Chapter 6 of The Stone of Tantalus is live!

Go here to read it.  You know you want to!

Here’s the first scene…

Philip Carson sat alone in his small two-bedroom home, the glowing television his only illumination and companion.  Like his sister less than a mile away, he held a beer in his hand that was one sip shy of empty, and now warm to boot.  His life was a rutted wagon track of work, beer, and TV.  Maybe it’s time to take another trip sideways, he thought.  Where he went wasn’t usually any better, but at least it was different.  Maybe I should have made better choices in my youth.

A grim smile creased his face.  His first choice of any consequence landed him in the nut barn, and it slid steadily downhill from there.  It took most of a year to convince the soft-headed doctors he was well enough to leave, and it was only through a massive effort to guard his words he stayed out.  The weird thing was, no matter where he went it was always the same.  Nothing big ever changes, and it makes no damn sense.  The last two trips he spent walking a prison yard, staring through the fence at a world he would never visit.

His most recent big choice got him suspended from teaching, unable to find any job other than day labor.  When he was a pup, fresh out of college, his principal told him there were three things that got a teacher fired.

“One,” the flat-topped bulldog of a man said, counting off on thick fingers, “don’t mess with the district’s money.  Two, don’t mess with alcohol on the job.  And three, don’t mess with the kids.”  He finished with a wink, “If’n ya know what I mean.”

Phil knew.

Two out of three ain’t bad, I guess, he thought with a sigh.  The ceiling fan above his head beat the air with an irregular rhythm, its blades unbalanced and loose.  The whole contraption wobbled and creaked, ready to drop at the first opportunity.  I should really do something about that, he thought.

Phil looked at the warm beer in his hands, considered drinking the rest, then flipped it into the trash with a grunt.  I am the master of my fate.  I am the captain of my soul.  What started as a defiant pledge to the gods had become nothing more than a nightly mantra.  He wouldn’t take that trip tomorrow, or the next day, or any day after.  Philip Carson was afraid.  Afraid of the nothingness he seemed to carry with him wherever he went, and he hated himself for it.

Never a small man, he had packed on over sixty pounds since he his suspension; and since he had just signed a new contract before they politely asked him to get the fuck out, they generously offered to pay it out in one lump if he would, seriously, get the fuck out now.  That left him with a lot of free time on his hands, with nothing to do but eat and feel sorry for himself.  He wasn’t an idiot.  Phil knew the superintendent wanted to keep the whole thing quiet, so he took the money and left.  It would last him until August of next year, but then what?  There wasn’t a school in the state that would hire him with that on his record.

Sour mood or not, he still jumped when the knock rattled the door.

Three knocks.  That’s good.  Cops always use five—like they learned it in cop-school or something.

The small baggy filled with almost three ounces of weed sat accusing him, undisturbed on the end table to his left.  Stifling the impulse to stash the evidence, Phil lifted his bulk from the overstuffed chair, scratched his ass through his boxers, and walked to the door to press an eye to the peephole.  A great smile threatened to split his face in two when he saw who was on the other side.  He pulled it open with such force that Jason stepped back in fright, and he unlatched the screen door to open it wide for the boy.

“Jason!  When did you get back in town?”  He looked over the boy’s shoulder toward the driveway, “What are you doing here at this hour? And where’s your mom and dad?  Did you walk here?”

“Hey, hey,” he laughed while Phil grabbed his hand and pumped it hard in greeting, “one question at a time.”

“Okay,” he rubbed at the stubble on his chin with his free hand, “Wanna come in and have a beer?”

“That’ll do.”  Jason disengaged from the hirsute paw wrapped around his hand and stepped into the dingy living room.

Phil walked into the kitchen and retrieved two frosted mugs and two bottles of Bud from the fridge.  “Here ya go, Jason.  Nothin’ but the best for my little bud.”

“Damn, Uncle Phil.  I’m twenty-four now.”  He grinned down at the man while he took a seat on the sofa, “Not to mention taller than you.”

Phil grinned back, “And that’ll get you exactly dick in a fair fight, son.”

Jason laughed, then filled his mug expert precision and took a long sip.

Phil marveled at the perfect head on the beer his nephew just poured.  “Glad to see they taught you something useful at that damn school before you got smart and left.”  He sat in his chair and poured his own, though not as well.  He took two sips as he leaned back and observed the boy over the rim of his mug.  Jason drank with casual ease, but Phil knew he was holding something back just by the way he sat.  Too straight, and the boy’s eyes never left his own.  The way he tried to sit still, yet fidgeting with his clothes—especially his boots—like someone who was no longer comfortable in their own skin.  Phil watched him in silence for a time, but he already knew the score.

“So,” he said, “how ya been?”

Jason held the mug in one hand and wiped his mouth on his sleeve.  “Oh, you know,” he scrunched his face, “not bad.”

“Uh, huh.”  Yeah, Phil thought.  Tell me another one.  I can see the ask comin’ a mile away, boy.

“How have you been?” Jason asked, taking another sip.  “Mom said you weren’t teaching anymore.”  His eyebrows furrowed.  “How come?”

“Oh, you know”—no you don’t, and you never will—“sometimes you just need a change.”

Jason took another sip, wiped his mouth, then held the mug in both hands, looking into the foam.  Phil was happy to let the boy stew.  Jason’s been gone for years without even a fucking phone call.

But that wasn’t this Jason.  Part of him wondered why, but it was clear all the same.

Phil had considered the possibility the day he found out the boy left school without so much as a by-your-leave, and had dreaded this day ever since.  It ain’t like I have any fucking insights.

Jason cleared his throat one too many times and looked up.  “Mom and Dad also said something about a mental institution when you were a kid.”

There it is, Phil thought.  And here it comes.

“I was wondering, uh… you know,” Jason leaned closer, his voice dropping almost to a whisper, “what was that like?”

“Shit, son!  Why don’t you just ask me what it was like the first time I got laid?”  Jason drew back, his face a reddening question mark.  Phil shook his head and sneered.  “Cuz the answer’s the same for either one—none of your goddamn business.”

Jason held up a quick hand, a traffic cop in the middle of a four car pileup.  “I didn’t mean—”

“I know what you meant, son,” Phil said, breathing like the end of a two-mile run.  “You want to know if you’re crazy or somesuch bullshit.”  He smirked and grunted once, his voice now a gravel road.  “I don’t have an answer to that.”

“But back then you told Mom she wasn’t your real sister, and—”

“I said a lot of stupid things,” Phil said, waving that line of questioning away with a casual flip of his hand.  He hated himself for what he was doing to the boy, but there was no point in following it to its logical conclusion.  When his Jason returned, this one would go back to where he came from.  Telling him what’s happening won’t help, and it’s just as liable to make things worse.

Jason’s shoulders slumped, and he settled back in his seat, a heartbreaking look of defeat on his face.  “I’ve been away so long,” he said, more to himself than Phil.  “I don’t know how to get back.”  He looked up, his eyes swollen and heavy.  “I hoped you could…”

He doesn’t know how to get back?  What the fuck does that mean?  He tilted his head and studied the young man before him.  It was crystal clear the boy was not his Jason, everything about him screaming it like a warning siren.  Just as clear was the fact this Jason knew he was a traveler, and that meant he should know how it was done.

Something ain’t right.

If the boy knew what he was but couldn’t control it, then he needed the kind of guidance only Phil could give.  He ached to offer it, and cursed himself for his fear.  He leaned forward in his chair to speak the words that would bring comfort to his nephew.

“I wish I could help you, Jason,” was what came out of his mouth.


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