By Robert D. Mattern
There was Fred Foster looking forward to his afternoon snack. It was noon-thirty and there had been a faint, hungry voice deep within him since nine-forty five. A nagging voice pleading for a beef stick and a neon-yellow electrolyte-infused sports drink. A voice that got louder and more persistent as time passed until finally noon hit and the voice became a tantruming child throwing itself against the walls of Fred Foster’s stomach, demanding at any cost to be satiated.
But Fred Foster had not the tools nor the power to relieve himself. He stood at the returns counter of the store at which he worked, enduring the saliva-saturated complaints of customers trying to return music players, televisions, and cellular phones. Sometimes the people were kind and toothy, with high voices and elegant hand gestures, referring to Fred Foster as Freddy or Buddy or Freddy-Buddy. But time endured and the more patrons neared the reality that they were wrong and Fred Foster was going to deny them their desires, the friendly would melt away and their broad, fluid hand gestures would turn to sharp, rigid karate chops.
Jennifer H, named so because there was a part-timer named Jennifer Q in mobile electronics, would often stand in the line adjacent to Fred Foster’s when the two worked together. And because Fred Foster and Jennifer H were of a select population of their department who did not attend school, but rather focused the totality of their professional lives to helping the people with deficient gadgets, Fred Foster and Jennifer H found their shifts intersecting often. Her smiles would be wider than his, her voice a little higher and much louder. And when the crying masses would dissolve, it would always be her, and never him, to nudge elbows and initiate contact.
On this particular day, there were no crying masses, but for the briefest of moments, Jennifer H peeked her head into his peripheral, waving and pointing to her watch. And for the briefest of moments, Fred Foster was reminded that soon it would be his break and soon he would be enjoying his afternoon snack.
This moment was brief because as this moment occurred, it was immediately interrupted by the odd pair approaching his line and clearing their throats in unison. The pair was comprised of a woman and her friend, the man with one leg, no different than any other customer in spite of their cheerfulness, which implied a social treatise to be pleasant and respectful. If he hadn’t been thinking of the beef stick and neon-yellow electrolyte-infused sports drink he would be having on his break, Fred Foster would probably have found the gleeful expressions of the couple off-putting and troubling.
The woman, about twenty-seven, wore a loose-fitting sweatshirt and tight mismatched sweatpants. Her ratty hair was clumped to one side by a thick black rubber band. Her partner looked younger—maybe twenty. He wore a bright orange ski vest, a long-sleeved flannel shirt, and denim shorts that rested about three inches above his knee. One of his knees was, of course, fake—as was the leg below it. It was a glossy, plastic material the same shade of tan as his real one.
Both the woman and the one-legged man stared at Fred Foster, not-speaking for too long a time, both sucking in the moment. Both, apparently, were reaching inside themselves, trying to touch base with their rampant, hyper emotions. They were also, as Jennifer H was reminding him through pantomimes now on the opposite side of the counter, the lone force standing between Fred Foster and his afternoon snack, as the start of his scheduled break time had passed exactly seven seconds before. So Fred Foster stared back with a smile a little too wide and eyebrows raised a little too high and announced to them his desire to help—an announcement so loud on a nonverbal level that it would have left Hans Asperger himself apologizing and bowing out of the situation.
The woman, without breaking eye-contact with Fred Foster, nudged her partner with her elbow. He unzipped the satchel that was hanging off his shoulder and fumbled through it, using both hands. His fumbling was so vigorous that his smiling female counterpart eventually lowered her eyebrows into dismayed, concerned sympathy and said quietly, “I’m so sorry.”
“It’s quite all right,” Fred sang like a singing princess. “Please take your time.”
“You’re so gracious,” she whispered back, still smiling, barely audible.
Eventually, the man produced a bulky cassette tape player and placed it on the counter. “There it is,’ he proclaimed. “Please, we need your help.”
“It’s a recorded audio player,” the woman whispered.”
Fred Foster picked it up. It was a plastic, cassette-playing brick. He gave it a couple of light tosses. “Yeah, we don’t sell these,” he said.
The woman and the one-legged man both dropped their jaws and the color quickly drained from their faces.
“We’re so sorry,” the woman whispered harshly. “We’re so sorry.”
Fred Foster nodded and held the cassette brick out in front of him. “You should try a repair shop.”
The one-legged man grabbed the device from Fred Foster’s hand, accidentally pressing the play button as he did. Big band music began to play. It was a loud, full sound as trumpets and trombones battled each other through angry static. But the horns did not fight each other as viciously and desperately as the woman and one-legged man fought the cassette player. The couple shook the device. They hit it. They hit each other. Finally, Fred Foster reached over the counter and pressed the stop button. They looked at him.
“At least it works,” he said flatly.
Had Fred Foster been in the mood to notice the sort of thing, he would have noticed Jennifer H with arms folded across her chest, smirking at the situation and eventually laughing at his final comment. However, Fred Foster was in no such mood to notice this sort of thing. He was only in such a mood to look forward to eating his afternoon snack.
The cassette couple took the player and stuffed it into their satchel, spitting out an occasional sorry until they were able to hobble away.
Fred Foster watched them, just barely short of curious. The pain in his stomach remained unbearable, so he walked away from his station and grabbed his coat from the employee lounge. His break was upon him at last.
Lately, Jennifer H had taken it upon herself to probe him about his every life detail. Who were his parents? Who were his friends? Who did we want to be? Last month, she had sat across from him during their lunch break as he held a paperback book in one hand and a peanut butter sandwich in the other. “You, Fred Foster,” she said, drawing a circle in the air around him with her spork, “are an enigma. You’ve got strange energy.”
“Is that so?” he had said, taking a bite of his sandwich and turning the page.
“Real strange energy,” she nodded. “I’ll get to the bottom of you if it’s the last thing I do.”
It had seemed that Jennifer H was bound to take her oath seriously. Every adjoining shift since then, she had forced herself to his hip, announcing her intention to take her coffee and lunch breaks at the same time as his.
Fred Foster found his mind constantly drifting to other things when he was with her: his snacks, his car payment, his dog, and his book of the week, to name a few of them. It was only when occasionally Jennifer H would punctuate sentences with shrill single-syllable words or the strength of her scent, which smelled like fruit punch, would permeate his nostrils that he would find himself forced take a moment’s involuntary notice.
On this particular day, Jennifer H was waiting for him at the store’s entrance. She stood directly in his path.
“Hi!” she greeted him.
“Hello,” he replied as he walked past her. Fred Foster, willed and determined by his raging appetite, would have his way.
There was a small convenience stand located near the food court of the mall, which shared a parking lot with Fred’s store. Fred had, at one point in time, broken up with the girl who worked at the hot dog place at the mall. Though the split had been amicable, he certainly was in no mood for another obstacle to stand between him and his afternoon snack. So instead, he opted for the liquor store a couple blocks away—a longer walk than the mall. From past experiences, he knew that if he walked briskly, he could be back and refreshed with the allotted fifteen minutes.
Last week he had barely made it. Something in the way Jennifer H had been delivering one of her customary catching-up monologues had caused him to set a different pace. Upon returning to the store, he was forced to forgo the ninety seconds he always allowed himself to enjoy his drink outside the store, and instead had to place his neon-yellow electrolyte-infused sports drink in the company refrigerator, unconsumed. It was stolen before he returned to it. It was a transgression he had yet to forgive her.
“Are we going to the corner store today?” she asked him.
“Yes,” he said.
“What are you going to get?
He knew that he wanted a beef stick and a neon-yellow electrolyte-infused sports drink, but to her, he said: “Probably a coffee or something.”
“I know a great coffee place. It’s not too far,” she said.
But he bulldozed past her. It was a Tuesday afternoon—a slow day. The parking lot was mostly free of people, save for a few stragglers who were heading to the mall. Fred Foster hated the parking lot on the weekends, when everyone would come to make their leisure-day shopping trips, belligerently wheeling big screen televisions out into the parking lot. And then there were pedestrians exercising their right of way, taking for granted the invisible bubble around them, surely set to knock away any cars that came close.
Today was not like this. The parking lot was silent—barren almost—and Fred Foster could hear himself hum as he neared the edge of the parking lot. He broke into a light jog and readied himself to step over the edge from the asphalt onto the sidewalk.
That is when the sky lit up.
It was a bright light. First it was a quick flash that engulfed the sky. Fred stopped his jog, covered his eyes and stared at the sky. He had considered that it was nothing, and so he turned to Jennifer H to get a read on her. Her right hand was shielding her eyes.
“Did you see it?” she asked.
“What was it?”
Jennifer H didn’t answer and the world continued, validating Fred’s opinion that it had been nothing, and it must have been malnourishment creeping its way into his brain.
Then came the second light. This time it was a concentrated beam. It poured from the sky and landed on the asphalt six feet behind them. It was brighter. It was so bright that it bypassed Fred’s sense of sight and started attacking his ear drums. The brightness remained for fifteen seconds or so before subsiding. And when it had cleared, a stream of unfiltered expletives flowed from Jennifer H’s mouth.
The light left in its place a naked man. The man looked to be about thirty. He was handsome and vaguely comfortable in appearance. He had landed on his back, leaving no opportunity for shame. Jennifer H’s instinct was to take a step away, tripping and tumbling back. Fred’s instinct was to cover his eyes, before checking briefly. Just to see.
The man’s eyes were closed, his mouth agape. Nothing else in the naked man’s body suggested any inclination of movement. Fred sighed. He looked at the sky and then leaned back, looking down the street. From here, he could see the traffic light. The liquor store was out of sight hidden by a tall building. But it was there. Fred Foster knew it was there.
He was also well aware of the naked dead man lying in front of them, and that Jennifer H had helped herself to her feet and was now making her way to the body. “Hello?” she called out to it, before kneeling before it and placing a hand against its arm.
“I wouldn’t do that,” said Fred Foster. It didn’t seem safe, but he stopped his statement short of this.
It seemed to make sense that they had done nothing, but it also stood to reason that they could not just leave this man, lest they accidentally leave some trace of evidence behind to trace the man to them.
But Your Honor, he would tell the judge. I had literally nothing to do with this man.
The prosecuting attorney would straighten his tie, give a fecal-chewing smirk to the audience and jury, and then lean on the witness stand. Let me get this straight. You see a naked, dead man fall from the sky, and your reaction…is to just leave?
Yes, Fred would say. The ladies and gentlemen of the jury would laugh. But Fred Foster would have nothing. He would just be hungry.
It was this line of thinking that drove Fred to walk up beside Jennifer H and kick the naked man gently on the side. “Hey there,” he said.
Jennifer H looked up at him with disapproval. “Don’t kick him.”
“Hey. Hey,” said Fred to the dead man. “Get up.”
The man’s hand twitched, and Jennifer H shook his arm more frantically. “Hello?” she called out. “Are you awake? Hello? Wake up!”
Fred nudged the man again with his foot and said matter-of-factly. “Sir, you need to get up.”
The naked man let out a moan. Not the painful kind of moan, Fred reasoned. It was the kind of moan a perfectly healthy person would make when they do not want to get out of bed.
“Okay, then,” Fred said under his breath. He tapped Jennifer H on the shoulder and signaled for her to step back. She stood quickly and leaned toward him intently, ready to listen to what he wanted to say. Fred Foster, however, did not speak to her. Instead, he spoke to the naked man. “Sir,” Fred dictated with clear pronunciation. “Please indicate that you understand that we tried helping you.”
Jennifer H slumped and then leaned even further forward as if to start speaking. Fred brought the index finger of one hand to his mouth, while using the fingers on his other hand to count down from three. He took small, deliberate steps away from the naked man and signaled to Jennifer H to follow his lead. She complied with hesitation.
“Your silence implies agreement. We are leaving.” Fred turned around and walked, resolving not to feel bad—deciding that sometimes one has to take care of one’s self. Sometimes in life, one needs beef sticks and neon-yellow electrolyte-infused sports drinks.
But the naked man stirred and spoke no sooner than Fred had put more ten feet behind him. And as for what the naked man said, Fred would forever blame to the incredulous gasp Jennifer H gave him as he walked away. The naked man said, “What the hell did you do to me?”
It wasn’t a What happened? or a Where am I?—not the brand of disoriented confusion that would delete Fred and perhaps his companion from memory or imply absolution. No. The naked man took an accusatory tone. The kind, Fred was afraid, that would implicate him in the naked man’s woes. Where the man might say, I was happy at home until Fred Foster did something to me and I was naked and alone in a mall parking lot.
For fun, of course, the officer would add, Sir, how could you be sure that Fred Foster do this to you?
Because the girl said he did.
Fred would protest. He would say he did nothing, but inevitably he would have to concede that she did make an accusatory sound. Clearly I had nothing to do with this, officer, Fred would say. Honest to god.
Let me get this straight, the officer would reply. You see a naked man fall from the sky, and your reaction…is just to walk away?
Fred Foster’s brain was looping. He turned around to face the man and said, “I had nothing to do with you.” He took a few steps toward the man, moving ever-so-slightly in the opposite direction of his afternoon snack. “Please tell me you understand that I had nothing to do with you.”
The naked man looked down and noticed himself. He made a cup with his hands and covered his crotch. He cast an angry gaze at Jennifer H and yelled, “Turn away!”
Fred sighed and half-covered his eyes with his hand. “Listen,” he said. “It’s none of my business, so I won’t judge. I don’t really care how you got here.”
“Are you okay?” asked Jennifer H, who had shielded her face with both hands. “Can you get home?”
The naked man swung wildly with his knees, keeping his hands firmly in place on himself, desperately making sure he’d reveal nothing. He wasn’t entirely successful, Fred noticed. Eventually, with clumsy thrashing and help from Jennifer H, he was on his feet.
He was well fit for a man, and much taller than Fred. Fred was suddenly intimidated, for naked men who were at least slightly insane seemed like something he should fear.
But the voice in Fred’s stomach screamed away, demanding sustenance, urging Fred to stand his ground, so Fred spread his feet wide and straightened his back.
“Stay right there. Do not move a step closer. Are you able to get home?”
The naked man, still not fazed by his surroundings, narrowed his eyelids. “I ain’t never been talked to by a negro before.”
Fred rubbed his eyes, incredulously. “Excuse me?” he said.
“Where you from?” the man growled. “Who do you long belong to? I hear the Reese plantation lets their slaves run wild. They ain’t got any order.”
Fred looked at the skin on his arm as Jennifer H defended him. “He’s not a nnnn…” she let her voice trail off. “He’s not African-American. He’s Puerto Rican.”
“I’m a quarter Puerto Rican,” said Fred.
“You look negro to me,” said the naked man.
“Oh my god!” exclaimed Fred. “You’re crazy.” He turned away. “I’m not worried,” he called over his shoulder. “Nobody is going to believe you.”
As he stormed away, Jennifer H trotted after him until she finally matched his stride. “I know he’s crazy, but do you think it’s safe to leave him?”
“Hey!” shouted the naked man. “You get back here right now! No slave talks to me that way.”
“Crazy!” screamed Fred over his shoulder. He returned his attention back to Jennifer H. “I think walking away is the only sensible thing to do.”
“I meant is it safe for him?” said Jennifer H.
“Do not confer with that negro about me!” yelled the naked man.
“I don’t particularly care.” Fred Foster was again focused on his afternoon snack. He would be late back to work—maybe five minutes. Be today he would not care. His boss would reprimand him, but it would be well worth the lashing. Because today he would return to work with a higher electrolyte count, and that whiny voice inside him would be dead and gone.
“Get back here!” yelled the naked man. His voice was smaller now. Jennifer H let out a hesitant sputter, before turning back around.
And then Fred stopped. He pictured the naked man’s face. He saw the face, angry and spewing hate-slurs. Then he pictured the man with a warm expression—his mouth twisted into an awkward smile. He saw that man washed out with sepia, and cracked and faded by decades of weathering. Then, he saw the man’s image framed, hanging neatly in a row of frames in his grandfather’s house.
“No way,” said Fred quietly. He swiveled on his feet and coughed up with Jennifer H. “Can I speak crazy?” he whispered.
“We just saw a man fall out of the sky,” Jennifer H whispered back. “So please feel free to be insane.”
“I know this man’s face,” said Fred.
“On my grandpa’s mantle. I’ve seen this face a hundred times. Does that sound crazy?”
Jennifer H’s face twisted in confusion. “What are you saying?”
“That this man’s face is on my grandpa’s mantle.”
“And why is it there?”
Fred shrugged and Jennifer H drew a circle around his face with her fingertip. “Didn’t I say that you have a strange energy about you?”
Fred Foster’s eyes compulsively rolled.
“So this man is your great-great-great-great something?”
“Fredrick Foster the first,” he whispered, letting his voice trail off.
Fred leaned backward on his heels, trying to catch a glimpse of the liquor store, but Jennifer H interrupted his line of sight. With sudden force, Jennifer H grabbed Fred by both shoulders. “I don’t think you understand the potential time paradox that has been created!”
“I don’t know that I believe in time paradoxes.”
“Are you Fredrick?” Jennifer H let go of Fred Foster. She tugged at the hem of his jacket until he took it off and gave it to her. With Fred Foster’s jacket in hand, she walked up to the naked man. “Is your name Fredrick Foster?”
“Proudly,” said Fredrick.
Jennifer H draped the jacket over Fredrick’s shoulders. “Are you married?”
“Engaged to be wed,” said Fredrick.
“Any illegitimate children? Any offspring?” she asked hopefully?
“How dare you! I’m an upstanding Christian man!”
Jennifer H stormed back to Fred. “He hasn’t procreated! That means your great-great grand-relatives haven’t been born yet! There are serious consequences if anything happens to him!”
There was Jennifer H positing the impossible. Jennifer H, who drew circles in the air with sporks and hypothesized meaning in places where there simply was none.
Fredrick paced back and forth with Fred Foster’s jacket draped over his shoulders. “I have the right mind to run off right now!”
“Stay put!” Jennifer H commanded.
“Listen,” Fred Foster said as calmly as he could. “This situation clearly doesn’t make any sense. And worrying about it will do us no good.”
“You said he was your great-great-great-great grandsomething,” she said. “You said he was related to you.”
“I said maybe.”
“Seriously?” Jennifer H asked.
Fred Foster knew there was no maybe. He had spent many Christmases in his grandfather’s house, listening to his grandfather regale him with stories of his family tree, pointing at the photos around his house as visual aide. But Fred Foster also reasoned that there was likely a great deal of misinformation in any given family tree. Like a hundred-year-old game of telephone, documents could be lost, information misrecorded, and generations later Fredrick the first could actually be a great-great-great uncle, or so on.
“I will see you hanged for this.” Fredrick the First said. He hugged his coat tight over his shoulders, turned on his feet, and started heading toward the mall.
Fred tried to refuse the stress of his situation, reasoning that any stress could possibly be a symptom of malnourishment. He even admired Fredrick’s tenacity and his unnerving resolve to get his way, even in a strange, foreign, and alienating place.
“There is nothing we can do, at this point, right?” Fred Foster said. He turned around and walked in the opposite direction of his ancient counterpart. The liquor store came back into view and Fred could almost feel the void in his stomach filled. He was well over his allotted break time, but it would soon be done. Everything would be worth it.
But Jennifer H ran. She ran and leapt through the air like a movie action star, grabbing for the collar of Fredrick’s jacket, and dragging him down to the ground. As Fred turned to the commotion, he noted that it must have hurt very much and that Jennifer H had almost definitely skinned her knees in bringing the tall naked man down.
Fredrick pounded his fists on the asphalt. “Get off me!” he cried. “You get off me right now!”
But Jennifer H, with great resolve, pinned Fredrick’s arms behind his back. She turned to Fred Foster. “Would you mind helping me?” she asked.
“I think you’ve got it,” said Fred, grabbing at his stomach.
“I’m doing this for you!” she cried. “Don’t you get this? This is all for—”
There was a sound.
It sounded like a gunshot, but one pumped full of helium. Fred’s muscles tightened and he cringed. A moment passed and he was still there.
He looked over at Jennifer H. Her entire body was a shade of pink. She seemed frozen in time. Then slowly, starting from the toe and working up to her forehead, she peeled away in flakes and floated up toward the sky. When Fred looked back down, he saw the one-legged man, fastening a knob on a gun that looked equal parts magnum and high-end water gun.
“What is going on?” Fred cried.
“We’re so sorry!” the woman from the returns line came up from behind the one-legged man, hitting him as she did. “We almost missed them!” she cried.
“We got here,” said the one-legged man, defending himself. “Everything is okay in the end, so Foster will be gracious.”
After he finished fastening the knob on the gun, he pointed it at Fredrick and pulled the trigger.
“Wait,” said Fred.
But it was too late. A green beam flashed from the gun, engulfing Fredrick and paralyzing him.
The woman quickly rushed over to Fredrick. She pushed a button on her wristwatch and touched his chest. Fredrick’s whole body vibrated violently for three or four seconds before contracting through space and disappearing.
Fred clenched his fists digging deep into his palms, but when he remained he cocked his head to the side. “You killed him, but I’m still here. Does this mean we aren’t related?”
“No,” said the one-legged man, holstering his gun across his back. “We didn’t kill him. He’ll have his memory wiped and we’ll send him back through time, per your orders.”
The man frowned. “By molecular transcontextualization, of course.”
“Stop,” whispered the woman to the one-legged man. “Don’t talk to him about that!”
“Don’t talk to me?” asked Fred. “Why?”
“I’m sorry, sir,” he said. “You asked us to have minimal contact with your younger self so we don’t alter history.”
“Stop it!” the woman rasped. She was furiously mashing the buttons of her wristwatch. “He isn’t our Foster. He’s Foster, pre-Foster.” Her eyes got wide when she looked up and matched stares with Fred. “I’m so sorry.”
“What about Jennifer H?” Fred Foster blurted.
“Who?” the woman asked.
“The girl who was with Fredrick.” Fred stated, slightly annoyed. “My coworker. The one you turned pink.”
The woman turned red. “She wasn’t an intergalactic assassin?”
“No,” said Fred. “Not quite.”
“Oh dear,” said the woman quietly, turning to her cohort. “Write that down.”
“We’ve scattered her molecules throughout the universe.” The man said. “We can gather them together again, but we need you to fill out the paperwork.”
“He can’t fill out the paperwork!” yelled the woman, slapping her one-legged partner on the back of the head. “We can get her back, but there’s this whole ordeal.”
Fred imagined the van pulling up to the courthouse. He imagined stepping out into the thronged press in his jumpsuit with the handcuffs.
“She was molecularly something something,” he would tell the judge.
“You’re fine,” said the woman, cutting off his imagination.
“Nothing happens in the future. We never hear about her.”
“Huh,” said Fred, quietly and to himself.
“Please forgive me, sir. Please remember to forgive me.”
“What?” asked Fred.
“Please, just don’t take my other leg.”
The woman pressed the two side buttons of her watch at the same time, and a purple bubble engulfed her. “It’s time,” she said to her friend. “It’s going to leave now.”
“Here,” the man said, producing the cassette player from his satchel. “You can have this.”
“What is this?” Fred asked.
“I don’t know!” said the man. “And here!” He pulled out a beef stick and a neon-yellow electrolyte-infused sports drink. “You’re supposed to take that, as well.”
“Five seconds!” cried the woman as the bubble got bigger.
The one-legged man hobbled over to her and grabbed her in a hug from the side. “Take care of yourself,” he said. “We’ll see you in the future!”
“Stop it!” the woman whispered.
The bubble popped and they were gone.
Fred stood for a moment, taking in what had happened. Then, carefully, when he was sure nothing else would happen, he set down the cassette player and the drink so he could unwrap his beefstick. He took a bite, closed his eyes, and chewed. Then, still cautious, he picked up his drink and walked away. It was cold outside. He didn’t have his jacket.