Charlie “Bull” Dekker drove his cruiser down the East Valley Road and thought about a woman who wasn’t his wife. Donna Swanger, the woman in question, had recently made her interests in Charlie fairly obvious. And for the first time in his twelve years of marriage he found himself tempted. Donna was a fine looking woman with the kind of long red hair that Charlie had always been partial to, but it wasn’t her looks that pulled on him. It was how she talked. Specifically, how she talked about leaving Hope’s Rest, Tennessee.
“It’s a big world, Bull. We could find someplace better than this.”
Charlie loved his wife, Lisa, and she him, but Lisa would never leave Hope’s Rest. She had deep roots in this town. So did he. But while Lisa’s roots anchored her, Charlie’s only seemed to tie him down. And on days when the low mountains surrounding his home town seemed more like prison walls than a pretty view, Charlie thought losing his marriage and his reputation might be worth it if it gave him a chance to escape.
Movement on the road shoulder jerked him out of his reverie. He pulled over and watched a man with a backpack walking toward him. Charlie had seen a few hippies come through town. In this “Summer of Love”, as the reporters called it, half the kids in America seemed to have hit the road.
As the man drew closer, Charlie saw that this was no longhaired kid. He looked to be pushing seventy. Hippy or not, the Hopes Rest Sheriff’s Department had a standard procedure when it came to strangers with little means. You struck up a friendly conversation and offered them a ride to the county line. Not very neighborly, but it helped avoid problems, and problem avoidance was Charlie’s stock and trade.
Charlie hauled his six-and-a-half-foot, two hundred and eighty-pound frame out of the squad car and walked toward the stranger. “Howdy. Hot day for a stroll.”
The man unclipped a metal canteen from his belt and took a long sip. “It’s not so bad where the trees cover the road.”
Charlie nodded. “Thing is, there’s nothing but baked gravel for the next few miles. I could give you a lift. Take you as far as Grundy County.” As Charlie gave his prepared speech, he looked the hiker over. The man was no vagrant. He wore expensive L.L. Bean camp wear, dusty but not worn.
“It’s Sheriff. Sheriff Charlie Dekker. Some folks call me Bull.”
“I imagine they do. Well, Sheriff Dekker, is there something wrong?”
“Oh no,” said Charlie. “I guess you could say I’m sort of the welcome wagon.”
“Fine, I get it.” The man reached into a pocket and pulled out a card. “Here’s my driver’s license. My name’s William Kearns. I’m a retired science teacher from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.”
Charlie took the card and looked it over.
“My family tree springs from around here. I thought I’d like to see the town, maybe do a little genealogy research. I may not have a car, but as far as I know hiking across our lovely country isn’t a crime.”
“Hold on, Mr. Kearns,” Charlie said. “No reason to get riled.” He handed back the I.D. “You got to admit it’s a bit strange, a man your age traveling rough.”
“No law against being strange either,” Kearns said, but the anger had left his voice. In fact, he sounded like someone who had just won an argument, and Charlie supposed he had.
“It really is a scorcher of a walk into town. I’d be happy to give you a lift.”
“I believe I’d rather not arrive in a police car.”
“Suit yourself,” said Charlie. “There’s a place name of Dottie’s on Walcott Avenue right off the town square. They make good iced tea. If I run into you later, maybe I could buy you a glass.”
“Maybe,” said Kearns and surprised Charlie by extending a hand to shake. “Nice meeting you, Sheriff.”
Charlie watched William Kearns lug his backpack down the gravel road, the image going wavy with heat. He scratched his sweaty brow. Somewhere, during the “official friendly conversation,” Charlie had lost the upper hand.
He had expected a hobo and instead gotten a pillar of the community, but pillar or not, there was something off about the man. A cop develops a sort of radar after a few years. Charlie’s radar told him Mr. Kearns had something on his mind he did not want to share with the local authorities.
“Hell, if he robs the Savings and Loan, he’ll be the only senior citizen hiking out of town with a backpack full of cash.” Charlie tried to muster a chuckle, but it wouldn’t come. The I.D. had looked authentic at least. Charlie could place a few calls. He walked back toward the car, eager to get on the radio.
A few hours later, Charlie took the last smooth sip from his glass of sweet tea at Dottie’s. Kearns had not taken him up on his offer of a drink, but he wasn’t far off. Charlie could see him through the plate glass window. He stood only a few yards away, staring up at an oak tree with what looked like amazement.
Checking the license had turned up some information. Mr. William Everett Kearns, a seventy-four-year-old widower, was indeed from the Steel City. According to Sherriff Hancock over in Dawesville, he had until recently, also been the proud owner of a seven-year-old white Cadillac, which he’d sold for two thousand dollars and a ride over Walker Mountain to the Collier County line. No law against selling your car is there, Mr. Kearns? Charlie thought. No law against staring at trees way longer than normal, either.
Kearns had finished his tree examination and now walked toward the town library. It was a good choice on a hot day. The library was an architectural beast built in the mid-1800s in a fit of robber-baron philanthropy. Even without air conditioning, its high ceilings kept the building cool in the summer. As Kearns disappeared through the doors, Charlie stood and laid a dollar bill on the table.
Eight years on the job and I’m on my first stake out, Charlie thought and laughed. He wondered why he even bothered, but the answer was the same as always. Nothing much else to do.
Charlie crossed the town square to a long green bench in front of the courthouse. It was filled by old men with dried-apple-faces wearing overalls and flannel shirts despite the heat. They sat there most days, weather permitting, whittling and telling stories. Teenagers called it the dead pecker bench. But if Hope’s Rest had a council of wise men, these were the guys.
Charlie nodded at the gruff chorus of “Hey there, Bull.” He stood at the end of the bench where he could watch the Library doors and still hear the old timers’ mix of gossip and tall tales.
He was listening to how in ‘47 the Reverend Horace Snapp had walked into a cornfield after church and never came out, when William Kearns stumbled from the Library.
Charlie cut across the square to where Kearns sat on the steps at the building’s entrance. The old man’s complexion had gone as grey as the stone pillar he leaned against.
“You all right, Mr. Kearns?” Charlie asked. As he spoke, he took the canteen from Kearns’ belt. “Take a sip of this.”
“There was a fire,” Kearns said his voice tinged with hysteria. “I don’t think it could have reached…” He looked back to the library.
Charlie glanced through the building’s peaked windows. Inside, people sat at tables calmly reading.
“Where, Mr. Kearns? If there’s a fire, I can get help. Do you remember who I am?”
“I have to get to them,” Kearns said. “Tell them what’s happened. I have to get them out.”
“Listen to me, Mr. Kearns. If there are people in danger, you have to tell me.”
Charlie’s words finally seemed to seize Kearns’ attention. He stared at the Sheriff for a long moment and laughed. Just one bark, loud and high. Then he took the canteen and drank. Recognition and a little color filled the old man’s face.
“Sheriff Dekker,” Kearns said in a still tremulous voice. “I suppose we ran into each other after all. Perhaps we could have that glass of ice tea. I think I have a favor to ask you.”
“What about the people you need to get to?” asked Charlie.
“There’s still time,” Kearns said. “More than enough.”
Charlie led Kearns back to the same booth at Dottie’s he’d only recently vacated. He ordered tea and a couple of hamburger platters.
Kearns stared at the library across the square and Charlie waited. When the food arrived, the old man surprised Charlie by plowing through the big meal like a teenager.
“Listen,” said Charlie, as Kearns finished off his last steak fry. “If you have a favor to ask, ask it, or at least tell me why you’re here. You drive all the way from Pittsburgh, sell your car, and walk into Hope’s Rest. It may be legal, but it isn’t normal.”
Kearns stared into his empty plate. When he looked up, his eyes were hard, as if he had made a painful decision.
“There’s a room in the library. I need to get into it.”
“Okay,” said Charlie. “And…?”
“It’s a secret room. I know how to get in. At least, I used to. But the building’s changed.”
“Back up. What’s in the room?”
“I told you, I’m a bit of a genealogist. My great-great uncle and two other men were at the library’s dedication. They disappeared that night and no one ever saw them again.”
“Wait, you’re talking about, um, Cranwell and Mercer. That’s one of the stories they tell on the dead-peck… the bench where the old-timers sit. I’ve heard it—wealthy families, one of them designed the building?”
“Yes, Cranwell. He secretly built a hidden room in your library. He and Mercer are inside that room. I thought I could just walk in and find it.”
“But there was a fire and now there are complications. Complications I think you could help with.”
“If this is true, we’ll go to the Mayor and tell him. They’ll find this room of yours and exhume the men. Hell, the historical society will go nuts. Probably put in a mini-museum.”
“No, it has to be just you and me.”
Kearns leaned forward, his face grown red. “Because Cranwell and Mercer are not dead.”
Charlie said nothing for a long moment. “What do you mean?”
Kearns ignored the question. “There was a fire. The building’s changed. I can’t get to them. At least, not without your help.”
“This is crazy. How am I supposed to help? Hell, why would I?”
“Kearns shook his head.” I noticed you watching me today, Sheriff. Following me around for hours like I was public enemy number one.”
“Doing my job.”
“Job, my ass. I think you’re bored out of your ever-loving mind.”
Charlie didn’t like being read so easily, but he was too honest to deny the charge.
Kearns licked his lips, looking to Charlie like a man playing his last card. “You help me, Sheriff Dekker, and I’ll show you the damnedest thing you’ve ever seen.”
Charlie’s radar was up again. Something odd, even mysterious was occurring here. In his experience, things like this did not happen in Hope’s Rest. It was irresistible.
Charlie left Dottie’s and headed to Hales’ barbershop, hoping to catch Deputy Dan Carter shooting the shit. Sure enough, there he stood, leaning against the wall under the mounted form of a big mouth bass. The resemblance was striking.
“Let’s take a walk,” said Charlie.
The two men left the barbershop and walked towards Charlie’s squad car. “How’d you like me to work your shift tonight?” Charlie asked.
“What? Give up patrolling until three in the goddamned morning.” Dan laughed. “Seeing it’s you, Sheriff, I guess I could make the sacrifice.”
“Great,” Charlie said. “But you got to do me a favor. Call my wife and ask to talk to me. Sound sick.”
Dan nodded. An obnoxiously wide grin filled his thin face.
“What?” Charlie asked.
“Well, it’s none of my business, but I think this might be the night Bull Dekker finally gets himself a little strange.”
Charlie shot Dan a glare that knocked the grin off his deputy’s face.
“Sorry, Sheriff. None of my business. I’ll make the call.”
Charlie watched the slump-shouldered deputy head back to the barbershop. The night I get a little strange, he thought and chuckled. Dan was wrong, but only about the details. Charlie had been seduced, sure enough. Not by Donna Swanger though. He’d been seduced by the story of an old man who was either crazy or a damned good liar. I’m not cheating on Lisa, Dan. I’m cheating on Hope’s Rest and my whole same-shit-different-day life. And damned if it wasn’t kind of exciting.
Lisa accepted Charlie’s double shift with the stoic grace common to the spouses of law enforcement. She sent him into the night with a kiss and a meatloaf sandwich.
Hope’s Rest tucked in early. By the time the First National’s big digital clock neared midnight, it was lights out, except for LJ’s Gas and Gulp. Charlie did one more loop around the main drag, gazing at the same storefronts he had ridden past as an eight-year-old on a Schwinn. At the library, he parked and walked to the big building’s back door. After a minute of fishing through his official key chain, Charlie stepped inside.
He had his flashlight on in case of stools and book stacks. He didn’t want any extra attention, but if anyone saw the light, Charlie was who they would call. He made his way up a flight of stairs to the seldom-used second-floor bathroom and knocked. “It’s me.”
William Kearns stepped out, squinting at the flashlight.
“Any problems?” Charlie asked.
“No. No one even came up to check for stragglers.”
“The basement,” Kearns said stepping toward the stairs. Charlie followed behind, shining the flashlight and watching the older man’s body language.
Kearns seemed nervous. Nowhere near the shell-shocked man who had left the library earlier, but Charlie could tell he was not looking forward to what lay ahead.
Soon, the two men stood in a small basement room dominated by a huge boiler. Charlie turned on the overhead fluorescents; not worried about lights in this small windowless space. Mr. Kearns pointed at the floor. “Underneath here there’s a small room, a sort of sub-basement. The tiles seem solid, but if you know where to look, there’s a seam. As he spoke, the old man knelt down and brushed dust away with his hand. Charlie’s eyes scanned the floor where Kearns worked. Sure enough, he spotted two seams running parallel to each other about three feet apart.
“See the spot where it looks like one of the tiles got chipped?” asked Kearns pointing. “You just push your thumb in there and with a little leverage the trapdoor lifts right up”
Charlie stared blankly for a couple of seconds, then it jumped out at him like seeing Christ’s face on a tortilla. A moment later, he saw the complication. Resting on the top right corner of the trapdoor sat the impressive bulk of the Library’s boiler.
“The fire was in 1955,” Kearns said. “They have pictures of the damage hanging in the lobby. Evidently, they put in a new boiler as part of the repairs. It just needs to be shifted a little.”
Charlie stared at the boiler’s glowering bulk. “You’re joking,” he said. “If you’d told your story to the Volunteer Firemen’s Association and they came down with the Women’s Auxiliary and a forklift maybe they could have moved that thing. I mean, I know I’m a big guy…”
Kearns said nothing. He didn’t have to. Charlie had come too far not to try and they both knew it.
Charlie examined the boiler. At least they hadn’t bolted it to the floor. Probably assumed sheer weight would keep it from moving. Charlie thought this was a pretty fair assumption. There was some wiggle room. A good two feet in back and on either side of the behemoth. What worried him was the network of pipes branching off the boiler. Each one connected to a radiator somewhere upstairs. It would be like moving an upside down stump. Except this stump’s root system was a few hundred feet of copper pipe. And instead of a tractor to do the work, there was Charlie.
He squatted down and felt around the base for a grip. On the boilers side, raised letters six inches high spelled out the word DUNKIRK. The damned thing even sounded heavy.
Charlie stood and gave the boiler a good hard shove. He thought the thing might have shaken a bit, but he knew immediately this would be a lift and push job.
He squatted again and found his handholds. People claimed Bull Dekker was the strongest man in three counties, maybe the state. Now he would see if he deserved the title. Kearns knelt down by the tile with the chip in it and pressed his thumb into the right spot.
Charlie started counting to himself. One, two…
“You’re not standing on the trap, are you?” Kearns asked in a whisper.
“No” Charlie hissed out, “now shut up.”
Again, he started his mental count. One, two…
“Don’t forget to lift with your legs.”
A roaring in Charlie’s mind drowned out Kearns’ last interruption as he poured himself into lifting. For an eternal moment, the world went away. The cold metal pressing against his face, the bite of the handholds into his palms, his heartbeat pounding in his ears, none of it reached him. Lifting and pushing were all there was. Then a burning pain blossomed into his consciousness like a light through dark water and he knew he was finished.
Charlie fell back into a sitting position. He slowly opened his hands gazing dumbly at the angry red welts across his palms.
“Sheriff Dekker,” said a distant voice. Charlie moved his hands to his lower back kneading the knot of pain that pulsed there. He tentatively flexed his spine, bending from one side to another. It hurt, but not in the way that laid a man on his back for six weeks.
This time Charlie recognized the voice and looked over. William Kearns stood by a gaping square hole in the floor.
Charlie patted the Dunkirk and pushed himself up. His back twinged again, but he could stand. The boiler now sat approximately three inches from where it had. Charlie was glad he wouldn’t be the one starting up the radiators come winter. He stepped over to the edge of the trapdoor. Lights from the fluorescents filled the exposed subbasement, revealing an iron ladder bolted to the wall. On the wall opposite the ladder hung two overcoats, and at the narrow end of the small room was a closed door.
Kearns went down first. Charlie followed, pausing on each rung of the ladder as new and interesting pains shot through his throbbing back. He hoped whatever came next wouldn’t require another feat of strength.
Kearns looked from Charlie to the door and back again. The old man was sweating even though Charlie had done all the work.
“Mr. Kearns, would you mind if I called you Bill?” Charlie asked.
A smile flickered over Kearns’ face as he answered. “My friends used to call me William.”
“All right, William. Why don’t you tell me what’s really behind that door.”
Kearns ran a hand through his thinning hair and nodded. “Behind that door, you’ll find the bodies of Elliott Mercer and Randolph Cranwell. What you won’t find are the bones of two men long dead.”
“Randolph is probably taking the first draw on one of those god-awful cheroots he used to smoke. Elliot will be setting up three empty glasses for a toast. There should be a third man. William Kearns.”
“Your great uncle.”
The old man shook his head and went on. “William was a chemist. A damned fine one. He made a discovery. One so miraculous he convinced Randolph and Elliot to back him in its development. A mixture of chemicals—some rare, some common—that, combined correctly with the right amount of heat, produced a kind of stabilizer. It looked like a glowing blue light. You could fill a closed area with that light and drastically limit change of any sort.” Kearns’ face twisted into a mixture of shame and pride. “Time itself would slow down.
“William should be in that room with them, but he isn’t. Do you want to know why?” Kearns didn’t wait for Charlie to answer.
“Young William forgot the brandy. That was the plan, you see. He would prepare the chemicals and light the brazier. He’d measured it out. Just enough so the time it took them to have a drink and smoke a cigar would be a month to their worried friends and families. Then they would walk out and show the world their miracle. He’d performed countless experiments. Had the whole process down to, well, a science. No danger at all, really.
“But you can’t have a toast if you leave the brandy in your coat hanging in the other room. So out stepped William Kearns. He knew immediately something was wrong. The air in the tiny subbasement was stale as an Egyptian crypt. He climbed the ladder to the library; told himself he would just check on how the joke was going over, but William was careful to make sure he closed the trapdoor behind him.
“Turns out, in the few moments William had spent in that small room, there had been a war. Hell, there’d been several, and the Japanese had just started another. It was all in the library’s racks of newspapers. Ninety Years in a few minutes time. Some joke, huh?”
“I don’t believe you,” Charlie said. “There’s no goddamned way you’re some time traveler from the eighteen-hundreds.”
“You don’t have to believe. It doesn’t make things any less true. Can I tell you the rest? Before I show you.” He motioned toward the closed door.
Charlie nodded. “Why not?”
“I ran,” William said. “I think I went a little crazy at first. Crazy with loss and fear. It wasn’t my world anymore. In the end though, it boiled down to cowardice. Easier to face down machine guns on some island in the pacific then to face Elliot and Randolph. To say to them: Sorry, I think I must have measured something wrong and now everyone we know and love is gone.”
“You came back, though.”
“Nothing noble about it. I lived a life while they’ve been in there. Worked, married, grew old. If I hadn’t outlived my wife and son, you never would have met me. Sometimes, I almost convinced myself it wasn’t true. That I had gone a different kind of crazy that night in the library.”
Charlie thought about that different kind of crazy. He wasn’t angry at Kearns for wasting his time, he was sad. Suddenly, he wanted to climb right back up that ladder. He had started out the night thinking he’d get a funny story. Something to share with the old timers on the dead pecker bench. But not now. Now, he wanted—no, he needed—more. He needed those men frozen in time. Needed William Kearns to be not just crazy, but a man cast adrift, making his way through a world made bizarre by the passage of so many years. He’s going to open that door and show me some old empty broom closet, Charlie thought. And god damn if it’s not going to break my heart.
William stepped forward and took hold of the doorknob.
“Don’t.” Charlie said. “Just don’t.”
Kearns looked back over his shoulder. “I’m not crazy, Sheriff,” he said and pulled open the door.
Inside was a miracle.
Charlie didn’t realize he was backing up until he felt the wall behind him. Looking through the door, he could have been staring at an old-fashioned photograph if it hadn’t been for the scene’s depth and the fact that a pale blue light suffused everything. The men were there. One sat at a small table with three glasses in front of him. Another, no doubt Randolph, stood with a long thin cigar clamped between his teeth. A motionless flame crowned the match in his hand.
Kearns was sobbing and smiling in equal measure. He wiped tears from his cheek and gazed at his liver-spotted hand. “I guess I don’t have to worry about proof,” he said. The two men looked at one another, neither finding words that fit the moment.
“Thank you,” Kearns said finally and stepped through the doorway.
He did not just walk into the room. For a moment, the strangely viscous light bowed inward with Kearns’ weight, refusing to be breached. On his third step, the light, with no discernible movement, suddenly surrounded the old man. There he stopped, in frozen union with the friends he had abandoned so long ago.
Afterward, Charlie made a list. All the things he would want to take if he decided to step into that room and step out again into some strange far-flung future. It read like something from the Road Warrior movies. Over the years, he narrowed it, bit by high-caliber bit, until he had it down to a cold six-pack and an extra-large Gondola’s sausage-and-bacon pizza. Gondola’s put the cheese on top like God intended.
Charlie squatted and slipped his thumb into what looked like a chipped spot on a tile. He didn’t have anything as formal as a schedule, but he came here often. The need to once again witness the unbelievable tugging at him until he gave in and made his way through the darkened library to the boiler room. His back twinged as he shifted his weight and opened the trap door. Even if he had left that first night some twenty odd years ago and never come again, his back would have kept him from ever forgetting the experience. That and the way the library’s radiators hissed and banged each time they fired up.
Charlie grasped the iron ladder and climbed down. He’d put a chair in the room. Nothing fancy, just a metal folding job with one of those seat pillows with ties at the corners. Charlie lowered himself on to it and gazed into the blue room. He had the scene pretty much memorized. The distinctive tread of William’s too-modern hiking boot, the signet ring on Randolph’s finger. But it still filled him with awe. Charlie had always thought of himself as a big fish in a little pond. He needed that awe to remind him that Hope’s Rest was a lot bigger and more mysterious a pond than he’d realized.
“So why didn’t you go?” Charlie asked himself. No messy divorce. No one asking why. It would be so easy. Maybe I will, he thought. But he doubted it. Charlie didn’t necessarily think he’d grown wiser over the years. No need for the old timers to make room for him on the bench yet. He guessed it was more like perspective. Knowing he could leave gave him the chance to appreciate what he had, let him feel like his life was a choice.
He looked at William’s back. Imagined the man turning, beckoning Charlie to come join him. And he felt the urge. Not now, but someday, maybe when his age matched William’s and life felt like it was wrapping things up. But not tonight.
Tonight, Charlie had a town he’d chosen to protect, and a wife he wanted to go home to. He took his thermos of coffee from his jacket and lifted it in a toast.
“Here’s to you, William. Thanks for the miracle.”