This story is by Brad Foster and was part of our 2017 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the Spring Writing Contest stories here.
Final Night in Poteski
“The distinction between the past, present and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.”
~ Albert Einstein
Poteski once stood between an eternal stretch of deserted county highway and farmlands of a much better town. It’s not there anymore – rotted foundations, buried by an ocean of feral weeds, are all that probably remain.
Poteski’s fifteen minutes of fame came in 1995, when Sullivan Forster – last of the folk troubadours – met his demise after a gig at Big Jim’s Mess Hall.
Like many times before, Sullivan stood in the doorway of his engagement, surveying the crowd. A projection television clamored from the corner of the barroom. A balding fat man masticated his dinner while he stared at the football game on the TV, his smacking lips rivaling the volume. Barflies buzzed among each other at the stained wooden bar top.
Forster’s guitar swung like a slow pendulum by his side. Its case bore the marks of countless years on the road, matched by his aged eyes that he cast to the back room.
The poster-board announcing his show peeled at more than one corner, askew on a wobbly stand. Crowded into that room that could barely hold a church pew, people clutched over-priced drinks in their hands.
Sullivan hobbled onto the tiny dais, his left knee threatening to give out again. During a Vietnam War protest, a vet rushed him mid-way through a song. He saw the drunk man, his face twisted in rage, charge from the audience.
In the next moment, he’d collapsed in excruciating pain from a busted knee, while the hulking vet spewed expletives at him like Zeus hurling down lightning bolts.
“Hello, everyone.” Sullivan said. “I see we packed the stadium!”
The assembled crowd laughed and Sullivan smiled. He grunted as he situated himself on the edge of the tiny stage. He popped open the clasps of his guitar case.
Sullivan never tired of the waft of vanilla when he flipped over the top. He cradled the mahogany guitar, lifting it from its case like a frail newborn.
The small crowd applauded as he opened with a few of his most famous songs.
“Can you hear me all the way back in the cheap seats?” Sullivan said, before launching into his cover of The Traveling Wilbury’s “End of the Line”.
Hours later, his set drew to a close.
“See-Saw!” cried the assembled crowd. He’d gained a few extra members in the course of the evening. Even the loud-chewing fat man had sauntered over, leaning heavily in the doorway.
“Well, I won’t disappoint my fans!” Sullivan said, and began the song that propelled his career during the late seventies.
It spoke of achieving success, all the while seeing his home life fall apart from the view on high. His voice hitched just slightly when he remembered the last visit to a place he no longer would call home. Burnt into his mind was Brenda, driving away with James Joseph. His six-year-old son silently looking at him from the passenger seat. And then they were out of his life. Forever.
…and you can’t get off at the top, so you always have to come back down.”
Cheers erupted from the back and Sullivan softly thanked his audience.
He gently placed his guitar into its case, closing the lid. Sullivan hobbled back to the green room with it tightly gripped in his hand. Some days – no, most days – this guitar was his only companion.
“Great show, Sullivan!” said the manager, clapping him on the back as he handed him an envelope.
Sullivan pocketed the envelope and then met his fans.
By the time Sullivan drove off into the late night, a rainy mist had settled across the highway. Ten miles down the road, he stopped at the lone sign between Highway J and Interstate 15. A distant rumble rocked his beat-up VW, and headlights illuminated the night fog.
Sullivan Forster’s eyes wandered to the seat next to him, and his heart plummeted. The seat, which always held his guitar, stared emptily back at him.
He whipped around, stretching back to rifle through the mess occupying his car. Sullivan shoved aside weeks-old fast-food bags with their greasy wrappers stuck to them. He flung suitcases and duffel bags off the seat, desperate to find his guitar case.
He never felt his foot came off the brake pedal. Ever so slowly, the VW rolled into the intersection. In the space of seconds, the semi trucks barreling down opposite lanes met his VW.
Their bellowing horns signaled the demise of Sullivan Forster.
I can’t bear to watch it.
Throwing off the helmet, I step away from the console.
Since humanity clawed its way out of the Dark Millennium – a time when everything worthwhile had been lost – we discovered how to harness the tachyon.
No longer a hypothetical particle, the faster-than-light tachyon allowed us to visit the past. We reclaimed what our predecessors had thrown away. And thanks to that invention, we rebuilt a new society over the course of centuries.
But all we ever cared about was science and technology. No room for art, and certainly not for music.
During one of my assignments, I found Sullivan. I’ve been observing him ever since. Maybe I would have found a cure for my disease had I followed the rules.
Maybe….or maybe not. To hell with the rules.
“OUT!” I bark and a curved door slides open with a subdued whoosh. I step into the sterile metal hallway, lined with other work pods. Lights around their closed hatches indicate they’re in use and are not to be disturbed.
I seize the remote control device in my right pocket, and press the button that makes my work pod appear occupied. It’s one of the first things I found how to invent during an unauthorized virtual tryst.
I almost run into my supervisor, and I duck down a corridor. I can’t have him suspecting that I’ve been up to anything. I’m almost out of time.
It’s still day-time in Yorkago – one of the last domed mega-cities. I walk past the fountain where intercoms blast never-ending jingles. In the crowd, I hear people exclaim“Oh, I love this one!” and burst into a sing-along. I grit my teeth, wincing on the inside . This is what passes for music in 4019.
Good, she’s home.
Ingrid’s shadowy form glides past the rippled glass and then she’s at the door.
She frets when she sees my pale face, sweaty from the short walk to her home. She motions me inside and closes the door. Once in her office, she hands me a cup of water and runs the tests. I know her too well to see through any facade of hope.
“It’s progressing faster, isn’t it?”
She nods, her eyes bright. “Why won’t you see a real doctor?”
“You know what will happen, Ing. They’ll have to report it and then I can’t work anymore.”
“Would that be so bad?”
“Work is what I live for” I say. She also knows me too well to not know I’m hiding something.
“But you’d be alive.”
I shake my head. “In all the time we’ve been observing the past, we’ve never come across a cure. We’ve stood right next to some of the great minds of science and medicine. We’re only ghosts to them, if anyone ever sensed our presence at all.”
But sometimes, I think Sullivan can.
“Thanks to their knowledge, we can extend our lives and stay youthful. Even fix horrible injuries. But no one in the history of Earth has ever cured what I have. Or maybe they did, but it was lost to the Dark Millennium.”
“Won’t they suspect you’re sick anyway?”
“Soon, yes. I won’t be able to hide it for too much longer. But if everything works out, I won’t have to.”
She narrows her eyes. “What are you up to?”
I give her a wan smile and stand up, still a tad shaky. “Something worthwhile, Ing.”
Then I kiss her on the forehead before I walk out the door.
I take an auto-taxi to my apartment and retrieve my packages. One of them is a relic that has been passed down in my family for generations. Somehow, it survived the Dark Millennium. That makes me believe what I’m doing will work.
I make it back to my workplace, but this time my supervisor sees me. Dammit!
“Hey! How’re you out of your pod? Answer me!” he yells as I flee from his wrath. I jump into my pod and seal it, just as security rounds the corner. The thick walls of the pod muffle their pounding. Won’t be long now before they break in.
I tear open the first package and pull out the headset of my own design. I plug it into the console and slip it on.
Ran out of time to truly test it, so here’s hoping. I pry open the console’s main panel and I’m showered with tachyonic energy. It’s like I’m touching eternity.
The world melts away and I’m seeing Sullivan for the last time.
It’s a beautiful way to go.
It’s not here! Shit!
Sullivan Forster sat up in the driver’s seat so he could turn the car around. Instantly, the twin semi-trucks’ headlights blinded him from all directions. The cacophony of their blaring horns heralded the end of the world at the intersection of Interstate 15 and Hwy J.
A tremendous explosion followed the obliteration of Sullivan’s VW.
Ten miles away, it rocked Big Jim’s Mess Hall. Patrons streamed out, standing in the chilly night air while the giant torch of the VW burnt away the fog.
Someone had the presence of mind to call 9-1-1. Later, the only way that Sullivan Forster’s death could be confirmed was from the testimonials of those who attended his last performance.
No one will ever know it wasn’t Sullivan who died that night.
Am I in heaven?
Sullivan Forster felt a weight on his head and saw only static before his eyes. It took a moment for him to realize he was wearing some sort of helmet. He pulled it off and tossed it aside. He looked around the sterile white interior, with only a computer console in front of him and a panel gushing light. No, not all. A long rectangular package, wrapped in brown paper, bore an envelope with his name on it.
He picked up the envelope and read what was inside. After reading it, several times over, he finally smiled.
The pod door slid open, forced by the security team. I wasn’t there, but I bet my hard-ass supervisor was really surprised to see a complete stranger standing in my work pod.
“Who the hell are you?” my boss probably blurted out.
“Just a stranger with his melodies” Sullivan might say, or I hoped he would. Either way, it’d be something cool like that.
Forster got escorted out as technicians rushed in to fix my pod. He saw the fountain I had told him about in my letter. Following my directions, he found the kill switch for the intercoms blasting that infernal garbage passing for music.
Sitting down, he placed the guitar case next to him. It had been snatched by a fat man, one night in Poteski.
In the space of thousands of years – or maybe it was just a few moments – Forster again laid eyes on his guitar. Its rich vanilla scent reached him as he cradled it.
Then he began to play and sing the songs of old. People stopped to listen. Finally, real music would start to come back into the world.
For Jim Croce, Harry Chapin, Jim Sullivan and everyone else the world lost far too soon.