“Hetsie’s Wonders” by Layla Lawlor
Hook Street was a jagged, ugly gash of a road, lined with crooked two-story houses built from local timber that was too bent or rotten to feed the lumber mills. This close to the edge of town, the mountains reared up like a wall of raw black stone, skirted in mist and patched with the last clinging snows of winter.
Sheriff John Moran tipped his head down and tried not to be swallowed alive by the way the mountains seemed to lean forward, threatening the tiny matchstick houses beneath their bulk. After four years, he could still look up and be surprised by their closeness, their almost-living presence. He much preferred the flatter land down by the wharfs at the river mouth. Living in the perpetual shadow of those mountains could drive a man barking mad. The air stayed damp and unhealthily chill, even in summer; at this time of year, when early gardens were already being planted in the fertile soil at the river’s edge, the mud in town was still frozen into ridges that crumbled beneath his boots.
Hand-painted signs, creatively spelled, attested to the residents’ equally creative attempts to scrape together a living: locksmithing, palm reading, shoe repair and “Fyne Wudden Boles, Hand Maid“. Few people were about. John passed a drunken man doubled over, being sick in the street, and a woman throwing out washwater who frowned at him before warily returning his brief smile. A scruffy gray dog, a Husky or wolf mix, lay in the sun on someone’s stoop and watched him with bored hazel eyes.
About halfway down the street, he found it. Hetsie’s Wonders, the sign read: a painted board, suspended on a rope above a door of unfinished slabs that had weathered to dull gray. The wonder, he thought, was that someone had spelled it correctly.
The door stuck, like half the doors in town—hung green, and twisted still further by the damp air and the seasonal temperature swings. John leaned his shoulder into it, forcing it open. He heard a bell tinkle.
The only light inside the shop came from a small, unglazed window beside the door. John brought up a hand to avoid colliding with anything; he had a dim impression of floor-to-ceiling wooden shelves crowded close together, and shapeless masses of sundry items heaped on the floor between. He knelt and poked cautiously at a pile of clothing, and held up a worn but clean-scrubbed boot to the light filtering in past the dusty jars, candlesticks, and other items jammed together in the window. People had told him that Hetsie sold anything she could find, fix or barter. Looking at the place, he didn’t doubt it.
“Those won’t be your size, sir, and that one doesn’t have a pair. But if it’s boots you need, I can fix you up cheap.”
John straightened up. In the dim light he could
not see the woman well, just a vague impression of a short round shape in a man’s coat and trousers, with long braids framing a shadowed face. His eyes went automatically to her hands, because the eyes may be the windows to the soul, but the hands are the windows to a person’s life. Hers were blunt and square, the knuckles swollen, roughened and reddened by a lifetime’s hard work. As she stepped closer, navigating effortlessly through the clutter, he saw that her brown braids were streaked with gray, her face snub-nosed and freckled and crinkled with a tracery of fine lines. It was a face that nature had made to be pleasant and open, but life had drawn down shutters on her gray eyes. She was, he guessed, about forty-five or so.
“Actually, it’s something different I need, ma’am.” From the pocket of his coat John took a bundle wrapped in oilskin. He unwrapped a gun smaller and lighter than the big Colt revolver he wore on his hip. It looked like a child’s toy, carved by someone who knew vaguely how guns looked but not how they worked: the general shape suggested a gun, but the barrel was too slender to be functional, and there were no moving parts at all, not even a trigger. It was made of something like glossy gray ceramic, but not quite, with a single red spot on the side, and it was warm in his hand from being inside his coat. Despite the fact that it was not loaded and, in fact, had nowhere to put bullets, John was careful to point the barrel at the floor.
Hetsie regarded it without expression.
“I’m looking to see if you sold this to a man,” John said. “It would be a few weeks ago.”
“Could have,” she said after a moment.
“You’ve seen it before?”
One shoulder lifted in a shrug, which John, for lack of other likely options, took to be an affirmative.
“Where did you get it?”
“Traded for it, probably.” She waved a hand, indicating the crowded interior of the shop. “I don’t remember where everything in here came from.”
A shopkeeper who remembered which boots were paired, but not the more exotic items in her inventory—in John’s line of work, he encountered this sort of selective memory frequently. “Did you know that it could do this?” he asked her, and, still very carefully pointing it at the floor, he passed his thumb over the red spot and then tapped it, as the murderer in his holding cell had shown him.
In the dusty interior of the shop, a thin beam of light was very briefly visible, illuminating and vaporizing the dust motes in the air. It speared a neat round hole in the floorboards. Around the edges of the hole, embers winked tiny red eyes and then died in curling wisps of smoke.
Hetsie neither jumped nor flinched. “No, sir,”
she said, her gray eyes flat on him. “I did not know it could do that. And,” she added in a cool tone, “I’ll send a bill ’round for the cost of fixing my floor.”
John passed his thumb over the red spot again, returning it to an inactive state—back at the jail, he’d double- and triple-checked that this actually worked before putting the damned thing in his pocket, and it still made him nervous. “There’s a man in a cell who claims that you showed him how to use this. He’s had a problem with claim jumpers. We don’t get involved in that sort of business, but last night he killed three men in a barfight on the docks, and that’s my problem.”
“Men are killed in bar fights all the time in this town.” Hetsie’s voice did not change register. “It’s what men do.”
“But you sold him the gun.”
“Can’t be sure,” she said, her face calm. “I sell lots of things.”
There was no way that he could prove her a liar, so John switched tactics. “Do you have any more like it?”
“Don’t know. I could check around if you want to come back in a few days.”
“And you’d sell them to me if you should happen to have some?”
“If I got ‘em, and if you got money,” she said. “Or something I want to trade for.”
John regarded her for a moment, and she looked back at him with no more expression than the mountains.
“Do you mind if I look around a little?”
“Course not,” she said. “Just be careful touching things, if you don’t mind. I’ll be sorting over here.”
John wandered between the cluttered shelves, occasionally poking at something that caught his eye: a polished brass bowl, a stack of camera plates so poorly developed that they were mostly black, a shaving set in a battered wooden box with ornate carvings half worn off. Like any junk shop, there were also other, stranger things.
He picked up a flat rectangular object because its smooth gray material reminded him of the stuff the gun was made of. It bore sixteen buttons, ten inscribed with the ten numerals and the others with arithmetical operators, below a smoked glass square inset into its upper half. John contemplated it for a moment. It was, he thought, some kind of calculating engine, though like the gun it seemed to have no moving parts and he couldn’t figure how it worked.
More interesting yet was a small yellow object which, after some experimentation, he recognized as a sort of Döbereiner’s lamp, most likely—a firelighting device, but incredibly small and neat. It said “BIC” in small letters on the side, and, when he got the hang of the mechanism for operating it, produced a clear thin flame. He went looking for Hetsie and found her kneeling beside a pile of musty and stinking clothing, sorting and folding it into piles.
“I’d like to buy this,” he said. “How much?”
Hetsie looked up at him. “Two bits.”
For a little trinket like that? But he paid her, and added another dime. “If you have any more of those guns, I’d like to buy them from you.”
“If you have any more of those guns, I’d like to buy them from you.”
She shook out a stained, child-sized gown and briskly folded it. “I said I don’t know, sir, but I will see.”
“I’ll come back,” John said.
Spring turned to early summer, and John Moran hadn’t the time to return to Hetsie or her wonders. The prospectors were busy in the hills, the loggers were sharpening their axes for the summer, and he had his hands full with everything from rapists to horse thieves. He’d sent off a letter to an old childhood friend back East, now working at an inventor’s laboratory in Jersey, to see if his friend had heard of anything like the odd little firelighter or the gun. And then he put it out of his head.
He didn’t think of Hetsie until about a month later, in the course of breaking up a fight between two stevedores over a girl. One of them drew a knife; John pulled his Peacemaker, only to have a friend of the brawler knock it out of his hand, over the edge and into the fish-stinking mud under the dock.
“Bastard,” John said. One had a knife and two others had lengths of pipe; one of them even brandished an iron pipe. The second brawler had run off, leaving the other and his friends. John was acutely aware of the late hour and the fact that people in his town did not respond well to calls for help, especially from the sheriff. The three men backed him to the edge of the dock, and in a minute he was going to have to choose between following his Colt into the mud and risking a broken leg, or taking on a fight that was unlikely to end well for him.
Slapping at his pockets, he discovered the little gun. He’d never bothered to file a report on it; who would have believed him? The man who’d owned it was down at the territorial penitentiary and not in a position to complain. John had kept it at his lodgings for a while, but since his landlady was forever in and out of his room, he’d taken to carrying it with him again.
Now he drew it and shook it free of its oilskin wrappings. The stevedores took one look and burst out laughing; “What’s that supposed to be, a favor for your lady?”
John spread his feet apart and braced in a smooth automatic motion. The gun was shockingly light in his hand, its balance unlike anything he was used to. His first shot missed its target entirely, drilling a hole in the warehouse behind his attackers. On the second shot, his hand flinched without the weight of the revolver to hold it steady; the beam swept sideways and lopped off a foot of the iron pipe in the hands of one of the stevedores, cutting it clean as soft cheese. The man gave a yell of
“Next one’s your head,” John said.
They fled, vanishing into the night. John ran a finger lightly over the barrel, expecting it to be hot, but there was only the residual heat from his warm pocket.
He spent half the night looking for the Colt under the docks, and the other half cleaning the mud out of it. In the morning he paid a boy to look through property records and find out who owned Hetsie’s Wonders. And he took a stroll into the town to ask a few questions.
A lot of people knew of Hetsie’s place, it seemed. Most of them only knew it as a convenient place to find cheap used items, but a few customers had a different story to tell.
“Me boy got me this,” said a laundress at the Garden Hotel, showing John a heavy, unadorned locket. “On account of me name is Rose, see?” She flicked it open, and John took an involuntary step backwards when an image of a red rose coalesced above it and hovered in the air. It flickered slightly when John passed his hand through it, but otherwise seemed to have no substance.
He asked to borrow the locket, but the laundress refused and would not let him examine it.
Some children playing on Laramie Street showed him a toy that Hetsie had given them, a ball that lit up when it was shaken. It was made of a bright, slippery blue and red substance; the slick feeling was not too different from the odd little light-gun, which John had initially assumed to be porcelain or perhaps some sort of ivory. But this was nothing he had ever seen before.
Now that he was looking for them, Hetsie’s small touches were everywhere in his town. A plant on a windowsill bore startling leaves, striped with brilliant purple and orange. An old man, hauling a load of firewood, wore an unusual stiff-billed cap; John would eat his hat if Hetsie hadn’t sold it.
The boy came back with the records John had asked him to find. One Hester A. Black had purchased the land and the house six years prior, very cheaply in an auction, after it had been seized for delinquent payment of taxes. Before that, it had been a clothier’s shop for a while—nothing unusual. Miss Black paid her taxes on time and had not, as far as John could remember, been in trouble with the law since he’d held his current office. He wired a query for information to the capital, in case she had some kind of outstanding warrant, but didn’t really expect anything useful. She was the kind of person who drifts in and out of frontier towns, with a history that might be checkered but didn’t stand out in any particular way.
Except, in Hetsie’s case, she was able to get her hands on items that simply should not have existed—at least not here, not now. John wasn’t a superstitious man and he didn’t believe in black magic; even the rose locket had to have a reasonable explanation. He did not think that the little firelighter he’d purchased was magical; it was simply a mechanical object of a sort he’d never seen before.
But where was she getting them? Science discovered new things all the time and John didn’t doubt that someone, somewhere, could be making such things, but no one he’d asked had ever seen anything like them. If they were being smuggled in, he didn’t know about it, and none of his usual contacts at the docks knew anything either. A letter came back from his friend out East, stating no knowledge of such devices and asking if John might supply one for inspection, but he didn’t want to part with the only one he had; he put the letter away, thoughtfully.
In the end it was Hetsie who came to him, approaching him on the street in front of his lodgings. In the daylight she seemed smaller, dumpier and less mysterious; just a little brown-haired woman worn hard by time and care. She was still dressed like a man in trousers and coat, and she carried a very small, silver-colored suitcase in one hand.
“I heard you been asking questions about me, Sheriff,” she said, tilting her head back to look up at him.
“I have a lot of questions about you, and you don’t seem inclined to answer any of them,” John said, letting a hand rest on the butt of his revolver, just in case.
“You h’ain’t asked.” She lifted the suitcase and undid the clasps. “I thought you wanted to do business, sir.”
The interior of the suitcase was lined with gray felt, molded around the sleek shape of another of the light-guns. Once he’d had a chance to look, Hetsie snapped the suitcase shut. “How many do you want?” she asked.
“How many do you have?” John countered cautiously.
“Come ‘round this evening,” she said, and strolled off.
Over the rest of that interminable afternoon, John halfheartedly filed paperwork while he considered his options. He did not have cause to arrest her; he didn’t have any evidence, or even any specific reason to believe that she was doing anything illegal.
He thought it might be wise to tell a deputy or two where he was going, perhaps take someone with him, but that would mean having to explain that he’d basically suspended his regular duties for his one-man investigation of Hetsie’s shop, and he wasn’t sure he could explain it even to himself. In the end he wrote out a note, explaining where he was going and that he suspected that Hetsie might be trafficking in illicit items (he prudently did not add “… from the future”), and left it in the room he rented, prominently displayed atop his bed. His landlady would find it when she came in to straighten up. With any luck, he wouldn’t regret that he hadn’t taken more precautions. Still, Hetsie had spoken to him on a public street in broad daylight. If she planned to do him ill, she could certainly be a lot more circumspect about it.
The evening was cool, the chill of the mountains slipping down like mist into the town’s streets. It was not, however, cold enough to kill the reek drifting over from Tanner’s Row; John coughed and gagged as he fought with Hetsie’s door, finally letting himself into her dim little room filled with mysteries. He carried his revolver low against his leg, not trying to make a big deal of it, but he didn’t want to lose a precious second or two getting the gun out of its holster if he needed it. His other hand slipped into his pocket and curled around the light-gun.
A kerosene lamp sat in the window; its warm yellow glow reflected back and diffused from the dusty glassware crowded about it. Shadows loomed around him, flickering in the lamp’s uncertain light. He heard voices: Hetsie and another woman. When he squinted into the gloom, he saw a white-haired old lady picking through a stack of tin plates while Hetsie pulled out other wares to offer her. A few pennies changed hands, and the old woman left with a dented plate and a stained kerchief.
“Good evening, Sheriff,” Hetsie said, closing the door behind her customer with an expert shove and twist. He tried to stand aside, but the room was so small and cramped that her shoulder rubbed against his own.
“Miss Black,” John said. There was no way
that she could possibly fail to notice the gun in his hand, unobtrusively resting on his thigh. Self-consciously, he put it away, but his hand stayed near the grip.
Hetsie turned, and said over her shoulder, “There’s a kettle boiling away in the back. Can I offer you some tea, sir?”
Behind the shop was a small stuffy room that appeared to combine the functions of kitchen, parlor and bedroom. Its single window was open wide, letting in the mud-flavored evening air from the alley behind Hook Street, but the cool breeze barely took the edge off the heat pumping out from the potbellied stove under the window. There was a small, rough-made table shoved against one wall, with a collection of mismatched chairs, and a bed at the other side; John saw that it was neatly made, the coverlet tucked with almost military precision, before hastily averting his eyes. In contrast to the chaos of the store out front, Hetsie’s living space was neat as a pin—the floorboards scrubbed, the shelves neatly arranged with tinned food and burlap sacks of rice and salt.
Hetsie poured tea from a small blue willow pot. The cups did not match, but they were delicate and pretty. The whole place was furnished from her junk shop, John thought; even the pot holding flowers on the table looked as if it had once been a coffeepot in a past life.
“Who’s upstairs?” John asked, pointing to the low, smoke-stained beams of the ceiling.
“A lady that lets a room. They’re quiet neighbors.”
He watched her hands as she poured the tea, but she poured out a measure into each from the same pot, and did not appear to put anything into the cups beforehand. Still, he only sipped at his, partly from professional paranoia and partly because he was not much of a tea drinker; he found it watery and unpleasant.
“So what do you want with these guns, Sheriff?” Hetsie asked him, making no move to sit. John found himself at a relative disadvantage that wiped away their height difference, but he felt as if rising from the table would score a point to her.
“Arm my men, I guess,” he said after a moment. “We could always use any advantage we can get.”
Hetsie laughed softly into her teacup, a startling sound coming from her. “You don’t care about the guns, Sheriff. You only want to know where I get them.”
“Maybe,” John said.
She was still smiling, but her knuckles were white on the cup. “It’s my business, sir,” she said. “Why is it so important to you?”
“Because I need to know if you’re doing anything illegal in my town.” The answer—the glib answer, the only sensible answer—came easily to his lips.
Hetsie stared at him for a long time before she said, “You want to know where these things come from, John Moran? I mean, you really want to know?”
“Yeah,” he said, though he was pretty sure that, in a general way, he already knew. His heart beat faster.
She held still, perfectly still, and then shook herself with a sudden quick motion: a woman coming to a decision. “Leave that here,” she said, nodding to the revolver.
“Is that a rule, for where we’re going?” John asked. He hesitated only a moment before unbuckling his gunbelt and laying it on her kitchen table along with the revolver. He still had the light-gun in his pocket.
“It’s on account of I don’t want to get shot in the back.”
While he undid his gunbelt, she stretched to reach a top shelf and took down a small packsack and a belt of her own that bore a long knife in a leather scabbard. From a bucket of water on the floor, she filled a canteen and hung it on the belt.
“Are we going far?” John asked.
She did not answer; instead she pointed to the root cellar door in the middle of the floor. Most every house on high enough ground not to flood out had one like it. “Open that.”
John did so, bemused. Cold musty air, smelling of dirt and potatoes, wafted up from the hole.
Hetsie picked up a kerosene lamp from the table. “Would you care to go first, sir?”
“I’d rather not.”
Hetsie didn’t respond to that, but she kept a wary eye on him as she descended the crude ladder leading down into the dank pit under the house, a bit clumsy with her lamp in one hand and the long knife bumping against her leg. John followed.
It was a root cellar like any other, though perhaps even more cluttered than most; there were a lot more than just potatoes in the bins and bags and boxes crowding around the bottom of the ladder. Apparently Hetsie used the root cellar for overflow from her shop. Crouching to avoid knocking his head, John poked at a bag of old boots and another of rags.
Hetsie set the lamp on a stack of crates and began to drag sacks of clothing, odds and ends away from the earthen wall. Moving air stirred John’s hair and prickled the backs of his hands. There was another opening in the wall, a low earthen tunnel, barely four feet high. He’d almost have to crawl.
“You go in front,” Hetsie said.
“Pardon my French, ma’am, but hell no.”
“I don’t trust you,” she said, precise and clipped. “You want answers, Sheriff? You do this my way.”
And he did, as she’d probably known he would, even knowing, knowing that she must be taking him to an abandoned smugglers’ cave where her partners, whoever they were, would shoot him. Because of a firelighter, and a mechanical rose, and a gun that did not come from any part of this world he’d ever heard of, he went.
It was utterly black in the tunnel. The lamp in Hetsie’s hand only illuminated a few paces in front of him, as if the tunnel itself swallowed the light. The walls were ragged wet clay, with white roots dangling like bare, blind cave-worms. Moisture dripped onto his head and he had to bend nearly double, shuffling along in an awkward crouch. His shadow bounced in front of him as Hetsie followed.
The really low part of the tunnel only lasted for a few minutes of back-breaking crawling, and then it raised enough that he could stand up and walk normally. Looking up, he realized that the ceiling was high enough above his head that the darkness hid it. The walls of the tunnel were smooth-packed earth, silty like all the soils along the river, but much drier than before. John touched one of them; the clay soil crumbled on his fingertips.
“Keep walking,” Hetsie said quietly. Her voice echoed.
He did. It was still impossible to see more than a few paces in front of him, though the light should have reflected off the pale clay of the walls. Or … was that actually clay? John reached out to the nearest wall and his fingers touched smooth, cold stone. They must have been back in the mountains by then.
When they passed the first door, he did a double-take. It was a plain wooden door of the sort one would find in the interior of a well-appointed house, with a large keyhole. Light gleamed from beyond the keyhole, not the warm light of the lamp but a clear, white light. John started to bend to look through it, driven by curiosity, but Hetsie said, “Keep walking. That one ain’t safe.”
He did. They passed more doors. Some were crude, pegged together from shaggy planks of wood, weathered or damaged by water; others were more capably made, with brass handles, but still fairly ordinary, except that they were set into stone walls in a tunnel in the mountains.
As they went on, the doors changed; they were smoother, different, more finely planed but made of poorer wood. (John had never worked as a lumberjack by trade, but one couldn’t live in a lumber town without developing a fine eye for wood.)
And they were labeled. It had taken John a little while to notice; wide-eyed, he was still taking in everything around him. The labels were in chalk, written next to the handles of those doors that had handles, or somewhere around where the handle would be on those that didn’t. Letters and numbers. John cocked his head to the side to read some of them:
PWX 12 CL.
XX NO BRT.
OK HT 3.
MT 2 BIG CATS.
“Here,” Hetsie said quietly, pausing in front of a heavy door with a handle set in a steel strikeplate. The chalk marks said OK TWN NO $$ 4. She tugged the door gently, and it opened towards her.
Humid heat rolled through the door. John smelled garbage, the wet tang of urine, a heavy stink like coal smoke but without its distinctive acridness. A city somewhere. He looked out onto an alley between two brick buildings. It was not night here, and somehow that did not surprise him as much as he should have expected; the light had the clarity of early morning, but without shadows—an overcast day.
“Is it safe to go outside?” he asked Hetsie. She nodded. John thought that he saw a flicker of pride in her gray eyes, like a mother showing off a child’s favorite trick.
Cautiously, keeping a hand on the doorframe and wary of tricks or traps, he set one foot into another world.
The clattering of carriages was louder, along with other sounds that he couldn’t identify—growls and rumbles, the sounds of an alien city located in, he could guess without being told, another time than his own. John looked down the alley towards a metal grating and the half-glimpsed figures of people passing on the street.
Movement caught his eye and he looked up, and stared in wonder through a webbing of what must be telegraph lines to the belly of a flying vessel, sleek and silver, that passed above the buildings and vanished.
Hetsie stepped back into the corridor and John followed her, heart racing. When she closed the door, the sounds cut off and the silence almost deafened him. He hadn’t realized how loud it had been there.
“Is that where…” John’s mouth was dry. He moistened his lips. “Is that where the guns come from?”
Hetsie shook her head. “No. That’s another place.” She looked down at the door, where John’s sweat-damp hand had smudged the chalk marks. With a stub of chalk from the packsack, she refreshed them carefully. The code, he guessed, was her own, and when she tucked the chalk back into her pack, he caught glimpses of other things inside that a well-appointed spelunker or time traveler might need: rope, a small hand saw, candles, a loaf of bread. This was not something that she did infrequently.
She shrugged back into the pack and indicated with her head that he should continue forward, so he did, though his hand slid into his pocket and rested on the light-gun again.
The doors continued to grow stranger and less like the doors he knew. Some were metal; others were brightly colored and oddly shaped—round or hexagonal. One seemed to be made of some kind of pulsing membrane, with shadows shifting behind it.
“So you just—bought the house, and all this was in the root cellar?” John said.
“Yes sir.” Hetsie looked up, towards the invisible ceiling. “I was afraid of it for a time, but the thought came to me that you can run away from opportunity or get up in its face.” She glanced at John in the flicker of the lamp. “I always was the second sort of person.”
She paused to examine the markings on a tall, narrow metal door, and then laid her hand to it. The door seemed to have no handle; she pushed gently, and stepped back as it opened with a screech of protest onto a startling landscape: rolling hills with reddish grass, smooth-barked trees that bent and curled in shapes that John had never expected to see in nature. The air smelled brisk and tangy, like autumn hay. The sky was a deep rich indigo shading towards a more purple shade at the horizon, but the day was otherwise bright and dazzling. Shadows pooled around the trees and darkened the grass in front of the door.
John got all of this in the single moment that he was able to look around, captivated by the alien landscape, before Hetsie pushed him, hard. She wasn’t tall but she was strong; he staggered forward into the grass and the door slammed behind him.
Disbelief gave way to fury, mostly at himself. He’d been expecting it, damn it. He just hadn’t expected her to move so quickly, and he’d been distracted—The light-gun was already in his hand, but a fat lot of good it did him now.
The door was set in the side of a low, square building, one of several in a small complex. The grass grew right up to their walls, and they had a forlorn, abandoned look to them. From this side, the door had a hasp with a dangling, rusty padlock. It opened easily—onto a wide, bare expanse of flat gray floor, the warehouse-like interior of the building. Nothing moved within except for rats or something similar, rustling quietly in the corners where dust and cobwebs had drifted.
No corridor, and no Hester A. Black. He stood alone under a glossy purple sky.
“Fucking hell,” said John Moran.
She had left him the light-gun, at least. The small pistol-shaped weapon was not well suited to hunting, and he still wasn’t used to firing a gun without recoil, but after trying most of the day, he managed to sight, stalk and bring down a small tawny creature with six legs, spiky little horns and a narrow deer-like head. The charred meat where the weapon had grazed it smelled like normal meat, and it bled red. He used his firelighter to make a small campfire under the bole of a fat conifer whose needles smelled like soap.
Night came slowly to the other world, creeping up the purple sky. The stars took John’s breath away, a rich swell of light, brighter and more numerous than the stars he was used to seeing at
It was warm enough that he didn’t really need the fire, but he wanted it, not just to cook his food but also for comfort and, perhaps, defense. So far, the six-legged deer-things were the biggest animals that he’d seen—they were the size of a medium-weight dog. But all the grasslands of Earth that he’d ever heard of, from the Great Plains to the African veldt, supported rich populations of large wildlife. And where there were animals eating grass, there were predators to eat them.
John leaned against the bole of the tree, stared up at the brilliant and unfamiliar stars, and cursed Hetsie thoroughly. Then himself, then Hetsie again, until he ran out of vocabulary and got tired of repeating himself.
Three days passed, and he couldn’t make himself leave the cluster of abandoned buildings that might be his only window back to his world. There was a spring in the hills and an ample supply of small wildlife: the deer-things, as well as ubiquitous little flightless birds the size of squirrels, which he’d mistaken for rats in the warehouse. Hetsie could have left him in a much worse place. Still, the idea of spending the rest of his life here didn’t thrill him. He’d have to find something other than meat soon; he’d heard stories about the sickness that happened to prospectors in the mountains who lived on meat all winter long. His guts were already giving him some trouble.
After three days of waiting, the opening door was almost anticlimactic. He was sitting about a hundred yards away, plucking a rat-bird for dinner. The tortured shriek of the door carried across the grass, and John sprang to his feet, gun in one blood-sticky hand.
Hetsie carried a Colt Peacemaker that he assumed was probably his own. Standing in the doorway, holding the thing pointed at him with rock-solid confidence, she called across the distance between them, “Come over here. Ain’t gonna shout.”
“I’m just fine over here,” John called back. The light-gun would be much more effective over that distance than the revolver, unless she was a particularly good shot.
Hetsie did not respond, just continued to stand in the doorway; then she reached to shut it.
“Wait, damn it!” John cursed vividly as he tried to hold himself down to a casual stroll rather than running towards her. He didn’t lower the light-gun and she didn’t lower the revolver. When he was close enough to speak in a normal tone, he said, “Attack of conscience?”
“Your boys been searching my shop,” Hetsie said. “Asking questions about you. Taking my things and breaking ‘em.”
“Come on, did you really think I didn’t tell anyone where I was going?” Which he very nearly hadn’t. Obviously his landlady had found the note; he thanked God for nosy boarding-house keepers. On the other hand, John’s limited staff of deputies were barely a step up from the criminals they harassed. He felt a little sorry for her, though he would have been sorrier if she hadn’t left him stranded for three days and wasn’t currently pointing his own gun at him.
“You should be ashamed of yourself, John Moran,” Hetsie said.
“I should be ashamed of myself?” he repeated in disbelief. He edged through the door, trying not to get too close to her, before she changed her mind and shut it. She stepped back and made no effort to stop him. John let the door fall shut behind him and felt a shuddering sense of relief; the red hills and purple sky had their own weird beauty, but he sure as hell didn’t want to live there. After the bright sunlight of the plains, he blinked as his eyes adjusted to the light of a kerosene lamp sitting on the floor, casting flickering, crazy-quilt shadows onto the walls.
Hetsie’s brows were drawn together above her snub nose. “You had no call to go nosing into my business. I run my shop and don’t bother people.”
He had an answer ready, at least. He’d had plenty of time to think on it, over the last three days. “Don’t you just walk through these doors and walk off with whatever you want? That’s theft, even if it’s not happening in my town.”
“I don’t think you got any call to ride your high horse when you go around destroying a woman’s livelihood.” She jerked the gun at him. “Pick up the lamp.”
“I’m armed, too,” John pointed out. “And I’m one hair from arresting you, lady.”
The corners of Hetsie’s mouth twitched. “You think the guns are the only thing I got? Go ahead, shoot me.”
John stared at her. She was either crazy, or … but she sounded awfully damn sure. After a moment, he leaned down to pick up the lamp, not taking the gun off her.
“To answer the question you didn’t ask,” Hetsie said after a moment, “I don’t plan on killing you. I didn’t know what to do with you, tell the truth. I think I figured it out, though.”
“Great. This ought to be fun.”
“I’m the one that’s leaving, not you,” Hetsie said. “You want to start walking? I got a lot of packing to do.”
“Seriously?” John asked, backing up down the corridor. He tried to keep the lamp out of his field of vision; it was half blinding him and throwing off his ability to aim. “You’re just leaving town?”
“Since you got your deputies, and yourself, hell-bent on running me out? What would you do if you were me, John Moran?”
They walked in silence for a while—John still walking backwards so that he could keep his eyes on her. He kept fighting off the awkward feeling that he ought to apologize. Finally he said, “You know what doesn’t make sense to me? Beyond this whole thing, I guess. With all of this, why haven’t you tried to take over the country, or something? Why are you still running a junk shop in a bad part of town?”
“Because I like my life, Sheriff. There are a lot of worlds out there, though. Guess it’s time I tried another one.” She paused at a plain, wood-slab door; the boards were badly hewn, the axe marks plainly visible. “Here’s your stop, Sheriff.”
John stiffened. “I thought you were taking me home.”
“I am,” Hetsie said, “but I ain’t a fool. Not all of these doors open onto places that are far-off. This is only about ten miles from town. You can walk from here, easy.”
“You open it.”
With a little shrug, she nudged the door open onto a black stand of moonlit conifers. “This here’s an old trapper’s cabin up the valley a ways. There’s a trail off that way, goes down to the river.”
As little as John trusted her, he did recognize the shape of the mountain raising its moon-silvered head above the trees. They were about where she’d said they were, above Carter’s Bend and a little way down from the Bluffs. He could make town by morning from here. “I guess so,” he said. “Can I have my gun back?”
“No,” Hetsie said.
Worth a shot, anyway. After a final look around, he backed across the threshold. The low sod roof of the cabin became visible above the doorway into Hetsie’s corridor.
“There’s one other thing you ought to
know,” she said.
“If you aren’t dealing me straight —”
“I’m not lying to you,” she said. “You oughta know, though, this door is about two years ahead of
The door closed on John’s startled yelp of “Wait, what?”
But the door only reflected the lamplight, not any answers. And he already knew what he’d see when he opened it: the interior of an abandoned, dirt-floor trapper’s cabin, with Hetsie nowhere in sight.
It was well past dawn by the time he walked into town, dirty, tired, hungry, mosquito-bit and about ready to arrest Hester Black on general principles.
But she hadn’t been lying. He’d been gone two years, presumed dead for a lot of that time. His rooms had been let to someone else, one of the deputies was carrying around the badge that used to be John’s, and he had the devil’s own time trying to explain where he’d been and why he hadn’t contacted any of his friends or family.
He learned that the building housing Hetsie’s Wonders had burned to the ground shortly after his disappearance—miraculously, without touching the buildings on either side, a near impossibility on that street of crowded wooden houses. The upstairs tenants had, oddly enough, moved out the day before the fire and could not be found.
John went down to Hook Street to find a squat new house of shiny, fresh-peeled logs on the old house site, with a carpenter’s sign out front. He hesitated for a long time before knocking on the door and asking the burly, florid-faced man who answered if there was a root cellar under the house.
“Couldn’t tell you that, sir. Just the ruins of the house that burned. Awful shame, that.”
“Yeah,” John said, “an awful shame. So any holes that were here would have been filled in when you built this place, right?”
The carpenter slapped the lintel of the fresh-built house. “You bet. Solid as a church.”
“Thanks,” John said.
As he walked off, his hand in his pocket on the sleek shape of the light-gun, he wondered what alien streets Hetsie walked, under what color sky. He found himself looking for changes from the world he’d left behind, as he’d been doing ever since he got back. He didn’t quite trust her to have dropped him off in the exact world he’d left. Should that street be there? Had that church been repainted since he’d left, or had it always been that color?
He even caught himself trying to trace the approximate course of that impossible tunnel. It had run back up into the mountains, it must have. But something told him that if he could pinpoint it exactly, and dig down, there would be nothing there. Wherever it had gone, it wasn’t under the mountains.
Every once in a while, he’d still catch a tantalizing glimpse of the rare and unusual: a plant too bright to be real, a toy carriage that flew through the air and returned to the owner’s hand. But no one would talk to him about it. The entire town might not have closed its doors against him, but in the poor neighborhoods once touched by Hetsie’s small miracles, John Moran’s name was wielded like a curse.
Some six months after John’s return, after he’d given up on reclaiming his old job and opened an office giving legal advice, a package arrived for him with no return address and a postmark blurred to illegibility.
He closed shop for the day, and opened the package carefully on his desk. John thought it was probably his imagination that he caught an unfamiliar scent when he opened it — sharp and tangy, the smell of red grass under purple skies. Inside, he found a bundle of canvas, and was unsurprised when he unwrapped it and discovered his old Colt Peacemaker, as shiny as if he’d just cleaned it yesterday. A check for the familiar pattern of nicks in the grip told him that it was, indeed, the one he’d lost.
Beneath the gun was a small box. John tipped out a small rainbow of variously colored firelighters into his palm, along with a folded piece of brown paper that looked like it might have once been a wrapping for something. In plain block printing, it said, These wont be invented until the war. Make them last. There was no name, of course, but he could almost hear the words in Hester Black’s gruff tones. He wondered if this meant she’d fetched up somewhere decent, in whatever time or world she had found.
“Good luck,” he said quietly, tipping the firelighters into a drawer. “And thanks.”
War, she’d said? Didn’t have to wait until any war to make more of these, he thought; now that he had enough to send a couple of them back East to his old friend at Menlo Park, who might be able to figure out how they worked. The legal business wasn’t doing much for him, and he was getting a bit old to break up bar fights, but maybe it was time for a new career as a businessman.
A man didn’t have to wait for the future to come to him; he could run away from opportunity or he could get up in its face.
About the Author
Layla Lawlor is a writer, freelance illustrator and comics artist who lives in the small town of Fox, Alaska, just north of Fairbanks. More of her fiction and narrative art can be found at http://www.laylalawlor.com.