I hope you enjoy, and after reading, I hope you pre-order your copy at the links provided. And just so you know, you can order the paperback and read it before the ebook goes live. I'm just saying.
Nick flailed his arms as his head broke the surface some eight-to-ten seconds after colliding with it. A lacy cloud poured from his mouth as he gasped, taking in the cool air through wet lips. He bobbed slightly, his chin and mouth ducking underneath the surface. He choked as he noticed water had flowed in with that initial bob, his gag reflex kicking in as the panic instantly swept through him.
The water inside him didn’t get out fast enough: Nick managed to spit it out in a torrent.
Yuck, Charles River water! he cried internally. Charles River water in my mouth! The worst! Fuck, god-damn it, stay out of my belly!
The coughs racked his clenched chest as he tried treading water, swinging his arms back and forth and letting his shod feet kick out beneath the surface. He felt the chill nibbling against his face even as the water lapped against him, and he did quick math.
If I climb out of wherever the hell I am, he thought, then I’m going to catch a pneumonia. But if I stay in here, wherever here is, then I’ll turn into an icicle and die. He exhaled; another cloud spilled and twisted away to nothingness. The thoughts stemmed from a long lost memory: he was in his single digits back then, and the stubborn little boy wouldn’t get out of the local YMCA pool following a swimming lesson — the air outside the pool was too cold that day, he recalled, leading to his continual bobbing and subsequent demerit as soon as someone yanked him from the water. The latter, though, emerged from his ceaseless watching of Titanic around the same time. The decisions I have to make.
Nick tried to calm himself even as he remained buoyant. He tried to breathe normally, even as the cold water surrounded him and made his heart thump quicker than usual. He shook his head and blinked his eyelids, if only to make sure no stubborn droplets clung.
Up ahead, Nick noticed the moonlight dancing on the water, as well as what looked like a rather curved land mass just beyond it. He made out a few rocks on what he felt was a jetty, much like the one in Provincetown, since he couldn’t see over it. He guessed the jetty was only about one hundred feet away, which he figured would only take a few strokes of his water-logged jacket to reach.
Nick nodded, all as he shivered. He used both hands to displace the water in front of him, the motion countering the knife-like pains shooting through him. The cold seeped into his brain, which forced him to concentrate on getting to shore.
God, if you get me through this, he thought, I’ll go to church on Sunday. I don’t know where, but I’ll get there. Jesus Christ, this is cold.
The distance between Nick and the jetty dwindled over the next few chill-induced minutes until he felt safe enough to set his feet on the sloping scree. He closed his eyes as he hit the shallower waters and hefted himself up onto his quivering legs. Nick took three sloshing steps before he hit his knees on a somewhat un-rocky area, pulling his soaked body ashore. He kept his head bowed as he breathed, his eyes closed. His breath tingled as it escaped, caressing his cheeks like a lover.
Even as the water behind him stilled from his motions after a few moments, he heard the collision of beads against the rock, as if his harrowing ordeal gave him extra-sensory perception. He knew that wasn’t true, but with every drip from his hair to the rock, it resembled the slow pop of bacon frying on medium-low heat.
Nick blew out another long breath between pursed lips, all while the blood rampaged in his ears; he wanted to groan as he felt the sides of his head develop their own heartbeat, but he stifled himself.
The shivering — much like he had feared in that pool at the Y — started soon after.
“Warm,” he managed to spit. “Need to get warm.” Another breath vomited from deep within. “Need to get warm now.”
His teeth started their repeated chattering as the cold slowly moved deeper into him. He tried to think of warmth, if only to trigger a psychosomatic response within him. He thought of the Florida Keys where his wizened second cousin once removed had lived before he died a year ago, and how the old man had showed him where all the twenty-something co-eds skinny-dipped in a private cove off the Caribbean. Nick tried to get his lips to respond to that memory, to no avail.
He thought of sitting in a sauna, the steam canvassing its depths as he waited for a lovely co-ed or a twenty-something like himself to enter, her dirty blonde hair pulled up into a teacher-like bun, and subsequently drop her towel, exposing herself to his gaze, all while a mischievous smile played all over her face. He felt a bit of heat radiate from his groin.
Still, it wasn’t enough. He grimaced as he stood, his body trembling from the cold, and tried looking out in a 360-degree pattern, all as his clothes clung to him like a second skin.
“Where the hell am I?” he asked.
It was a good question, he had to admit. He saw nothing resembling lights in any direction, only the darkness of distant hills reflecting the moonlight. One looked impossibly high for Boston.
If I’m still in Boston, he thought. There are no lights anywhere, no sign of lights atop the skyscrapers. Maybe I got carried all the way over to Nahant? Nick shook his head, thinking it impossible. Even if I did, I would see something resembling life here, or some streetlights. He raised his hand. This isn’t life. The stars ain’t streetlights.
Nick turned and sat down, taking the opportunity to look out at the moon and where he had emerged from the water — or where he had dropped into it.
That vortex, or whatever the fuck it was, carried me a long way from Boston, that’s for sure, Nick thought with a few bobs of his head. The chills returned, even though there was no wind to be had. He instinctively wrapped his arms tight around himself, if only to try to withhold as much warmth as he had within his body for as long as possible. His jacket felt heavy, even in a sitting position. Then it dropped me, right here, into whatever this is. He stared out at the moon’s reflection before letting a tenuous swallow slip into his gullet.
Nick soon felt numb, as if he’d never feel warm again.
God, don’t let me freeze here, he thought, all as the darkness closed in on him.
He didn’t freeze.
Nick awoke just as a strengthening sun rose over his right shoulder. Pushing himself up, he detected a weight against his right cheek; he brushed the gravel and dirt aside, then rubbed the excess off with his fingertips until he felt sure he had a somewhat clear face. The shivering didn’t exactly return at once, though; seeing the sun so bright and unencumbered by practically anything made his heart swell double its size. He smiled, even though it hurt his flesh to do so.
The smiling, though…
Nick groaned reflexively, all as the sides of his head continued their incessant thrum. He swallowed, even though his saliva dragged down a parched throat with the effectiveness of rubbing sandpaper against a sheet of damp particleboard.
“I shouldn’t have drunk that much on an empty stomach,” he mused. “One would think I would have learned that lesson by now. Oy.”
He managed to get to his feet, the air pockets snapping inside his knees — he groaned — and looked toward the rising sun, holding his hands out in welcome, trying to draw in all the heat. He kept his eyes closed, the exhilaration at the warm touches seeping into his flesh. Nick shoved his shoulders back, the stiffness in his lower back giving way; he let another groan fly. A renewed vigor seeped into his joints with every deep, salt-infused breath; he wanted to stay there until he deemed himself adequately warm and dry from the mid-evening plunge, but he knew he had to find a way home, back to his off-campus apartment. He had class in only a few hours, and he needed to put the finishing touches on his discussion paper before handing it in. If there was anything he felt especially proud about, it was his penchant to stick to deadlines.
His thoughts about meeting it dissolved as soon as his eyes widened.
He had turned ninety degrees to his right. In that simple gesture, that simple movement, he finally got a good look at his surroundings.
The gasp rippled from Nick’s mouth as he took it all in, all while shuddering in quiet disbelief. In the full light of day, unencumbered by the veil of night, he looked out and just from the sight alone, he knew right away that he was not in Boston any longer — but he couldn’t place where on Earth he now stood, either. For a moment, he thought the vortex, or whatever it was, had flung him halfway across the state, yet he wiped the thought clear even as it came to him: even in the rural towns beyond Sturbridge, the roads were paved and well maintained.
Here, wherever the hell here was, they weren’t. The roads looked incredibly narrow, far narrower than anything he had experienced in his life, and puddles dotted the ways, darkening the dirt and softening it.
He saw sturdy constructions here and there, some nearly on top of their neighbors. He saw red brick forming the façade of each, yet the roofing, from his rather distant vantage point, looked rather primitive. Large pastures full of green and blooming flowers flanked the rearsides of these buildings — he felt sure they were dwellings, for a light gray smoke trickled from well-used chimneys — with livestock munching away at a fence abutting the nearby road.
Yet his eyes grew even larger as he set his gaze on the recognizable dark mountain from last night. Unmistakable, there were paths carved into it, and even from this distance, about a mile or so away, maybe even less, he saw several different things scurrying about its side.
He swallowed. He hoped they were friendly, and that they’d have an idea of how to get back to Boston from here.
Am I in Amish country? he added as an afterthought. That’s the only explanation as to where I am. I’m hanging with the fucking Amish.
Nick walked away from the shoreline and wandered down a house-less lane, taking great care not to sink into the mud. A light pile of snow caressed the side of it, caked in the same stuff on which he now stood. It was no more than five inches high at the base of the long fence, which he noticed was built almost in an X pattern between the fat posts set ten feet apart. He had seen fences constructed like that during field trips to Old Sturbridge Village during his high school years.
And on days warmer than this, too, he thought as he shoved his hands into his jacket pockets and pulled it closer to his belly. Thankfully, I didn’t catch pneumonia, unless I did, I’m dead now, and this is whatever paradise is supposed to be. Although I have to say I didn’t think paradise would be this muddy, or have the remnants of a winter storm on the side of the road, but hey, who am I, really?
Nick turned right onto a wider boulevard, this one just as muddy as the last. He noticed several piles of horse droppings smack dab in the middle, and he immediately side-stepped the first batch. In doing so, he almost stepped in the second, missing it by mere centimeters.
He let go of a throaty grunt and refrained from pulling the back of his wrist against his brow.
“So much for looking at the scenery,” he muttered, “of which there is none. Have to watch out for landmines instead.” Nick twisted his lips in disgust. “Crap.”
He continued his impromptu morning stroll, the sun clearly behind him. His shadow remained tight to him, he saw, while he tried to find the source of chickens cooing nearby. His sneakers only sank by a couple of millimeters in the loose mud; the corners of his mouth sank that amount, too.
Definitely Amish, Nick thought as he firmed his jaw and nodded his head.
“Are you lost?” a voice called from behind.
Nick whipped around and found a matronly woman standing several feet away. She had the look of Mary Poppins, but with light wrinkles near the corners of her eyes. The woman’s dress was well worn and not a bright navy, and she carried a rather large bag on her arm that was just as well-worn as her clothes. Her gaze pierced him, as if doing so with a great deal of scrutiny.
Surely she’s looking at my damp clothing and wondering if she should call the police, he thought. Yet now that I think about it, maybe I should be the one calling police. She certainly doesn’t look like she belongs in, well, my time — unless she’s Amish, of course.
“Yeah,” he replied softly. “I don’t know where I am.”
The woman approached cautiously. Her head tilted to the left as she halted practically in front of him.
“Are you looking for work, by any chance?”
Nick blinked. He didn’t understand the question, nor did he understand why she continued to shower him with that intrusive look. He wanted to say, “No, I’m looking for a way home because I’m going to miss class,” but he wasn’t sure if she would understand that — especially if she were Amish; ending one’s schooling in the eighth grade sounded too foreign to him, and he didn’t have much time left to get his degree.
What he did after that was purely up to the job market. He had thought about teaching history at a high school — his alma mater was in the process of phasing his old history teacher out, given that he neared 70 and really didn’t want to slow down, despite the superintendent’s misgivings about the man’s age and drinking problems — but wondered if teaching at a middle school was a safer bet.
“I don’t really know?” He didn’t try to hide his anxiety, at least not in his voice. Did she want him to work as her private dancer, a take-it-off kind of boy? As a masseur? “Don’t really think I’m looking for a job, but I think I’m open to anything?”
“I have a farm that needs a hand,” the woman said. “My husband passed away a few weeks ago; murdered, actually —”
Nick blinked again at her forwardness. Who is so open about such things? Christ, if my pseudo-wife was murdered — okay, let’s not go that far. I don’t even have a girlfriend, the woman in the bar with the skin-tight dress notwithstanding. It’s been a while since I’ve had a true blue lady in my life, one that actually wants to Netflix and Chill with me. But I don’t believe I’d be telling total strangers that my spouse was recently murdered and that my farm is looking for a hand, but what do I know?
“I’m so sorry to hear that, ma’am, but I’m not a farmer. Really,” he said as soon as the woman’s sadness and her own anxiety rippled, “I’m just a student of history.”
“Oh,” the woman replied. “It would be nice to have someone to give my son a hand. Lord knows my eldest remaining son doesn’t know which end of a hoe goes in the ground. Too busy playing politics.”
“I’m sorry, eldest remaining son?”
He knew he shouldn’t have asked, but it came out too fast, even before his brain had the opportunity to put his tongue on lockdown. But since she was being so open and honest, he might as well pry even more information from her.
“Yes, my eldest first-born son died in the war. Left us in a right pickle, not his fault of course, and now with my husband gone and our youngest ones doing what they can, we could use a man of strength around our farm, especially with John, the eldest remaining son, that is, being such a useless Crown sympathizer.”
Nick tilted his head by a fraction of an inch at hearing those last words and tried to process what it meant. He had never heard the words “Crown sympathizer” outside of his classes — not even in the small work groups the professor wanted did he heard those words flung about in such haphazard fashion — and hadn’t considered using them in any every day conversation.
“I’m sorry — did you just say Crown sympathizer?” he asked, growing aware that he felt a numbness near his shoulders, his flesh tingling.
“I did. My son thinks George, king for all of nearly four and a half years now, is the bee’s knees, if that’s the proper saying. Glory in the name of Britain indeed. Boy wishes he could live in London. If we could afford it, I would have put his powdered wig-loving self on an outgoing ship and made sure he stays in that dirty little town long before now. But no, the Sugar Act hurt us, even though he says it was necessary.”
Nick tried to move his lips, but he heard nothing emerge from his throat, other than a light gurgle. He thought he was in the midst of choking, or worse, having a stroke, but he didn’t feel his left arm going completely numb, or that the side of his face sloped, as if his skin and flesh wanted to fall off his skull. None of that was happening, but he realized that he didn’t feel so good.
He tried to process everything the widow woman had said, and it made his mind spin: from her eldest son being killed in the war to Crown sympathizing eldest-remaining son, to George — certainly she can’t mean Prince William’s son, right? he wondered — but what really threw him for a loop was her casual mention of the Sugar Act. That meant —
Nick never got the words out. He felt his eyelids shoot back into his skull, all while his legs lost all connectivity with his brain.
He toppled hard as they gave way, and saw nothing else.
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