D e c e m b e r   2 0 0 1

Guest Writer

Part 11: The other way around
by Jess Gulbranson

In Part 1, Mel lost his motel in a poker game; he met a man who claimed to be an alien in Part 2; in Part 3 he found himself in alien surroundings; Mel befriended some strange beings looking for barroom trouble in Part 4; Part 5 seemingly found Mel back on earth, face to face with a green-sweatshirted man who otherwise looked exactly like himself; in Part 6 Mel discovered the parallel world of Stumptown; in Part 7 he happened upon Frank Burley, the man he needed to find; in Part 8 Frank ran headlong into some gunfire in the streets of Stumptown; in Part 9 Mel and Frank ended up in the dark, and not without a few sticky problems; and in Part 10, Mel found himself back on his own and ready for answers ...

Part 11: The other way around
The town square beckoned, though its occupant did not.

Mel approached Doubting Tom anyway. The old man stood in the exact center of the square, beneath a tall lamppost. The square was a common feature in all the weird versions of his own hometown that Mel had visited. It was a large space, surrounded at three compass points by rising steps of red brick. This square, belonging to the altered city of Portland, was the cleanest yet.

Mel couldn't shake the feeling, though, that he was being watched from beyond the light of the square's lamps. Of course, if he were going to wait in an exposed area like that, he would have snipers out of sight, too.

Mel waved a hand to hail Doubting Tom, who returned the greeting. Then Mel hopped over a short slope of brick steps, and walked the remaining distance.

Doubting Tom, also known as Didymus, stood ramrod-straight with a look of intense displeasure on his face. He was a skinny man who looked to be a well-preserved 70, wearing an expensive business suit and holding a battered cane. Mel rubbed the top of his head, which still bore a lump from the cane and its owner's "hands-on" approach to enlightenment.

Displeasure or not, Mel was relieved to see the old coot. He was something of a guardian angel, Mel thought, though he parceled out answers like so many scarce breadcrumbs.

"Yo there, Didymus!" Mel called. His words echoed in the square.

"Mel, what are you doing here? Do you understand how dangerous it is for you to exist in this place? I sent you to Frank to ensure you were sent home."

"Let me fill you in," replied Mel. "Frank Burley is dead. He got offed by Dracula, after my evil twin ambushed us in this hellhole." Mel gestured vaguely around him to indicate Portland. "Speaking of which, I get the feeling somebody is one step ahead of me all the time. Why is a vampire after me, anyway?"

"There are many, shall we say, 'powers-that-be,' who take interest in your progress. They wish you to get where you are going safely, but they may not care how bumpy the ride is. Do you understand what I mean?"

"Sure," Mel smirked. "It means I'll get dragged through hell and my friends get slaughtered, but it's all for the greater good. You guys need to get some things straight. The chain of command isn't all that clear. Are you my guardian angel, or is Count Chocula? Besides, I thought you reported straight to the man Up There. Can't you pull rank?"

"Neither of us are angels. The beings who are the great powers in this universe were once mortal. I was a man in ancient Israel, until a divine debt placed high in the Almighty's notice. Vlad Dracula was also a man, in 15th Century Romania. He was a cruel, brilliant ruler, whose iron will and mastery of dark sorcery allowed him to cheat death. He has been accumulating power and knowledge for 500 years, and is unmatched in those departments. Although ..." and here Didymus sniffed haughtily, "I fear he is a trifle unbalanced. His motives are hard to guess."

"Which one of you two would win a straight-up fistfight? Huh?" Mel's words had the desired effect. Didymus turned red and changed the subject.

"Your next step will be to attempt a return, again. Where is your counterpart?"

"He and his fruity green sweatshirt got away."

"Hmm … when you spoke with Vlad Dracula, did he give you anything?" Didymus conspicuously eyed the carved wooden box under Mel's arm.

"Just this," Mel said, opening it.

The box contained a welcome sight: the Buck Rogers zapper. Mel could see that Smith had modified it. Parts of the handle were cracked to accommodate extra wires and circuit thingys.

Still, Mel thought, it might be my ticket home.

He showed the zapper to Didymus, who nodded. He continued with his inventory of the box. There was a book marked EPHEMERIS. It contained lists of numbers that were totally incomprehensible. Between pages 252 and 253 was an odd bookmark. It was a Polaroid photo. The subject was Smith, who was impaled on what appeared to be a flagpole. Mel winced; the wracked corpse, whose last moments were surely filled with agony, had the face he saw in the mirror every morning.

The rest of the picture was sort of blurry, and Mel was about to put it away when Doubting Tom reached out and steadied the photo in Mel's shaking hand. The blurry area resolved into a smiling Vlad Tepes giving a thumbs-up to the camera. On his hand was the gold ring.

"The device is essential now. Vlad Tepes has given you the means to use it as well," Didymus said, pointing to the EPHEMERIS.

"What are those numbers? I hate math, you know."

"They are astronomical data. Normally they would only be of use to your local paper's astrologer, though in medieval times a wizard would use them. In this case, I think you will require the services of a talented astrophysicist also knowledgeable in folklore and the occult."

"Fucking-A, excuse me?" Mel unintentionally spit. "Let me guess, Frank Burley is a rocket scientist in this world. I don't want to get him killed again, you know."

Didymus did not reply, only blinked and looked over Mel's shoulder. Mel turned.

At the far end of the square was the coffee shop Mel had visited after he first lost his Gotel in the poker game. A nice girl had given him coffee and hope, and sure enough she was standing at the door of the darkened shop, fumbling with a key ring. A little taller, hair a little redder, but definitely the same girl. Mel watched as she opened the door and disappeared inside.

"Which one of you is yanking my strings now?"

"No one," Didymus said. "The Almighty is not arranging things to send you where you need to go; you are. Fate is not twisting you to its ends, but the other way around. My task, and I suspect Vlad Dracula's is the same, is to point these opportunities out to you. Now go." Didymus placed the EPHEMERIS in Mel's free hand and then closed the box.

Mel couldn't say anything; he just walked toward the coffee shop.

Some lights were on now, and as he entered the shop he could see that the girl was busy preparing for a new day of joe-slinging. He approached her.

"We're not open yet ... say, you look familiar." She smiled. "How can I help you?"

"You look familiar yourself. My name's Mel. Can I buy you a cup of cof ..."

Mel cut himself off as he watched her pour a 20-pound bag of roasted beans into an enormous grinder. "Jesus, how stupid. Look, are you a talented astrophysicist with a background in folklore and the occult?"

Her jaw dropped.

"How did you know that?"

"Does this mean anything to you?" Mel proffered the EPHEMERIS.

She took it and her jaw dropped even further. "Where did you get this? I, uh ..." she smiled again. "You can buy me a cup of coffee if you want … Mel."

Mel smiled too, and did just that.

Find out more about Mel in our archives.

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