The Slider, Chapter 12: 23 Federal Laws

DELANEY-ODELA HOME

“A whole week? Gonna miss you for sure, babe.”

Lanie Delaney paused in her packing long enough to give her partner a heartfelt hug. “Absence makes the heart grow fonder, sweets.”

“No kidding.” Karen wiped a tear from the corner of her eye when Lanie wasn’t looking. With her own private counseling office barely set up–she’d only been open for business for nine days–it wasn’t like she’d be buried in work, too busy to worry about the love of her life being gone to Sioux Falls, South Dakota, for all that time. “Talk about being a victim of your own success.”

“True that. If I hadn’t come up with the idea of getting Kermit to represent buyers whenever possible, this wouldn’t be happening.” Prior to her advent, Cavanaugh Law had almost exclusively been retained by Realtors, not people looking to buy a house or a few acres. Most buyers, he’d always believed, would be unwilling to shell out the shekels for his impressive (exorbitant?) fees. He ran ads now, touting the benefits for buyers.

A whole lot of Realtors were less than happy about that. Nobody in the business wanted to cross Kermit Cavanaugh when it came to legal technicalities, dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s of a real estate transaction. Most beautiful of all, since he couldn’t represent both sides, the buyers he did end up representing were often purchasing from sellers who’d listed with the same Realtors who refused to consider Cavanaugh Law in the first place. Cherry of malicious glee on top of Kermit’s money sundae. Financially, things were looking good. Two new paralegals and one more harassed clerical gal seemed to be working out, at least so far.

And Kermit was taking a workation. Not a vacation. The man had no use for those. But if he could goof off a little while getting serious work done at the same time…bonus.

Hence the trip to Sioux Falls, South Dakota, for a three day legal seminar titled 23 Federal Laws Applying to Real Estate Transactions. Kermit knew there were a lot more than 23 such laws but he also knew the reputations of several seminar speakers. “If they’re presenting, it’ll be worth it. Continuing education for me, just like for doctors and teachers. You see a lot of lawyers who slough off on that. Not me. Which is why I’m worth the big bucks.”

He could have gone alone but Lanie understood why he’d asked her to accompany him. She needed to know as much as she could, especially since she was pretty much the entire sales arm for Cavanaugh Law. Heh. Invented her own position, she had. How many law offices had a specific sales division? Not that it was official. Might not have looked good to somebody with an axe to grind, and pretty much everybody in the business would like to see Kermit taken down. He was like the Old West gunfighter, best at what he did, with every other punk trying to put holes in him but ending up in Boot Hill instead. So the title on her gold-embossed business cards listed her as Legal Associate.

Well, hey, she was legal and she was an associate.

She was also raking in a few bucks of her own, having negotiated a commission on top of her salary. Last month, the commission had nearly exceeded salary. This month looked even better.

They could have flown to Sioux Falls but Kermit Cavanaugh did not fly. She didn’t press him for details on that, especially after he rolled out his classic 1964 Lincoln Continental. Fully restored, mint condition, aftermarket air conditioning, slab sides, suicide doors, the works. He’d assured her that even though they wouldn’t be passing by many gas stations without stopping, it would still be an easy two-day run each way, roughly 1,200 miles and all freeway once they hit I-90. He’d really closed the deal when he promised to let her drive it on the open road.

“Honey,” she told Karen with a twinkle, “you know I couldn’t resist that. I’ve never driven a truck that big.”

Karen had herself under control now. No more tears. Voice steady. “Is it really? That big?”

“Yup. Bigger than the older half-ton pickups, anyway. Over 5,000 pounds curb weight, says Kermit. Monster looks kind of scary, perched on those little 15-inch wheels, but hey. It’s never been wrecked so that must say something, right?”

Karen Odela was not convinced but she kept her mouth shut.

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TOM SLIDER

Labor Day had come and gone. I needed to get my lazy tail out of bed and head out. We’d loaded the horse trailer yesterday. This would most likely be my last pottery placement run until just before Thanksgiving, when our customers would be restocking for the Christmas retail season. Otis had a brainstorm for Thanksgiving-themed pottery, Halloween-themed pottery, Valentine’s Day pottery, and Independence Day pottery, but none of those were in production yet. He either got them right or he wouldn’t put them up for sale, a quality in the man I totally respected. Right now, he was already up and out in the barn, working on subtle snowflake patterns for Christmas, using expensive paints with white ceramic-infused “snow” sparkles. Maybe he’d have some of those ready for my Christmas season run, maybe not.

I opened one eye far enough to check the clock. 6:07 a.m. What the hey, I could stretch it to 6:30. Snuggling back down into the pillow, I drifted back to dreamland.

Or rather, close to dreamland. Didn’t quite get there. Somewhere around 6:15 a.m., the room started spinning. I could tell this with my eyes shut tight and my body lying on my right side, the way I usually slept. What the?

The episode passed. Hm. Snooze?

Again the sensation. Strong while it ran but lasting no more than a minute or two at a time. Huh. Wouldn’t be safe to drive this way. What was going on?

6:28 a.m. I sit up. No vertigo. Okay, off to the bathroom, but for cry-yi, old man, sit down to pee. Sitting. Elbows on thighs. Vertigo hits hard and fast. Rather than fall off the stool, I lean farther forward quickly, chest clear down on my knees, just a-hanging there like wet laundry on the line. Revolting situation, Willis. Trying to get to Otis for help wasn’t an option. Too far to the barn, and besides, what could he do anyway? The sensation passes. Long way back to the bed. Crawl? Nah. Big and bold, bad to the bone, I take my life in my hands and walk back to bed. Lie down on my stomach this time, facing one way, same-side leg bent, switching back and forth every minute or two. Feel fine. Don’t want to leave this safe haven.

But lying there all day isn’t going to cut it, either. Up, shift so I’m lying on my back, head propped up on two pillows. Okay for a little while. Then the vertigo hits. Dare I open my eyes? Of course not. So of course I do, staring at the three-bulb overhead light fixture. The fixture is not fixed. It, along with the rest of the room, is rotating at 20 rpm, give or take. Like a slow internal combustion engine or an incredibly fast rotating penthouse restaurant, no sound and yet, v-r-r-room, v-r-r-room, v-r-r-room.

Since panic won’t help, I decide to enjoy the show for a while. V-r-r-room, v-r-r-room. Pretty cool, really.

Another part of my mind is asking for spiritual help. I’ve long known (as opposed to merely believed) there’s Something greater than little ol’ me out there. Long experience has taught me how to deal with that Something in any number of ways. Ask for help, ask for understanding, try to ignore it, or sign up with the Dark Side. Ol’ Darth has never been my guy, though he’s tricked me into playing on his team a time or two.

What often works best for me is to ask for help in understanding a situation, so I do that mentally. And then begin my own analysis–or an analysis invisibly guided by that Cosmic Something. Most likely the latter.

No pain, so not likely heart related.

Intermittent, so probably not a blood pressure drop or blood sugar drop.

Has to be vertigo.

With that conclusion, I opened my eyes once again. Sort of. Blink-blink-blink. What did I know about vertigo? Come to think of it, I’d known a fellow who suffered from the condition. Started hitting him when he was in his sixties and never let up. Doctors told him he had crystals in his ear that were designed to detect gravity or something like that. He called them ear rocks. Had to go in and get some sort of treatment every so often.  Could chop firewood but not bend over to pick it up.

Hm.

A bit of experimentation clued me in to the fact that tipping my head back and turning my head to the right seemed to help a little. But the spinning room was still there, more or less.

I bit the bullet and sat up. Within seconds, the vertigo lessened, then vanished. Awesome. But I didn’t dare hit the road this way. Time to fire up the computer. Within thirty minutes, I’d found some promising information. For most vertigo sufferers, it’s not a permanent condition because the body is highly adaptable and tends to find other ways to restore one’s balance. Lots of sites had detailed descriptions of what vertigo is, what causes it, and a couple of forms of treatment that are doable at home. Simple exercises.

One site, a lone outlier that probably had it right, stated firmly that the vast majority of vertigo is idiopathic. No, that didn’t mean only idiots got it. It meant that nobody really knows what causes it. So we’re all idiots.

Sounded right to me.

I turned off the computer and performed the Half Somersault Movement for the right ear. Figured it had to be my right. Kneeling, hands on thighs, looking at the ceiling. Then bend over, head to floor (hands on floor, too) like I was going to do a somersault. Then turn head to right. Leave it turned and come up slowly, ending back in kneeling position but looking out over right shoulder.

Took me maybe a minute to do. Saved who knows how many thousands of dollars and endless frustration with doctors.

I was out the door and rolling by 8:00 a.m., having paused only long enough to explain to Otis what had happened. “Don’t kill yourself on the road,” he’d said. “I’d hate to have to spend all that gold by myself.” Inside joke. The pottery business was doing so well that we might not ever have to touch the gold. Although I did want to learn how to melt the stuff down and reform it into ingots lacking the serial numbers that pointed right to John Cavanaugh. It’d be a lot safer selling unmarked ingots, say forty years from now. Or passing them on to someone else, someone other than my one remaining, ungrateful son.

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23 FEDERAL LAWS SEMINAR, SIOUX FALLS, SOUTH DAKOTA

Driving the Lincoln was a lot like Lanie imagined piloting a monster cruise line ship would be. Nothing bothered the beast on asphalt sea but parking it in close quarters was bound to wipe out somebody’s dock. At least when she did it. Kermit, country boy or no, didn’t seem to mind docking the boat at all. And of course his superior parking skill buttered his ego. He didn’t rub it in but she could tell.

At any rate, Lanie Delaney was glad the seminar was over and they were heading home. Its touted three days of instruction really added up to two and a half, letting out at noon on Saturday so that most out-of-town attendees could catch afternoon flights home and Cavanaugh Law could get a head start west on the freeway. She was driving, playing hoity-toity chauffeur. She also felt brain-stuffed like a Thanksgiving turkey’s internal cavity, full of strange new information and/or new angles on old topics. Most of the 23 Federal Laws turned out to be in place to protect consumers, which you’d think would be a good thing. Restrictions placed on predatory banks. Requiring sellers to disclose whatever they might know about negative aspects of their property, such as radon gas, asbestos, etc. All that sounded good on the surface but, inevitably, the 23 Federal Laws (the seminar had actually touched on 32 laws, and there were more) also restricted freedom. And that was before considering the multitude of dangers presented by Montana state law.

Kermit didn’t mind a bit. The more labyrinthine the system, the more his services were needed. Not a problem in his mind, which Lanie suspected might be a bit of a labyrinth of its own.  Shades of Daedalus.

The young blonde saw it differently. Yes, she was making a living from these same complexities. She knew that. Understood it. Even appreciated it. But the Delaney clan–not just her, but a goodly portion of her entire family tree–had the discomfiting inability to embrace tunnel vision. She saw the whole picture, or at least a whole lot more of it than most would. There were still sneaky ways to buy and sell property but it was no longer “cool” to simply hand a seller cash, have the seller sign over the deed, and be done with it.  American society was so turned upside down that offering cash was a sure sign you were a drug dealer, and arms dealer, a terrorist, or worse, maybe a politician.   If you went for simplicity (me sell, you buy, done deal) as a seller, you ignored piles and piles of statutes that could come back and bite you in the butt, years or even decades after the fact.  There was no danger if buyer and seller both knew they could trust each other, but how often did that happen?  Lawyers, Realtors, and the Brainwashed Masses said never.

Then again, maybe property ownership hadn’t been all that easy, ever. Bad neighbors, uncaring banks, weird weather, locusts, war, plant diseases, erosion, volcanoes, floods, earthquakes, buyer’s remorse, seller’s remorse…the list had always been a long one. The Bible didn’t say one way or the other, but she thought the odds were good Cain killed Abel over a property dispute. More recently, a Montana man didn’t like the price a neighbor was asking for a hunting rifle so he killed the poor guy with his own weapon. One of America’s Dumbest Criminals, that one. Got caught when he bragged about the murder in a Las Vegas casino a few weeks later. And that was just a simple piece of personal property, gun go bang, not even real estate.

It was little wonder, she thought, that Geico ran the ad with Big Steve buried in a pile of brightly colored squeeze-balls because the stress of buying a new home was getting to him.

To no one’s surprise, the big Lincoln was getting low on fuel when the exit for the Lucky 18 Truck Stop hove into view.

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TOM SLIDER

Helmer was more than happy to see me pull in.  “Tom, are you a sight for sore eyes!”

“Nice to be wanted.”  I grinned at the truck stop owner.  “Last stop, the store owner had only sold two of the five pots I left him in August.  Plus he wasn’t all that peachy keen happy about ponying up what he did owe.  We came to a resounding agreement to disagree.  He didn’t mind returning the three unsold items until I pointed out one sporting a new crack, top to bottom on one side, with a fair sized chip in the top.  ‘Bout come to fisticuffs when I required payment for that one and had the brass nerve to insist on cash, no check.  Swore it’d been defective when I placed it.”

My friend nodded, pleased.  “So you’ve got two extra for me?  By the beard of the Prophet, I can use all you have.”

“Sounding better and better, Helm.  Promised you fifteen and brought twenty-one.  Couple other places cut back on their inventory, not by a lot, but it didn’t take quite a full load to square ’em away.”

“Aha!”  The entrepreneur rubbed his hands together, hunching over and leering in a deliberate parody of avaricious glee.  “Their loss, my gain.”  That pronouncement stood for a lot more than just a few decorative bits of pottery.  Truck stops on either side of Helmer Gribbit’s  upstart, smart-alecky business were cursing him roundly, not only in the immediate area but from as far as 100 miles in either direction on I-90.  Even beyond that range, diesel-pumping businesses were thinking nervous.  From the day of its  Grand Opening, the Lucky 18 had been a hit with truckers and a punch in the gut for competitors.  So far, he’d confided in me, the previously derided Gribbit’s Folly had tripled its gross and doubled its net in just the past two months.  Next year, the word was, there might be more Lucky 18 stops out there, biting unaware businesses like Jaws chomping swimmers.  Not that the big boys like Pilot, Flying J (common ownership, those two) and Love’s were paying attention yet.  Corporate stupidity.  But the more aware guys were already biting their nails down to the quick.

All of that delighted me.  Nose-in-the-air big guys never stocked S-W pottery anyway.

“You eaten yet, Tom?”

“Not since breakfast.”  The wall clock in Helmer’s office said 3:12 p.m.

“Then why don’t you go have a bite?  Tell ’em I said it’s on the house.  I gotta get Louise on the horn in the gift shop, make room for more of  your stuff there.  Eight or nine, probably.  Rest in reserve for now, but I promise I’ll severely chastise any employee dumb enough to drop one of Otis’s treasures and try to blame it on you.  By the way, how’s your skill going on the wheel?”

I laughed out loud.  Flipped open the locks on my big Samsonite briefcase.  Pulled out my (to date) crowning achievement.  “I still can’t seem to get a smooth round apple shape finished.”

The little pot, or vase maybe, if you put medium to small sized flowers in it, was no bigger than a pint Mason jar.  It was kind of pretty in its own deformed way, a warm cream tone with green metal flake sparkle trails roaming up and down here and there.  Instead of being a smooth curve from top to bottom, the symmetrical perfection for which Otis was known, it had an indent in the middle, more alike an unbalanced figure 8 than a pretty apple, and it canted a bit to one side, too.  The Leaning Tower of Pisa had nothing on me.

Helmer reached out.  I handed it over.  He turned it around and around, studying.  I felt unaccountably nervous, like I was a kid with acne trying to present myself to a prom queen, keenly aware of my failings.  “I get these things nearly done, see, and my thumb just sort of jumps in there like it has a mind of its own.  Told Otis maybe I should cut the dang thing off but he just smirked at me.  No mercy.”

“Hell, Tom, don’t change your style.  Make me another one or two like this, maybe bigger, play with the colors.  I  bet I can sell this before your Christmas season run in November.”

“No bet.”  I was secretly pleased, pulling out my poker playing skills to keep that from my face.  Nearly a century on this planet and here I was, seeking a businessman’s approval over a little clay vase like a five year old showing a drawing to his mother.  No bet because if Helmer Gribbit said he could sell it, he could sell it.  The man had an instinct for retail sales like Donald Trump’s instinct for real estate.  Or politics, come to think of it.   Maybe he’d market it under the guise of Charity for the Disabled or something.

The café was a lot more crowded than it had been just a few months ago.  Business was good.  I ended up having to settle for a small table, one of several backed by a yards-long upholstered bench, sort of a cross between table and booth.  I was pleased to see Helmer doing so well.  I was not so pleased with my dinner companion.  The trucker seated at the little table to my right, close enough to reach out and touch should I have cared to do so, had a mouth on him.  Which wouldn’t have been so bad if he’d been able to talk about the world’s problems instead of his own quirks.  If I want to focus on somebody’s personal oddities, Lord knows I’ve got enough of my own.

“These jelly containers drove me nuts,” he said when his toast arrived, “but not now.  Now I just keep trying to bend up each corner until one gives, see, ’cause I can’t see the stupid little line.  Dunno if they started making ’em tighter or if my eyes are going but I just passed my license renewal eye test okay so it’s gotta be the lines got smaller.  Sometimes they don’t bend up easy and I go all the way around and nothing happens so I have to go around again and push harder this time and finally something gives way.”  He celebrated this amazing-to-him mechanical achievement by using two little jelly batches on every half-piece of toast, sort of getting a taste of toast with his jelly.  Sadly, he talked with his mouth full, too.  I knew better than to look but couldn’t exactly stuff my ears shut. The salt and pepper shakers wouldn’t fit and the cutlery had edges.  “No blackberry, shame on them.  Mixed jelly sucks, strawberry yuck, grape if there’s nuthin’ else but man gimme some blackberry jam and I’m good to go.”

Wish you would go, I thought.  My cheeseburger seemed to be getting less tasty with every bite.

“Now I dunno if you noticed when I sat down but they set these tables for two and I can’t stand that.  ‘Sokay if I got somebody to eat with but when I’m alone that knife and fork and even the spoon staring across the table like they’d like to shoot right out of that curled-around napkin and take out my tonsils all over again like when I was six.  Or maybe my eyes.  Couldn’t drive much if they got my eyes.  So I turn ’em away from me, see, and to be polite I didn’t aim at you or anybody else either.”

Yeah, you do.  You aim that vicious cutlery napkin right square at the poor waitresses so they get sliced, stabbed, or spooned right in their thighs as they pass by or stop to see what you need.  A nasty waitress-wounder is what you are.  That, and nuttier than a Jerry Lewis movie.

It went on like that all through the meal.  Against my will, I learned about the man’s need to park his truck in a specific area at each truck stop–tough to do since truck parking areas vary and sometimes the choices are limited or even nonexistent.  I learned he had hammer toes, four different hernias, dandruff (That one worried me a little; were those flakes all salt on my cheeseburger?), high blood pressure, cholesterol through the roof, a bad heart that thank goodness the do-nothing D.O.T. physicals had never noticed, two teeth that needed pulling, two treatment-resistant warts that’d been with him so long he’d named them Miney and Moe, a fat wife who didn’t appreciate him and spent all his money and hated sex, a skinny daughter he thought was either on meth or had AIDS or maybe both, issues with the IRS for failing to file his tax returns, a Peterbilt with a great engine but a failing transmission, a tendency to gas even if he didn’t eat beans, and a doctor who’d laughed at him the last time he went in to get rid of a case of the crabs.

Only the doctor’s jokes were worth listening to, though I’d heard them somewhere before, probably clear back in my teenaged hobo days.

There’s two ways to get rid of crabs.  One is, shave one side of your private parts, set the other half on fire, and when the crabs run out of the flames, stab ’em with an ice pick.

Thank  heavens, he couldn’t quite remember the other method.  I wasn’t about to remind him what it was. While he was mumbling, trying to recall, I finished my meal and made my escape, tipping the waitress double because she had to wait on that table.  “The extra is hazardous duty pay,” I explained, tilting my head slightly in Talky Man’s direction.

She got it.  The fine lines around her eyes crinkled in amusement as she quietly thanked me.  No verbal putdown of her customer; she had to deal with all types.  I was extra happy, realizing the benefit of being a wholesaler, not serving the public directly.  I was even happier after a stop in the Men’s restroom, where I left behind much of the drek  Talky Man had droned into my poor, gullible right ear.  Fast passage, but it’s best not to hang on to useless input any longer than necessary.

The Lucky 18 has a wide hallway leading from the café to the gift shop.  The back wall is well adorned with advertising, most of it in the style used for products in the early 20th century.  Any newcomer would and did find that wall intriguing.  My attention, however, was more on the huge smoked-glass windows fronting the parking lot.  Straight out there, maybe twenty yards away–I froze.  Rooted my boots to the floor, right then and there.  Stared in shock.  None other than my money-minded son, Kermit “Coyote” Cavanaugh, was parked at the passenger car fuel island.   Not only did I know him on sight; he had his classic slab-sided ’64 Lincoln out and about.  The Boat was Afloat.  I wasn’t in danger of immediate discovery.  Nobody could see through these windows from outside.  But what was he doing here, right at this moment?

My heart pounded in my chest, fight-or-flight adrenaline ablaze.  Two key principles, cornerstones of my understanding of Life, warred within me.  One:  When danger threatens, never underestimate it and don’t freeze like a rabbit.   Two:  There are no accidents.

Kerm was Danger Incarnate.  If we came face to face…I plucked my wraparound sunglasses out of my shirt pocket and put them on.  He knew my eyes.  Saw them every time he looked in a mirror.  Thinking fast, I clasped my hands behind my back, seemingly absorbed in the play of cloud and sunlight outside, or perhaps just watching traffic, or waiting for someone.  Whatever.  Now, Tom Slider, concentrate.  He had a woman with him.  I wasn’t paying her much attention, mostly because she was already walking toward the gift shop and a cursory glance assured me she was no one I knew.  And yet…and yet….  No.  Concentrate.  My son knew my voice, but I could disguise that.  One of my many hobbies, though I hadn’t practiced it in years.  Used to have a tape recorder, years ago when tape was the thing.  Would practice a given voice, John Wayne or Jimmy Stewart, Porky Pig or Woody Woodpecker.  Then play it back.  After the kids’ mother had died, alone and wondering what I was doing wrong with my life, why I kept outliving women, I’d done a lot of that.  I was no Mel Blanc, but…okay, so pick one in advance, pick a voice in case you have to use it.

He’d never seen me wear a baseball cap.  My hair was dyed.  The glasses hid my eyes and the little scar at the edge of my left one.  The moustache broke up my lower facial lines pretty well.  Hadn’t yet gone in for plastic surgery.  Was planning that for February, midwinter with months to heal before facing the world again.  I wouldn’t want him to see me walk normally; he’d recognize that, maybe. So, left leg gimp.

If I had to.  Maybe I wouldn’t.

Maybe I could chat up his new woman, find out “casually” what he’d been up to, why he was here?  Risky, but…I caught a glimpse of a blonde ponytail as–young!–she headed straight for the door.  If she had to hit the restroom first….

Nope.  Shopping trumps toilet visit one more time.  Or maybe she just had a ten gallon bladder.  She came right through the door, turned left into the hallway where I was standing.  I turned my head only, intending to offer the polite nod of one stranger to another, sort of take her measure a little bit, decide if she might be approachable or not.  There was no way she could see my eyes clearly but her sunglasses were already up in her hair.  Here she came.  I turned, noting trim, athletic legs striding my way, up the gaze, eye to–Holy Carpoli! 

Forget the adrenaline.  Forget anything having to do with the body.  I was, I realized immediately, knocked clear out of the body.  Our eyes locked, more in that higher consciousness than physically.  Lightning bolts?  Too mild, not the right metaphor at all.  There were no human words for it.  The only awareness I had, beyond the girl herself, was –WHAM!!– extreme.  I may have nodded.  I hope I did.

Her ability to function was better than mine.  She continued on past me, entering the gift shop.  Or at least I thought that was probably where she went.  How long it took me to find my way back to my body, I had no idea.  Not forever, but Kermit had finished at the fuel island and was driving the Lincoln over to park it.

I continued to stand there, frozen like the rabbit I’d sworn not to be.  Thinking was for the moment entirely beyond my capability.  Different form, different hair color, different eye color, but Soul knows Soul.  My beloved Emily, woman-slaughtered by an alcoholic train engineer more than eighty years earlier, had returned to Earth…and had hooked up with my materialistic, money grubbing, daddy-hating son, Kermit, of all people.  I suddenly understood the bumper sticker, Karma’s a bitch.  The gods on Olympus were laughing at the spectacle, placing side bets, waiting to see how the puny human currently known as Tom Slider was going to handle this.  I never moved a muscle until, however long later, Louise from the gift shop found me.  “We’re ready for your pottery, Tom.”

“Thanks,” I managed to say, and headed out to the Dodge and horse trailer, parked in back.  I would carry the pottery to the gift shop as usual.  Louise had authority to make her selections for display, then one of her staff would move the reserve stock back to the storage room.  I didn’t know if I wanted Emily Reincarnated–which meant encountering Kermit also–to still be in the gift shop for a while yet or not.

All I knew was a jumble of snarled thoughts and emotions, tangled like a spool of fishing like handled by an ignorant six year old boy on his first trip to the creek.   Recklessness, which was dangerous.  Excitement, which made sense.  Scared half to death, which made the most sense of all.  Bitter awareness that at ninety-eight, even though living as a “mere” fifty-five year old under an assumed name, I could undoubtedly do best for Emily by never letting her know anything about me.  Except, I cursed under my breath, the lies with which my surly son had undoubtedly already filled her ears.  Underlying everything, an emotion I’d never experienced in my entire life:  Extreme jealousy.

Nor had the overpowering need to protect lessened with time.  In eighty-one years it had only grown stronger, no doubt fueled by my failure to protect Emily from the train.  I’d never forgiven myself for that.  One night during our time on the run, three rough types had tried to take her.  I’d left them in a dense thicket of scrub brush, feasts for ants if nothing else found them, and never once felt a pang of remorse.  Anybody or anything tries to hurt you, I’d told her, has to go through me first.  Bold and foolish lie of the young and arrogant.  The train hadn’t cared.

Now what?  I realized it was running through my mind, a prayer, a mantra, an unceasing petition to the Powers That Be.  Clearly, I had to protect her once again, but the danger from which she needed protection might well be me, not Kermit.  I had to get away but I could never get away but I had to get away but…

Now what?