Hacker’s Apprentice – Chapter One

First chapter of a novel I’m currently rewriting is below; it is a fantasy novel:

Hacker’s Apprentice

Chapter One

Shoving his hands in his pockets, he shambled away. His breath left great puffs of steam in the air, as snowflakes swirled. The air was cold and harsh against his lungs. He didn’t know which bothered him more, the fact that he couldn’t afford a meal at a simple fast food restaurant, or that he was alone and had no hope of the sort of life he could witness through that window.

His feet shuffled, kicking at the slush; his toes were cold and wet, and they hurt. He’d need to get to the mission soon or he might get sick or have frostbite. His nose hurt too, and so did his cheeks.

He swallowed hard, fighting back a sudden urge to cry, and stumbled more quickly toward the corner. The light was red; he punched the button and waited for it to change.

“Cold enough for you?”

He jumped, startled by the voice.

“What?” he looked around, expecting to find two people involved in a conversation; instead, all he saw was a single face, dark brown eyes gazing serenely at him. He looked behind him, but no one was there. “Did you say something?” Then added quickly, “I’m sorry.” He punched the button again.

“Nasty weather; way too cold. I don’t like the cold.” The voice was cheerful.

“You’re talking to me?” he asked.

“Um, yeah. Not talking to myself, at least I hope not.” The mouth below the brown eyes twisted up into a delightful smile, revealing perfect, straight white teeth. He let his eyes wander from that smile, up to the nose, then over to the ears, mostly hidden by thick dark hair. The woman to whom all these things were a part, was absolutely stunning. Even when he was working in the library and still had a real life, he would never imagine she might actually be talking to him. Now, in his homeless condition, it made even less sense.

“Yeah, it’s really cold. My feet are frozen, my nose is frozen. I can’t get warm.”

“I feel that way, too. A hot cup of coffee would sure help just now, eh?”

“What I wouldn’t give for that…” he muttered, mostly to himself.

“You headed for that Del Taco?” she asked, chin indicating a fast food place on the other side of the street.

The light finally turned green.

“Uh, I…” he began.

“I’m kind of hungry too,” she said. “How about you?”

“What?” he stared at her.

“My treat.” Her eyes were merry, and her mouth was still smiling.

He just stared at her eyes; they were the most lovely eyes he had ever seen in his life, and surely he was dreaming. He was a homeless bum, and no one paid any attention to guys like him. Certainly not someone with eyes like that.

But she walked with him across the street, and opened the door to let him into the restaurant. And she pointed at the menu, and asked him what he wanted and she cheerfully ordered two large steak burritos and the biggest cup of coffee that they offered, which included free refills. That was the best thing about fast food places; if you could just get the money together, they would give you free refills for as long as you stayed in the building. Of course, you had to be careful not to overstay; he’d found that after much more than an hour, he started getting dirty looks from the employees. No one had tossed him out of a place yet, but he had never pushed his luck. Like if he visited the library. He stayed in the back, and he avoided any of the employees and always stayed awake; the library was warm, and he could read, and that could make a day go by pretty well. And no one bothered him. Even the staff that might remember him from before, when he had worked there—they didn’t bother him. They never said ‘hi’, either; maybe they didn’t recognize him anymore, not with the beard and the bad clothes, and the bad smell, and besides, they might be embarrassed, not know what to say. What did you say to an ex-collegue, anyhow? What could you talk about? What wouldn’t make him unhappy or upset him? He knew what ran through their minds. It’s what would run through his mind if the tables were turned.

He sat down in a booth, cradling the cup of coffee between his hands as if it were a delicate bauble of infinite worth. He brought it slowly to his lips and let the heat sink down his throat and into the middle of his body. It radiated outward. Even his toes seemed less chilled now.

“Here you go,” said the woman with the pretty brown eyes, setting the tray of food on the table, and then sliding in next to him.

Next to him? He slid away, toward the far corner of the booth, startled beyond words.

“I can’t tell you how hungry and cold I was,” she said. “I’m so glad I ran into you.” She was still smiling, hands busy lifting the food from the tray, distributing her plate of nachos and his burritos as if they were the oldest and best of friends. She pulled the lid off her own cup of coffee and made a satisfied sigh after a long drink.

“What could be better, eh?”

“Um, yeah…” Pealing off the top of the paper wrapper on his burrito, he took a bite, half expecting to find it laced with glass or poison, but instead, it was both hot and exactly what a burrito was supposed to be. “This was very kind of you,” he managed, swallowing first before speaking.

“You looked like you needed a friend,” she said simply. “I saw how you were staring into that McDonalds.” She paused. “But I like Del Taco better.” As if that explained everything. “My name’s Alyssa White.” She held out her hand. “What’s yours?”

He gripped her hand automatically and gave it a perfunctory shake. But she didn’t release her hand right away; instead, she squeezed it gently and then let his hand go slowly.
“People call me Mudge,” he finally managed.

“I didn’t ask what people called you. What’s your name?” Her eyes bored into him with an intensity that only added to his discomfort and confusion.

“Drew Mudgeford,” he said reluctantly. It made him uncomfortable to use his own name, as if he were no longer worthy of it. But once it left his mouth, it was as if a cork had popped. Words began pouring out, making their way around the bites of his food and sips from his coffee. Mudge couldn’t stop; the words just gushed, an embarrassing torrent, revealing his soul.

When he finally ran out of words, he felt his face reddening in embarrassment. That wasn’t the sort of stuff to tell a stranger, especially not a beautiful stranger. But a homeless bum who hadn’t bathed in a week, wearing the same unwashed clothes for days and days was not exactly the sort of person who was ever going to get lucky, so what did it matter if he was a bore on top of everything else?

“You’ve had a difficult time of it; but I suspect you won’t be down forever.”

“I used to think that,” mumbled Mudge, finishing the last of his by now cold burrito; he’d been so busy talking that he’d forgotten to eat.

“It’s only reasonable that you’d be discouraged.”

He nodded. She smiled at him and stood up, wiping her mouth with a napkin. “Don’t give up hope.” And she patted him on the shoulder, gathered up her trash, and left the restaurant. He felt the chill as a gust of wind swirled in through the momentarily opened door.

He looked down into his coffee cup and tried to figure out how much more time he could spend in the restaurant before they’d chase him out. Probably he could get one more refill. He stood slowly and hobbled toward the counter.

* * *

Mudge stared down at the thin and watery soup, barely warmed above the temperature of his skin and wondered that he should be so thankful for so little; hours had passed since his unexpectedly good lunch.

“Met a pretty woman today,” he murmured, spooning the broth into his mouth.

“What was that, Mudge?” Lacky looked up from his bowl and frowned at him.

“Oh, nothing,” said Mudge. Lacky grumbled to himself and went back to slurping his soup.

The Palmdale Rescue Mission was an old, ramshackle structure, older than anyone could say. The gray stone walls were flaked here and there with green and gold mildew. The air had the sour, musty resonance of an always-wet basement. If he hadn’t known better, he’d have suspected the building of being a converted dungeon. Iron grates covered the dirty windows that poked through the wall near the ceiling, which hung perhaps a dozen feet above his head. Fluorescent tubes glowed and flickered, blackened ends murmuring antiquity. Mudge wasn’t the only one sucking on the dregs; obviously the Rescue Mission itself could stand a little rescuing.

But who bothered to give money to support the failures of society when one could take the same cash and buy oneself new clothes or a new car or a new bit of electronic stupefaction?

Lacky burped suddenly, a low, bass rumble that reverberated against the stones. Lacky was old, too, perhaps not such an antique as the Rescue Mission, but definitely an object whose time had long since passed him by. Perhaps, if Lacky had been a car, he might have been considered a classic. As a human being, however, he was simply old.

And who said humanity’s values weren’t skewed?

“Excuse yourself,” commented Mudge.

Lacky barely grunted in response.

And Mudge? He glanced around the room. Sure enough, he was the youngest one there, by at least a factor of two. His hair was long and unkempt, but unlike those slurping so noisily around him, at least it was all still on top of his head and none of it had yet turned gray—not that the stress of the last few months hadn’t probably shortened the time before it would start turning gray. He still had all his teeth, too; even if he was lucky now to brush them once a week.

The last of his soup disappeared into his mouth and he swallowed with a loud gulp. He wiped his mouth with one sleeve of his jacket, barely noticing the crust there from the countless times before that he had so wiped. No one would ever mistake him for anything other than what he was: a homeless bum.

It hadn’t always been that way. Last year—had it really been a year now? He blinked, wondering how it could be so long. He shook his head. Back then he had been an assistant librarian at the central library, and he had slept in a nice little two room apartment not but a block away. He’d eaten three good meals a day, then, and he’d had hot showers every day and every day he’d brushed his teeth twice.

But one day Mayor Bowman decided that the city government had to cut back on expenses, and the library had been his first attack. Mudge had been let go, along with a half dozen other assistants. Overnight, his life had turned to mush. No money, so he couldn’t afford a place to live; no money, so he couldn’t afford any food, and no money, so now he hung out at the Rescue Mission and slept on the floor when there was room.

He’d have gotten another job, if he could have, but there didn’t seem to be any that would take him; and now, if he showed up at a job interview dressed like he was, smelling like he did—what chance did he have?

It would seem as if he had joined the ranks of the permanently unemployed and unemployable. Mudge vaguely wondered how long before he turned to crime…

“You ever seen a wizard?” The question came out of nowhere. Lacky was staring at him with his piercing black eyes, a note of intensity that Mudge couldn’t remember seeing on his face before.

“What did you say?”

“You heard me.”

“What the hell you talking about?”

“You heard me.”

“Of course I’ve never seen a wizard. Except in Disney cartoons.”

“I seen one.”

“You don’t say?” No one could accuse Lacky of having all his oars in the water at any one time. He’d probably take it as an insult, even. But this seemed a bit extreme, even for him.

“You don’t believe me.”

“Lacky, I don’t believe you’re lying to me. Despite everything, you’re not a liar.”

“Thank you. And you’re not a crook.”

“I mean, I’m sure you believe…”

“What would you call a tally skinny fellow, sharply dressed in a dark suit, with a hat—the kind you’d see in an old black and white film—who spoke a handful of words and made a car appear.”

“A doorman—calling for a taxi.”

“Not like that.” Lacky was starting to get irritated. Mudge decided he’d better back off. He’d never seen Lacky irritated before, and considering how much booze he still had in him this morning, it was probably best not to rile him. Mudge suspected Lacky would be a mean drunk.

“So you saw a guy snap his fingers and a car just appeared out of thin air.”

“He didn’t snap his fingers, he talked, and it showed up.”

“What did he say?”

“I’m not going to tell you.”

Mudge lifted a lone eyebrow. “That’s useful.”

“No, I think the priest would get mad if I put a car in his building. How would he get it out? I just know how to make a car appear, not how to make it disappear.”

“You can make a car appear out of thin air? I thought you said this guy…”

“You’re not listening to me, are you? You thinking I’m nuts and stupid. I know how you are, always looking down on me and everyone else even though you’re no better than the rest of us, even if you have been to college. You’re homeless and on the streets and that make you same as me.”

“But you said.”

“You know what I said. I seen this guy make a car appear. I heard what he said. Now, if I say them same words, I make a car appear, too.” Lacky made a face. “You fool, ain’t you heard nothing I said?”
Mudge swallowed hard. His bowl was empty, and so was his coffee cup. He’d really rather go get another cup of coffee than listen to Lacky’s delusions. But he couldn’t help himself, he stayed right where he was, and even said something that wasn’t a put down: “So you can make a car appear?”

“Yep, already did it.”

“Where is it?”

“Right out front. Had a full tank of gas, too, which was real convenient.”

“What kind of car…”

“Oh, didn’t I say? It’s a 57 Chevy. Black. Real fine looking automobile, man. Real fine.” He paused. “Only kind of car I can make. Seem to be able to pop them out any time I please, as often as I please. Made twenty of them, actually. All exactly alike, down to the keys and the mileage.”

Mudge just stared.

“Thought you might like one. After I’m done eating, I can show you.”

* * *

Mudge encouraged Lacky to finish up quickly. Not that he really believed him, but—he was curious what it was that Lacky thought he was doing. Mudge had always had a fondness for psychology and he wondered how delusions worked and how a fellow might respond when confronted with the fact that his delusion wasn’t real. So, okay, Mudge was a bit of a sadist, at least when it came to Lacky. Why he hung around him all the time, he couldn’t fathom. They had nothing in common, and the man rarely made even as much sense as he was making now. It was rather surprising to find out that he recognized a classic automobile when he imagined one.

“I know you’re just humoring me, man,” said Lacky as they crunched down the front steps of the Rescue Mission. Last night’s dusting of snow covered the blackened iciness of last week’s partly melted blizzard. “You think I’m drunk, and you’re looking forward to laughing at me and telling me I’m just a dumb drunk what don’t know nothing and can’t tell the difference between fantasy and reality.” He puffed. “I know big words, too, stinking jerkwad!”

Lacky pointed at the street. “See, there’s my car.”

Sure enough, there was a black 57 Chevy parked at the curb. That didn’t really surprize Mudge a whole lot. Probably Lacky had regained consciousness this morning next to that car and concocted the story in his alcohol-soaked brain.

“License number on all of them was the same, too. Yours no doubt will be, too.” He paused, then hummed. “Let me think; do I remember?” He paused, then grinned. “I got it, now:

“Brandywein-Gander-noph slash two:

“Open macro 376 and 371

“Execute operand 32-01235.”

It sounded like gibberish, for the most part—just random numbers and words that vaguely resembled English. Mudge was about to ask Lacky how he could remember all that when he noticed that there was a second black 57 Chevy parked at the curb.

Mudge blinked, rubbed his eyes, and then just stared.

“You believe me now, doubting Thomas?”

Mudge swallowed. “Uh…no.” He shook his head. He wasn’t drunk. He was stone cold sober. Obviously he just hadn’t been paying close attention that there were two 57 Chevy’s at the curb. It must have been there all along. He was tired, after all, and sleeping in the street, you just don’t get the rest you really need…

“Think it was there all along, don’t you. You’re not so different from me. What did I tell you? We think alike. All of us on the street, we think alike. So, watch again.”

Lacky repeated the phrase he’d uttered before. Suddenly Mudge became aware of a third 57 Chevy.

“This is crazy,” he managed to sputter.

“I agree. And I admit: first thing I thought was that I was crazy—and so did the punks I gave the keys to all those cars to. But they’re real enough. I drove that one over here, slept in it last night all warm and toasty.”

Mudge gaped at the three cars. Each one was perfect, and, like Lacky had said, they appeared indistinguishable, at least at first glance. Mudge slowly approached the nearest one and peared through the side window. He could see the keys dangling from the ignition. A peek in the other new car revealed the same keys. The liscence plates were identical California plates, three letters and three numbers—but one digit different.

“Who’re these cars registered to?”

Lacky gaped like he’d just been asked the annual rainfall in Timbucktu. Mudge swallowed hard, then opened the door on the first car and peered into the glove box. The registration printout and the pink slip were both in there. Not the safest state of affairs, but…he looked at the name.

“Your last name is Lack?”

Lacky nodded.

“Elwood Lack, III is you?”

“What, you thought my parents named me Lacky? I don’t believe yours named you Mudge.”

“Thank you, but…”

“I think that when you make the car, somehow they’re personalized to you.” He paused.

“The license plates aren’t all the same.”

“They’re not?” For the first time in awhile, Lacky seemed genuinely startled.

“Nope. There’s one number difference between them.”

Lacky ran from car to car, ducking down and staring at the license plates, then running back and looking again. “Well how about that; I hadn’t noticed. I thought they were all the same. Well good, I’m not so worried then. I figured the DMV would get mighty confused…”

“They might still; how many homeless folks own twenty-two cars?”

“Got a point there.” He paused. “But this is good news. We could sell these, make some money, maybe…” A light went on and his whole face lit up. “We don’t got to live on the street no more.”

“We?”

“You think I’d leave my best friend out of this?”

“Only friend.”

“Don’t be cruel.”

Mudge looked back at the registration on the car, then stared at it after a double take. “You know anything about this address?” he asked.

“What address.”

“On the registration.”

“Huh?”

“I don’t recognize it. It’s not the address for the Rescue Mission.”

“I hadn’t thought about that…” Lacky grabbed the registration from Mudge’s fingers. “This is over the other side of town.”

“You ever been there?”

“I wasn’t born homeless, no more than you, fancy pants. I been around.”

* * *

Palmdale was one of those places where the name it had been given didn’t make much sense. Not only were there no palms, but there were no dales, either, assuming that a dale was some sort of river valley. Palmdale was tucked away on a flat plain that stretched for a fifty miles. Mountains ringed the horizon, and Palmdale itself was situated at the base of one ridgeline. But the area hardly seemed the valley it was described as. Conifers were the only trees, watered by heavy annual rain and even heavier snow during the bitterly cold winters. He’d heard that in times past Palmdale had been virtually a desert, but that must have been a hundred years or more in the past. Now it was just mostly cold and wet.

The streets were filled with slush, which added even more stress to the already worrisome prospect of Lacky driving. Mudge still wasn’t convinced that his friend was sober, let alone that after only God knew how many years of homelessness, the man still remembered how to drive—if he’d ever known. Despite his protestations, the homeless life seemed to fit the man way too comfortably. If he’d ever had a job and lived a real life, Mudge would have been surprised.

They wound down crowded, dark streets, heavy buildings lifting barren walls against the sky; scraggly trees here and there scrambled to live among the concrete and brick; gray windows with gray curtains stared vacantly from the barriers. Scarcely visible above, the sky was gray still; another storm was probably on its way. In winter, they seemed to come almost without pause; only in summer would they catch a glimpse of blue, and even then, it was an event to be remarked on.

Newer cars surrounded them, stopping and going, wheezing through the intersections. Hardly any pedestrians showed themselves on the sidewalks; all in all, it seemed like a typical weekday. For a moment he felt confused, appalled, then finally remembered: it was Tuesday.

Not that the day of the week really mattered a hell of a lot at the moment. But it was still nice to know.

The current street took them to the overpass and the onramp to the freeway. Lacky got a gleam in his eye as he turned the wheel and pressed down on the accelerator. The engine roared and Mudge gripped the edges of his seat a little tighter.

Five minutes later, they slipped down an offramp, rounded a curb, and Lacky pointed. “There, that’s Acorn.”

Mudge shrugged.

“Nice houses, eh?”

Again, Mudge shrugged.

“You’re a strange man, you know that?” Lacky gave him a funny look. “Its number….” he pulled out the registration and stared at the number, then rattled it off to Mudge. “Do you see it?”

“Where, what?…”

“House numbers…on the curbs…there!” Lacky shouted, then yanked the wheel sharply to the right.

Mudge yelped as the car jerked sideways. Lacky pulled against the curb and pressed the break, stopping the car with a lurch. He set the brake and shut off the motor.

“Where’d you learn to drive?” Mudge finally sputtered.

“Drivers ed.”

“You took drivers ed?”

“Didn’t say I passed with an A.”

Mudge shuddered, but decided not to press any more closely. Sometimes not knowing was the preferrable policy.

“Well, let’s go check it out.”

“What do you mean check it out?”

Lacky gave him a funny look. “Why’d you think we came here? Just for the drive? There’s an extra key on this key ring, and it doesn’t look like a trunk key.”

“What are you saying?”

“I think this is my house.”

“That’s crazy.”

“No crazier than having a car pop out of thin air.”

Mudge couldn’t think of a good response to that.

“This has to belong to someone…”

“Yeah, me.” Lacky opened the car door and stepped out, before Mudge could say anything else. Mudge hurriedly fumbled with the doorknob, then gasped as a gust of cold air slammed into his face. As he stepped out, a cloud of mist swirled around his head, momentarily clouding his vision. Lacky was already walking up the front steps.

The house had two stories and it looked new; the roof was buried in a blanket of white; icecycles dangled from the edges. White stucko covered the walls, and black windows, dark drapes drawn, were silent watchers of their approach.

Mudge huffed and puffed, blowing steam as he scurried to catch up.

“You can’t just walk up to a house like this.”

“It’s my house and I can do anything I want.”

“You’re crazy.”

Lacky didn’t say anything else. He just walked right up to the front door and jammed the key into the keyhole. With a twist of his wrist, he was inside.

“Lacky!” cried Mudge, panicked.

Lacky closed the door.

Mudge cursed.

So he rang the doorbell. At least it would alert whoever owned the house that there was a stranger around.

Several seconds passed. Mudge rang the doorbell a second time, only to have the door swing open even as he was pressing.

He jumped back, terrified. But it was only Lacky.

“Come on, man, get out of that house before you get in trouble!” exclaimed Mudge.

“It’s my house. Look.” He waved an envelope at Mudge.

“What’s that got to do with anything?”

“Whose name is on this?”

Mudge took it from Lacky’s hand and stared at it. It bore the same name as the car registration, followed by the current property’s address. Mudge didn’t know what to say.

“See, I told you so,” was Lacky’s response. He turned his back and disappeared into the house. Mudge followed close behind.

The interior showed a basic disregard for style or even taste. The yellow carpet clashed with the blue walls, as much as the blue walls clashed with anything remotely resembling pleasant. The furniture was mostly red, with an occassional green pillow tossed in just for the jarring impact.

A fireplace on one side of the room was covered with purple tiles, while a stack of unread newspapers lay piled on the coffee table, a chrome and glass monstrosity that couldn’t ever have really been called attractive.

Lacky stood in the middle of the room and spread his arms. “It’s everything I ever imagined,” he grinned. Mudge suddenly faced the reality that the house was Lacky’s. No one else would be caught dead in it. In fact, Mudge wondered if the decor might actually be toxic…

“Is the rest of the house as bad as…uh, like this?”

“I haven’t checked upstairs, but the kitchen is gorgeous!”

Mudge shuddered at the possibility. “I suppose the refrigerator is full of fresh food, and the shelves are loaded.”

“You know, I hadn’t checked…”

Despite his instincts, Mudge flopped down on the nearest chair, an overstuffed red-leather monster that mostly swallowed him. What it lacked in appearance it made up for in comfort. Mudge closed his eyes and tried to sort it all out, giving up in a moment. How could one ever make sense of any of this? It couldn’t be real. Things like this were impossible, and despite everything, he knew the difference between fantasy and reality. How had he gotten himself caught up in Lacky’s delusions?

He was dreaming or in a coma in some hospital. That was the only way to explain it. Unless he’d died and this was heaven.

Though surely heaven had better style than this.

Hell?

Too cold, though some had been arguing of late that certain affairs perhaps indicated a freezing over of the notoriously warm abode of the evil dead.

No, if he were dead, surely he’d remember dying. As traumatic as death surely was, the chances of forgetting the incident seemed incredible…

But if it weren’t a dream, or a delusion, or death, then what was it? Where was the explanation for what was happening? Some sicko’s perverted practical joke? Some hidden camera show, where people would all at once jump out and laugh at the poor idiot bums?

Mudge kept his eyes firmly shut. Maybe if he kept them shut long enough, it would all go away and reality would return. Maybe when he opened them he’d be back in the rescue mission, or sitting on a curb somewhere sharing a bottle…

But he could still feel the soft leather beneath him. And then there was the clatter of Lacky returning to the living room.

“Look at this,” he chortled. “Twinkies!” Mudge was jarred back to looking by something soft smashing against his chest. He opened his eyes to see an individually wrapped snack food lying atop him.
“This just can’t be happening,” he mumbled, even as his fingers began tearing at the plastic wrapper.

* * *

Mudge awakened slowly, the images of his dream playing themselves out against the insides of his eyelids. He was in a soft, clean and warm bed, smooth sheets and not a rough wool blanket up against his skin.

And then he opened his eyes and realized the dream was real; it hadn’t all disappeared in the night. The white walls and ceiling he had drifted off to were still there. The air around him was comfortable rather than freezing, and he thought he could catch a whiff of coffee brewing somewhere downstairs. He glanced to his left and saw the glowing numerals of the alarm clock. Six thirty. Early, but he felt completely rested.

If he was insane, Mudge had decided sometime after his supper of steak and mashed potatoes last night, then he wanted to stay insane. The questions could wait till another time, another place, another reality. He could live in the here and now make-believe if it stayed this nice.

And outside of the bad decor, it was nice. Too nice. The sort of nice that had to end and become a disaster soon. He just couldn’t shake the feeling that he was living in the eye of a hurricane and the trailing edge had to be bearing down on him even now.

He wandered downstairs. Lacky was sitting at the dining room table, still wearing his dirty old jeans and brown shirt. He grinned at Mudge. “How you feeling, man?” he asked, looking up from his newspaper.

“Great,” he admitted. “I still can’t really believe…”

“I’m just going to enjoy this for however long it lasts. Might not be too long. I don’t have a job, after all, so how can I keep paying a mortgage and electricity, eh? We’ll both be on the street soon enough.”

“So you didn’t find a wallet or a bank book upstairs.”

Lacky looked up from the paper again. “You know, I didn’t think to look.”

“Who knows,” added Mudge, “Maybe you even have a job, now.”

Lacky gave him a funny, almost terrified look. “But I wouldn’t know where to go, what to do…I’d be late for sure and…and…I’m going to get fired…”

Mudge shook his head. “I wouldn’t worry.”

Lacky relaxed. “Yeah, maybe you’re right.” Lacky let out a sigh. “They’d probably call first if I didn’t show up. And then I could ask my secretary for directions…”

“So you have a secretary now?”

“Why not?”

Mudge rolled his eyes.

“I’ll bet she’s a cute young thing, wearing a miniskirt all the time and…”

“Threatening to turn you in for sexual harassment.”

“Her ass is what I meant,” he chortled.

“That’s an old joke—and I’m not convinced it was ever funny.”

“You know, you’re an old woman.”

“And you’re a sexist pig.”

“And proud of it,” he turned the page in his newspaper and snapped it firmly.

Give a man a car and a house, thought Mudge, and before you know it, he’s a complete jerk.

Of course, if that’s what it takes to have a house and a car, then Mudge wouldn’t mind being a jerk, too. He finally broached what had been sitting on his mind since he’d fallen asleep last night.

“Lacky, do you suppose you could teach me…” he began.

Lacky peered over the top of his paper, a suspicious quirkiness to his gaze. “Teach you what? How to get a car? I already give you one.”

“I want a house, too.”

“It goes with the car.”

“No, your house goes with your car, and the car you gave me, the registration is still in your name, and the address is this address. I want you to teach me the words. So I can do it myself.”

“You think you’re up to that much responsibility.”

“Drop dead.”

Lacky grinned, then pushed a slip of paper at Mudge. “I wrote it all down last night. Figured you’d want it sooner or later. Even if you don’t really believe it.”

Mudge took the sheet, an ordinary sheet torn from a notebook, with the bluish lines that he remembered from his years in college—and high school before that. He scanned the lines, and they seemed familiar, almost…

“Just make sure you do it outside,” said Lacky. “Don’t want no silly car in my living room.”

Fingering the paper, Mudge left the kitchen and walked through the front door. It was a cold and miserable day once again. Several inches of snow had fallen in the night and even now, flakes were swirling from the sky. Visibility was low; Lacky’s footprints, from where he had wandered out to find the morning’s paper, were even now starting to fill back in. Mudge couldn’t help but wonder how he had managed to find the paper at all—or why he had even bothered to look. Up until yesterday, he hadn’t even been certain the man could read, let alone that Lacky would give a damn about what was going on in the world around him.

How long had it been since Mudge had read the paper? Did he even know who the Secretary General was? Mudge hadn’t been on the streets that long. And elections were still a couple years off. It was still the same loser back in New York.

Mudge looked at the snow covered 57 Chevy in the driveway, then looked down at the paper. What the hell.

“Brandywein-Gander-noph slash two:

“Open macro 376 and 371

“Execute operand 32-01235,” he muttered.

To his shock, a black 57 Chevy suddenly appeared at the curb. It was snow free, and looked as if it had just driven off a showroom floor. The falling snow quickly began to dust it.

Mudge whistled, then staggered across the lawn and pulled open the driver’s door. He took the keys from the ignition, then pulled the registration from the glove box.

“Drew Mudgeford,” was written across the top of the page. Beneath it, was a familiar address: his apartment that he’d been evicted from. So much for a fancy new house.

So did that mean?… Mudge looked back at the house behind him. Lacky had fallen a long way, if this was how he used to live, before…

Mudge shut his eyes, feeling the world spin. This was Lacky’s old house; no wonder the clothes fit him so well, and no wonder he knew how to get here. But…it still didn’t explain how…nothing explained how. Not the cars, not the house, not the words on the paper. Why the old addresses, why a return to the way things were simply by calling on the gods or whatever to create black 57 Chevrolets?

He slipped the keys into his pocket and slunk back into the house.

* * *

“Truisms seem to go right over your head,” Lacky was gabbing at him, between bites of his lunch. It seemed that about all the man was doing now was eating.

“You mean about looking a gift horse in the mouth?”

“Exactly. Why you worry about it all? Just accept it and be glad however long it lasts. Hey man, nothing’s forever, but if you always live in tomorrow you don’t never enjoy nothing today. You warm right now? You got food? You comfortable? Then why you grousing about what might happen. You don’t know tomorrow and fearing what might be just keeps you from enjoying what is.”

“You just don’t get it, do you?”

Lacky was shaking his head and chuckling.

“It’s no wonder you’re on the street; you never planned, never anticipated…”

“And all your worrying did so much for you, I see.”

Mudge sputtered.

“I don’t have the college education you have, but I did graduate from high school. Surprised? You never have asked about me or my life, you know. All the time I’ve known you, you done nothing but talk about yourself and your education and how you got screwed by the mayor’s cutbacks to the libraries. But you never asked me nothing about myself, just jabbered on and on. Well, I’m not the dumb fuck you take me for. I was an electrician, made good money, steady work. But my wife and daughter, they died in a car wreck because a fucking drunk got behind the wheel of his car and killed them. Ironic, isn’t it? A moron gets drunk and kills my family, and what do I do? I start drinking and next thing you know I’m just a fucking drunk too without nothing and nobody.” He paused. “At least up till yesterday I didn’t have a car, so at least I couldn’t kill nobody.” He paused, looked down at his hands. “But you know something? I haven’t had a drink since I made that car appear, and I haven’t really missed it. Now isn’t that strange?”

Mudge scratched his head.

“Maybe I should get a job,” he muttered. “I was good at it, and I still got it…” He looked around. “You know, the demons don’t seem to be living here no more.”

“This was your house.”

“You figured that out, did you? Your car you made got your old address on the registration, too, I suppose?”

Mudge nodded.

“Think we’re being given a chance to redeem ourselves, set things right again?”

“Like something out of a tear-jerky made for TV melodrama?”

“Yeah, like Twilight Zone…”

Mudge shook his head. “You’re a real work of art, you know that?”

Lacky just grinned.

The doorbell ringing made them both jump. Mudge spat at Lacky. “See, what’d I tell you. There are the cops and they’re going to arrest us now.”

“For what?”

Mudge sputtered. “Grand theft auto, breaking and entering…we’ll be spending the rest of our days in jail and it’s all your fault.”

“Really now?” Lacky grinned and stood up. “Let’s go greet our doom at the door, then, why don’t we?”

Mudge wanted to find the back door and escape, but, like a dumb animal in the slaughterhouse, he followed docily behind Lacky.

No wonder he was a homeless failure.

The man at the door did not look like a police officer. In fact, he didn’t look like anything more than a salesman: middle-aged, dark hair, dark suit and tie, very conservative with no facial hair; the hair on his head was reminiscent of the Moe style from the Three Stooges; he also wore a dark gray hat. Mudge stared at him, startled. Where were the police?

“Hmmm…” said the man at the door. “You’re not what I would have expected.”

“Can I help you?” asked Lacky, taking the initiative.

“I’d rather not have to listen to you talk,” said the man at the door, waving his arm in a strange way and then rattling off a serious of what seemed to be nonsense syllables.

Mudge suddenly found himself unable to move a muscle; it was like that time he’d awakened and found his whole body paralized for a few seconds, a rare occurance that he’d learned could be explained by the fact that when you slept, your body disconnected itself from your brain to some extent so that you wouldn’t hurt yourself when you dreamed. But this wasn’t a dream, though it had certain similarities.

The stranger strolled past them into the house. Mudge could hear him stomping around behind, making grunting noises and snuffling in an affected and disgusted sort of manner, as if what he saw fulfilled his limited expectations.

“You know, you’re lucky you didn’t hurt anyone,” said the stranger, returning to where Mudge and Lacky could see him. “Do you have any idea what a foolish thing you did?”

Of course, neither Lacky nor Mudge could respond, their muscles being frozen into immobility. It took the stranger a moment to remember that. “Oh yeah,” he mumbled, then louder: “Backus landis forthwith; reverse back loose it now; forthwith.”

As suddenly as it had come upon them, the paralysis vanished.

“What is the meaning of this?” sputtered Lacky as soon as his mouth was free to flap.

“I should ask you the same question,” said the stranger, jabbing his finger at Lacky. He opened his jacket pocket and pulled out a small notebook. “Elwood Lack, III, forty-nine, computer programmer, and currently unemployed and homeless. You spend most of your time at the Palmdale Rescue Mission. There are twenty-four black 57 Chevrolets floating about in the city, four of which were involved in criminal activity in the last ten hours.” A pause. “Hense, my presence here.”

“Now wait a minute. I ain’t done nothing criminal…” began Lacky.

“I’m not accusing you, Mr. Lack. But your actions contributed to the delinquincy of others, and their deliquincy, and the police inquiries have brought things to our attention. What did you think you were doing, anyway, making twenty-four copies of the same exact car? What do you need with so many cars, even if they were all different? And how did you expect to pay the registration on all of them?” He sighed. “Not to worry; your excess has been corrected.” He paused to chew on his lower lip. “Now you sir,” he turned and looked at Mudge. “You are a puzzle. Who are you and what is your business with Mr. Lack?”

“He’s my friend,” said Lacky. “And he has a 57 Chevy, too.”

“Does he now? And how would he have gotten one? You gave him one of yours?”

“Okay, so he has two. But the other one, he got the same way I got mine.”

The stranger blanched. “You, too?”

Mudge nodded.

“This is very irregular, then. The situation is much worse than we feared.” He sucked a deep breath through his nose and let it out slowly. “This will not be so easy to rectify. What’s your name?”

“His name is Mudge—uh, Drew Mudgeworth.”

The stranger persed his lips, then whipped out his phone and poked at it. “You were a librarian?” he asked after a moment.

Mudge nodded.

“Hmmm…”

“What, hmmm?”

“Huh? Oh. Well, there’s nothing else to do about it then.”

“What’s your name?” asked Lacky, suddenly.

“What?” The stranger looked startled again. “That’s really of no importance.” He paused.

“So then I can just call you Dickweed?”

The stranger swallowed, a slight flash of annoyance coloring his face. “That’s enough of that. First, we must return things to the way they were—except for the four cars that the police have impounded. Nothing we can do about them.” He shook his head. “Not good, but not completely a problem. You know, if Eldridge had only been more careful, you wouldn’t have to go through all of this.”

“Eldridge?” asked Lacky.

“Whom you learned this handy little phrase from. Not that he’ll get in any sort of trouble.” The stranger tapped on his phone and looked dissatisfied; in fact, his face seemed to relax into a dissatisfied shape naturally. Then he cleared his throat.

“Brandywein-Gander-noph slash two:

“Open macro 376 and 371

“Unexecute operand 32-01235 (minus 87, 89, 93 and 53).”

The house twisted once around them, then flashed, as if someone had taken a picture. Instantly, the walls, the floor, the furniture in all its glorious tackiness was gone. In its place, normal off-white walls, gray carpet and rather attractive modern furnishings appeared. Also, and perhaps most disturbingly, a woman in her mid-fifties was suddenly about three feet from all of them. Her eyes went wide, followed by her mouth, which released a shocking scream.

“Oh shit,” said the stranger.

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About R.P. Nettelhorst

I'm married with three daughters. I live in southern California and I'm a deacon at Quartz Hill Community Church. I spent a couple of summers while I was in college working on a kibbutz in Israel. In 2004, I was a volunteer with the Ansari X-Prize at the winning launches of SpaceShipOne. Member of Society of Biblical Literature, American Academy of Religion, and The Authors Guild
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