Perihelion Science Fiction

Sam Bellotto Jr.
Editor

Eric M. Jones
Associate Editor


Fiction

Joy Ride
by Jude-Marie Green

Barnegat Inn
by Brian Biswas

Captain Quasar and the Kolarii Kidnappers
by Milo James Fowler

Geiter
by Michael Hodges

Discord in Paradise
by Leslie Lupien

(225-50) Agnes
by Mark Ayling

It’s a Long Road to the Sky Train
by Michael Andre-Driussi

Not Her Kind
by Peter Wood

Down Courthouse Wash
by Steven L. Peck

Blink Twice
by Rebecca Birch

Salazar
by Sean Monaghan

Articles

Mad Max, R2-D2 Return
by Adam Paul

Sixteen Shades of Ice
by John McCormick


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Barnegat Inn

By Brian Biswas

I AM A MIDDLE-AGED MAN OF FIFTY-SIX, happily married for thirty-odd years, with two fine children who have made their parents proud. The following incident occurred on my wedding day. It has haunted me ever since and, though I vowed never to set it down, the passage of time has made it seem less ominous, so I do so now.

The reader will note that the inn was located not in Barnegat, but several miles outside the town. I returned to the area once many years later. My wife was recovering from a bout with the flu and I’d taken her to her sister’s house in upstate New Jersey to convalesce. I was making my way back down the coast to our home in central Virginia. It was on a whim that I detoured to Barnegat to see if I could resolve certain points that had always puzzled me, but I found no trace of the shoddy old mansion. I was certain of its location—the intersection of Highway 9 and Waverly Place—but found the land there wild and desolate without trace of structure or foundation. The inn simply was not there. Somehow it seemed quite fitting.

***

We were married in Norfolk, Virginia, at All Saints Episcopal Church about five miles from Broad Bay. I was twenty-five years old, my dear Marianne twenty-three. It was a beautiful October morning, the sky deep blue with puffy white clouds that slowly drifted across the eastern sky. The wedding had been a small affair, immediate family and a few close friends. The priest was named Father Krone. He was a thin man, well along in years, with a long beard that grew high on his cheeks, thinning white hair, a prominent forehead, and light-blue eyes that twinkled. He was soft-spoken, yet his words held us rapt.

Though Marianne and I had met Father Krone several times, we did not know him well. He was picked to conduct the ceremony by Marianne’s parents, who lived in Norfolk, attended the father’s church, and whose praise of the priest was effusive.

After we said our “I do’s” we exited the church through a hail of rice. My beloved was radiant in a lavender dress embroidered with pale-white flowers. I wore a light-brown suit with a bright tie.

The reception was highlighted by a six-layer chocolate cake with white frosting decorated by Marianne’s mother. After changing into our regular clothes, we made our way to the church parking lot. Someone had sprayed JUST MARRIED in white letters on the rear window of our aging blue Buick with half-a-dozen tin cans dangling from the tailpipes.

I said, “Let’s get going.”

We swung onto Shore Drive and headed west towards the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel. Once across we continued north on Route 13 stopping at the Virginia-Maryland border for lunch. From there we continued on Route 113 traversing the pretty Maryland countryside. A stop at Assateague State Park took up most of the afternoon. We marveled at the wild ponies that freely roamed the beach and sand dunes.

Leaving Delaware we had dinner at a seafood restaurant in Smithville, New Jersey. We poked around Smithville before heading north on Route 1, with stops at Fenwick Lighthouse and Cape Henlopen State Park. The ferry at Cape Henlopen took us across Delaware Bay to North Cape May. We followed Route 9 along the flatlands and marshes of eastern New Jersey, and it was nearly seven in the evening when we pulled into the town of Barnegat, looking for a place to spend the night.

Barnegat was a charming seaside town on Little Egg Harbor. Across the water rose Barnegat Lighthouse. Marianne made me promise we would visit in the morning.

The first inns we came upon were full and Marianne grew worried. “We should have made reservations, John,” she lamented.

“Worst comes to worst,” I said, “we keep going. We’ll make it to the city by midnight.” I drew her to me and kissed her cheek.

Marianne had always wanted to visit New York City and I’d promised her several days in the Big Apple as part of our honeymoon. Then, on to our final destination, Bangor, Maine, where we’d rented a cottage on the outskirts of the city.

But the immediate problem was finding lodging for the night. We left Barnegat heading north on Route 9. Three miles out we saw it: a three-story red brick inn surrounded by an old wrought iron fence. A rickety wooden sign read: The Inn at Barnegat. The grounds were unkempt. A winding gravel path bordered by pale-yellow and white flowers led through the gate and up to the inn which appeared abandoned.

“It can’t hurt to take a look, don’t you think?” I said and without waiting for a reply drove onto the inn grounds.

Ivy clung to the bricks and gray-green moss was creeping across a shingled roof. There were a dozen casement windows on the west and south sides. Smoke rose from a chimney on the east.

“At least someone’s home,” Marianne said.

The front door was opened by an elderly man wearing shoddy clothes. He was thin, with a grey beard, light-blue eyes, and an elf-like face. Behind him stood a woman of similar years, presumably his wife. Her long grey hair fell to her waist; it looked soft as silk. The man smiled warmly.

“May I help you?”

***

Though we were dog-tired and wished only to turn in for the night, our hosts insisted we join them in the living room by a roaring fire. We were surprised to find ourselves the only guests. Marianne told our hosts—who identified themselves as Mr. and Mrs. Smith—of our failure to find lodging in the town of Barnegat. They did not seem surprised.

“It’s such a romantic place,” Mrs. Smith said. “Near the sea and popular with the young folk.”

When I asked why there were no other guests our hosts shrugged but said nothing.

Looking around the room, I noticed the furniture was a strange mixture of styles that spanned the ages. (My father was an antiques collector and I’d picked up a fair amount of knowledge of the field over the years.) I saw an eighteenth-century dining table made of varnished mahogany; William and Mary style chairs with tall, narrow backs and Spanish feet; a colorful braided rug from India; an oak roll-top desk of Oriental design, nestled against one of the walls.

Another of my father’s interests was timepieces; he had a collection of several dozen ranging from modern to antique. Imagine my surprise when, resting on the desk, I saw an architectural wonder: a Japanese mulberry pillar clock, dating from the mid-nineteenth century. Pillar clocks (my father owned one) were fascinating devices. They indicated time on a pendulum weight instead of a clock face. As time passed, the weight dropped past a series of markings indicating the hours. What was most interesting was the division of temporal markers: Japanese timekeeping divided the day and night into six equal periods; these hours varied in time according to the season. Aside from my father’s clock, I’d never seen another.

Ah, but it was the architecture of the room that alarmed me. The doors—there were three—hung at odd angles, the glass in the windows was of a type I’d never seen, dark and shimmering and oddly reflective. And the walls. The walls leaned crazily forwards, backwards, and sideways. An architectural horror. It was a wonder the room had not collapsed!

Mr. Smith spoke. “Tell us about yourselves,” he said, and without waiting for a reply added, “Let me guess. You have recently married!”

At first I was taken aback, then I realized he must have seen the lettering on our car that announced the event.

Marianne smiled. “Only this morning.”

Mrs. Smith turned to her husband. “Such a lovely couple, aren’t they dear?”

“Quite.”

“Do you attend the university?”

“The University of Virginia,” I replied. “I’m a graduate student in astronomy. Marianne is pursuing a master’s degree in early childhood education.”

At this Mr. Smith shot up as if he’d been struck by a bolt of lightning.

“Astronomy!” he cried. “Why, then, you and I have something in common!”

“Are you a lover of the stars?”

“You could say so, yes. And you?”

“I’m working on my dissertation—on the physics of black holes.”

“Isn’t that a coincidence!” Mr. Smith was becoming more animated by the minute.

I was taken aback. Surely this elderly gentleman was not embarking upon a similar study. “I’m not sure I understand—”

“Let’s just say it’s a hobby of mine. The stars. And since you’ve come to our inn, I must take advantage of the opportunity your visit presents.”

I found his odd diction disturbing and I began tapping my fingers on the arm of my chair. A nervous tic of mine.

He smiled. Then he threw a dart. “Do you believe in life on other worlds?”

“No one knows for certain,” I said after a moment’s hesitation. “It seems likely, but—”

“Well I do know,” Mr. Smith asserted. “And I can state categorically that life exists elsewhere in the universe.”

“Really? I don’t see how you can make such an assertion.”

“On probabilistic grounds alone it is a near certainty. And to deny it now after—”

“My husband is opinionated,” Mrs. Smith interrupted, “as you can tell. But what he means is—”

“I mean exactly what I have said!”

“If you mean biological life,” I said, “I couldn’t agree with you more. But to make the leap from cellular organisms to conscious entities—well, I think that is a leap of faith. I agree with you, though, in one respect. I believe the universe is far more exotic than anyone imagines.”

“And so it is,” Mrs. Smith intoned.

“Oh—” Marianne stifled a cry.

“I mean that it would appear to be so,” Mrs. Smith corrected.

“Even when she speaks plainly she sounds odd,” Marianne whispered to me.

“Frank,” Mrs. Smith said. “We’ve been such poor hosts. Surely our guests are thirsty after their long day—and we’ve offered them nothing. Shouldn’t you be in the kitchen getting drinks?”

“How right you are!” He rose from his chair and shuffled out the room.

“Let me ask Mrs. Smith a question,” my wife said. “Tell us about your lives. Did you marry when you were young?”

“We were about your age I’d say,” Mrs. Smith replied.

“Advice for the newlyweds?”

She smiled. “Our twenties were our best years,” she began, “carefree and full of wonder. The thirties were something else. Raising children took all of our time. By the time we reached the end of that decade we were plum worn out! The forties were a time of renewal, the challenges of child-rearing easier to handle and—thankfully—occurring less often. The fifties were wonderful, the sixties even better, the seventies a decade of adventure, the eighties a glorious epoch, the nineties—”

“My, my,” Marianne interrupted if only to stop Mrs. Smith who seemed likely to go on forever. And then she whispered into my ear, “John, they don’t look a day over sixty.”

Mr. Smith returned with a teapot from which steam was slowly rising. He poured a clear, sweet-smelling liquid with a hint of lemon. It was also soporific, apparently, for Marianne and I soon began yawning.

“Let us take up a different topic,” continued Mr. Smith who seemed to positively relish the conversation. “Time travel.”

“Frank,” Mrs. Smith said. “Our guests didn’t come here to listen to your silly theories, you know.”

“Quite right.” He turned to face us. “Forgive me. It’s just that I seldom have the opportunity to engage in scientific conversation. Living alone as we do our minds tend to wander. Is it but a small leap of faith to imagine that our bodies do as well?” His blue eyes sparkled.

I began to wonder if, in addition to being friendly, our hosts were also demented.

“Let us consider the following,” he continued with hardly a pause. “What are the implications of instantaneous temporal transfer?”

On hearing those words I was positively ruffled. The principle of causality strictly forbids such nonsense.

“It’s well-known that time travel is theoretically impossible,” I said. “The speed of light is an absolute.”

Mr. Smith frowned. “But a Mr. H. G. Wells has constructed such a machine,” he said, “and used it to travel to your distant past and future.”

I looked at him strangely. “That was only a story.”

“Oh, yes.” My host look chagrined.

“What he means, if I may interrupt,” Mrs. Smith said, “is that time travel has been much discussed in your world.”

“Yes, yes,” Mr. Smith said. “That is what I meant.”

Except, of course, that that was not what he meant. And as I studied him closely, I noted his eager, almost aggressive eyes, his tight facial muscles, his hands clenched so firmly that the knuckles were white.

He rose from his chair, crossed the room, and stoked the fire which had died down. Moments later it was blazing brightly. He made a circle with the middle finger and thumb of his left hand and bisected the circle with the index finger. He did the same with his right hand. Then he held his hands together so that the tips of the index fingers touched. Finally, he held his hands before the light of the fire and I saw to my amazement the image of an otherworldly creature with two monstrous eyes, an enormous forelimb, and four spindly legs, cast upon the opposite wall. He was goading me, to put it plainly, and I could not let the matter stand.

“There’s something strange about this place,” I said, ignoring a look of caution from Marianne. “It’s in the middle of nowhere. The furniture has been assembled by someone with no understanding of aesthetics. And I don’t for a minute believe you’re a budding astronomer.”

“Dear me,” he replied. “I thought—”

Marianne’s cautionary look had turned into a frown and I said nothing further.

My wife said, “It’s been a long day. We really must be heading off to bed.”

“But our talk has only just begun,” protested Mr. Smith who seemed not to realize that any time had passed.

“Yes, we must go,” I said, and in an attempt to atone for my earlier outburst for which—to tell the truth—I was embarrassed, I added, “but thank you for your hospitality. It’s been a marvelous evening.”

And with that we rose. Mrs. Smith took us upstairs to a room on the third floor. The bridal suite, she said with a smile. When we passed the second-floor landing I noticed a bronze statue of Aphrodite, perhaps four feet tall, next to a casement window. It was an interesting sculpture to be sure, but, like everything else in the inn, seemed out of place.

The furniture in the bridal room was from a variety of time periods. There was a modern king-sized bed with a plain mahogany headboard, an antique nightstand that looked to date from the eighteenth-century, and several pieces I couldn’t place, including a futuristic-looking sofa upholstered with a soft, white material that I’d never encountered. The bed was turned down and looked inviting. When I turned to thank our hostess she was gone.

***

It was two in the morning—according to the clock on the nightstand—when I was awoken by a loud sound. I got up and went into the hall.

I heard voices, soft and gentle, emanating from below. I tiptoed down the stairs to the second-story landing and crouched behind the statue. Here I could not easily be seen, but I could view the living room. Around a table were gathered Mr. and Mrs. Smith and another elderly couple whom they addressed as Mr. and Mrs. Jones. I tried to listen to the conversation, but their voices were so low I heard only snippets.

“... do us good to return home, Frank,” Mrs. Smith was saying.

“The visit was worthwhile,” Mr. Smith said. His next words were inaudible.

“And how was your journey?” Mrs. Smith asked, looking at Mr. Jones.

Mr. Jones was a robust man, with thinning grey hair, a wide nose and jet-black eyes. He told a fragmentary—and fantastic—story of a trip that evening “through the heavy fog.” His wife nodded as he spoke, but said nothing. There was something odd about Mrs. Jones, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. Perhaps her wistful, dreamy, expression, her long arms and even longer legs, which seemed not to go with the rest of her body. Or was it the aura of otherworldliness that hung over her? Indeed, as Mr. Jones went on with his tale she seemed to slowly fade away, but later her body regained its substance and I wasn’t so sure. “That fog,” Mr. Jones was saying, “that fog.”

And now it was I who was baffled. The night had been clear; the sky full of stars. I opened the window and poked my head out. I was comforted to see the Big Dipper and Jupiter which hung low in the western sky. Indeed, the sky was darker than it had been earlier in the evening. Then a half-moon had been shining brightly. Now it had set and the full glory of the heavens was revealed. And it was then I realized that I saw no Earthly lights. The lights from Barnegat to the south and Waretown to the north. Even the lighthouse beam seemed to have gone missing.

I was jolted back to the scene below by a sudden flash of light. Someone had lit a lantern which burned with a soft blue flame that seemed to grow stronger as the four wayward travelers stared fixedly upon it. Mr. Smith said some words in a language I couldn’t understand. Then they rose and held hands, forming a circle around the lantern.

The room took on a bluish hue, then began to spin, faster and faster until I could no longer make out the forms of my hosts and their friends. And as I watched, I saw a kaleidoscope of color and forms that shifted as the seconds passed, a sphere of mind-boggling extent, a void that arose out of everything and yet itself was nothing. And all the while everything was interspersed with the outlines of a room I knew must still be there. And in that room, in which I had passed a tedious hour, I saw only the clock—the Japanese pillar clock—its hands spinning wildly forward and backwards, as if, in the space below, time had lost all meaning. There was a blinding flash of light. Then, nothing but whiteness.

When my eyesight returned I was amazed to find the room as it had been at the beginning—except that no one was there. For the briefest of seconds I thought of investigating, but I was too shaken at this point. And so I climbed the stairs to our room on the third floor and slipped into bed. Marianne, roused from peaceful dreams, sighed and encircled me with her arms. I felt the comforting warmth of love and soon was fast asleep.

***

When Marianne and I awoke the next morning we found the inn enveloped in fog. We dressed, packed our bags, and went downstairs.

All was silent.

My wife called to our hosts, but no one answered.

“That’s strange,” she said.

“Maybe they’re outside?”

“Where on Earth would they go? In this fog, I mean.”

I didn’t say a word about the events of the previous night. I’d done my best to convince myself it had been a dream, a vision caused by the drink I’d imbibed, though, to be honest, I wasn’t sure.

Marianne opened the front door and called out to the Smiths, but a blast of wind pushed her back inside.

“What do you think our hosts were trying to tell us last night?” she said.

“I don’t really know,” I said. “Time is precious or something like that.”

She smiled and took my hand. We waited perhaps an hour, perhaps longer, for the wind to die down, and when it had abated, we picked up our bags, opened the front door, and disappeared into the morning mist. We put our things in the Buick and started off.

When the car reached the bottom of the driveway, Marianne uttered a cry. “My sandals,” she said. “I left them in our room.”

I stopped the car, intending to drive back to the inn, but evidently we’d left too soon for the fog had increased in intensity and I found that the driveway was disappearing before my eyes. The lodge, visible only in outline, seemed to fade in and out of existence with the wind that had arisen once again.

“Are you certain—” I began, when Marianne interrupted, “No, here they are.” She pulled a pair of red dress sandals from under the front passenger seat.

I smiled. I put the car into drive and we inched forward, into a dense fog that would not lift until we reached the town of Lakewood thirty miles to the north, a trip which should have taken a mere forty-five minutes, but which, due to the dismal conditions, took far longer. All along the route I heard the howling of an unruly wind that swirled around us, and I saw—or thought I saw—the images of our hosts smiling beneficently upon us.

When we reached Lakewood, the fog lifted for good. The remainder of our journey was without incident. I never did tell Marianne about the visitors our hosts had entertained that night, nor the strange sensations that followed me the next morning. I did, however, resolve to hold the hand of my beloved that day and for all the days that followed, however short or long. END

Brian Biswas is listed in the Speculative Fiction Database. His story, “A Betrayal,” was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. He has appeared in “Aoife’s Kiss” and “Bewildering Stories.” His previous story for “Perihelion” was in the 12-SEP-2014 update.

 

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