear the strange combination of guttural noises and lilting melodies that made up his natural tongue, she could more clearly hear his words in English.
“I’d like to know why you didn’t check into the station on Atlantis before traveling,” he continued.
Gloria stared at him, unable to so much as begin crafting a lie or denial as a response. Her eyes cast about for the large men in white coats who should definitely be tracking this person down and locking him back up in the rubber room he’d obviously escaped from. It was too bad, him being kind of cute with those shoes and all. Or perhaps, given that he seemed aware and in control of his own situation, while she was running madly from hers, the men in white coats were far more likely to dogpile her.
“The flipping station,” he clarified. “You’re required to check in at one of the stations on Atlantis within 24 hours before traveling.”
Gloria slowly started to back away from him, feeling herself sinking deeper and deeper into the insanity of the world she had awakened into, fearing that this man was here to drag her bodily into the quicksand. “Unless you’re talking about basketball, I haven’t done any traveling since last Christmas.” She also hadn’t done any serious running since her cross-country days in college, but she figured she could outlast the man in black long enough to get help.
“Look, I think I know who you are, and I don’t want you to get into any trouble.” He closed the gap between them, and the fear she’d first felt in his presence returned. “You’re lucky I was the one who found you.”
“Did Annie send you?” Gloria asked, grasping for anything to keep him from getting close enough to grab her.
“No one sent me. I’m just doing my job.” He sighed and stopped following her retreat. “Miss Walker, let me ask you something. Do you know where you are?”
“Albuquerque, about three blocks from my mother’s house. I grew up here, I live here, I know where I am, this is my home.” She backpedaled furiously down the street, until she was shouting. “Where the hell are you, you crazy bastard?”
He laughed, his face breaking open into something handsome and intriguing, boyish. “You really have no idea. Sweetheart, you are worlds away from home. Or do you still think you’re going to wake up like Dorothy, and be happily back in Kaxas?”
Gloria froze. “Kansas!” she yelled inanely. “Dorothy lived in Kansas.”
“Fine, Kansas, then. Is that where you think you are? Home?”
No, it sure wasn’t. It smelled like home, and it looked like home, it may have even tasted like home, but it wasn’t. It was the Twilight Zone, it was the X-Files, it was the umpteenth dimension.
Gloria stood there, hands on her hips, frowning while he laughed. He wasn’t Dracula, or a loon, she knew, but he was something mysterious. And slowly she realized he was the only strange thing in this weird world that was making any sense at all.
“What do you mean?” she asked.
“It’s better if I show you,” he said, his laughter dying down to a crooked little pirate smile. “You’re going to have to come with me anyway.”
“Come with you where?”
He approached her, his slick shoes sliding over the shimmering blacktop. She flinched as he reached for her, but he only brushed the damp clumps of hair away from her left ear, looking for something and not finding it. Goose bumps peaked on her flesh underneath his fingertips, racing down her skin.
“No stamp, see?”
She didn’t see.
He offered her his hand. “Take my hand. Come on, I won’t bite,” he coaxed. “It’ll clear everything up. The worlds have been waiting for you for a very long time.”
Gloria stared at his hand. His fingers were strong and tanned. She peered behind him toward her mother’s house, yearning for one saving glimpse of normality, or maybe just a final hint that this really was a dream, but the heat rose off the asphalt, clouding the structure in waves of distortion.
She met his eyes. Green as a newly cut emerald, open wide. She took his hand.
He smiled and reached his free hand to a beeper-sized box on his belt. It had several dials on the side, and one large green button in the center.
“Wait,” Gloria whispered.
“It’s all right,” he said. “You’re safe.”
“Who are you?”
“I told you, I’m Oscar. Pleased to meet you.”
He slowly bent over and kissed the back of her hand. She didn’t know whether to laugh or swoon.
Then he pressed the green button on his belt, and a giant, invisible hand thumped into her and knocked her on her butt. The shadows around Oscar the Shadow-Man crowded around her, and the world fell into a black hole.