Chapter 9: The Falconer

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So off we go, the three of us, determined to find that cursed phone booth that uprooted us from our comfortable lives at the retirement home and transported us here, to the Middle of Nowhere, sometime in the 19th century.

“Do you even remember the retirement home?” Melissa asks me with an incredulous look when I voice my complaints aloud. “Um, hello? The dullest place on earth? Bunch of old coots sitting around, arguing over which reality show to watch next on TV? If you ask me,” she continues, lifting her face toward the wide blue expanse of sky, “I’d much rather be out here, breathing the clean air, riding horses around in the sunshine.”

A few hours of sunshine, though, and she rethinks her words. I can’t help but laugh as I look at her face, which is burnt as red as a pomegranate. “I’ve got some aloe vera gel you can use when we get back,” I say. She just scowls at me.

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As the sun begins to sink behind the distant mountains, Richard suggests that we go get some shut-eye. “I have a place we can use,” he says, then leads us to a nearby silver mine, which he apparently owns. “I have a house in town, too,” he says. “But I sleep here sometimes, to keep an eye on things.”

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“Don’t you mean, Jesse Barnes sleeps here?” I ask.

Richard blinks a couple of times. “Oh yeah. Jesse Barnes.” He frowns. “It’s weird. Sometimes I forget that I’m not him.”

“Same thing happens to me,” says Melissa, as we follow Richard down a flight of splintery wooden stairs. “If I don’t keep reminding myself who I really am, it’s like her thoughts start to take over.”

I’m relieved to hear I’m not the only one struck by occasional amnesia. “Where do you think they went?” I ask. “You know, the people whose bodies we’re inhabiting? Do you think they traveled to some other place and time, too? Or are we sharing the same— ”

Melissa lets out a sudden shriek.

“Relax,” says Richard. “It’s just my falcon. Guys, meet Homer.” A huge brown bird glares at Melissa and me from Richard’s shoulder. Its gaze is so fierce, it sends a shudder down my spine. Thank goodness I’m not its prey.

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“Oh, I see. Jesse does falconry?” Melissa’s voice sounds faint. “How…nice.” She turns away as Richard begins to explain the details of falconry with great enthusiasm. Later, we find her fast asleep in a rocking chair in Richard’s small bedroom. Richard and I flip a coin for the bed. I end up curled on the hard, dusty floor.

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“Too bad your falcon can’t help us hunt down this magic phone booth,” I say with a dry laugh as we set out the next morning.

“Ha ha.” Richard rolls his eyes.

“Better yet, I wish we could find it by GPS,” I say. “Man, I miss my cell phone.”

“Cell phone…that’s it!” Melissa cries, stopping her horse. “Guys, listen!”

“To what?” I stare at her.

She holds up a finger and tilts her head, listening to something. “Do you hear that?”

Sure enough, there is a faint trilling sound. A bird?

“It’s a ringing telephone,” she says with certainty. “It must be the phone booth!” She takes off, following the ringing sound. Richard and I chase after her.

And then…there it is. The glass-paned wooden phone booth, like a prop from an old movie. Hallelujah! I am filled with such elation, it’s a wonder that no shaft of golden light beamed down on the booth from the heavens.

“We’re going home!” Melissa slides down from her horse, lifts her heavy skirt, and races over to the booth. I run after her.

I have to admit, I am really going to miss things like being able to run, and not having to take a half dozen pills every day.

But still, we get to shake off this nineteenth-century dust and return to our own cozy beds and food that we don’t have to hunt first. I get to use my precious cell phone again!

“Before we head back,” Richard says to Melissa, “I just have to tell you – you look smokin’ hot in that body, and I am sorry we never got a chance to—”

“Richard!” Melissa swats his arm, laughing.

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“Okay okay.” He pulls her into a hug. “See you on the other side.”

I step forward. “Yeah, um…I’ll be seeing you, too. And since I’ll never get a chance to do this again…” Before she can stop me, I grab Melissa and kiss her, hard. When we pull apart, she is gaping at me, breathless. Richard, to my satisfaction, is glowering. I’m pretty sure that if he could, he would sic his falcon on me right about now. 1865-r-851865-r-861865-r-87

“Guess it’s time for one of us to answer that phone,” I say. At Melissa’s nod, I slide open the door and step inside.

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The moment I touch the phone, the booth begins to rattle violently. Then it starts to spin. Round and round it goes, until I’m sure I’m going to be sick. Then comes the flash of light and the puff of smoke.

And everything is still.

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Chapter 8: Saloon in the Wild Wild West

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We don’t have any idea where we’re going.

I just lead Delilah all around town, Melissa following close behind. Every now and then, we pass a man on horseback, like us, or meandering along the dusty road.

“Howdy,” I’d say, tipping my hat. I study each face as they greet me back, concentrating on Richard. But if any of these men are the real Richard, he doesn’t reveal his true self.

The only good thing that comes out of our little escapade is that I suddenly get good at riding horses. I mean, really good. Cowboy good. Which makes sense, since Wes’s memories keep trying to flood mine until I can barely remember what Miss Charity – I mean, Melissa and I are searching for.

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“I’m getting awfully hungry,” Melissa says as the sun begins to sink and the long shadows melt away. She pats at her hair, which has slipped from its neat bun and sticks to her face. “Maybe we should stop and rest for a while.”

“Good idea,” I say. We tie up our horses at the nearest hitching post and head into a saloon.

Big mistake.

The saloon itself is normal, I guess. Lots of wood, rough-looking guys guzzling thick mugs of ale, darts (because what better combination than a bunch of drunk men and sharp, pointy things to throw?). The only thing missing is a piano guy thumping out ragtime tunes on a splintery piano.

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There’s one woman in the saloon who isn’t dressed like a floozy, so Missy tries to make polite conversation. But the woman turns out to be a bar maid with a vocabulary so colorful, it would make a construction worker blush. Missy edges away and waits by herself in a corner while I go around the room, leaning into card games and making small talk, hoping there’d be a Disney-like puff of smoke, then one of these guys might magically transform into Richard. But the only puffs of smoke come from the pipes and cigars clenched between their teeth.

Then, out of the corner of my eye, I see a man burst through the saloon doors, carrying a shotgun. For a second, my heart thuds, as I have visions of him opening fire in some crazed wild west shootout. But the guy just parks his shotgun against the wall and studies the scene with a calm, bored expression. His eyes land on Missy, still in her corner, and his face brightens. As he swaggers toward her, I excuse myself from the non-Richard crowd and hurry across the room.

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Jealous? Me? Well, maybe a little. But come on – Missy is trapped in the body of a hot twenty-something single woman and is being flirted with by Mr. Cool Cowboy, while I’m good ol’ Wes Turner, homestead resident, husband, and father-to-be.

I don’t stand a chance.

“Howdy. Wes Turner.” I hold out my hand to the stranger, who looks at it like I’d just offered him a wet sock.

“Jesse Barnes,” he says. His upper lip lifts into a half sneer. “But everyone knows that.”

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And suddenly, I do remember. Jesse Barnes is a recent transplant from back east. Rich as sin and more powerful than the town sheriff. Please don’t be Richard. Please, don’t be Richard, I think. But I’m out of luck. Because just then, Jesse’s face morphs into that of a young Richard, complete with thick glasses.

“It’s you!” I exclaim.

“It’s you!” he says, paling. I touch my stubbled chin, wondering if I turned into me when he turned into Richard.

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“Oh, I knew it was you!” says Missy, laughing. I shake off a fresh surge of jealousy.

“I am so glad to see the two of you,” says Richard. “Man, this place…no computers, no television, nothing. What’s the good in being rich if all you can do is gamble or buy more horses?”

“One can never have enough horses,” I say.

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“But how on earth do we get out of here?” asks Missy, looking around the saloon. “How do we, you know, get back home?”

Richard shrugs. “We got here in a telephone booth. So maybe we have to find a telephone booth to get back home.”

“Um, telephones weren’t invented yet?” I point out.

Richard smirks. “You got a better idea, Alexei?” He offers Missy his elbow, then escorts her out of the saloon.

I pick up his shotgun and follow them into the night. “My name is not Alexei,” I grumble to Richard’s back. “It’s Al.”