by Stephen Book
Carol looked around the parking lot, certain she would spot at least one familiar face. In the old days, back when Allen Funt ran things, the show had been called Candid Camera. Years later, Ashton Kutcher--a cutie for such a young man--revived the idea with Punk’d, and that’s what this had to be, somebody trying to slip one by on old Carol, have a little fun at her expense, right?
Looking around, though, clutching two plastic bags in her hands, Carol saw a problem. The parking lot which had been full of Christmas shoppers only moments ago now lay bare. Well, not bare exactly; the cars were still there, but all the people had vanished, as if they were only wisps of smoke blown away and carried along by the norther that had sailed in off the bay. The hurried sounds of voices, chatting about parties, about bottles of wine and festive hors d'ouevres, drew silent against the mournful cry of the wind cutting through the trees. Even the annoying tinkling of the Salvation Army bell had surrendered its call to arms.
Carol turned back and stared at the woman who started everything with one comment: Your mother needs your help.
At first, the remark struck her ears like a dissonant note. Unsure that she heard it right, she said, “I’m sorry, what?” and when the woman repeated it, the words sliced through Carol’s body as cold and harsh as the December wind. She narrowed her eyes. Was this some sort of sick joke?
A burst of air nipped at her neck and Carol looked around again, realizing that she now saw another problem with the whole Punk’d thing. The lake effect snow that had been blowing in all morning, what Tom Mahoney on WFRV Channel 5 promised would bring at least ten inches by noon, suddenly ceased. Old Tom was going to scratch his bald head on that one for sure. If somebody was really trying to pull one over on Carol Schlehlein, then how on God’s earth had they stopped Mother Nature in the process?
She looked back at the woman, gazed upon eyes so full of conviction, and found it all unsettling. The woman wasn’t dressed in white smocks, so that ruled out the possibility of a patient from county mental somehow wandering off. And she wasn’t dressed in rags, either, which meant she wasn’t homeless, half gone in her mind, only trying to garner another handout. Instead, the woman wore a suede parka. Leather gloves covered her hands, a plush Milly Hat on her head, and looking at her, the woman appeared more normal than not. Come to think of it, that was another problem, now wasn’t it? Normal people didn’t walk up to total strangers and say something so ridiculous, now did they?
Carol said, “Who are you?”
The woman gave her an easy smile.
“It’s not so much who, but what I am?”
Carol thought about the people vanishing along with the snow. “And what are you, a magician?”
The woman’s smile grew wider. “I’m an opportunity.”
Carol looked back toward the parking lot, at the face of the Piggly Wiggly that now stood like a hollow shell of a grocery store, nobody going in or coming out.
“They’re not there,” the woman said.
“Whoever it is you’re looking for. It’s just you and me, and your mother really needs your help.”
“You keep saying that, but if you really know me, you would know my mother’s been gone many years.”
“And you’d also know there’s no way my mother could need my help. To suggest otherwise is not only impossible, it’s cruel.”
The woman raised a finger. “That’s not altogether correct.”
Carol looked at the woman for a second. “Which part?”
“About it being impossible.”
“All things are possible, if you only believe.”
“Okay,” Carol said, taking a step backward, “now I know you’re loony. And whatever it is you’re after, I don’t want any part of it.”
“Do I look crazy?”
“Looks can be deceiving.”
“But do I sound crazy?”
Carol laughed. “A woman who suggests my dead mother needs help, and you have to ask?”
“Okay, but if you don’t help, all of this will cease to exist.”
Carol shook her head. “All of what?”
“Your mother will never meet your father, or at least the man who adopted you as his own. And because of that, all of your history will be rewritten. You’ll never meet your husband. You won’t have the same daughters, if you have any children at all. And that little piece of wooded wonderland that you live on, the sixteen acres along the lake that you call the Homestead?” The woman swept her hands out in two wide arcs. “Gone.”
Carol stared at the woman for a moment. She said, “You’re crazy” and then turned away.
“You don’t believe me?”
“Tell you what,” the woman called out. “If I can make it snow again with the snap of my fingers, will you believe?”
“No. It’s been snowing all day and could start up any time. It would only be a coincidence.”
“But what if I could make everyone suddenly reappear?”
That one stopped her. Thinking about it, the parking lot suddenly devoid of people still remained the crack in her reality. How had they all vanished? To make one person disappear while covered under a sheet, that was David Copperfield; to erase a whole parking lot full of people, now that was something else entirely.
Carol turned around, the bags of groceries feeling heavier as she gave in and allowed the woman more of her time.
“Okay,” she said, “but you have two seconds. One…”
The woman snatched a glove from her hand. Even from this distance, her flesh looked like porcelain.
“You might want to step aside,” she said.
Carol smiled. “And you’re stalling.”
The woman shrugged her shoulders. “If you want to be hit by a truck, that’s up to you.”
Carol glanced over her shoulder. There was no truck. To be safe, though, she took two steps to her right, standing now between a black Cadillac dusted with snow and a brown Ford. She said, “Two” and the woman snapped her fingers.
The horn made her jump, and Carol almost dropped her groceries. Her body went stiff. A scream felt locked in her throat. A half second later, a Suburban rolled by, the tires pushing the snow aside. The driver, a man in a black fedora, gave Carol a glare and a shake of his head.
The woman approached, her smile so wide that Carol imagined invisible fingers hooked in the corners of her mouth and pulling back.
“Now do you believe?”
Carol looked at the back of the Suburban, at the puff of white vapor coughed from the tailpipe, and felt the crack break apart, shattering her sense of reality into tiny shards with razor edges that sliced through her mind. As she stood there, trying to find something, anything to hold on to--to make sense of what she just saw--a snow flake touched her nose and melted. Then, in a matter of seconds a flurry wrapped around her in spirals of white.
“Wh-wh-who are you?”
The woman gazed upon Carol now with compassionate eyes, as she said, “I told you, I’m an opportunity.”
“Take hold of my hand and you’ll see.”
Carol wasn’t sure at first. Couldn’t this have been a trick, some mirrors placed at just the right angles? If so, then where were they? Surely, she should see them now. She looked up at the swarm of white falling down, thinking, And how did they stop and start the snow? Still uncertain, but more convinced that something incredible had just happened, she reached out.
“Gloves off.” Carol looked down with confusion, and the woman added, “It only works with gloves off.”
She removed a glove and offered her hand again. As the woman took it, Carol felt the world flip. She closed her eyes, groaning as cold sweat raced across her forehead, behind her ears and down her back. A high-pitched whine, like a jet engine, shrieked in her ears. Icy air cut through her flesh, and Carol cried out.
“Oh, dear God...”
The voice sounded far away, like it came from the light at the end of the dark tunnel where Carol found herself.
She wasn’t sure at first of what had happened, her last memory being that of standing inside the Crivitz Piggly Wiggly, waiting in the checkout line. But then the voice came again, calling out her name, and Carol remembered the woman in the parking lot, the Suburban that wasn’t there and then was, and the man behind the wheel who glared at her like she was just an old lady who needed help. And if it hadn’t been for the weird circumstances, dealing with this new turn of events, Carol would have told Mr. Suburban that he could drive himself, and his attitude, into the lake. Her body may have aged, but she was still very young at heart, and her spirit would never grow old.
And besides, what did Mr. Suburban know about her anyway? Did he know how to bake like she did? Most likely not. In fact, this was why she stood in line at the Piggly Wiggly, needing a few more items so she could make another batch of Granny’s Sinful Desert, a cake her mother used to make and one that Carol still did; eating a slice of it was like having a little piece of heaven in your mouth. With all that sugar, it couldn’t be healthy, but who cared? Christmas was her favorite time to bake, to party and entertain and even dance. Her girls often called her the ultimate party girl.
The man probably hadn’t traveled the country like she had either, there being only a few states that she hadn’t been in. But what else was retirement for? And she had retired for the first time in Florida, living there twenty-two years before returning to Wisconsin to live on the Homestead. That was a lot of time to see the world.
The Homestead. The lady had known all about her place in the woods, a place where her mother used to live.
And it was her mother that had started all of this. Or at least, it was about her.
The words came through the tunnel like a hand and pulled her toward the light. Carol felt her heart race, her pulse like a steady applause in her ears. She opened her eyes and found the woman staring at her.
“Are you okay?”
She looked around, expecting the parking lot but found that everything had changed. The people and cars had disappeared, replaced by a small meadow. The Piggly Wiggly was gone, too. Now she saw a stand of trees, their branches heavy with snow.
“You went into a daze. The trip can sometimes do that.”
Carol shook her head. “No, what happened to everything? Where are we?”
The woman looked around. “This is 1923, and we’re only a hundred yards or so from where your mother will meet the man who became your father.”
Carol looked around, amazed. If she ever made it back home, her husband would most likely schedule an appointment with the doctor if she told him where she’d gone. In fact, he might just skip all that and call the paramedics instead.
She said, “So where’s my mother now?”
The woman looked past her and nodded. “Right over there.”
Carol turned and gazed toward the other side of the meadow where she saw a narrow road, and on that road, riding in the front seat of a clattering Model T, a young girl sat with both hands gripped to the steering wheel. There should have been a canopy covering the top, but the car had nothing.
Driven by the need to see this, Carol started toward the road, moving as fast as her legs would go and waving both hands in the air. At one point, she thought she would be lost in the background, blotted out by forest behind her, but then the girl turned her head and slowed down to a stop.
“What on earth are you doing out here?” the girl said as Carol approached. She looked around. “Are you all alone?”
Carol gripped the car door to steady herself. She leaned forward, her breaths coming in quick and shallow huffs.
“Whew.” Standing straight again, she said, “Honey, I may be young at heart, but my heart isn’t that young anymore.”
She started to laugh, but stopped as she looked into the face of her mother. Not the mother she remembered, of course; this was a girl, with a girly shine to her hair. She had eyes that sparkled and a mouth with such a perfect pair of lips that not even Da Vinci could have adequately captured it.
The girl said, “Do you live nearby?”
Carol nodded repeatedly and then laughed again when this delightful young girl--so odd to think this was her mother--looked back with confused eyes. Caught up in the moment, stunned to be standing in front of a girl she had only seen in pictures, Carol had failed to answer the question. But then, how could she? A town the size of Crivitz, especially back in the twenties, everyone knew practically everyone else. If she said up by the lake, then her mother might start asking more questions.
“Oh, I’m a long way from my home, my dear.” She looked north for a beat. “Just passing through, I think.”
The girl nodded, glancing around. “Your car break down?”
“My what? Oh… Oh yes, my car, well it’s lost its timing, you might say.” Behind her, Carol heard the woman in the parka snicker. “And I’ve had quite the morning, I’ll tell you. Almost got run over by a truck, if you can imagine.”
Her mother, this teenager, stared back in disbelief.
Before the girl could speak, Carol said, “Can you give me a lift into town?”
“Sure, I’m headed that way. Had to make a run for my daddy, needed to deliver some things for him, and now I’m going to meet some friends.” She reached over, opened the door. “My name’s Lilly, by the way.”
“Carol,” Lilly said and repeated it again. “Don’t know if I’ve ever heard that one before. Kind of unique.”
Carol looked back to check on the woman in the parka, only to find that she’d already climbed into the back of the Model T. A mischievous grin pulled at her lips.
“Well you know…” Carol said, climbing into the seat. “The name does grow on you.” She closed the door. “At least it has for me.”
Lilly laughed as she reached under the steering wheel and pulled the throttle back. The Model T coughed once, lurched forward a foot, and then died.
“Ah, sassafras,” Lilly exclaimed.
“Don’t worry,” Carol said, “it happens to everyone. Just take it out of gear, turn the ignition switch, and let’s try it again.”
Lilly gave Carol a confused look.
Carol point toward the dash. “The electric starter, Hun. Just turn the key and crank it over.” When Lilly didn’t move, Carol said, “This thing doesn’t have an electric starter, does it?”
“What kind of car do you have?”
Heat surged through Carol’s cheeks, her neck. How was she going to explain that one? She said, “The kind that isn’t available right now,” and hoped that Lilly wouldn’t ask any more questions.
She opened the door.
“Okay, well, how do we start this thing, push it and pop the clutch?”
Lilly’s jaw dropped.
“Not that way either, huh?”
Lilly shook her head.
“Oh that’s right. This thing has a crank in the front.”
Still speechless, Lilly nodded.
“So let’s crank it.”
“No, don’t. It’ll break your arm if it backfires.”
Carol looked around. “Well, then, maybe we should get some help?”
“Over there,” Lilly said, pointing toward a house, “is Mr. Gumpter’s place, but I don’t think we should ask him.”
“He’s kind of an odd man, if you ask me, always singing all the time. It’s awful.”
Carol smiled. “He’s no Dean Martin, huh?”
Carol chuckled, knowing she’d just slipped again--first the electric starter thing and now this. Doing the time change thing could really mess with a person’s mind.
“Nothing,” she said. “Just trying to be funny.”
Lilly nodded, though her face looked even more confused.
Carol was about to say they needed to ask somebody for help, be it Mr. Gumpter or someone else, when another car came rolling up the road. It was something similar to what Lilly had been driving, only it looked slightly newer and still had the cover. The driver, a young man, stopped the car behind Lilly’s and climbed out.
“Having a little trouble?”
“My car stalled out,” Lilly said.
“Well, let’s see what we can…”
As the young man walked toward the front of the car, he turned and glanced at Lilly. Then, he stared. It took Carol only a second to remember: it was Harvey Lemke, her future father.
“I’m sorry,” he said after a long moment, “what did you say?”
Lilly nodded toward the car. “It stalled.”
Harvey looked the vehicle over and said, “Well, let’s see if we can get her cranked over.”
Carol stood aside as he walked around and bent over.
“You have the switch turned on, right?”
Lilly frowned. “Of course.”
“Just making sure.”
Harvey gave the crank a hard couple of turns and the engine fired up. He smiled.
“There we are. All set.” He walked back to Lilly and extended his hand. “I’m Harvey.”
Lilly looked at his hand and said, “And I must be going. Carol?”
Carol climbed back in, and Lilly pulled back slowly on the throttle. “Thank you,” Lilly called over her shoulder.
Harvey stood there and waved.
Carol looked first at Lilly. Then, she looked back at Harvey, growing smaller in the distance, before she looked at Lilly again. She glanced back at the lady in the parka, who only nodded at her. What had just happened? Wasn’t she supposed to help her mother meet her father? If so, then she’d failed miserably.
“Well, that was rude,” Carol said after a moment.
“I’m not supposed to talk with strange men,” Lilly said.
“Strange? That was one of the nicest boys I think you’ll ever meet. In fact, one of these days you’re going marry a boy like him.”
In the back seat, the lady in the parka chuckled.
“I doubt it,” Lilly said. “Did you see his hands?”
“Yeah, they were big and strong.”
“They looked filthy.”
“Well, you try cranking over one of these machines and see how you look.”
Lilly shook her head. “He’s not my type. Besides, I’m already with someone.”
At that, Carol slumped back into the seat and rode quietly into town.
Lilly dropped her off in front of the police station, saying that one of the nice police officers would help. She put her hand on the throttle and stopped. “It was so nice to meet you, Carol.” She then smiled. It was the most beautiful smile Carol could ever remember. “You do have such a lovely name.”
Before Carol could say anything else, Lilly drove off.
“That was great,” the lady in the parka said.
Carol blinked. She didn’t even see the woman climb out of the car.
“How can you say that? She didn’t even give Harvey the time of day.”
“Well, we didn’t grow a tree, but we sure planted a seed.”
“Because of you, your mother stopped that car. And because of that, she pulled back too fast on the throttle. And because of that, the car stalled and she finally met your father. Sure, she doesn’t see the spot in her heart for him right now, but she’ll be thinking about him from time to time. And when the right time comes, they’ll meet again, and she’ll remember.”
“How can you be so sure?”
The woman smiled and Carol’s knees almost collapsed. She didn’t know how she had missed it before. Maybe it was the porcelain skin or the Millie Hat. But that smile. That precious, most beautiful smile.
Before she could move or say anything else, the world flipped, the engine screamed in her ears again, and Carol found herself back at the Piggly Wiggly, her mother still smiling at her.
“My sweet, sweet, Carol,” she said. “Without you, I might have missed one of the greatest joys of my life.”
Her mother laughed. “You always said you wished you could have one more Christmas with your mother, didn’t you?”
“This is your wish come true.”
Carol looked around, trying to take it all in.
“So you came from heaven?”
“What’s it like… you know, up there?”
Her mother smiled. “Like a big slice of Granny’s Sinful Desert.”
At that, her mother changed into a swirling cloud of snow, trailing up and over the parking lot.
Watching it blow away, Carol laughed like she’d never laughed before.
And regardless that anyone might think it crazy, she danced.