|Time Wars & other SciFi Tales|
by Gordon Rowlinson
The Grass is Always Greener
"The grass looks greener over there," Fred Smith breathed a frustrated sigh as be leaned his portly body on the rail of his front porch. His eyes and his mind were fixed on the home of his next door neighbor, Jones.
The Jones's house was slightly smaller. But beyond that he was falling hopelessly behind in suburban status symbols. Last month, when he saw Carl Jones at work building a fireplace and chimney, Smith decided that his homestead needed home improvements too. He was easily talked into aluminum siding by a fast talking salesman. The siding, while forever freeing the lazy Smith from house painting, made his house look cheap and lower-middle class. Last year Carl Jones dug an in-ground swimming pool in his back yard. Two months later, Fred Smith could no longer stand living without a pool. He emptied his childrens' college savings and bought an above-ground pool from Sears. In hindsight now, Fred had to admit that the pool was a bad idea. His cheap pool bought on sale paled in comparison to the Jones' concrete in-ground beauty.
Yes, he was having trouble keeping up with the Jones's. Even the grass looked greener over there.
"I wonder if it's that new Jones lawnmower that makes his lawn so damn green," he thought bitterly. He began to weigh the relative values of lawnmowers in his mind.
"Bullshit," he said aloud. It couldn't be the lawnmower. Carl Jones must be putting some special fertilizer on his lawn to make it so green and healthy. He slammed his meaty hand on the porch rail in disgust. He knew be was getting further behind. Perplexed as to what to do about the Jones problem, be resolved to sit back down on the porch chair and pop open another Friday afternoon beer. He was in mid-swallow when another major problem occurred to him. This was the last cold brew in the house. He pondered for a moment on what to do about it.
Absent-mindedly he glanced down the street. His envious, green eyes fell on a familiar, black Corvette that had turned at the light and started down the street. The dark car's sudden arrival darkened his black mood. He disgustedly stamped his foot on the unpainted porch. A small cloud of porch dust swelled around his unpolished shoes.
After a nimble turn into the Jones driveway, the car came to a swift stop. Out stepped Carl Jones arrayed in a tapered, pinstriped business suit. He was younger by five years than Smith. But his boyish good looks and athletic build made him appear ten years younger. Jones glanced over to the Smith homestead. The two neighbors eyes met. They gave the other the required silent nod of acknowledgment. The two men were not friends.
With legs strong from weekly workouts, Jones strutted up the walk and disappeared into his house. Smith noted his rival was in more of a hurry than usual, but he always seemed to be moving in fast motion.
After a few minutes, Jones curiously reappeared. Still dressed in his impeccable, pinstriped uniform, he slipped back into his Vette and charged off.
Suddenly an outrageous career idea sparked in Smith's brain. For the past 20 years, he had been a receivables accountant in his father-in-law's firm. It was a respectably paying dead-end job with an office and pompous title as perks. The best part of the job was that "dad" only required him to work about 4 hours a day. As Fred Smith was lazy and unambitious, the job was perfect for him. It suddenly occurred to him that he could crack down and study the new accounting principles - then take the CPA exam. Certified public accountants were always in demand in the job market. A CPA job would be a big salary increase for him. He could leave his nepotism job behind and buy 10 swimming pools.
The briefest moment passed and the whimsical idea-dream evaporated. The many years of sloth and lazy days had forever numbed his mind so that energetic and ambitious ideas could never gain a foothold. He was doomed to a lifetime of under-achievement and mediocrity. Barring some magical miracle such as winning the state lottery or inheriting money from a presently unknown, long lost, rich relative, he was destined to fall further and further behind his rival in status symbols..
Such magical miracles never happened to him. There was no magic in his hometown of Salem, Massachusetts. Fred chugged the remainder of his beer and shuffled into the house. An unidentifiable but pleasant aroma was emanating from the kitchen.
"How long until dinner?" he asked sticking his head into the kitchen.
Martha Smith turned from a steaming pot on the range.
"About an hour. Can you look for the kids?" she asked, knowing he wouldn't look for the kids.
"Sure," he mumbled, knowing that she knew that he wasn't going to look for the kids. He liked Martha. Maybe he still loved her. She had a figure that was as resilient as motherhood and the years allowed. But he often wondered what it would be like to try a younger, firmer, wilder woman. He wasn't interested in anything serious-just a quick roll in the hay-a walk on the wild side. To his dismay, no such golden opportunities had come his way. Sometimes he wondered if perhaps his spare tire beer gut, middle-aged balding hair, and often boorish manner made him appear unattractive to the opposite sex. He doubted it.
He picked his nose as he barged out the front door. Impatiently, he backed his Volvo wagon out the drive. The steering linkage whined and strained as he turned the car east towards the familiar direction of Salem harbor.
Salem, Massachusetts, like many old New England towns, was full of taverns, quaint shops, restaurants and endlessly winding, narrow side streets. For a small town, it had a colorful history. Early Salem was an important seaport. However the most well-known bit of Salem history occurred during the late 1700's. The early settlers in Salem were very puritan and fearful of magic. During a strange wave of witchcraft hysteria, 18 people were put to death. Today most look upon the Salem with hunts as a bizarre miscarriage of justice. The infamous incident put Salem on the map and forever left a ugly stain on what otherwise was a small town's positive history.
Smith drove the little car past the Salem commons. To him the commons, with its black, iron rail fence and shadowy, overhanging trees, always seemed foreboding. Sometimes he got the weird, scary feeling that there were still witches in the Salem commons. The Volvo's tires squealed slightly as he turned onto Harbor Street. Not paying attention to his driving, he started to think about Carl Jones. That Jones seemed to have it all- including a beautiful wife. The young, sexy, good looks of Amanda Jones had long cast a spell over Fred Smith. She was blond and still in her twenties. When talking to her face to face, Fred always found it hard to look her in the eye. His eyes always wanted to look down at her chest.
One summer night last year, be happened to look out the window towards the Jones house and was lucky enough to catch a brief glimpse of the Jones goddess in just a bra and panties. She was standing in a lighted room and had forgotten to close the curtains. The chance view of the near-naked woman lasted only a few seconds. But his forbidden desires forever imprinted the mental image of her sensual body like a photograph in his brain.
He wanted everything Carl Jones had...including his green grass.
"Jones. Damn!" His neighbor was driving him crazy. Smith pounded his fat, frustrated fist on the steering wheel. He had to stop thinking about Jones.
"Jones! Jones! Jones !"
"Damn! I didn't mean to kill her-just knock her around a little," Carl Jones said to himself as he slammed an angry fist on the wooden bar. He looked down at his gin and tonic. "Got to calm down and not panic. Got to cut my losses and get out of this jam."
He quickly downed his drink and gestured impatiently at the bartender. "Another gin and tonic."
The young woman behind the bar responded.
Jones looked around the small pub. This wasn't his usual watering hole. He just needed to calm down and kill a Friday night before he made his next move. There was something in the decor or the atmosphere of the place that was slightly spooky. But he couldn't figure out what it was. It was old but not a classy joint. The Large ceiling beams together with the faded wooden walls, gave him the impression of being inside an old pub during the day when the Clipper ships ruled the New England seas. A large gray cat was sleeping in the corner under the Beer neon light. The tiffany lamps that hung from the coiling reminded him of stained glass from a church-but he wasn't an expert on stained glass. He hadn't been inside a church in years.
Absentmindedly he pulled an envelope from his left jacket pocket. Inside was a one-way airplane ticket to Mexico. He pulled another envelope from his right jacket pocket. Inside was a cashier's check from Merrill Lynch for $96,233.00. Several hours earlier, he had his broker sell all his stocks and bonds. That check and the $3,100.18 cash from the savings and checking accounts he closed out today, were all the assets he could liquidate on such short notice. What went wrong? He always viewed himself as a sharp operator-never one to make rash desperate moves.
He couldn't help but get a vague feeling that something basic was wrong with his life. His life was full of material toys and exotic vacations, yet he never seemed happy. Sometimes when he came home dead tired, he would see the lazy Smith already relaxing on his porch with a beer in his hand. Part of him yearned for a less stressful easy job and a family life. The problem was, after so many years of trying to be the early bird that gets the worm, he had no idea how to slow down and change.
He had always been a hard charger. His first boss, the sales manager for Davis Cadillac, had once told him "salesman are born not made." Jones was hard evidence in favor of that theory. Still in his teens, Jones somehow fast-talked Davis into giving him a try. Before Davis could check on his incredibly fictional and creative references, Jones had sold his first car. Before he could congratulate him, Carl had sold his second car. The kid was a natural. Young Carl understood that people wanted to be sold. If he could convince a customer that the car was flashy and sexy, the customer would be reassured that he was making the right decision and he'd be happy.
His first marriage broke up when he was in his early twenties. At the time, he was sure the breakup resulted from their both being too young. When his second marriage broke up, he blamed his wife's desire for other men. After his third marriage broke up, he started to realize that he always viewed money and his job as more important than his marriage. It was a nasty divorce and he received an unfavorable settlement. Alimony checks for the divorces drove him crazy.
When the Cadillac dealership went belly-up, he tried selling other products: precision industrial tools, mutual funds, and now dog food. Dog food seemed to be a low class thing to sell and he hated to be called a dog food salesman. But he stumbled into a real opportunity at the Wow Bow Pet Food Company. When the regional sales manager went to that big sales conference in the sky at the tender age of 50, Jones was quickly moved up into the sales manager position.
He was at a high point in his life when he met Amanda. Amanda was bright, beautiful, socially well-schooled. Being 10 years younger, she was a middle-aged businessman's fantasy-dream woman. He was starting to think that with this marriage, he was on the way to happiness until today...
At noon while calculating the regional sales quotas, Amanda showed up at his warehouse office. It was a strange appearance. He always discouraged her from calling and bothering him at work. At his warehouse office, she seemed even more nervous. She sat down slowly.
"I want out of the marriage," she suddenly blurted out to a confused, bewildered Jones. Amanda, eyes moist, gave familiar reasons for wanting a breakup. He had been more interested in his career than her. She was lonely. She had found someone else.
To Carl, Amanda's words were like an old romantic "B" movie seen too many times. He had heard the script before. His blood boiled.
"No!" He slapped her hard.
Amanda shocked at being hit, swung wildly back with all her might. Her clumsy half-fist hit him in the mouth, splitting his lip.
Anger exploded. He grabbed a metal object off his desk. Sudden passions pushed the normally cool salesman over the edge. He swung without thinking.
She fell like a wounded duck. There was a dull thud as her limp body hit the cheap office carpet. Blood flowed from an ugly temple gash.
To his horror, he saw that she wasn't moving. He dropped the object. He fell to his knees beside her. The temple wound was spilling blood onto the maroon carpet.
Badly frightened, he checked for a pulse. There was none. He checked again-five, six, seven times.
There was no heartbeat. She was dead.
He knew he had lost it and for an instant let his emotions rule his actions. He had never struck a woman before. In his past, there had been too many rejections, too many "other" men too many breakups, and, most importantly, too much money lost in previous divorces. Absentmindedly he looked down at the floor at the metal object he had used to kill her. It was his sales trophy from 5 years ago. Somehow it seemed fitting.
His cool, quick-thinking, calculating manner somehow returned. He stood up. He knew he had to get rid of the body to protect himself. Like a child who did something wrong and was afraid of getting caught, he peeked out of his office door. Everyone was at lunch. No one had seen her come into his office. Perfect.
All he had to do was get the body out of here and bury it somewhere in the New Hampshire woods. Tomorrow morning, he'd report his wife missing. Simple.
Running to the warehouse, he quickly selected a crate dolly and a standard Wow Bow Dog Food crate. "Alfred Hitchcock would be proud of me," he mused as he stuffed Amanda into the crate and wheeled the crate into the warehouse. There weren't many people in the warehouse. It was lunchtime on a Friday afternoon. There was a truck at loading dock 4 and someone was in the shipping office.
No one would question the sales manager taking a crate of samples on the road. He dropped off the crate on dock 2 and ran to get his car.
"This is much cheaper than a divorce," he thought with amusement as he started his Vette. He then realized that he was acting very coolly and wasn't feeling remorse about his wife. Maybe it was good that one way or another the marriage was over. Did he really have no regrets about murder? He paused a moment to think.
He did have regret. He regretted that he didn't have more life insurance on Amanda than the $5,000 he signed up for. Quickly he backed the car up to Dock 2. Leaving the motor running, he climbed the short stairs back onto the Loading Dock.
The crate was gone.
He couldn't believe it. He looked wildly about. He walked over to the bay at Dock 2. This was where he had left the crate. The crate was gone. The warehouse was exactly as it was before he went to move his car.
Wait...He suddenly noticed the truck in Dock 4 was gone.
Wiping the sweat from his palms, he dashed into the shipping office. Jones burst through the small office cracking the window pane glass as the door slammed against the inner wall.
"Where the hell is the crate I just left on Dock 2.
A freckle-faced kid, about 18, sitting at the shipping desk was surprised and frightened at the same time. He tried to eat the burrito he was holding and talk at the same time. He ended up almost choking to death.
"I said where is the crate that was on Dock 2?"
"I just put it on the truck at Dock 4. I thought it was part of his load. He just took off..." A giant glob of brown filling fell out of the kid's burrito and fell on the front of his Santana T-shirt.
"What's the truck's destination?"
The nervous shipping clerk picked up several shipping reports smearing taco sauce on the pages.
"I'm here all alone until everyone comes back from lunch. That truck was going to stores on one of these destinations..."
Jones angrily reached over and grabbed the shipping reports from the shaking clerk's hands. As he he read the destination on the three reports, he saw his life unravel before his eyes. The destinations were Nashua NH, Providence RI, and Hartford CT. Those cities were in separate directions. There was no way to go to all the stores in the three cities at the same time. Without thinking, he dashed out of the shipping office to the Vette.
"Hey-that window glass is broken." the kid yelled after him.
Jones ran to his car. The motor had stopped running. The sports car was out of gas.
"This is a bad dream," Jones said in despair. The crate was gone. All hope of catching one of the trucks was gone. His life as he knew it was gone.
The crate was on a truck going to one of those three cities. Saturday morning the crate would be unloaded into one of many grocery stories in those cities. It would be Saturday morning at the earliest before anyone even looked into the dog food crate.
Sunday or Monday the police would be coming to the Wow Bow warehouse asking questions about the body. From her purse in the crate, the cops could find her identity. His fingerprints on the body and the bloodstains on the carpet were enough evidence for a second degree murder rap.
As he slowly slid down in the car seat he tried to make some quick plans. He was sunk, but be estimated that it would be Sunday or Monday before everything hit the fan. His life was in limbo until then. He had to get out of town. Taking out his pocket note pad, he tried to calculate how much of his assets he could liquidate this Friday afternoon. Unfortunately, he couldn't sell his house and pool on a moment's notice. Jones opened his wallet to get the number of his broker. Inside the wallet was a picture of Amanda.
Suddenly he broke into tears.
"The best of my life is over...I lost most of my money!"
He wept with grief, not because he lost a loved one, but because he, lost a large amount of what he worked for and learned to revere and was the most important thing in life...money.
Carl Jones finished his second gin and tonic and looked down at the airplane ticket to Mexico on the bar. He wondered if he could lose the police's trail south of the border. He had taken Spanish in high school. But the only phrase he remembered was 'Yo no hablo Espanol.' He decided he needed another drink and looked for the bartender.
Jones wondered in hindsight if the strongest asset in his character was also his fatal flaw. His aggressive money making sales drive had produced an enviable standard of living and financial security. But he didn't know how to turn himself off. His cold drive completely absorbed him and had extracted much from his personal life. He rarely socialized and was never home. He bad few friends be could trust, and all his marriages didn't work out. As he was willing to sacrifice everything for his career, it seemed that every dime he earned robbed him of a piece of his soul.
"How about another one?" he said when he caught the bartender's eye.
"The name's Cleo. Another gin and tonic?" She moved over and served the troubled salesman. She was a tall woman with straight black hair that came down to her waist. Gold dangling earrings accented her somewhat exotic looks. The black T-shirt she was wearing had Cleo written neatly on the front.
"Sure. Say - what's a pretty young girl like you tending bar in old boring Salem?"
The bartender smiled. "I love Salem. I happen to be a descendant of the first person that was accused of being a witch."
"That makes you a witch then."
"I don't know much witchcraft. But I recently found some old diaries of my great-great-grandmother's.
There's really something to some of that old black magic. She smiled again and left to get some beers for the crowd at the other side of the bar who were watching the Red Sox game.
Jones turned away from the pretty bartender and noticed a pudgy man walk through the small entranceway. He was surprised to recognize the pudgy man as his lazy neighbor Fred Smith. He disliked Smith. He always thought of Smith as a jackal. Smith hungered for the rewards in life. But he wasn't willing to work hard for them.
“The fact that Smith would bang out in a low-class dive like this shows that he's a jerk,” he thought. He realized with a bit of annoyance that be too was drinking and hanging out in this low-class jerk dive. He didn't want to have a drink with Smith. But it was too late to hide.
Fred Smith paused at the entranceway of the small bar as his eyes adjusted to the light. As he glanced around the old-style room, he spotted Carl Jones half-sitting, half-standing at the end of the bar. He was in a mood to relax. He didn't want to share a drink with his status symbol rival. Unfortunately, Jones had spotted him walking in and it was too late to turn and run out. Not knowing what to do, he flashed a shit-sating smile and joined Jones.
"Coming here to get away from it all?" the salesman asked, breaking the ice.
"Uh, I came here to get away from my family. How about you?" Smith grunted as he slid onto a barstool.
"I had a rough day at the office." That was no lie. "Cleo-A drink for my fri...my neighbor here."
Cleo quickly came over and poured a beer for Fred.
"Fred, Cleo here is one of the last witches in Salem-isn't that right?"
The long-haired bartender looked at the two men.
"Maybe. I've been reading and studying some old diaries of my great-grandmothers who were witches."
Fred Smith was slightly relieved when the bartender moved off to serve the loud sports crowd on the other side of the bar. Like the Salem Commons, something about her spooked him. He turned to Carl Jones.
"I never told you this but you've got it made." He waved a beefy hand in the air for emphasis. "I've got to put up with yapping kids, a father-in-law always telling me what to do and a mortgage. You have a young wife, a sports car, and a good sales career with a future. I'd trade places with you any day."
" My sales job isn't easy." Carl sipped his drink slowly. Let me tell you something. I keep having this crazy recurring dream. I dream I'm on the track team at my old high school. I sprint as fast as I can. At the finish line, I'm ahead and I'm about to win, but the race officials suddenly move the finish line. Now, instead of being a 100-yard dash, it's a quarter mile race. Even though I'm dead tired, I run as fast as I can, and I'm ahead at the end. But now, the race changes to a mile race. At the end of the mile, the race is transformed into a 5 kilometer road race. Every time I reach the finish line and I'm winning, I learn that the race has been lengthened. I keep getting more and more tired and it's harder to stay ahead. The other runners keep challenging me for the lead. The race never ends and I never get to reach the finish line and win."
Carl didn't know if it was the gin and tonic or if it was the fact that he would be leaving Salem tomorrow. He had never told anyone about his recurring nightmare before. He looked at Fred. The pudgy man had a blank, dumb expression on his face. He could tell he was not reaching him.
"Fred, every time I reach a now income level or get a promotion in this rat race, I still want more. I've never slowed down enough to smell the roses or raise a family. Look at you. You're lucky to have a nice wife and kids. Someday those kids will go to college and make you proud. Then those kids will make you a grandfather."
Carl Jones paused for a moment. He looked at his face in his mirror behind the bar. Staring back at him was a cold and alone man with a screwed-up life. He wished be could start all over and coast through a lazy life the way Fred did. He was tired of racing and never reaching the finish line.
"I wish I could trade places with you."
"I don't believe this." Fred finished his draft beer and pointed a pudgy sausage-like finger at Carl. "You wish you were me and I wish I was you."
Carl laughed and turned to the bartender. "Hey Cleo-Do you have any witch spells that can change me into Fred and Fred into me?"
Cleo returned to refill Fred's beer. She had overheard most of the conversation between the two unhappy men.
"Are you two sure that's what you want?" She said.
"Give us your best shot." Carl was amused. Fred was a bit frightened but kept quiet.
She drew another beer for Fred and got another drink for Carl. Reaching into her jeans pocket, she produced a small container of black powder. She added the smallest pinch of the strange powder to the men's drinks and gave the drinks to the watching men.
"What's that?" asked Jones dryly.
"Powdered eye of...ah...never mind. You don't want to know. Now drink."
The men complied and took several swallows. She closed her eyes as if she were concentrating and put her palms on the foreheads of Jones and Smith. Swaying slowly back and forth, she murmured several mumbo jumbo phrases. Then she quickly stepped back and looked curiously at the two men.
"Do you know any other magic tricks?" joked Jones.
"We didn't change at all," added Smith.
Cleo shrugged. "I guess I'm still a witch in training."
Jones was amused and unconcerned by the witchcraft incident He decided to stay at the bar and have a few more drinks. Amanda would not be home waiting for him tonight. Smith was unnerved. He didn't like dealing with things he didn't understand-which was quite a lot. He made an excuse about going home and abruptly left without finishing his beer.
At the family dinner table, Smith was still bothered by the incident. He was quieter than usual and ate more. After the big dinner, Fred decided some television might ease his fears. He settled back in his favorite living room chair. Picking up the remote control from the slightly threadbare arm of the chair, snapped on the set.
There was a mini-series of the Charles Dickens’ classic “Tale of Two Cities” on the set. He hated that boring cultural stuff and quickly changed the channel. Channel 4 was an old Sci-Fi movie. He hated science fiction. It always seemed too unbelievable and too hard to figure out. Channel 29 had a crime drama. Fred Smith smiled. It seemed like a suitable way to kill a couple of hours. The vast wasteland of television soon numbed his mind and put him at ease.
One hour later, when he heard the rumble of Carl Jones’ sports car returning next door, he had almost forgotten about the barroom witchcraft.
When he slowly climbed the stairs around midnight to go to bed, he felt safe and secure ensconced within the sheet rock walls in his middle-class suburban castle.
It was past midnight when Cleo finally got home to her small apartment. She locked the door behind her and rushed to her room. Something that had happened earlier was bothering her. Scattering piles of paper on the floor she looked through her old books. Finally, she found it-the diary and notes of her great, great, great grand mother. She had memorized some things from the diary . She wasn't sure these old spells would work. Now that she, for the first time had recklessly and carelessly tried a witch incantation on someone, she was afraid it would work.
Leafing through the old tattered yellow pages, she finally found the souls exchange spell. To her dismay, she saw that earlier that night she had recited the words perfectly.
"Oh, no !" she said as she nervously ran her fingers through her silky, black hair. She realized that she shouldn't have carelessly toyed with something as powerful as the witchcraft of her Salem ancestors. She also regretted letting those two foolish men leave the bar without trying a counter-spell. Both the men seemed initially unaffected. However, she knew that when they fell asleep, they would become more vulnerable. 'When a person dreams, his soul leaves his body. When the soul leaves the physical body, it is easier to influence it to return to a different body.
It seemed that no one in Salem believed in witches' anymore. She did. As a precaution, she carefully memorized the incantation for the counter-spell. If either of those two men showed up at the bar, she could lift her spell.
But she never saw either of the two men again.
"You're right. This is pretty sick. But if you stay on homicide for 15 Years like me, you'll see worse." The older Hartford police detective tried to comfort his slightly upset younger partner. They had just come to investigate after a woman's body was found in a dog food container.
"Who would stuff a body in a dog food container and ship it to grocery stores?" said the young man.
"Listen, the creep that murdered this woman, must know that the body will be found. I want to catch this guy. Let's take a drive to the Wow Bow warehouse and the woman's home and snoop around." The older man ran his hand through his thinning hair.
"Ok. Forensics is coming to dust for prints. I've got this...Amanda Smith's address. It's in Salem - not far from the dog food warehouse."
"Let's grab a quick breakfast and then move." The older detective looked at his watch.
"Forget it-after seeing this, I don't want any breakfast "
Carl Jones awoke slowly Saturday morning. He felt strangely tired and weak, as if something had sapped all the strength out of his body.
Rolling slowly over, he opened his eyes a crack. What be saw, prompted him to open his eyes wide.
This wasn't his bedroom This wasn't his house!
He looked wildly around. Asleep beside him was Martha Smith. This wasn't his wife. He went to sleep in his house last night. This morning he woke up in Fred Smith's house.
Abruptly sitting up, he noticed a huge pot belly on himself. His arms were flabby. Somehow he bad gained 100 pounds overnight.
In a panicked state, he ran to the bathroom. At first, he was afraid to look in the medicine cabinet mirror. The emotional side of his mind had already guessed what had happened to him in the night. The cold, logical side of his brain couldn't believe and accept it. Finally, he moved in front of the small, chipped mirror. The face in the mirror was that of Fred Smith. The moment seemed like an aberration of reality. It couldn't be-yet it was.
He closed his eyes and then opened them again. The face of pudgy Smith was still in the mirror. His body was that of Fred Smith. His mind was that of Carl Jones. It was a perplexing paradox.
His first wife had once said that when you sleep, your soul leaves your body. Last night his soul or mind or whatever left his body and returned in some misplaced, mystical way to Smith's body. That crazy bartender last night really was a witch. He shouldn't have dared her to use her magic.
Impulsively, he looked out the bathroom window at his own house. If he was in Smith's body, what was happening with his body?
Suddenly he heard a knock downstairs on the front door of Smith's house. The noise made him jump. Someone was at the front door. He silently moved down the staircase to the front door. Looking our the door peephole, he received his second surprise of the morning.
The face of the man on the other side of the door was his face. A creeping feeling of unreality came over him as he opened the door.
"I can't believe it. That bartender really is a witch," blurted out an excited Fred Smith in Carl Jones' body.
"Looks like we both got the surprise of our lives today. Want to share a cup of coffee with me?"
"Sure, replied Smith as he walked into his own home. "The kitchen is this way."
Following Smith to the kitchen, Jones thought quickly. His plane was leaving to Mexico at 11 o'clock this morning. But now he had an even better way to dodge the police. He was Fred Smith now. He had the perfect alibi! That weird bartender Cleo could probably change them back to themselves if they went back to the bar. But if he could convince his neighbor to stay "Carl Jones" for the weekend, the cops would come and pin the murder rap on the wrong man. He would get a new chance at life in Fred Smith's body. There's the new "Carl Jones" he thought as he watched his neighbor make coffee.
"Jones" reached for the top shelf and produced a large jar of instant coffee. He began to boil some water. "I was really surprised to wake up and find myself being Carl Jones. I got kind of scared so I came right over." He was amazed at how strong and agile his new body was.
It usually took him 15 minutes to drag himself out of bed. When he had walked out of the Jones house into the fresh morning air, he felt he could run around the block without being winded. It was like being 17 again! He suddenly wished he hadn't come back home right away. Being back in his own house and it's drab, utilitarian furnishings was a disappointing let-down. He wished he had stayed at the Jones place for a while.
"Where's your wife, Amanda?"
"She's visiting a sister," lied "Smith." "She'll be back Sunday afternoon." He always suspected his neighbor had "a thing" for his young wife.
"I see." "Jones" poured the coffee into two mugs.
"Smith" leaned forward. "Hey, you said in the bar you wanted to switch places with me. Why not try it just for the weekend. I don't like the way my life's turned out and could use a slower pace."
There was a long pause as "Smith" had uncovered the secret wishes of both men.
"Jones" found his heart beating faster in his borrowed body. The thought of living like Jones-even for a weekend was too good to be true. He thought of the black Corvette, the fancier house, the backyard pool, the greener grass, the better stronger body, the sexy young trophy wife. He wanted it all! This body-souls exchange was his easy ticket to the good life. Unable to resist the temptation, he swallowed the bait whole. He sipped his coffee slowly trying to mask his inner excitement.
"That's an idea," he limply offered. "It couldn't hurt just to try a switch for the weekend. Sunday night we can go back to the bar, find that witch and switch back." He tried to make his voice sound calm and even. He didn't want to find the witch and switch back Sunday. He wanted to stay Carl Jones!
"Let's try it for the weekend then," said "Smith." He smiled. Hooking his neighbor was easier than closing on a used Chevy.
The rest of the conversation dissolved into small talk. Both wanted to get on with their new lives. "Jones" mumbled an excuse and left.
"Jones" was full of excitement as he ran back to the Jones house. Although they had been neighbors for quite some time, before today he had never seen the inside of the Jones home. The decor was much more modern that the yard sale bought furniture he was used to. Is he danced into the living room, he found a huge white leather sofa. He quickly lay down on it putting his feet up and scuffing the white material with mud from his shoes.
Opposite the pit was an entertainment unit the size of the entire wall. A huge 55-inch flat screen TV with home theater surround sound stared at him. Close by were DVD, CD, MP3 players and several other things that he didn't know the initials. He bounded over to the sophisticated apparatus. Gingerly he pressed several switches at random. Instantly, the sound system burst into life. Loud rock and roll music of the Beatles as well as a Beethoven symphony boomed out of the speakers.
Laughing like a mad scientist playing with a new invention, he grabbed the TV remote control.
The TV snapped on and added to the cacophony of sounds.
Feeling emotions not unlike a crazed shark in a feeding frenzy, he left the TV and music on and ran from the living room to the kitchen. As he left the room, John Lennon voice shouted at him...
Money don't get everything it's true!
But what it don't get I can't use!
Now give me money - That's what I want!
The kitchen was emaculate. At his house the kids were constantly spilling peanut butter or jelly or orange juice all over the table and counters. As a result, all kitchen surfaces in the Smith home were normally coated with a constant unidentifiable sticky slime.
He opened the basement door and hurried down the steps, almost tripping and falling down. He was surprised to discover a paneled and carpeted game room with huge expensive pool table.
A sudden, half-crazed thought came to him-the Vette. He wanted to peel out in the at black sports car like a teen-aged kid. He quickly ran up the steps-surprised at how in condition his body was. Almost slipping on the slippery waxed kitchen floor, he ran to the garage.
The sleek machine was beautiful. He jerked the car door open and jumped in banging his head on the low sport roof. Feeling no pain and barely controlling his giggles he fired up the engine. He had obtained more material wants in one Saturday morning than all his working days at that accounting job. The excitement of his free ride to easy street quickly buried any guilt of abandoning his loyal wife and children. All this because of that bartender who wasn't sure she was a witch.
He revved the rumbling engine louder. As he jauntily slammed the 5-speed shifter into reverse and started to back out, he almost forgot to open the garage door.
"Fred Smith" sat down slowly in the living room chair, noting with annoyance that the arms of the easy chair were threadbare and worn. As he waited for the rest of Smith's household to wake up, he wondered what his new life as a family man would be like.
"A child around 10 in pajamas bounced down the stairs.
The short, portly kid was built like a bowling ball. "Smith" recognized him as Fred Jr. Smith's eldest. Fred Jr. disappeared into the kitchen and returned a minute later with a huge bowl of breakfast cereal that looked to be 99.9 percent sugar. The round youngster quickly snapped the TV onto a Saturday cartoon.
"Hi Daddy, " a small voice behind him said. "Are you watching TV with us today?"
Smiling, "Smith" turned around and came face to face with Debbie-an 8 year oil little girl with freckles and a mouth full of braces.
"Sure. I have to make sure you kids don't watch anything too violent."
"Daddy-can I have a raise on my allowance? You said last Saturday you'd think about it." On her face the little girl had the look of a dog begging for food.
"That's right. I thought about it all week." "Smith" quickly improvised. "Here's the deal. I'll give you a raise in your allowance if you do better at school."
"Oh." Debbie had to think about it. "OK then."
"Good morning," came a voice from the stairs. Slowly coming down the stairs in her bathrobe, was Martha Smith, his new wife.
Comparing her to the younger women he was used to was like comparing a small flashy sports car to an old station wagon. Still there was a bit of warmth and cheerfulness in her voice.
"At least she isn't the type that will fool around on me." he thought.
"I'd make you some breakfast," she said. But I need to do some grocery shopping." She wandered into the kitchen and began looking into cupboards.
"Aw mom. I'm hungry" whined little Fred Jr. The grating, bratty sound of his voice was like fingernails on a blackboard.
"Listen - if you give me the list, I'll do the shopping," "Smith" said.
Martha was pleased and confused at he same time. Fred was never up this early and he never volunteered to do the shopping before. She gingerly handed her "husband" the grocery list.
"Smith" took the list from the stunned woman and kissed her lightly on the cheek. Martha was speechless. It wasn't like Fred to show affection so spontaneously. Fred certainly 'wasn't acting like himself this morning.
"Smith" proudly strutted out to the rusty Volvo. He was getting the hang of this family man stuff. With his street-smarts and can-do attitude, he was confident he could be a better Smith than Smith himself. However an hour of trudging around the supermarket brought him back to reality. He was shocked at how tired he was. Being accustomed to a fit body that was capable of running 10 kilometers in 48 minutes, It surprised him that the simple non-strenuous act of grocery shopping could exhaust a person. He made a mental note to get his new Fred Smith body into shape.
Pulling into the Smith's driveway, he saw several police cars at his old house next door. Two cruisers with lights off were parked in the Jones driveway.
"The cops are already here!" he thought in horror.
He had to consciously fight off the panicky urge to quickly turn the car around and drive away-anywhere. He wanted no part of dealing with the cops. Closing his eyes, he repeated his air-tight alibi, "I am Fred Smith...I am Fred Smith...I am Fred Smith." His heart was pounding in his cheat like a sledge hammer.
After a few deep breaths, his cool, calculating manner returned and he could function again. Opening the Volvo door, acting as if nothing was wrong, be reached back and began bringing the groceries into the house.
Martha was looking out the window when he came inside.
"Fred, there's police cars next door."
"Yeah, I wonder what that character Carl Jones did wrong." Placing two grocery bags on the kitchen table, sat down to rest. He was relieved he was safe.
"Fred, I need that turkey right away.” I have to prepare it for tonight's dinner. Could you get it now?"
"Smith" somehow picked his tired body up and shuffled outside. He stepped outside just in time to witness the final destruction of his former life. Four policemen were leading a handcuffed "Jones," out the front door.
"No! No! I didn't kill anybody! I met this Salem witch last night. She changed me into Carl Jones."
"That's a novel alibi."
"Smith" hid behind the adjoining hedge and watched intently with equal portions of horror, amusement and relief. He could easily guess the next few scenes in the sad story of Carl Jones. The cops would lock up "Jones" with out bail. "Jones" would probably make a fool of himself by telling a crazy body-switch story that no one but an avid Star Trek science fiction fan would believe. Some relentless, heartless D.A. would put "Jones" away with this airtight case. "Carl Jones", was on a one-way treadmill-trapped in the unfeeling machinery of criminal justice designed to destroy his life and crush his dreams of the good life.
As the police opened the door of the cruiser '"Jones" began to get hysterical.
"Don't hurt me! Please...I didn't do anything. I want to be Fred again!"
Two large cops expertly held on. They quickly stuffed him in the car and slammed the door. They had dealt with crazies before.
As the car drove away, "Jones" cocked his bead and took one last look at his street, his old home and the life had had been so quick and eager to throw away. His old home-so near yet so far-seemed like heaven to him now. He regretted how easily he had thrown his boring life away and wanted his family back. He realized how foolish he was to trust Salem witch magic to instantly change his boring family life to a more flashy, exciting life filled with material things.
"Smith" stood up and watched the police cars disappear down the street. He chuckled as he walked to the car. He reached in back and picked up the turkey. It was large. The dead great bird looked large enough to feed the Smith family and a couple of armies.
Carrying the turkey from the Volvo to the house, he felt a sudden pain shoot down the left arm of his borrowed body.
The numbing pain got worse. It spread down the entire left side of his body. He dropped the turkey. Something made him fall to his knees. To his horror and dismay, he realized what was happening to him. He recognized the symptoms of a heart attack from a warning chart he saw at his health club. When he was Carl Jones, he had spent hours building up his cardiovascular system jogging and riding stationary bikes. All those efforts at exercise and health went for naught as he was Fred Smith now. The old Smith spent the majority of his time eating fatty, salty foods, drinking beer and watching television. This lifestyle had left his body a walking time-bomb of flab, high blood pressure, and cholesterol.
The time-bomb had finally exploded.
The new Fred Smith fell down on his belly. It was getting frighteningly hard to breath. The pain kept getting worse. As he felt his strength and consciousness slipping away, he realized this was the end.
He turned his head and looked through the hedge at his old house.
He realized he shouldn't switched bodies and stolen the life of Fred Smith. Instead of longing for the things he didn't have, he wished he could have his Carl Jones life back and try to change the things in his life that didn't work.
The pain seemed to ease a bit as he slid further and further into unconsciousness. His last thought was about the grass. As he longingly looked over at his old home, the grass certainly looked greener over there than here at the Smith lawn. That green, green, green grass...
Martha Smith got out her recipes for preparing a turkey dinner. She didn't think it was necessary to eat such large dinners all the time. But Fred liked big meals, and she tried to be a good wife.
Where was Fred? Five minutes ago he had gone outside to bring in the groceries from the car. Momentarily confused, she put down her recipe book and walked out of the kitchen. Opening the front door, she went outside to look for the turkey.
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An enjoyable read, to be sure. Just a couple of things beyond that: The paragraph 4th from the bottom seems jumbled. I'd rather see something like this:
He realized he should not have switched bodies to steal the life of Fred Smith. Instead of longing for the things he didn't have, he wished now that he could get his Carl Jones life back. Why didn't he just change the things in his life that didn't work?
Also, I'm not sure the "" marks around the names was the way to go. It looks as if something is being spoken. Maybe 'Fred Smith' would be better?
A fun lunchtime read.
A satisfying story---nice to see everyone get their just desserts.
The second ending with the turkey comment was a bit of overkill though.
Now I want a story about the witch.
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|Time Wars & other SciFi Tales|
by Gordon Rowlinson