There were more mashed potatoes and more meat on the plate than there’d been a just few minutes ago. Johnny blinked. His head was sizzling, ice-pick pain crushing his eyeballs. His leg, too, throbbed as if it’d taken hammer blow to the shin bone. It reminded him of how his mama told him the Romans broke Jesus’ legs on the cross. But this wasn’t ancient Jerusalem. He was simply sitting on a bed, in the present day.
There was more roast beef on the plate, now. Had there been that much before? He couldn’t tell because he couldn’t taste, his tastebuds had been cauterized, and his tongue was as dead as the meat that laid there, so he surely hadn’t been eating anything, and yet … and yet, he daintily wiped the corner of his mouth (did manners even matter here?) … and his hand came away with brown gravy on it.
Blackened gargoyles flashed before his closed eyelids. He was still sitting there on the bed, but it felt different now, and the food was gone so he figured it was over, that it was past dinnertime and now he’d moved on to … on to what? Somebody was yelling from next door, something about fire, something about a fizzle? Sizzle? Was that what they said? And lightning? Something about him and lightning. Were they talking about his woodworking? His woodcarvings? He always talked about how he liked the smell of a power carver burning into a fresh wood. He brushed the top of his head, found stubble from his … what? … his crew cut? Why did he have a buzz cut?
He blinked hard.
White feverish splotches flashed before his eyelids, and now he smelled barbecue pork, the kind Johnny’s dad pulled off pigs over barrel fires when he was a kid, better barbecue than any joint in Alabama ever dreamed of cooking.
His lungs were crushed, smashed, a seat-belt … was that it? … yanking his rib bones into his flesh and puncturing his lungs, making him scream … but he couldn’t scream. He opened his mouth … did a little gravy dribble out? … but he couldn’t scream.
He sat at a large table, but kept his elbows off. Old habits died hard, especially here in the South. It was a library table like he’d sat at in school on Saturdays. But this table was rough-hewn, and his fingernails dug into a splintered crevasses that’d been gouged deep into its surface over the years.
He blinked three times.
The images were splashes of acid hitting his wide-open eyeballs.
A man in a suit stood on the other side of the table, his necktie loose, his shirt sweaty … can anybody sing that ring-around-the-collar jingle? The man’s face was wrinkled and tired, but his eyes were alive from too much coffee and sugar. His milquetoast face had darkened from beard stubble … kinda like the stubble on your head, eh, Johnny boy? The man glared. The suit was expensive. Armani, or a damn good knockoff. And it’d been pressed … but not for a long while. And he had a sported a watch … an expensive one, complicated … a Bulova, full of hands and dials, spinning, turning, ticking, tocking.
Johnny’s head still ached, a post-trauma pounding. It felt like he’d been sunburned, and then sunburned again, and then sunburned yet again after the first two had healed. His leg still crackled from the hammer blow, or whatever it was, and he now wondered if the bastard had used the claw of the hammer to break his leg bone slowly, sadistically.
The man in the suit looked … better. His tie was tied. His suit didn’t have wrinkles. And his face was fresher, no three-day shadow, and no perspiration.
“You have to,” the man was saying. “You have to.”
Johnny shook his head. “I didn’t do nothing. Nu-thing.”
The man’s nostrils flared. He slammed his hands on the table, rattling Johnny. “What’s your favorite meal, John? Hmm? What is your favorite meal?”
“Food, man! What’d you choose if it was your last?”
This time nothing changed.
“Mashed potatoes with roast beef and grav–.” Johnny stopped, the word a bone caught in his throat.
That’s when he focused on the man’s elegant wristwatch, at all the hands and dials. And the main one, the military dial, told him it was little after 1400 hours. He zoomed in, bringing the watch’s second hand into view, and it was running backward. He ran his hand through his hair, and he had hair now. He … had … hair … now.
Nothing changed, but he now knew that mashed potatoes had reappeared on his plate because he’d eaten them, in the future.
They shaved your leg. They shaved your head.
“What year is it?” he said
The man in the suit blinked. “What does that have to do with –.”
Johnny’s turn to slam his fist. “What year is it?” he yelled.
The lawyer told him.
“And when would I get out?” Johnny said. “If I take the deal?”
The lawyer’s face — which had been sharp angles and tension — suddenly sagged, his brown eyes hound-dog sad.
Johnny felt a tear well up in one eye, the way it’d always been. He always cried from one eye. It’d been that way when the cops had kicked down the door and found Johnny standing over one of the bodies, holding the serrated knife that’d been used to slice open throats all over the apartment building, and he’d cried because he knew they’d never believe that he’d removed the knife from of one of the victims to save the woman’s life because he was a nurse and that’s what nurses did. But the evidence was a D.A.’s wet dream, fingerprints on every floor. Johnny had helped those old men and women for years, and they thanked him — oh, yes — but they’d also insulted him when they thought he was getting uppity. It was annoying, stupid. He’d even got a scalding cup of coffee in the face once. That was more than “annoying.” But he still loved them.
But that coffee wasn’t nearly as hot as the skull cap, was it? They said the electric chair was painless. They said the initial jolt of voltage knocked you out. They were wrong. Dead wrong.
Johnny looked up slowly, through moist eyes. “How’d you do it?” he asked the man with the backward clock. “My mama would’ve called it devil’s work.”
The man shook his head. “Not witchcraft. Just … a gadget.”
“You let me see my future.”
“I let you live your future, John. Or one possible future. You’ve traveled forward, and now you’re coming back. And you still remember everything, for now. But soon enough those memories of the future will be gone. There’s nothing I can do about that.”
“And I died.”
“We all die in the future, John. You will be killed in the future if you don’t take the plea. But if you do take it, you’ll live in the future. You’ll make woodcarvings. And one of those woodcarvings will be a spaceship. You’ll make it on a whim. And thirty years from now you’ll give it to a schoolgirl who’ll become the first human to set foot on another planet.”
“You’re making that up.”
“You don’t know that. But you do know what the electric chair does to you.”
Johnny nodded. “But I didn’t kill those people. I tried to help them. I tried to help them!”
His lawyer gestured toward the room outside. “I know that. But they don’t. They don’t know and they don’t care.”
“Then is there one thing I can ask? Just one thing?”
“We have very little wiggle room.”
“Can you at least tell them I’m a vegetarian? I don’t want to eat meat.”
The lawyer puckered his lips. “I might be able to swing that one, Johnny. If you apologize. Show remorse.”
“For something I didn’t do.”
The lawyer nodded. “For something you didn’t do. I bet I can get you a vegetarian diet. I might be able to swing that one.”
Johnny slumped in the chair, his eye teary, his body hiccoughing with sobs.
The lawyer turned to go see the prosecution, winding his watch as he left the room.
Copyright © 2012 Alan Keith Parker. All Rights Reserved. This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.