Chapter 4 of The Stone of Tantalus is live!

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Here’s a taste:

His mother was as good as her word, and by the second day on the road, Jason was on the outskirts of Houston.  Bus schedules were notoriously inconsistent, but for once things were going his way.  Other than the first four-hour leg of the trip when he had to endure a large sweaty woman seated beside him, he had the row of seats to himself.  It was a small gift, but one he welcomed.

Deep into the night, sleep fought for control of his body, but Jason fought back.  Sleep on the road was dangerous for him.  He never knew where or how he would wake.  The last two happened while I was asleep, Jason thought as he rubbed the stubble on his cheek.  There must be a connectionMaybe the unconscious mind loses its grip on the physical world, or the pull from another grows too strong.  Maybe  Try as he might, he had never found a pattern to the transitions, much less how or what triggered them.  Maybe I’m just a freak, doomed to suffer one transition after another until I die.  The one comfort was they left him in much the same condition as the reality he departed, though the knowledge he might never return to his original reality was a weight around his shoulders.  While most details of his life—family, friends, places—remained the same from reality to reality, each new stop brought subtle differences that reminded him this was not his home.  Each highlighted a wrongness in his presence that compelled distance—the result was a complete withdrawal from the places and people he loved most.

Early on he thought he had lost his grip on sanity, his thoughts and fears clear indications of schizophrenia, but he couldn’t overcome his fear of discovery enough to consult a doctor.  He never spoke of these thoughts to his closest friends for fear they would tell the wrong people.  After one of his transitions he woke up in a psychiatric ward, held by court order with little hope for release.  It was an experience he did not want to repeat, and was a sign his doppelgangers did not all have the same ability to adjust to their new reality.

And then there were the dreams.

Jason now believed dreams were windows on other realities, but lately his dreams had taken a stranger turn.  He no longer saw glimpses of another Jason’s life, only barren landscapes, chill winds, and a face shrouded in darkness.  And always a feeling of being watched.  Each of these dreams pressed against him like cold earth covering a moldy grave, and each time he woke sweating, never spending more than a few minutes asleep and in that space between worlds.

This last transition was worse than the others, and the memories that flooded him when he awoke were disturbing and jumbled.  More than that, they were directly related to the dreams he had been having.  There were scenes of thousands dying in flames, body parts scattered about a desolate landscape under a dark gray canopy, and everywhere there were screams of pain and anguish.

Worse was the smell.  A sickening, sweet mixture of charred flesh and decay.

It was three in the morning when the bus passed the inner loop on I45, and Jason got his first glimpse of the nighttime Houston skyline in over five years.  Something about those lights—not to mention the damn downtown Ferris wheel—always cheered him, and a shiver of new-found energy crawled up his spine.  The bus would dump him off at the station too far to walk to any affordable hotels, but there was enough of his mom’s cash left to call a cab.

The driver navigated the bus through the one way streets of downtown Houston, making its way to Main Street, and Jason gathered up his meager belongings.  The Jason of this reality carried a small backpack filled with the usual overnight needs—toiletries, extra-strength aspirin, and two dog-eared paperback books—but few clothes, little cash, and no cell phone.  He stood in the aisle, ready to exit the bus as soon as it rolled into the station, and the driver gave him a testy look.  His mom called it “the stink-eye.”

“Have a seat over there until I come to a complete stop.”  He nodded to the jump seat to the front by the steps, then pointed at the sign overhead that read “Please stay out of the aisles while the bus is in motion.”

“Sure,” Jason said.  He pulled the pack off his shoulder, folded the seat down, and half sat, half stood in the entry well.  There were few people left on the bus for this last leg of its run, so even with others gathering up their belongings, it was as quiet as a library behind the front two rows.  The only illumination came from the few overhead lights the passengers were using to see what they were doing, each one creating a small pool of light that fell over one or two seats.  It looked to Jason like a desert spotted here and there with wan campfires.

“In a hurry to get home?”

Jason turned to the bus driver.  The man was watching him through narrowed eyelids.  The crisp white shirt he wore, neat stitching over the pocket with the name “Carl” in blue letters, offered a stark contrast to his dark skin.  “How’d you know?”

White-haired, with forearms of knotted lean muscle poking out of rolled-up sleeves, Carl smiled at Jason, his one gold-capped tooth in a sea of coffee-stained ivory gleaming in the dashboard lights.  The deep lines of his face were a road map of a hard-earned life, and the great grin he offered enhanced the hills and valleys of that existence.  “Been driving this bus a lot of years, man.  You can always tell when someone’s runnin’ away, or runnin’ to home.  You’re runnin’ to.”  He tapped his head with a gnarled but neatly manicured forefinger, “It’s a gift, man.”

Jason considered that for a moment, then turned his face front.  “Glad you like your gift,” he said under his breath.  “Wish I could return mine.”

The driver frowned.  “A gift’s a gift,” he shrugged.  “It don’t make life better or worse.  It’s only in how you use it.”

“Maybe so,” Jason smiled without humor, “but I don’t really use my gift.  It uses me.”

The driver leaned over and looked hard into the young man’s eyes for just a second, then smiled again and said, “Them’s the best kind, my friend.”  Carl turned the big wheel with expert grace, entered the main parking area of the bus station, pulled into a bay, and glided to a stop as smooth as a well-oiled elevator.  “Sounds like you’ve got yourself an honest to goodness calling, son.”  He engaged the parking brake, the loud whoosh of compressed air waking the remaining sleepers, then pulled the lever to open the doors.  “Don’t waste it.”

Jason smiled back, pulled his backpack over one shoulder, and stepped off the bus.  He waved once at the driver as he walked away.  He got about ten feet before the driver stuck his head out the door and said, “Don’t forget what I said, now, ya hear?”

“I won’t,” Jason called back, then walked into the station to call for a cab.

An hour later he sat on the edge of the motel’s bed, the top cover stripped off and left on the floor where it belonged.  Not even the best hotels ever washed them, and even having grown up in poverty, he couldn’t bring himself to sleep under one.  In his hand he held the dice he carried with him wherever he went.  He had to buy a new pair in Denver because this Jason didn’t know enough to apply a simple tenet of chaos theory.  He tossed them on the nightstand, waited for them to stop rolling, and then recorded the result on the little notepad by the lamp.  Jason did this two more times, collecting a series of numbers to memorize.  If the numbers on the pad changed overnight from what he remembered, then he would know he was in a new reality.  It wasn’t foolproof, but the odds were in his favor.  If all went well, and the number didn’t change in the night, he would call his mom after noon to pick him up.

Sleep didn’t take him at once, regardless of how road-weary he was.  Each time he closed his eyes, he saw the images burned into his brain from the last transition.  He was sure that in one of his realities a lot of people died because of something he did… or failed to do.

Please, no dreams tonight.  He closed his eyes and waited.  When sleep finally came, the morning sun was already peeking through the worn curtains.


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