Starting a series on tricks of the mind. By way of preparation, a short story…
By Tedd Roberts.
Rob's head never quite hit the desk, but the exclamation came about because the sudden jerk and head shake caused a sharp pain in his neck.
"Gotta get some sleep" he mumbled. It was quiet and only moderately lighted in the room used as a home office. The rest of the house was dark, except for the inevitable tell-tale lights on electronics. The screensaver had kicked in, and the computer screens had dimmed, but brightened once Rob began typing again. "Darn deadlines. I hate them. I want to get some sleep because I have to be in early tomorrow, but no, these reports had to be completed and circulated before noon." He paused. "Great, now I'm talking to myself."
With a few clicks, he checked the files, decided that the reports would be finished with about 20 minutes work, tomorrow morning. With relief, he closed the files, shut down the word processor, and uploaded everything to a network disk that he could access from his office. Rob then reached for the wireless lighting control on the desk and turned off the room lights, trusting to the residual glow of the computer monitor and a few LED indicators to navigate to the stairway.
Five paces to the basement rec room, navigate around the stationary bike. Two paces to the stairway, don't kick the bookcase. Eleven steps up to the main floor. Feel for the basement door, it's closed, open it to a dark hallway. The lights were off, Patty was upstairs asleep. Three paces, turn right past the sofa. Four paces, watch the edge of the rug. Rob knew all of the movements in the absence of light, he practiced many times, and actually liked navigating by only the dim red, green and blue glow of the LEDs. The flashing blue to the right was the computer network box, one more pace and turn right again. He was at the stairs to the bedroom floor. It was darker up there, fewer electronics and the nightlights were usually behind closed bedroom doors. He'd made the trip many times and hardly stumbled at all, a couple of unfortunate broken toes many years ago had taught him that he had a choice of either watching every footfall, or counting every pace and steps of this path.
Fifteen steps to the top floor.
No, that was wrong. There were only thirteen stairs between the first and second floors.
He felt the top landing under his bare feet. There was a hardwood tread on this ultimate step before changing back to carpet. He reached for the railing and felt the comforting newel and post marking the top of the stairway, and here was the knob for the bedroom door. He opened the door and was surprised by the lack of light. There should have been a clock on each side of the bed, one was Patty's and one Rob's. She awakened at the slightest sound, but he required a loud radio to disrupt his sleep. The fact that they had different schedules also led to the solution of each having their own alarm clock. Missing also were the little LEDs indicating the cordless phone, the charging station for cell phones, and the power strip that everything was plugged into.
This was not right. Had he stepped too far and entered Patrick's room? Most of his electronic appliances were with him at college. No, the streetlight should have been visible through the window, but there was absolutely *no* light in this place.
As Rob turned to step back into the hallway, he felt the carpet give way to bare wood, then cold hard concrete. All of the oddities were coalescing into something very strange. He couldn't be here, yet where else could he have traveled while still remaining in his own house. The fifteen steps. That was significant, maybe if he could get back to the stairway.
One pace from his bedroom door, or three from Patrick's. Stop, reach carefully, there was danger of falling down the stairs if he wasn't careful. No, there was a wall here. Cold, hard, not drywall or even metal. Rock or concrete, like the cold surface beneath his feet. Very strange. He turned around to feel for the door or doorframe behind him, but it was not there. Of course, like the legends of the Faerie, or NIven's "For a Foggy Night." Rob had taken a wrong step, and now he was … elsewhere.
It wasn't entirely dark, there was a dim gray light ahead. Stepping carefully, the memory of several weeks of pain following those broken toes foremost – well, maybe secondmost – in his mind, Rob moved toward the light. It was a window, small, about two feet high by three wide, and he had to bend slightly to see through it. It was his den! There was the love seat, the TV and "his" recliner, even if Patty used it more than he did. In fact, there she was, reading, the TV on to what she called "mindless fluff", a reality show about wedding dresses. But… that was several hours ago. He had come home late from work, and she'd been sitting there, he recognized the scene on the TV. A quick microwaved meal, and he'd gone back downstairs to work, but she'd yawned, said she was sleepy and gone to bed.
The windows appeared to be exactly that, a window, not a screen or video monitor. It felt like glass, and there was a frame around the edges. Metal. With rivets. He rapped on the glass. Patty didn't notice as she quietly turned the pages. Rob looked around and noticed another dim light, it was nearly behind him, he'd have to turn from the path he'd followed so far. Luckily there'd been no foot-catching obstacles on the bare floor ground.
Another window, the same size, and it looked onto his kitchen. There was a cereal bowl on the table and glass on the counter next to the sink. Patty walked in, there was something strange about her movements, jerky and blurred, she seemed to leave a faint shadow with each step, like a slowly fading trail. She wrote something on the whiteboard attached to the refrigerator, and erased what had been there. "Salad, carrots, yogurt" the message said. That was this morning! She'd erased the message that said he'd been up late and would be late again tonight and written a grocery reminder. Rob watched, confused, as Patty grabbed her purse, cape, and left for work.
That was *sixteen hours* ago!
Back the way he'd come, a brighter light flickered. Rob walked back, and felt the ground under his feet turn to dirt, then grass. He shuffled, any thought of counting paces forgotten. The light appeared to be coming from around a corner. The fact that he was now turning a corner where there had previously been a solid wall did not register at all. This window looked onto a bedroom. Patrick's room! He was sitting on his floor, back against his bed, and incidentally to the window, as he played a video game. The flickering came from the oversized screen that served him as TV, computer and game monitor. Rob could see that his son was speaking into a headset, but there was no sound. He pounded on the window, but as before, there was no response.
Patrick was at college. He was home last month for a weekend, but it had been at least six weeks ago that he took the game system to his dorm room. This made no sense. Hours. Days. Weeks!
Rob continued, another right turn, and it was now obvious that he was walking around some form of box, looking in. The walls of the box were black, slightly fuzzy to the touch, as if painted with the nonreflective black that he remembered from backstage at his kids' plays in school. Where *was* he?
Another window, another scene from his home. Andrew was leaning over the bathroom kitchen sink, trimming his beard. This had to be several years in the past, Andy had moved to Missouri on graduation. His wife had been the only one that could convince him to shave the beard, goodness knew Rob and Patty couldn't manage it, he'd leave for college clean shaven, and come home four months later looking like a hermit.
Rob slumped in the chair. This wasn't right! Patrick was still in High School, *Andy* was off at college! And the cape that Patty had been wearing, he hadn't bought that yet! He'd seen it in an online catalog and was considering getting it for her birthday next month.
He was seated in a chair! At a desk!
It was little more than a slanted board with a tiny lamp, barely bright enough to illuminate the single sheet of paper on its surface. Or, if he tilted the lamp slightly he could see the buttons to the side of the desk surface. He peered closely, but the light was too dim to read the incised letters. The paper had just three words, and they were written in his own hand. At the top of the page was written: "Past." Below that was "Future!" (including the exclamation point) and at the bottom, all in caps and underlined several times: "DREAM!!!!" He looked up as a flicker of light in the window caught his attention.
Rob was seated in front of the computer, chin on his chest, eyes closed. On the screen was a progress report that was due in the morning. He awoke with a start. "Ouch," he exclaimed at the sudden pain in his neck. He turned and looked around. He could have sworn that he'd heard pounding and shouting from the window behind him. But, there was no window there. Of course not. The wall behind him was an exterior wall of the basement. Nothing but solid wall and dirt beyond that.