Chapter 21: Shadowhood and The Sad King

So apparently, I’m a wizard.

A bona fide, wand-waving, magic-producing wizard. All I can do is hope that Richard never finds out. I can hear the Harry Potter jokes already.

Since I am aware of who I really am, I assume that I haven’t been Mr. Wizard for very long. I think that’s the way it works. And since we’ve been teleported into a time and place that seems like something from a Brothers Grimm story, I’ve decided to tell it like a fairy tale.

Once upon a time…

There was a wizard (me, of course). He is not the old kind of wizard, like Gandolf or Merlin, with a long, grizzled beard and impressive gnarled staff. Instead, he is rather young – in his forties, maybe, like my kids. The village folks refer to him as Shadowhood, as he always wears a long, hooded cloak which casts his face in shadow. Shadowhood lives alone in a cottage which was built for him by the last king of Allowyn, as payment for service.

Is Shadowhood a good wizard or a bad wizard? That’s hard to say. When he performed magic for good kings, then the people called him good. When he performed magic for bad kings, then the people called him bad. I wish that I could say that he has scruples; that he turned down orders that went against his own sense of moral judgment. After all, the idea of inhibiting the body of someone who might have, at times, played the villain, makes my skin crawl. If given the choice, I’d play Superman every time.

But Shadowhood has lived in a time of fear, when only the best, most courageous men dare to act against the king and risk the executioner’s axe. And Shadowhood is no more courageous than most.

The current ruler of Allowyn is King Frederick II. He is a kind and fair ruler, but is known by the nickname Frederick the Sad. This guy is a mushball. Don’t take me wrong – I’m all for men expressing their emotions. Why should women own the right to shed a few tears? But King Frederick is so melancholy, he could be a poster boy for Prozac, if Prozac had been a thing six hundred years ago. Even Jacko the Jester couldn’t bring a smile to His Majesty’s face, and Jacko was known as one of the most talented jesters to ever live at court.

King Frederick was not always down in the dumps. He was as cheerful and relaxed as a king could be, until something happened to trigger his unhappiness. At first, the people attributed the change in mood to his wife, Queen Margrethe, who is a lovely woman, but rather surly and sharp-tongued. But a lack of  marital harmony did not seem enough to explain his chronic sadness. Then, as time passed by, the reason became more clear.

The king and queen have only one child – a daughter, whom they named Lalia. Princess Lalia was blessed with great beauty, earning speculations that she would marry well, and bring great honor to the kingdom. Though she could not inherit the throne alone, as a woman, she would be able to rule side by side with her husband, and produce heirs who could claim the future throne.

However, there turned out to be one tiny snag in this great plan. Princess Lalia is mute. The child is gorgeous, but is quieter than the vacuum of outer space. More silent than six o’clock AM the morning after Mardi Gras.

Rumor has it that an evil witch from a distant kingdom held a grudge against King Frederick, and thereby cursed his only child. Not like the Sleeping Beauty curse where she would prick her finger on a spinning wheel and die, though. More like the Ariel curse where her voice was stolen. But still. Because of the curse, the king and queen have been unable to find an appropriate suitor to marry their daughter. They summoned young kings and earls and dukes from all over Christendom. But the story was always the same. The young man would be enchanted by Lalia’s beauty and attempt to woo her. But the moment he learned of her disability, and the cause of it, he would recoil in fear or disgust. Then Mr. Royal-face woud hop back on his white horse and ride off into the sunset. Alone.

And so, Princess Lalia is in danger of becoming the worst thing ever – an Old Maid, who will leave the royal family with no heirs. If this happens, then the kingdom of Allowyn may fall under the control of King Frederick’s lazy and treacherous younger brother, Cameron, who had been exiled to Denmark for plotting against the king. I guess I can see why this makes the king so depressed. Either that, or the witch’s curse just happened to sap him of his joy, too.

Whatever the cause, the entire kingdom now lives under the gray saltwater cloud hanging over the king’s head. And when Kingsey ain’t happy, nobody’s happy. Not even Jacko the Jester, whose one and only job is to make everybody merry.

The night that a page from the castle stops by to deliver an order from the king to come and see him at once, I know what I must do. I hop right on my horse, Styx. Then I ride toward the castle without delay. It’s not often a wizard gets the opportunity to play the hero and save the entire kingdom from despair and ruin. Maybe this will be my chance.

Chapter 7: Little Schoolhouse on the Prairie (or Wherever We Are)

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I can’t go home.

That is, I can’t return to the little house where I live with my wife, Miranda.

Shoot. I shake my head to clear it. Little by little, memories of my life – my real life back in the retirement home in Manzanita Heights – are fading, the way bright autumn leaves do toward the end of November. The other memories, his memories, are becoming sharper, more real. My hands once cut down the slender trunks of pine trees, then notched them together to build my home. My eyes had squinted down the shaft of a rifle as I tracked a lone deer. My lips tingle with the memory of kissing my wife – I mean his wife, Miranda.

I’m turning into Wes Turner.

Even my riding skills are improving. I no longer bounce around in the saddle as Delilah trots down the road toward some unknown destination. Oh wait – I know exactly where she’s headed, I realize, as she crosses the rickety bridge over Arrowhead Creek. We’re headed to visit my sister.

My sister – I mean, Wes’s sister, Charity, works as a teacher in the local schoolhouse. When I arrive, the children are all bent over their desks, reading out of a book along with Miss Olivia, Charity’s assistant.

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“Wesley!” Charity’s eyes grow round with surprise, then fill with worry. “Is everything all right? Is Miranda feeling okay?”

“’Course she’s okay.” I wince at the way Wes’s drawl sounds slower and heavier than ever. “Why wouldn’t she be?”

Charity glances toward her students, then lowers her voice. “Well, I hear that first-time pregnancies can be a little rough on the mother.”

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Now my eyes widen in surprise. Miranda’s pregnant? How come there was nothing in Wes’s memories about that? Maybe he was so scared about becoming a father that he’d blocked it out. “She seemed fine to me when I last saw her.” I wince as I recall how I hadn’t gone home the night before. Miranda is probably worried sick. I can picture her pacing the floor, wringing her hands together the way she does when she’s nervous. I blink hard, trying to focus on my own thoughts. As I do, it occurs to me that Charity is a very attractive young woman. Which is a weird thing to think about your sister, let me tell you.

“Thing is, I need your help,” I tell her. “I’m not sure who else to turn to.”

“Anything,” she says.

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“This is going to sound, well, crazy,” I say. “But I am not your brother. My name is not Wes Turner. It’s Al Becerra, and I came here from the future.” I wait for her reaction, certain that she’s going to burst out laughing, or maybe faint the way women always did in old-time movies. But to my surprise, she does none of that.

“Al.” Her voice drips with relief. “Al it’s me.” And right before my eyes, she transforms, just as I had in front of the mirror. Instead of my sister, Charity, I am face-to-face with Melissa Hilargi, still dressed like a schoolteacher. “I’m so happy to see you,” she says in a whisper, her eyes swimming with tears. “I was starting to forget – it’s like I’m turning into Charity.”

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“Same.” I resist the urge to grab her hands and pull her into an embrace. “We’ve got to get out of here. Maybe the two of us can find some way.”

Miss Whats-Her-Face rings a little hand bell, and the children file outside for recess. Melissa and I follow them out. To the playground.

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“That little phone booth,” Melissa says. “I’m sure that’s how we got here. But how?”

I shake my head. “No idea. But if you’re here, and I’m here, and maybe Richard’s here, then there’s a chance that the phone booth thing came with us, too.”

Forgetting about the curious eyes of the children, Melissa takes my hand and leads me toward the horse stall. “Then let’s go find it. Right now. And Richard, too.”

I sigh. “Can’t we just leave him here?”

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Moments later, we’ve both mounted our horses and set off in search of the mysterious phone booth. And Richard.

 

 

Chapter 6: Roadkill Stew in the Brothel

“Hey Les,” I say.

“Hey Wes.” Les grins and claps me on the shoulder. “I was just thinking how I could use a drinking buddy. You game?”

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I follow him into The Flying Rooster, where we both down a few strong drinks that taste like a cross between whisky and floor polish. Not far from where we sit, a group of men are clustered around a table, slapping down cards with loud whoops of glee. And yes, there is a piano guy banging out tunes on a splintery piano. It all seems familiar, though I don’t know if it’s due to Wes Turner’s memories or if it reminds me of a scene from an old western movie.

“What brings you around here so late?” asks Lester, after I’ve downed enough brew to start singing Oh! Susanna along with the piano. “Trouble with the missus again?”

“You might say that.” I give him a sheepish grin. I wonder how often Wes and Miranda have disagreements. “Any idea where a henpecked husband might lay his weary head for the night?”

Lester snorts. “I imagine you’ll find yourself at Buzzard Rock, as usual.”

“Oh yeah.” Wes’s memories swim through my drunken fog. Buzzard Rock is a compound of sorts, surrounded by high walls, where Wes sometimes rents a room. After I say goodnight to Lester, I somehow manage to mount my horse.

“Go to Buzzard Rock,” I tell her, my voice thick and slurred. “Gee!” Delilah moves slowly, deliberately up the road. But she doesn’t head back to Wes’s house. Instead, she deposits me in front of a closed pair of heavy wooden entry gates. Hanging above the gates is a crooked wooden sign, which reads: Buzzard Rock. I slide off Delilah’s back, stumble toward the gates, and pound them with my fist until at last an annoyed voice calls out from the other side.

“Good lord – hold your horses, already!” The gates slide open, and there stands a formidable woman, hands planted on her round hips, staring me up and down with an appraising look. Wes Turner’s memories tell me that this woman is Madam Cleo, and that I would do well to be humble and polite in her presence.

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“Hello Miss Cleo. Ma’am.” I clear my throat. When she continues to glare, I slip my hat off for a moment and do an awkward little bow.

“Hmph Go on in, then,” says Madam Cleo. “I’m ‘fraid that Liddie’s run off, but Birdie and Maybelle are available, if they’ll do.”

I stop in my tracks. “Wait. You mean to tell me that this place is a…is a…” Two women approach just then, their garish frocks and heavily made-up faces answering my question.

“Come with me for some fun, darlin’” says one woman, who turns out to be Maybelle.

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“Uh…I don’t think so,” I say, stepping back.

“I beg your pardon?” Maybelle’s jaw drops. “You got a problem with the likes of me?”

“No no, that’s not it,” I say hurriedly. “I’m sure you’re…very good. At what you do. But you see, I’m not – I mean, I’m uh…hungry.”

Maybelle is still pouting. “Well, go on into the kitchen then. They’ll get you fixed up right.” She sweeps an arm toward one of the wooden buildings. As I’m rushing toward it, eager to get away, it occurs to me that if I’ve been magically transported into the Old West, and I’m stuck in some other person’s body, then maybe Melissa and Richard are here somewhere, too. I glance over my shoulder at Maybelle and Birdie. Could one of them actually be Melissa in disguise?

Dazed, I wander into the kitchen, where I’m seated beside a gun-toting desperado named Joey the Kid, or possibly Richard, I don’t know, and served a bowl of some spicy, stew-like concoction.

“Say, do you know what’s in this stuff?” I ask, frowning at a spoonful of the greasy glop.

Joey the Kid shrugs. “Possum prob’ly. Though it might be skunk. Dunno.”

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My stomach lurched. I shoved away my bowl and got up from the table. As I’m hunting around for someone to fetch me a cup of water to wash away the test of roadkill, someone lets out a furious roar across the room. I spin around. Joey the Kid is stomping toward me, pistol drawn.

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“You dare to come ‘round here and insult a lady?” he bellows. I can’t take me eyes off the pistol, which he’s waving around in the air, finger on the trigger.

“Lady? You mean…her?” I gesture toward Maybelle, who is watching the confrontation with a scowl. “Listen mister, I didn’t— ”

“What, are you too good for the likes of Maybelle?” Joey steps closer, his pistol pointed right at me.

“Of course not, I— ”

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“That’ll be enough, Joey.” To my relief, Lester steps between us, and Joey stalks away, still muttering under his breath. Lester turns to me. “I think it’s high time you were on your way, Wes.”

“Yeah. Guess you’re right.” I tip my hat one last time at the “ladies,” who are huddled in a corner shooting dirty looks my way. If one of them is Melissa, I have no way of knowing. I leave the compound and mount my horse, unsure as to where I should go. All I know is that Melissa and Richard may be the keys to getting back home, and that somehow, I have to find them.

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Chapter 5: The Nag and the Mare

Lucky for me, there is a small stack of firewood just outside the door, where I – I mean, where Wes Turner had placed it before heading upstairs for a nap.

“’Bout time,” says Miranda, as I cram kindling into the wood stove. “I was startin’ to think you were going to sleep all afternoon. You feeling all right?”

“Not exactly.” I remove my hat, wipe the sweat from my brow, then put it back on my head. “Look, uh – Miranda, I don’t know how to tell you this, but I’m not your husband.”

Miranda’s expression darkens. “Does this mean you’re still sore about what I said? Look, I’m sorry, but your friend Lester Ames is no good. Everybody knows what kind of filth lies behind the walls of his compound.”

 

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“This is not about— ” I try to get a word in, but it’s no good. Miranda spends the next five minutes jabbering my ear off about town gossip and corruption, until I finally have had enough. “I’ve got to get out of here,” I say. “I’ve got stuff to do.”

“Well, don’t forget to get to take Delilah to the smith to get shooed,” says Miranda.

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“Delilah?” As if on cue, there’s a whinny from just outside the window. A sleek, brown mare stares back me with round, liquid eyes.

“I already saddled her up while you were sleeping,” says Miranda. “Now, you’d best hurry, before the smith closes up shop.”

 

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Happy to get away from Wes Turner’s nagging wife, I head outside and approach Delilah, who nickers softly at the sight of me. “Well girl,” I say, patting her neck, “looks like you and I get to take a little ride. Ready?”

The trouble is, I’m not ready. Wes Turner may have ridden horses hundreds of times. But I have never ridden a horse a day in my life, unless you count carousel horses. And climbing onto Delilah’s back is nothing like mounting a carousel horse. I strain and struggle before finally hoisting my belly over Delilah’s saddle. Then I swing a leg over and grab onto the reins.

 

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“Go!” I say. Delilah does nothing. “Go!” I say louder, tugging the reins. Delilah just tosses her head. I sigh in frustration, wishing I could just turn a key in the ignition. How the heck do you get a horse to move? Then Wes Turner’s memories kick in. I nudge the horse with my heels, shift my weight forward, and say, “Gee!”

Delilah takes off.

She’s not moving that fast, just trotting down the road as I bump around in the saddle. But she may as well be a race car. Gripping the reins, I hang on for dear life and try not to slip from the saddle as we pass occasional houses, trees, and even a ring of covered wagons.

 

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When we’ve almost reached the town, a ringed snake slithers across our path. Delilah rears up on her hind legs and lets out a terrified whinny. I go flying, then hit the ground with a thud. For a second, I just lie there, seeing stars. No really – I keep picturing Christopher Reeve and praying that my injuries aren’t as bad as his. I give my legs a test wiggle and let out a sigh of relief. The fall only left me with a few scrapes and bruises, nothing serious. I climb to my feet and walk the remaining quarter mile to town, leading Delilah by the reins.

 

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The sun has already set, and only the saloons are aglow with soft lantern light. I’m leading Delilah toward a nearby hitching post when a familiar voice speaks from behind me. “Well, well, well. If it ain’t Wes Turner. Come to settle your debt?”

Slowly, I turn around, and find myself staring at the grinning face of Lester Ames, town sheriff.

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Chapter 4: What I Wouldn’t Do For Some Red Ruby Slippers

I wake up to golden, late afternoon sunlight streaming through my bedroom windows. For a moment, I just lie there, my head nestled in the soft, goose-down pillows. I have a dozen more things to do before nightfall – clean out the pigsty, collect a tin of water from the well, and chop some more firewood before Miranda has my head.

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“Wesley Turner!” she would scold, fists planted on her wide hips. “You know perfectly well that I can’t get supper started without firewood! How am I supposed to get the stove going?”

Firewood? I sit bolt upright. People don’t use firewood for stoves anymore. And who the heck was Miranda? I’m about to dismiss her as a fragment from a dream when I become aware of my surroundings. Cast iron bed topped with an embroidered quilt. Sturdy wooden furniture. Rough, splintery walls and floorboards.

Toto, I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore.

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I stand up and walk around the bed, noticing right away that my joints no longer creak and groan like rusty hinges. One glance out the tiny window confirms my suspicions – wherever I am, it is a long, long way away from Sleepy Meadows Retirement Home. Gone are the white stucco walls surrounding the garden. Gone are the rows of boxy, cookie-cutter houses that line the streets of Manzanita Heights. Here – wherever I am, tall, sloping cliffs of red rock surround a small, quaint town.

I blink. There has to be some logical explanation The last thing I remembered was stepping into that old-fashioned phone booth prop from Richard’s son. Had I tripped and hit my head so hard I’d fallen into a strange coma? Or maybe my kids had staged some kind of prank while I was sleeping, carrying me off to a wild west-themed bed-and-breakfast in some small town.

Then I catch a glimpse of myself in a full-length mirror. I’m young! Young! A twenty or thirty-something whippersnapper. A spring chicken. Still wet behind the ears. Thank goodness I suddenly have the strong heart of a much younger man, or I probably would have had a heart attack.

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My face is round and pinkish, framed by a thick, bushy beard – something I had never been able to grow before. My eyes are a deep, bright blue, filled with the secrets of another man’s life. The life of Wesley Turner, who had traveled here with his wife by wagon train, just after the gold rush tapered off in California, and just before the transcontinental railroad had come through. He had built this house for them with his bare hands. I know all about this other man, whose body I had inhabited. I could feel his memories mingling with my own, trying to take over.

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“No!” I tell my strange reflection. “I am not Wes Turner. My name is Al Becerra.” As I’m frowning into the mirror, my reflection shifts. Suddenly, I see myself. My real self, albeit fifty years younger, is frowning back at me. I’m still wearing the same rough, hand-sewn clothes as Wes, but it’s my own face peering out from under the worn felt hat. Then just as suddenly, the reflection shifts back to that of Wes Turner.

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I back away from the mirror, my heart pounding. What in tarnation is going on? Have I lost my mind? I stumble down a wooden staircase and find myself in the parlor. I glance at the door. I’ve got to get out of here.

“Wes Turner!” my wife, Miranda, calls out from the kitchen, where she’s rattling pots and pans. “Where is my firewood? Do I have to go and fetch it myself?”

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I pause, cringing. “No darlin’,” I say, my voice tumbling out with a syrupy, western drawl. “I was fixin’ to chop some right now.”

Me, chop firewood? I may have Wes Turner’s rough, calloused hands, but I had never chopped firewood before in my life. Even worse, I couldn’t pull out my cell phone and Google “How to Chop Firewood,” because cell phones wouldn’t be invented for more than one hundred years.

No phones. No internet. Not even indoor plumbing. I have been dropped down in an old-time version of the land of Oz, only this trip didn’t even come with a pair of red ruby slippers.

Chapter 3 – The Magic 8 Ball’s Prediction

Family Day is just about the best thing that ever happens at Sleepy Meadows. It comes twice a year – in April and October. Any more than that, and I guess the excitement would be too much for the weak hearts of some folk.

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I love Family Day because it’s one of the only times both of my kids, Sadie and Karl, come around to visit, along with my three grandkids. The rest of the time, we stay in touch on the telephone or Skype. Which is better than nothing, I guess. But nothing beats the real life warm hugs and laughter of the people you love.

This time around, I wake up with a strange, nervous feeling. Something different is going to happen on this Family Day, I just know it.

“Baloney!” says Richard, wearing his usual scowl. “Face it, Albert – the only unusual thing that’s going to happen on this Family Day is that they’re going to serve real meat instead of the mushy, ground-up garbage they serve every day.”

“My name is not Albert. It’s Al,” I say. I hold up my Magic Eight Ball. “And I’m telling you – today is different. I asked my Magic Eight Ball if something special was going to happen on Family Day, and it said ‘Signs point to yes.’”

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His scowl deepens. He grabs my Magic Eight Ball from my hands, shakes it, and asks, “Magic Eight Ball, is Alastair off his rocker? Are they finally coming to take him away, haha?”

The Magic Eight Ball’s answer floats into view. Don’t count on it.

“My name,” I say, taking back the Magic Eight Ball, “is not Alastair.”

A few hours later, I must admit that I’m disappointed. I mean, it was a lovely Family Day. Sadie and Chase show up with their spouses, and my grandkids are full of stories to share with me about school and sports and family vacations I wasn’t invited to. But nothing out-of-the-ordinary has happened. Richard was right.

I hate when he’s right.

I look around for Melissa, hoping to shock my kids with the announcement that she’s my new lover. (Of course, I’d be lying, but sometimes, you have to shake people up a little, heehee). But she’s busy with her own daughter and grandkids. Richard is one of the only residents with no visitors. He spends most of the afternoon shuffling around, muttering to himself. Probably debating some political policy.

I feel kind of sorry for the guy.

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My son, Chase, with three of my grandkids

After dinner, I seek him out, to ask if he wants to hang out with my grandkids and me while I help them with homework in the dining room. That’s when I see him out on the back patio, talking to someone. Richard has a visitor.

Later, he tells me that the visitor is his son, Collin. He’d missed most of Family Day, but manages to swing by at the last second.

“Dad!” he tells Richard. “I got a job! I landed a great role in a film.”

Richard sneers, looking Collin’s outlandish outfit up and down. “Don’t tell me you’re still trying to become an actor? When are you going to get a real job?”

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Collin’s scowl looks just like Richard’s. “A real job doing what? Sitting in front of a computer screen in some high-rise office?” He shakes his head. “I’m not like you, okay? I need…more than that. More excitement.”

“Excitement doesn’t pay the bills.”

“I pay the bills just fine.” Collin lets out an exasperated sigh. “Look Dad, don’t you ever regret that you didn’t have much adventure in your life before you…”

Before you ended up here, I silently finish his sentence.

“Never felt like I needed adventure,” Richard says. But a wistful look comes over his face as he says it. I know how he feels. Like our time for adventures is already over. We’re permanently stuck here, in this kennel for unwanted, unneeded parents.

Collin’s face lights up then, like he’s just had a great idea. “Hey dad, let me store something here for a day or two. It’s a prop, for the movie I’m in.”

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“Store some movie prop, here?” Richard looks at his son the way he’d looked at me earlier. Like he was off his rocker.

“I have to transport it to a new location this weekend. Just thought you and your friends might like to um…play around with it. You know, have adventures with a real movie prop.”

“That’s the dumbest thing I’ve—”

“Rock Paper Scissors?” Collin interrupts. “Best of five wins. If I win, the prop stays here for twenty-four hours.”

To my surprise, Richard agrees. The two hold out their fists and battle it out. Ro-Sham-Bo!

Collin wins three in a row. And Richard looks a lot less grumpy when the two at last hug goodbye.

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I go to bed, thinking, that must be it. That’s the big unusual thing that was going to happen today. Richard playing Rock Paper Scissors with his long-lost son, the movie star. Then the next day, Richard, Melissa, and I wander out to the garden, and we see it.

“Is that…a telephone booth?” Melissa’s eyes are huge. “What the heck is that doing in our garden?”

Richard chuckles. “That must be my son’s movie prop. I lost – well, kind of a bet. So now he’s keeping it here for a day for everyone to see.”

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As the two of them start talking about the crazy things kids do sometimes, I start checking out the prop. On the outside, it looks just like an ordinary, old-time phone booth. The kind you still see in movies happening in London. I wonder if it even has a telephone inside. Pushing open the door, I step inside the booth.

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Next thing I know, the phone booth starts to spin. Around and around I go, until everything is a blur. Then there’s a flash of bright light, and a whiff of smoke.

Then, there’s nothing.

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Chapter 2 – You Can Call Me Al

Chapter 2

So as I was saying, Melissa was an artist. Well, still is an artist if you don’t mind the way the tremors in her hands leave random smears on the canvas. I don’t mind one bit. In fact, I love everything about that woman, from her shaky hands to her frizzy hair to the way she laughs just a little too loud at my goofy jokes.

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“Al Becerra,” she says, “you are such a hoot!”

Yeah, my name is Al. Did I tell you that already? Sometimes the memory gets a little fuzzy after the age of eighty.

Melissa is the reason why I don’t run away from Sleepy Meadows Retirement Home. Well, her and the fact that I’d have no other place to go, except to live with one of my kids, Sadie or Nick. And I can guarantee you that the moment I show up on one of their doorsteps, they’ll drag me right back here to live out my days.

Just for that, I plan to live until I’m at least one hundred, and stick them with the bill.

Anyway, back to Melissa.

Did I tell you how she painted a portrait of me? Well, she did. In my opinion, that painting is a masterpiece. It may sound strange that I hung a giant picture of me in my bedroom, but seeing her artwork on my wall each morning when I open my eyes gives me the strength I need to pull myself out of bed and exercise. Yep, exercise. Morning calisthenics with Melissa was the other thing I get to look forward to each morning.

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“So, Alex,” Richard says, clapping me on the shoulder. “When are you going to confess to Melissa that you’re just a big poseur who hates exercise?”

I twist out of his grasp. “Well Dick,” I say, glaring, “first of all, my name is Al, not Alex.” He knows this. I’ve reminded him time after time. But Richard gets a big kick out of trying to figure out which name Al is a nickname for. He’s still never guessed right. “Second of all, who are you calling poseur? I like exercise just fine.” Granted, I’d rather go for a long swim than do aerobics in front of the TV. But at least it’s time that I got to spend with Melissa.

Richard doesn’t like that she and I spend so much time together, on account for his jealousy issues. You see, he is head over heels for Melissa, too. He does all kinds of crazy things to try and get her attention. When she gets tired of listening to his political tirades, he tries telling jokes, the way I often do. But they often fall flat. He also makes up outlandish stories, like the time he met an actual alien from a distant planet, who took him into his spaceship to run experiments. Or the time he traveled back in time and met his great-grandpa, who traveled out west in a caravan of covered wagons.

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Melissa listens patiently, her eyes twinkling with amusement. Of course she doesn’t believe a word Richard was saying. She just has a way of making people feel listened to.

One day, I finally work up the courage to be romantic, and hand Melissa a big bouquet of flowers I’d cut from the garden out back. “Oh Al!” she cries, burying her face in the bouquet. “They’re lovely!” They also end up making her sneeze, so I have to put them in the kitchen instead of her room. But after that, she and I grow a little closer.

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Unfortunately, Richard also decides that same day that he wants to be closer to Melissa, too. So when the three of us are hanging out, watching TV, he puts the moves on her.

Melissa is not impressed.

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Neither am I. In fact, I don’t say another word to Richard until Family Visit Day a few days later. And I wouldn’t have spoken to him then, either, if it hadn’t been for the Big Fight and the Weird Thing that showed up afterward.

I’ll tell you more later. Right now, I need a nap.