August 18, 2015
Date Published: April 2015
Richard Johnson, an average college student, just spent his last dime on food, lost his wealthy girlfriend, and had his bike stolen. To add to his misery, he returns to his apartment where he runs into his strange neighbor, nicknamed The Ghoul. Convinced that this bizarre man is more than he seems, Richard and his land lady’s bull dog, Khan, sneak into The Ghoul’s apartment where they find a timegate to the future. Along with his set theory teacher and her brother, they embark upon a soaring and treacherous journey through space and time to discover a terrible truth–mankind is being slowly and systematically exterminated.
Mild Violence, No profanity, No sex
I’ve had better Wednesdays.
On Wednesdays, I’m supposed to awaken with the blaring of my alarm clock at seven. I get up, dress quickly, dash to campus, stare at Mrs. Jacklyn in set theory class, fall asleep in Mechanics 1, eat lunch, and study in the afternoon, before ending the day at band practice. For me, that was enough excitement on Wednesdays.
On the seventh Wednesday of the fall term my alarm clock didn’t go off, probably because I had thrown it across the room the day before in a fit of anger.
I was late to my first class. Ordinarily, being late to set theory would not have posed much of a problem, but when I arrived Mrs. Jacklyn was collecting a pop quiz. I hadn’t done very well on her last quiz and I wasn’t likely to do much better on this one.
I slunk into the class. With nothing important to do for a few seconds after finishing the quiz, everyone had time to turn and gawk at me. I wanted to whirl and run, but somehow I found the courage to shrivel into a seat in the back row. What continually cycled through my mind as I tried to disappear was how embarrassing it would be to flunk math, since it was the class in which I wanted to do well. Not because I liked set theory. I hated it, and it wasn’t even required for my major. No, I was in the class for one reason: I was mesmerized by Mrs. Jacklyn, and I had no trouble explaining why. Since reaching puberty, I had always adored tall women, and Mrs. Jacklyn was tall; she’d played volleyball in college, according to rumor, and was an expert in martial arts and weapons. Her slender body, lithe and graceful as a pine tree, was at least an inch taller than my six feet two inches. Her hair was black, as were her eyes, and every time she looked at me with those bottomless eyes I was captured. All she had to do was ask and I would give her anything. Unfortunately, the only thing she ever asked for were my tests, and I was too intimidated to ever speak to her.
Most of the students in the class were afraid of her, but I was both afraid of and in love with her, at least in a theoretical way. After all, I did have a girlfriend, so my dreams of love were tempered by that and Mrs. Jacklyn’s attitude toward me. She was remote and unapproachable, as difficult a goal to achieve as the set theory she was trying to teach me. The look she gave me when I slid into my seat late was cold enough to freeze fire. The look she gave me when I darted out of the class at the end of the period was even colder.
I had an hour between classes, so I rode my bike home to retrieve my Mechanics 1 textbook, which I had forgotten in my rush to find a clean pair of socks that morning. In times like these I was glad I didn’t have a car, since parking on campus was impossible, and I lived too far away to walk home and back even with an hour off. My bike was an old Schwinn five-speed, but it served me well.
Home was a slightly renovated old house a couple of blocks south of Arapahoe and a few blocks west of Broadway, close to a mile from the University of Colorado campus in Boulder. My landlady, Mrs. Lafferty, who was over ninety, had turned her family home into eight apartments. Only two of the apartments had bathrooms; the rest were just bedrooms that shared a common bath.
Two sizes smaller than the other apartments was my closet of a room. Mrs. Lafferty kept telling me it had been her children’s playroom sixty years before, but I wasn’t convinced. It was too small to be anything but a closet. But it was cheap, and with the discount I received for walking Genghis Khan each day, I could almost afford it.
The mail had already come as I panted by; I snatched it off the foyer table, tripped over Khan, regained my footing, and glanced behind me with some anxiety.
Khan had not moved even one drooping lip. I was grateful. The last thing I needed right now was a spoiled brat of a bulldog wanting his walk. Technically, I was supposed to walk him twice a day. Mrs. Lafferty’s right knee had been replaced the month before, and she was still too sore to walk him herself. Even though in general we didn’t get along too well, Khan and I had quickly come to an understanding—most of the time: I would only walk him in the afternoons and he wouldn’t complain about it to his owner. Not that he wanted to; Khan was a fat, ugly registered purebred bulldog who was over seventeen years old. Mrs. Lafferty’s family tree had primarily grown in Hungary and she’d named him after one of her heroes: Genghis Khan, the invader of Hungary. Khan’s belly bounced along the floor as he waddled (he no longer ran) and his lower lip often dragged the ground as he went. It seemed as though I was always pulling a sandspur out of that lip after one of our walks. Because of cataracts he could barely see where he was going, but there was nothing wrong with his nose: he could smell dead food eight blocks away. The deader the better. Four-day-old-squirrel roadkill (still stuck to the road, of course) was his idea of gourmet dining. It was almost impossible for me to pull him away from it even when a truck was rumbling straight at us. Once I had to scrape the squirrel off the road with my fingers and throw it onto the sidewalk to save our lives.
Still, unless Khan smelled some particularly ripe, tasty feast lying somewhere in the neighborhood, he was no more enthusiastic about his walks than I was. Our unspoken arrangement suited both of us just fine.
I examined my mail. The only mail not an ad was a notice from the campus credit union that the check I had written to The Food Market had bounced, and loudly, I presumed. That was my second bouncing to The Food Market. From now on it would be cash only for me at that store.
No money in the account! I couldn’t believe it! I should have had twenty dollars left over after that check. Now, with the bounced-check fee, I apparently was overdrawn thirty dollars and twenty cents. How could I have fouled up my checkbook so badly? It wasn’t as though I wrote a lot of checks to keep up with. It didn’t make sense.
Food was definitely going to be a problem for the next few days, until my GI Bill check came in. And worst of all, I had a date for lunch with Rosalyn. Sometimes she paid for our lunch; hopefully this would be one of those times. Otherwise I was going to be in trouble.
As it turned out, my money problem was the least of my worries.
Depressed, staring at the ground, afraid to wonder what else could possibly go wrong on this day that had hardly begun, I ran right into the Ghoul from the End of the Hall. It was like hitting a steel I-beam, and I went careening across the hall into the wall. The Ghoul just glared at me and left.
Dreamy Isle Apartments was a three-story building. Mrs. Lafferty lived on the first floor with Genghis Khan; there were four apartments on the second floor and four more on the third, five if you counted mine. While mine was certainly the smallest, the Ghoul’s was the largest, with a sitting room as well as a bedroom and a private bath. I had no proper excuse for knowing this except that I’d been in it chasing Khan. This was one thing Khan and I agreed on. Neither of us liked the Ghoul. If anything, Khan disliked him more than I did. I had no idea why, but whenever the Ghoul was around, Khan continually emitted a low-pitched growl and stayed as far away from him as possible. But when the Ghoul was out of the building, Khan often spent hours trying to break into his apartment. At least one time he was successful and I found him staring into the bathroom, his head slightly cocked to the right, lip and stomach rubbing the floor, a puddle of drool in front of him. Pulling him away from that bathroom was harder than dragging him away from one of his favorite dead squirrels, but I finally extracted him from the Ghoul’s apartment. My first inclination was to leave Khan in the hallway while I wiped up the trail of drool, but ultimately I decided it wasn’t worth the trouble. Let the Ghoul puzzle over the river of spit.
Of course, he really wasn’t a Ghoul, not that I was aware of, anyway. His name was Thaddeus K. Rumpkin. I had some difficulty prying this from Mrs. Lafferty, but kept asking her day after day until it slipped out of her sometimes addled mind. I don’t know why it was so important for me to find this out, but it was.
All the tenants called him the Ghoul because in some indescribable way he reminded us of one. It was hard to say why. He was thick and stubby, at least four inches shorter than me. His face was entirely without wrinkles, yet gave the appearance of being old. His expression was always neutral, never laughing, smiling, frowning, or looking puzzled. Yet a feeling of hostility always emanated from him. And his eyes … they were ancient, deep in knowledge … frightening … inhuman. I couldn’t look at them without a cold sweat breaking out on my back and my knees wobbling.
Once I had tried to be friendly. I offered to help him carry a load of groceries to his apartment since he was struggling with four obviously heavy bags, two in each arm. He stared at me, almost through me, and shook his head.
“Why?” he muttered. “I’m several times stronger than you.”
With that he bounded up the steps faster than I ever could, leaving me to shrug at Mrs. Lafferty in the foyer.
“Strange bird,” she said, staring up at him. “Pays good money, though. Never late with his rent.” With that, she turned and hobbled into her kitchen. It was the only unsolicited comment about him I ever heard from her.
I often asked her what he did for a living. She shook her head. I asked her why he didn’t come to the weekend breakfasts she fixed for all her tenants. She shook her head. I asked her if she knew why we didn’t see him for days at a time. Was he gone or in his apartment? She shook her head. She didn’t know, of course. No more than the rest of us.
As I now staggered around the hallway watching the Ghoul’s back disappear down the stairs I thought about the one time I had followed Khan into the Ghoul’s apartment. My mind couldn’t remember all the details, but what still struck me was that it was virtually bare. There was a desk or table in the sitting room, with a computer on it—at least something that was square and metallic—but the rest of the room was empty, and there was only a pad on the floor in the bedroom. I couldn’t remember anything about the bathroom except for Khan drooling in the doorway, but there was a strange presence coming from the room; perhaps that was the reason I needed so much strength to pull him away. It took me several days to admit it, but I was scared in that apartment. Terrified, actually.
Rushing away from the Ghoul, I made it back to campus for my Mechanics I class. The day had been going so badly that I had temporarily buried deep in my mind the fact that I was facing a midterm here. I had studied at least thirty hours for this test, and felt that I knew the material backwards and forwards, but the moment the test was placed in front of me, my mind went blank. The test questions appeared to be written in Sanskrit. Not one of them made any sense whatsoever.
When I finished the midterm, I was sure I had flunked it.
At lunch, Rosalyn Jennifer Rosencrantz dumped me. She had been avoiding me for two weeks, studying, she told me, so I should have been expecting something like this, but at times I’m oblivious to the emotions radiating from people around me.
Lunch started out fine. Perfect, in fact, considering my finances.
“Order whatever you want, it’s my treat,” she told me. “Daddy gave me some extra allowance.” Extra allowance for Rosalyn was usually enough to buy a Corvette. Daddy—Robert A. Rosencrantz, Jr.—had moved south thirty years before with his inherited New England fortune and developed acre after acre of beachfront condos in South Florida and square mile after square mile of mobile home parks in Central Florida, thus multiplying his already hefty fortune by several times. Having filled Florida, he then moved to Colorado to develop cheap ski areas. The lift tickets and condo prices weren’t cheap, of course, just the construction.
I was not too proud to take advantage of this opportunity for a free meal and ordered a double cheeseburger and fries, with cheese nachos as an appetizer. My goal for the moment was quantity and food with lasting power, not health.
Rosalyn ordered a small Diet Coke. That also should have tipped me off, but as I said, at times I’m not very observant.
She was quiet until the nachos came, then as I grabbed a chip and dipped my first glob of cheese with my right hand, she reached over and took my left.
“Richard, you know we’ve been dating for a long time.” Warning signal number three. I ignored it.
I nodded, my mouth full. “Since we were freshmen,” I mumbled.
She continued to hold my hand, but looked down at the table, avoiding my eyes. I was at last beginning to sense a problem and started to take interest in something other than food. But I found it hard to concentrate. Instead of blue eyes and an oval face, tanned to the color of dark sand and framed by short blonde hair, I saw the dark eyes of Mrs. Jacklyn.
“Our relationship isn’t going anywhere,” she went on, and my vision of Mrs. Jacklyn shattered, its pieces fluttering away to the far corners of my mind. “I think it’s time we both moved on and dated other people.”
She must have felt my hand flinch in shock, because she said, “It’s not just your fault—some of it is mine, too.”
I hadn’t even considered that it might be my fault. “Is there something I can do?” I asked. “Anything?” More a plea than a question. I looked at her, studied her face. She fiddled with the ends of her blonde hair nervously. Her eyes darted around, avoiding me, furtive blue orbs seeking a hiding place.
Then she withdrew her hand. “No, the thing is … well, actually … I’ve already found someone else.”
“John Rogers. You don’t know him. He’s a law student.”
I didn’t like the implications of her sentence. “I’m willing to share you,” I said meekly.
“Well … actually … I’ve been living with him for about two weeks.”
That finally did it. The facade of impenetrable concrete around my head crumbled away and awareness rushed in.
She was living with him! That meant … I didn’t really want to picture in my mind exactly what that meant. There was suddenly an ache deep inside and I wasn’t sure if it was in my heart or lower down.
She frowned. “Richard, you’re sweet, but so naive. John is much more a man of the world than you are. And he’s finished college and is in law school, even though he’s two years younger than you.”
I didn’t know what to say. My tongue wouldn’t move. I couldn’t breathe well. I was naive. I wasn’t a man of the world. Of course, with more cooperation from Rosalyn I could have qualified as more of a man of the world.
She stood up. Her Diet Coke was still full.
“I’m sorry, Richard,” she said. But her blue eyes were suddenly lacking in sympathy, or any kind of feeling whatsoever.
I was still too stunned to say much. She threw a twenty-dollar bill on the table. “Here, this should cover lunch, since I did invite you.” Now my senses were fully alert and I could detect the trace of scorn in her voice.
I was still staring at the door when my lunch arrived. I kept picturing her and this John Rogers—a vague, faceless man in a double-breasted three-piece suit (or maybe without the suit)—and it made me too nauseated to eat a thing. My head reeling, I staggered out of the restaurant, leaving the twenty-dollar bill on the table to pay for lunch. The waitress ended up with a generous tip.
Later, I seriously regretted leaving all that money. And not eating.
At twenty-four, I should have completed college; instead, I was just a junior—by my criteria. By the University’s, I was officially only a sophomore, since I still had one required English course to take.
I had spent three years in the Marines prior to college. When I graduated from high school, I didn’t have the faintest idea about what I wanted to do with my life, so, thinking I was one of the “few good men,” I joined up. In boot camp I quickly discovered that I had no real talent for war. I never could quite catch on to hand-to-hand combat; using a gun or knife was usually more dangerous to me than to my opponent, and there was no way in the world I could focus my eyes on anything before nine o’clock in the morning. The Marines had this bad habit of trying to awaken me hours before that. They didn’t send me home, but my sergeant, feeling pity for either me or the Marines, managed to get me a tryout for the Marine band. I made it with ease. I could play a trumpet then and I still could play one now.
I stayed in the band during my entire tour of duty.
My late arrival to college life was not the only reason I was still here. There were at least two other reasons. For one thing, I liked college life. I liked the parties, the football games, even the classes, most of them anyway. Unfortunately, I didn’t like any of the classes enough. That was the second reason. I still couldn’t decide what I wanted to do when I finished this thing called a formal education. I had taken enough courses to graduate, but not the right ones, and only this semester had I declared a major of aerospace engineering, but that was because I had to, not because it was the unwavering ambition of my life. The truth was, if you could get me to admit it, there were two goals far stronger than my desire to pursue aerospace engineering. My first was to shack up with Mrs. Jacklyn, which tells you two more things: one, I was an unrealistic pie-in-the-sky dreamer (she never even said hello to me outside class, and besides, she apparently was married), and secondly, maybe I wasn’t as crushed at being dumped an hour before, as I first thought. Angry, yes. Embarrassed, sure. Hurt, of course. But not crushed because I’d lost the love of my life. I would have dumped Rosalyn in a second for a chance at Mrs. Jacklyn.
My other goal was to play the trumpet. I did, of course, play in the University of Colorado band, but that was for fun, not for money. Given a choice, playing a trumpet for money would be my choice for a profession, not engineering, but I didn’t have the confidence, nor did I have the courage to go against my father’s wishes that I graduate from college with some kind of useful degree.
I had to admit that my father had been extremely understanding throughout this school process. He was becoming a bit frustrated, but still sent a little money each month. I was wondering whether to call and ask for it early when I noticed that my feet had taken me to the mathematics building.
What did I have to lose? I was afraid that the answer to that question was “my manhood,” but I went in anyhow.
Mrs. Jacklyn was in her office on the third floor. Since she was a graduate student, it was no more of an office than my room was an apartment. A small metal desk, a metal chair, and a bookcase, all crammed into a six-foot-by-six-foot space. She was leaning back in that metal chair, a fancy new electronic pad on her lap, her long legs propped up on the desk, where her laptop was open. Her short skirt was above her knees, and I had trouble remembering why I had come.
She looked up and my heart stopped. In the dim light of her cubicle, her pale face framed by black hair looked like a wraith.
“Can I help you?” she asked. She was probably younger than I was, but the difference in our achievement levels was immense. She was a graduate assistant working on her Ph.D. in theoretical mathematics, with a thesis having something to do with topography. She was also married. I was a junior (at best), and I was … well, you know.
“I-I’m Richard Johnson.”
“Yes, I know. I hope you have a more worthwhile purpose for your visit than telling me your name.”
“I-I wanted to f-find out if there’s any way for m-me to make up the pop quiz you gave this morning.”
“No.” The answer I feared. And expected.
“My alarm was broken—it didn’t go off.”
“I wake up every morning without an alarm.”
“I don’t need a zero on that quiz.”
“You certainly don’t.”
She lowered her feet to the floor, staring at me scornfully with her luminous black eyes that perfectly matched her long hair. I didn’t know how she could manage to convey a look of utter disgust and seduction at the same time—though I suspected that the latter was only in my imagination.
“Mr. Johnson,” she said slowly. “Class starts at 8:30, does it not?”
“Well, yes, but—”
“How long has it started at 8:30?”
“Well … I guess since the semester began.”
“Then it hardly was a surprise to you that it started at 8:30 this morning?”
“Everyone else was there at 8:30. What was I supposed to do—ask them to sit and read the newspaper until you blessed us with your presence?”
At this point, my only wish was to be somewhere else. Anywhere else. I would rather be trapped in a room with Thaddeus Rumpkin than be here with Mrs. Jacklyn.
“I suggest you buy a new alarm clock so that you’re not late for the next test.”
I took that as a dismissal and left. Rapidly. Without looking back.
My bike had been parked right outside the math building, chained to the bike rack with a lock worth three times the bike itself. It evidently wasn’t strong enough, though why anyone would bother with my old heap in a sea of glistening new fifteen-speeds is a question without an obvious answer. But someone did. It was gone, the lock cut in half and lying on the ground.
The way the day had gone, I knew it was time to give up. There wasn’t any point in reporting the loss to the cops. Bicycle thefts were hard to solve. In fact, I had never heard of a stolen bike being recovered in usable condition, though I’m sure it had happened somewhere in the world at some time in history.
I walked home slowly. My mind was busy as I walked, none of the thoughts happy ones. This morning I had missed a math quiz, flunked my Mechanics I midterm, and bounced my grocery check. At lunch I was dumped. A few minutes before, I had been thrown out of Mrs. Jacklyn’s office, and now my bike was gone. And the thirty-dollar lock was worthless. I threw it in a trash can at the corner of University Avenue and Bernard Street. What had the thief used to cut my lock? A giant metal cutter from the hardware store? Not an easy thing to hide under your shirt.
I was tired, sweaty, and irritable when I reached the Dreamy Isle Apartments. My only dream was to start the day over. Instead, what I had to look forward to was walking Genghis Khan. I couldn’t avoid it this time. I had to stay on Mrs. Lafferty’s good side.
As I walked into the foyer, Khan was bobbing up the stairs toward the second floor. It could only mean one thing. He was heading for the Ghoul’s room. I dropped my books on the foyer table and gave chase.
He appeared to be moving slowly, but appearances are often deceiving. I was no match for the old bulldog in stair climbing. He reached the second floor before I was halfway up, then made the turn and headed for the stairs to the third floor. Here, on a level surface, I almost caught him, but he found a burst of energy from somewhere and left me behind. Given how the rest of the day had gone, I shouldn’t have been surprised when Khan hit the door of the Ghoul’s apartment with his head and it bounced open. Mrs. Lafferty had not spent a great deal of money on door latches and locks when she renovated; they were all from the late eighteen hundreds, when the house was built. Most were rusted and barely latched. The Ghoul’s was no exception.
When I finally staggered to the open door, panting heavily, I found Khan staring into the bathroom again.
I caught up with him and grabbed for his collar. He bolted straight ahead … for the shower. I leaped after him, realizing subconsciously that there was something wrong with it; it was shimmering, out of focus, the back wall just a blur.
Khan jumped into the shower … and vanished.
A second later, before my mind could cope with that fact, I lost my balance and tumbled after him.
The day had died in the endless spaces, and it was impossible to tell whether time was passing.
About the Author
Robert B. Marcus Jr. is a practicing radiation oncology physician. He has been a Professor at two major medical schools, and is listed in U.S. News and World Reports Best Doctors in America, as well as Castle Connolly’s Top Cancer Doctors and Castle Connolly’s Top Doctors in America. He has been president of FLASCO, the society of all the oncologists in Florida, and has authored or co-authored almost 200 medical journal articles and chapters. He has been selling fiction since he was in college. Since then he has published a number of novelettes and short stories and three novels, with two forthcoming novels, one a paranormal romance (The Haunting of Scott Remington) and another political thriller novel (Yesterday’s Tears). He is a lifetime active member of Science Fiction Writers of America and recently became a member of the International Thriller Writers, Inc.