The Greatest Danger
by Fran Tabor
The front doorbell’s five-alarm-fire ring killed Sue-Ellen’s dream. She glanced at her alarm clock. “Two freaking A. M.”
Our neighbor’s bratty kids promised no more doorbell games, “Ever.”
Sue-Ellen slapped the empty mattress beside her, demanded her husband do something… She sat up, fully alert. Her husband Todd and teenage son Evan were on a school sponsored camping trip. If something bad happened, there would be no phone calls; it would be an in person visit, no matter the time.
Pajama clad, not bothering to grab her robe, she ran downstairs; twisted the bolt lock open, flung the door wide.
Mrs. Elizabeth “Betsy” Smith stood alone. Betsy wore the frumpy skirt and big-pocketed Cardigan as she had the previous day when Sue-Ellen had announced, “Congratulations, you are the new kindergarten teacher.”
Only a week before their old kindergarten teacher gave notice she was moving to Istanbul. Sue-Ellen’s emergency search for a replacement teacher seemed doomed to failure until Betsy, a semi-retired teacher in her fifties, moved to town.
Betsy’s voice made you feel hugged. Her credentials were impeccable. Each of Betsy’s references confirmed Sue-Ellen’s impression. Betsy might be eccentric, but children lucky enough to have her as a teacher will love learning the rest of their lives.
Normally, Sue-Ellen would never hire anyone until first researching not just the applicant but each of the applicant’s references. Betsy seemed so sweet; Sue-Ellen made an exception and accepted each reference at face value.
Two A. M. Betsy scowled. She shifted her weight from one foot to the other, like a boxer warming up. She demanded, “I must come in. Immediately.”
Sue-Ellen glanced over Betsy’s shoulder. Every home, all lights off. Moonlight illuminated manicured lawns, leafy bushes, cars in driveways. No cars parked on the street or in her driveway. Betsy walked here? Alone? At night?
Betsy’s demeanor switched to pleading. “Please, we could have tea. Two is a reasonable time for tea.”
Sue-Ellen sighed. Betsy’s gone from eccentric to senile. Too bad for both of us. I hate teacher hunting. She gently explained, “Two P.M.; not A.M.”
Betsy blinked. She looked up, as if seeing the sky for the first time. “Not again.” She pushed past Sue-Ellen, closed and bolt-locked the door. “So many mistakes.”
The door locked, Betsy took a deep breath, smiled and assumed the sweet persona that had so delighted Sue-Ellen.
Safest to just play along until I can sneak a call to 9-1-1. She patted her pajama pocket. Empty. Left my cell upstairs!
Betsy, who had never before visited Sue-Ellen, headed for the kitchen, stood tiptoe to reach Sue-Ellen’s antique tea kettle, filled it full of water, sat it on the stove. She turned the burner on high, went to the small pantry, pulled out four chamomile tea bags, went to another cupboard, selected two cups, looked thoughtful, put them back and selected two from the cupboard’s far back. Betsy puffed into one; dust rose.
Embarrassment overwhelmed Sue-Ellen’s concern for Betsy’s sanity.
Betsy chuckled as she rinsed the cups. “Precious things too seldom used, do get dusty.”
The tea kettle whistled. Placing two tea bags into each cup, Betsy poured the steaming water. Betsy carried the cups to Sue-Ellen’s breakfast nook. “Come dear, enjoy some tea.”
A cup of spoons and a big jar of honey sat on the table.
Betsy smiled at Sue-Ellen. “Sit, dear.” Not waiting for Sue-Ellen to obey, Betsy sat, selected a spoon, scooped up a mound of honey and stirred it into her tea.
Sue-Ellen remained standing.
Betsy’s face hardened. “We have precious little time. Sit.”
Sue-Ellen sat; mechanically spooned a touch of honey into her tea water. If honey didn’t exist, and I postulated insect regurgitations as food, people would laugh. Honey is real. What else is real? “What are you?’
“‘Who’, dear. Not ‘what’.”
Sue-Ellen held her cup tight. “What are you?”
Betsy leaned forward, whispered, “Your protector.”
“I should be your son’s protector, but that’s too obvious, so I’m protecting you.”
Sue-Ellen’s abdominal muscles tightened. “From what?”
“Time Nudgers.” Betsy held her cup up to her nose, sniffed deeply. “Your timeline has the best chamomile.”
Sue-Ellen laughed. Betsy’s not crazy — I’m vivid dreaming. “I just bought copies of A Wrinkle in Time for the sixth graders, naturally I’m dreaming about time nudgers.”
Betsy winked. “You know you are awake.” She paused, looked to either side, again leaned forward. She whispered, “Normally you would not be told; my being here is risky enough without letting you in on it, but I made a mistake.”
Betsy held up her cup. “Like your mistake not using your best cups. Things, like people, have their greatest value when fulfilling their destiny.”
Sue-Ellen, her drink still untouched, countered, “If you fear ‘time nudgers’, you must be a time traveler. Any mistake you make could be undone by traveling a little further –”
Betsy interrupted, “But undoing one mistake, creates new time branches, mucking up the future into fuzzy time-brambles of endlessly correcting corrections of corrections.”
As if confessing to taking the last cookie, Betsy added, “I forgot, this timeline, my best reference is dead.”
“I’ve exchanged emails with each –”
“Look up Bob Fredrick’s webpage. You’ll learn he died last year.”
Sue-Ellen started to rise from her chair, sat back down. “This is a dream –”
Betsy, calm, “I am a time traveler.”
Sue-Ellen frowned. “After my sixth graders read time travel stories, I’ve a physicist visit. He explains time travel’s impossible energy requirements –”
Betsy explained. “In this universe. Spaceships warping between stars open cracks between universes. If one of those cracks pierces a warp bubble, fundamental laws from one universe leak into another. That’s why Bubble Integrity Specialists control all FTL flights.”
“Then bubble specialists can stop evil time-nudgers before —”
Betsy interrupted. “People are people no matter the era. We who fight evil will never be out of work.”
Sue-Ellen persisted, “If you time travel, you are advanced enough to hack the ‘net.”
Betsy sipped her tea. “Then I would need to do something about every single person who read the hack. Much easier, safer, to reason with only you.” She grinned. “True?”
Sue-Ellen took a deep breath. “True.” Pause. “Why not hack only my computer?”
Betsy’s mouth made a perfect ‘O’. “You’re right.” Deep sigh. “No wonder I’m still a Trainee Time Keeper, and you are —” Betsy’s lips clamped tight.
Sue-Ellen leaned forward, “I’m what?”
Betsy shook her head. “It’s important you be you, so your son can be him so the convolutions of possibilities swirl in the right direction. You understand?”
Sue-Ellen stared into her hot cup of tea. Time travel or dream? Dream. In a dream, anything goes. “Trainee? If I’m so important, shouldn’t a Master Time Traveler been sent?”
“Oh, my, yes. If only a master… but masters are well known. I’ve been a trainee so long, it seems no one, not even Destroyers, pay me any mind.”
Sue-Ellen gulped her tea; felt the hot liquid scorch her throat; felt her body protest so much hot liquid all at once. Too real. Not a dream? Back to Crazy Betsy? “How long have you been a trainee?”
Sue-Ellen, experienced educator, processed what Betsy said. “You claim my son needs protection, and you, so incompetent what others learn in one day, takes you 365 days –” Every muscle tightened. “How dare they send their worst to protect my son!”
Betsy grinned broadly. “You believe me.”
Betsy’s shoulders did a happy wiggle. “I’ll help you pack.”
“You have a rare three days, no school duties; you planned to do something called ‘cleaning.’ Instead we will thwart the nudgers, re-elevate this time stream, unite the convolutions of possibilities and save your world.”
Betsy bounced up, skipped her way to and up the stairs. Sue-Ellen followed, but did not skip.
Betsy skipped into Sue-Ellen’s room, pulled out a small pull-along suitcase from under Sue-Ellen’s bed, laid it open on the bed. “Dear me, what were you positively not to take? Let’s get started and hope we forget the right thing.”
Betsy ran from closet to suitcase to drawers and back to case, adding one item each dash. She stopped. “Sue, dear, get dressed. It wouldn’t do to drive in your jammies.”
Sue-Ellen snatched up the old jeans and sweatshirt she had tossed on the floor earlier. “What danger threatens my son?” She dressed.
“Isn’t it obvious? The greatest danger.” Betsy picked up Evan’s picture on the dresser, studied it. “Ten years from now, your son Evan will be the most important person in the world, or totally unimportant. Tonight decides his fate.”
Sue-Ellen had always known a special inner spirit filled her son, but as an educator she also knew most mothers believed their own children better than average.
Especially mothers who wanted large families, but were told to have even one child would take a miracle. Evan was her never-to-be-repeated miracle child.
Forces beyond space and time threatened her miracle-baby son.
Sue-Ellen’s inner tigress roared. She slapped the suitcase lid shut, zipped it closed, grabbed the handle and yanked it off the bed. It THUMPED onto the floor. “Let’s go!” She ran down the stairs; the little suitcase bumping wildly behind her.
She gripped her front door knob. Betsy’s soft hand covered Sue-Ellen’s. “Use the back door.” Sue-Ellen turned, saw Betsy fade away.
Sue-Ellen rushed out her back door. To avoid the well lit path, she dashed behind bushes. She entered the garage. She started to get into her black Nissan sedan; stopped.
Sue-Ellen looked up at her garage door opener; stared at its light shield. She pushed herself onto her car’s hood, climbed onto its roof, pried off the plastic cover and flung it into a corner. She unscrewed the light bulb, threw it after the cover. The bulb hit the far wall. Tinkling glass broke the night silence.
Sue-Ellen held her breath, looked around, fearful. Nothing happened.
She slid from the car roof to the garage floor, opened the driver’s door. She picked up her suitcase, tossed it across the seat to the passenger side, slid herself in; pushed the button to open the garage.
In darkness her car crept into the street. The garage door closed.
Car lights off, she drove down her residential street, headed for the intersection that led to the highway. The streets remained two A.M. empty; as did the highway on ramp. Only after she was on the highway, did Sue-Ellen turn on her lights. An hour later she took an off ramp.
At the foot of the off ramp, lights lit up Billy’s Store, the all-night gas station-convenience store that served the needs of forgetful campers and the few nearby rural residents.
Minutes later, she drove pass a state park entrance. Next intersection she turned onto a dirt road that led to her school’s private campground. The former home of a long-dead alumni, it had been donated to the school years ago. Acres of forest perfect for ‘roughing it’ surrounded its modern cabin.
She rounded a corner, saw a dozen parked cars. Sue-Ellen parked next to Todd’s car.
Fifty yards away, a bonfire blazed, circled by fathers and sons, all wearing school t-shirts. Between the bonfire and the cabin, handmade lean-tos filled the lawn.
As one, the men and boys circling the bonfire turned their faces towards her.
One of the men – Todd – stood. He strode towards her.
Sue-Ellen got out, jerked her suitcase to the ground; quietly closed the door. She waited.
Todd arrived. Disappointment filled Todd’s eyes. “Not even one weekend?”
Sue-Ellen started to tell Todd about Betsy, stopped. “I’ll stay in the cabin. You won’t even know I’m here.”
Todd sighed. “Why?”
“I had a feeling, a dream.”
Todd lifted the suitcase. “Too late to send you home. I’ll walk you to the cabin, make sure everything’s shipshape.”
As they walked, Sue-Ellen admired the lean-tos the men and boys had made that day.
Todd noticed. “Evan was so excited you finally let him join his peers for the all-male wilderness survival weekend. He’s seventeen, the cusp of manhood. I’ll explain you had a nightmare, and you will be leaving tomorrow morning. Agreed?”
Sue-Ellen frowned. Maybe the great danger happens tonight. Betsy wouldn’t send me if I couldn’t stay long enough to succeed. “Agreed.”
Once in the cabin, Todd double checked all the rooms. Sue-Ellen dumped her suitcase onto a bed.
The contents mystified Todd.
Sue-Ellen attempted an excuse. “My nightmare got me so rattled, I couldn’t think.” She surveyed the hodgepodge Betsy had rammed into the suitcase. She attempted a placating smile. “I don’t have toothpaste or a toothbrush.”
“This is a roughing-it weekend, no modern conveniences, including toothbrushes.”
Sue-Ellen’s eyes widened. “Evan must brush his teeth—“
Todd laughed. “Don’t worry; we drew the wilderness line at oral hygiene.” His laugh stopped. “We’re practicing a native American rite of passage ceremony. There will be speeches and drumming until sunrise. Please, stay up here.”
Todd left. In minutes she heard the drums. She ignored the bed. A large leather chair faced a window that looked over the bonfire. Lights off, she sat, watched, listened.
Dum, dum, dum… A dozen hands pounded a sixty beats to the minute drum beat.
The heart beat rhythm lulled her into slumber.
Blue lights flashing.
Bright yard lights outshone the bonfire.
Boys and men running.
Her husband, running to the cabin, running faster than he had when a teenage track star.
Sue-Ellen ran to him, ready to defend.
Todd grasped her in a tight embrace, tears filled his face, choked his voice, “Evan—”
Sue-Ellen felt pain stab her gut. “What?”
“He’s shot. They’re rushing him now. Highway patrol —”
Todd pointed to a patrol car. The patrolman stood by his car, motor running; back door open. Sue-Ellen ran as fast as her husband.
Sue-Ellen and Todd dove into the back seat; the patrolman slammed the door shut, jumped behind the wheel. He slammed his foot on the gas pedal and activated lights and siren. Gravel spat out from the wheels.
Sue-Ellen clung to her husband. “What happened?”
The patrolman shouted, “Not having two fatalities one night. Seat belts.”
The parents complied. Strapped in, they held hands.
The patrolman continued, “We knew the kid came from here ‘cause of his T-shirt. Gotta be honest, he’s lost a lot of blood, but the hospital’s good. They’re sending the Alert Helicopter to meet the patrol car. He’ll be getting top care before we are half way there.”
Todd interrupted. “It’s my fault. He shouldn’t have been there. It should have been me.”
The patrolman said, “It’s not your —“
Sue-Ellen sobbed, “It’s mine, my fault. I knew something bad… I knew. If only—”
The patrol asked, “Why was he at Billy’s Store?
Todd answered. “To buy his Mom a toothbrush.”
The sick feeling in the pit of Sue-Ellen’s stomach overwhelmed her. She hadn’t saved her son. Because of her, because she forgot her toothbrush, her son…
Todd continued. “It was my turn to speak, but my wife needed a toothbrush. Evan said, ‘Dad, I’ve heard you practice your chant so many times I will remember it to my grave. I’ll run to Billy’s, get Mom a toothbrush, and be back at circle before you finish talking.’ I agreed.” He squeezed his wife’s hand. He sobbed. “I agreed… Alone, late a night, how could I have agreed?”
The two held hands all the way into the city, each laden with grief-filled guilt.
The two staggered into the hospital emergency room. Someone escorted them to the waiting area. Most of the chairs were empty.
Sue-Ellen noticed a little girl, about six, sitting on a policewoman’s lap. The policewoman looked up. “Are you Evan’s parents?” They nodded yes.
She whispered in the little girl’s ear. The girl’s eyes widened with awe.
The police woman continued, “Her father’s in intensive care, but it looks like he’s going to make it. If Evan hadn’t shown up when he did, both her Dad and this little girl…” She choked. “Your son is a hero.”
Just then, a man came out of an exam room; his head bandaged, medicine on his bruised face. A policeman with a clipboard followed him out.
The policewoman nodded towards the man. “Another hero, between him and your son—”
The man cut her off. He addressed Todd, “You look so much like him. Evan your son?”
Todd nodded yes.
“I’m no hero, but your son, he brought out something in me, something I didn’t know I had.” He knelt next to the little girl. “Your daddy will be here before the sun rises, ready to hug you.”
The man stood. To the policeman, “Need anything else from me?”
“No, I’ve your sworn statement. It matches the video account. Go home. And quit smoking.”
The man explained to Todd and Sue-Ellen, “I was at Billy’s, three in the morning, for emergency cigarettes. Sit down; this officer can tell you what happened.”
The policeman said, “You tell them. I’ve got to get this report turned in, but there’s video footage from the store they can see later.”
Sue-Ellen and Todd sat. The man grabbed a nearby chair and sat across from them.
Sue-Ellen never remembered the man’s words; she remembered a surrealistic silent movie — the black and white store footage she later watched — that merged with the vision created by the stranger’s accurate telling.
Evan walks into the convenience store, goes to a side wall holding toiletries.
Another man stands at the counter, buying cigarettes.
Two lanky, unkempt men, mid twenties, walk in. One has a revolver tucked into his back waistband. The other carries a cloth bag. Neither notices Evan.
The pair approach the cash register. Armed man pulls out the revolver, shoves it into Cashier’s face. Bagman elbows Cigarette buyer aside. Cigarette buyer cowers.
Bagman’s mouth opens wide; he thrusts the bag against the cash register. Cashier cooperates, stuffs cash into the bag.
An open doorway to a back room. A girl, eyes impossibly wide, appears.
Bagman vaults over the counter, looks back at Gunman, nods; steps towards the girl.
Cashier leaps towards Bagman, is shot.
Cashier attacks Bagman, oblivious to his wound. Cigarette buyer whimpers.
A can smacks Gunman’s head. The can falls, rolls across the floor to Cigarette buyer.
Evan charges towards Gunman, mouths something to Cigarette buyer.
Gunman turns, sees Evan, head down, charging toward him. Gunman shoots Evan.
Cigarette buyer picks up the can, climbs on top the counter, lunges at Bagman.
Cashier, bloodied, sinks to the floor. Cigarette buyer slugs Bagman with the can. Bagman squeezes Cigarette man’s wrist; the can is dropped. They grapple. Bagman attempts to thumb Cigarette man’s eyes, almost strangles him. Cigarette man feels for the can on the floor, whacks Bagman’s temple..
Before Gunman can shoot again, Evan rams gunman.
Gunman drops the gun. Evan retrieves it, shoots Gunman.
Cigarette man knees bagman’s back; twists Bagman’s arm.
The girl stares at her injured father; her mouth opens in a silent scream.
Police enter. Evan collapses. Police radio call for help. Officers carry Evan and cashier out.
Cigarette man concludes, “The little girl’s father spotted them for what they were the moment they walked through the door, sent the alarm immediately. At least four cruisers showed up. ”
The highway patrolman who drove Sue-Ellen and Todd to the hospital entered. “We did an ID on the two. They’ve left a trail of –” He started to say more, but noticed the girl. “Just know, if your son hadn’t been there, that girl…” He nodded towards the child, his face hardened. His eyes teared.
Sue-Ellen saw Betsy standing in the shadows near an alcove labeled ‘Restrooms.’
Sue-Ellen excused herself, headed towards the alcove. No one noticed her pass the restrooms, walk down an unlit hallway or follow Betsy into a dark room.
Betsy closed the door and turned on the lights.
Sue-Ellen yelled, “My son is dying. You’re the most—”
Betsy spoke calmly. “Evan will live to a very old age. When he dies, he will be surrounded by children, grandchildren, great grandchildren and even a great-great grandchild. They will be singing to him. The last sounds he will hear will be their voices, singing love.”
Not mollified, Sue-Ellen glared. “If I hadn’t come tonight, my son would not have been shot. He would be safe, at camp –”
“Your son’s greatest danger was to live a safe, dull life; never take a risk, never realize his hero potential. Your world would have sunk into an abyss of human horror; all the time lines, diminished. ”
“A safe life is a better life.”
Betsy nodded. “For most people, most times, yes. Safe times don’t need heroes. It’s not enough for one man to be a hero for one moment. The greatest heroes inspire greatness in others – like Evan did tonight.”
Betsy held Sue-Ellen’s hand, looked her directly in the eye. “If Evan hadn’t been there, a man, his six year old daughter and the other customer would all have been murdered. Both the cigarette buyer and the cashier will live. The cashier’s daughter will know beyond a shadow of doubt her father loves her, would gladly give his life for her. The other man discovered a manhood he thought he didn’t have.
“Evan learned evil is real, can be fought. He knows he can arouse others to courage.”
Betsy stood proud. “Easy times don’t need men like the man your son is becoming. Because of tonight, Evan will be the inspiring hero your world needs.”
She stepped back. “Check your phone messages.”
Sue-Ellen pulled her phone out of her pocket; glanced up. No Betsy.
Text message: ‘Istanbul fell through. May I PLEASE have my old job back?’
Sue-Ellen typed YES.