Inspirational Fantasy Thriller

The stranger looked on from a clearing on the butte. In the night sky, the nearby town glowed orange as fire consumed it. No one there would survive the night, not one building would stand. The heat that enveloped it had been quick and extremely intense. Flash points would be reached in mere seconds.

It had only been ten days since he entered the town, seeking shelter and help. He had been refused, and even mocked. So had the orphan boy he rescued from the town. The cattle drovers there called him Dog, treating him accordingly. When the stranger had seen them kicking the boy, he intervened.

Now he and the boy were the only ones to walk from that town alive. The time had come for him to find the boy a home, and be about his business.

The only history of that town's existence would be found in a single patch of newspaper that had not burned. It gave the name of the town as Paradise Red Range, though the Range part had been rendered illegible. The date had been March 25, 1881.

Years later, seventy to be exact, a man named Bill would look at his watch from that exact spot.

Standing indoors, he now looked at the clock on the wall. Clock and watch gave the same time: five minutes before 6 a.m.

Shaking his head, he unlocked the diner door.

Calling back to the cook, he simply announced,

“I'm lettin' 'em in, Fred.” Bill's own voice hinted that he had been a pushover to let them in early.

Fred's voice would offer little in the way of debate.

“Yeah, whatever, Bill.” Fred said. Fred needed more coffee, and less aggravation on that particular morning.

Dorothy would be the first one through the door that morning, with George, Manuel, and Leroy close behind. Each of them moved without thought to their usual tables, picking up the diner's menu. Bill amused himself at their habit of picking up a menu that hadn't changed in years.

As had been their habit, the “Early Morning Four” would order the same things, after looking over the same menu. This would suit Bill and Fred perfectly. Their routine personified the town philosophy: keep it simple.

The routine down now, Bill would simply yell back to his brother, “Same Fred!”.

Fred would already be placing the hot off the grill items on to the “coveted” Paradise Red Diner Collection Plates (sold in store).

Dorothy, a widow, is the face of the town of Paradise Red, population 991. As it's mayor, she would spend much more time with the people, rather than locked away hiding in some office. She would not be one to rest on title or laurels. According to her, “A leader leads people, and there's no people in that office.”

In her early 60's most people would assume Dorothy to be younger, based on her energy level. No one knew as much about the town's history, current events, or as much gossip about Paradise Red than her. Born not too far from the diner, she knew everything about every family in town, including ancestry. She enjoyed celebrating her own Italian heritage in the kitchen, like no one else in town.

Bill, a widower of nearly a decade himself, often teased her about giving up being mayor and taking over for Fred in the kitchen. She always just laughed, and jokingly accused Bill of flirting. Honestly, he really had been. However, Dorothy had only been a widow for a year, so Bill patiently waited for her to be ready.

Dorothy could tell you about George's family. The great-grandson of a tribal chief from an area further west, he would also be one of the wealthiest families in town. His generosity kept the school sports teams equipped.

Manuel's family is third generation Mexican. His parents had moved here when Dorothy had been young, trying to find a better life. Their origins had been problematic in other towns. Here, they had excelled at growing produce, and would soon open the first market in town. Soon, they owned Paradise Red's only grocery store.

Leroy's family had been one of the founding families of Paradise Red, way back in the 1880's. Here in this little western town, his grandparents sought refuge from the mind, body and soul ravages of slavery. They would have a big hand in creating a place that could rightfully be called Paradise anything.

One thing all of these people had in common would be that many of the older folks had served as mayor. Truth is, the position would be more 'it's your turn”, rather than bother with an election. This simply served the town better.

Bill would strike up a conversation with George first, as he would be the first to leave every morning. George would usually leave around 6:40, as he ran the scrapyard just outside of town. He needed to be there before 7 to hand out the daily assignments to his crew.

Leroy would leave next, usually around 6:45. He served as principal of the town's school, which ran K-12, in three separate buildings on the same campus. He always preferred getting to the school early enough to greet the students as they arrived. His stance had always been that “rules without relationship equals rebellion”. He worked hard to maintain a strong relationship with both faculty and students.

Then, Bill would be the next to leave. The pastor of the largest church in town, Bill helped his brother Fred at the diner in the mornings, then would head out to his office at church.

This would be after his twenty-two year old daughter Mary would show up at seven, serving as the morning and early afternoon waitress.

By 7:30, the town of Paradise Red would be up and productive. With smaller towns in all directions, much of the revenue gained for the town came from these visitors. Over time, of course, Dorothy would come to know the regular visitors as well.

Just after Bill left, Joe Miller slowly entered the diner. Just celebrating his 80th birthday, Joe had become the self appointed town “collector of coincidence”. He had given himself this title to avoid being referred to as “the old superstitious guy”. Not that anyone had ever called him that, but why risk it?

As he sat in his usual booth, Mary approached him,

“Well good morning, Mr. Miller! How are you today?” she asked, genuinely concerned after his heart attack a few years earlier.

“Well Missy, I'll tell you how I am.” he said softly. He never meant disrespect, but his failing memory had been allocated to facts and figures, rather than names. For this reason, all males were “Bud” and all females would be “Missy” to him.

After receiving his ice water and placing it in front of him, he looked up at Mary, and motioned for her to get a little closer. A “low talker”, he could be difficult to understand, even at “full volume”. Now, he wanted to whisper.

Leaning down, just a bit, Mary listened intently as he asked her a question.

“Do you know what day it is, Missy?” he asked her.

Looking at the newspaper he had brought in with him, she would be reminded of the date.

“Why it's March 25th, 1951 Mr. Miller.” she said, then smiled, as if she had just answered a prize winning question.

“That's right Missy.” he said, his volume increasing slightly. Taken aback by the force of his own voice, he watched Mary jump back a bit as well. He then motioned once more for her to draw close.

“It's exactly ten days since the Ides of March, Missy. I'm telling you, there is a wind of change in the air. Can't you feel it? You should beware of any strangers today.” he warned her.

Mary's smile faded a bit for a second as she seemed to consider his words. Then she chuckled.

“Mr. Miller, you really had me going for a second. I believe you, of course, but I also believe we will be okay. Now, what can I get for you today, your usual?” she asked him, quickly changing the subject.

Joe nodded his head, saying nothing more. He had delivered the message, nothing else mattered.

Mary scratched out a few words on her pad and made her way behind the counter. Placing the ticket on the order wheel, she paused. Looking back into the kitchen, she saw Fred in there alone.

“Uncle Fred, where's John?” she asked, referencing the dishwasher and other cook.

“He's out back, Mary. You stay in here.” he said in his best authoritative tone. Having no children of his own, he felt a shared responsibility with his brother for Mary's well being.

“No, Uncle Fred, it's not about that.” she said, blushing at just thinking that maybe John actually liked her. She walked back into the kitchen as Fred filled the order in front of him, and placed the spatula down to listen.

“Joe Miller just gave me chill bumps.” she confessed.

“Aw now, Mary, you know how Mr. Miller is, you have to take his words with a grain of salt, dear.” he said, as his mind played back one strange tale after another from Joe.

“No, I think he's right this time. I can just feel it.” she said, as her right arm rubbed across a fresh crop of goosebumps on her left arm.

“Listen...” Fred began, in an attempt to comfort his niece.

Suddenly both of them felt a sharp chill in the air, like an arctic blast. Now, both of them would be covered in goosebumps.

Looking through the opening to the counter, Fred and Mary saw a stranger sitting at the counter. Joe had begun watching him since he walked past him. He felt something very familiar about this stranger.

Fred walked out of the kitchen, and over to the stranger, introducing himself.

“Hey there mister, I'm Fred, the owner.” he said, extending his hand. The stranger, wearing a shrouded cloak barely looked up as he spoke.

“I am Theo.” he answered in a very deep voice, his gaze remaining lowered.

“Well Theo, I gotta tell you, that's an interesting get up you're wearing. Is it religious, I wonder? Yeah, my brother is a pastor here.” he said, then motioned for Mary to stay in the kitchen.

Continuing to feel uneasy, Fred remembered the butcher's knife that lay at the ready under the counter. Though with Bill's help, Fred had learned to leave the war oversees, if he needed to be a soldier, he would be ready.

Fred maintained a constant estimate of how far his hand would be from that knife. He would not even touch it, unless necessary. The classes at the church had helped him to be slow to act on fear or paranoia.

Joe Miller continued to sit in his booth, staring at the stranger. He couldn't shake the feeling that he knew this young man.

Sitting at her table, Dorothy sensed that something is most definitely going on with this mysterious stranger.

Theo finally looked up making eye contact with his host. His eyes were a deep blue, cold as steel in the dead of winter. His hair dark, and his overall features rugged, he appeared to be in his late 30's. He also seemed to be just over six feet tall.

The eyes though, they definitely stood out to Fred, who felt more power behind those eyes than anything he had ever encountered during the war.

Theo's eyes softened as he looked over at Joe. Joe nervously averted his glance then, feeling a distant memory trying to connect with the here and now.

Theo spoke once more.

“Fred, I am here to deliver a report to your brother Bill – and only him.” he said resolutely.

Fred felt frozen in place. He had never given his brother's name. Something just didn't add up. He inexplicably felt very nervous. Enemy soldiers or the prospect of meeting “Old Blood and Guts” General Patton himself didn't make him as nervous as he felt in that moment.

Theo studied Fred, who stood motionless, just staring at him. He then waved his hand in front of Fred's face.

“Perhaps you can call your brother on the telephone. He is in his office at the moment, but you will miss him momentarily.” Theo shared.

Fred winced, then looked around. He felt a bit like he had been caught in a daze that he couldn't shake. Call Bill he thought, right, yeah, I need to call Bill.

Grabbing the table top phone on the counter, Fred called Bill, using enough urgency in his voice to let his brother know how important it would be for him to get to the diner quickly.

Arriving at their usual time for breakfast, Police Officers Rondon and Taylor made their way toward their usual booth. As they sat down, Dorothy rose and went over to apprise them of the stranger situation.

Nodding, they stood and approached Theo, with Officer Rondon taking point.

“Good afternoon sir, I do hope you won't mind me asking you a few questions. Our mayor has expressed some concern about your presence. Is there anything we can do to make both of you comfortable in this situation?” he calmly asked the stranger. He could feel Dorothy now standing behind him.

“Officer, my name is Theo. Please know that I mean no one any harm, and have no weapons.” he said, as he stood up.

Fred's nervousness now added confusion as Theo stood. This guy now seemed even taller. He had grown to over six and a half feet tall.

Lifting his arms, Theo motioned for Officer Taylor to search him, as he made eye contact. Something in this tall man's eyes told the officer that he could be trusted. The officer waved Theo off, as if the very suggestion of him being dangerous seemed ridiculous. Theo sat down again.

Spotting the notebook on the counter, Fred asked Theo if it contained the report for Bill.

The officers and Fred looked at the handwritten title on the cover: The Xenia Project.

Theo allowed them to look at it for a moment, saying nothing.

Approaching Theo, Dorothy had decided to get to the bottom of things in a hurry.

“Okay buster, spill it. What's your story?” she demanded, though sounding decidedly less threatening than she intended.

Fred froze, just waiting to see what happened next.

Theo smiled and stood once more to address Dorothy, even bowing slightly toward her. Fred eyed Theo suspiciously, convinced he is getting even taller.

“Dorothy, I am very happy to make your acquaintance. You are highly favored, and have the respect of many. I have enjoyed my time in your town.” Theo said as he stood erect once more, still smiling.

Fred's eyes bulged as he stared upward. Theo had to be at least seven feet tall!

Dorothy could actually feel herself swoon a little as this giant man smiled at her. Behind her, Joe Miller began his approach toward the small crowd at the counter.

Just then, Bill walked in, seeing the very tall man at the counter, he thought to himself, talk about the elephant in the room.

Reaching his hand out, and up to Theo, he shook hands with him. Theo's smile continued as he addressed Bill.

“Sir, I have been asked to give you this report. I have been in your fair town now for the last ten days, quietly observing many things. I have written a very detailed report of how I have been treated in a number of situations. Today's test completed my assignment, serving as the “final exam” for you. Your brother Fred would actually be the final test. He did not give in to fear when he could easily have justified it. Your training with him has payed off in ways you will soon understand.” Theo said, as he handed the notebook to Bill.

Confused, Bill simply smiled in appreciation and took the notebook from Theo and shook his hand once more.

Joe Miller had almost shuffled to where they all stood, when Theo walked past the others and extended his hand to Joe. As their hands clasped in a handshake, that memory connected.

“You! It's really you!” Joe said, as excited as one finding a long lost relative.

“It is so good to see you, Joseph. I like that name, it truly suits you.” Theo said, smiling himself.

“I like it. Better than the one I had when we first met.” Joe said, remembering the name those drovers had given him, and how they had tortured him.

“Indeed. Walk with me Joe.” Theo said. Slowly walking out to the parking lot, they caught up on old times. Joe spoke of his children and grandchildren moving away. Theo assured him that they would be moving back soon enough. His family had the potential to keep Paradise Red a haven.

Joe really wanted to ask Theo why he had not aged, but dared not. Theo, sensing this, offered the explanation.

“Joe, Theo is just another way of saying The Traveler. That is both my name and job. You might say I am not from around here, and I have been doing what I do for a very long time. Just know that the powers that be really want folks to be more hospitable toward one another. Like the way things are done in Paradise Red. You make sure to tell your grandson, when he becomes mayor, why that is so important.” Theo warned. Though deadly serious, Theo smiled at Joe as he shook his hand once more.

Walking away, Theo had now become a man of average height and description. Getting in a 1951 Pegaso Z-102, he drove away.

As he does, Theo hopes they can pass the tests in coming again in 2021.

June 03, 2021 00:34

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