At the end of his story, Cal and I were still sitting outside of the empty house, but by now the sun had started to set behind the hills. I had forgotten that the old abandoned house was standing twenty feet away, its open windows staring down at us like a pair of dark eyes. Cal's story had been frightening enough, but once I returned to reality, I looked over at the house and remembered where I was.
"That house" I said, "is still staring at us."
"You know that it isn't, right? I mean, we've both seen things much more frightening than this, this is nothing. We both know that a refugee from Tanelorn up in Vancouver is what should be scaring us, not an old house."
"You don't want to be here, either, do you?"
"Not at all. Can you give me a ride back into town? Or the nearest place where I can get somewhere?"
Now I had to chide Cal about that, bumming a ride from me when he made a big to-do about how he walked the silver paths in-between and often forgot what direction time was running, etcetera. But apparently he couldn't just step between right now, for reasons that he wouldn't tell me but which he assured me were too complicated to get into. So we got in my van and headed down the black road, watching the sun's last light light up the scrub-covered basalt bluffs to a dull orange. And Cal was more than a little surprised when I dropped him off at a bus stop. Or rather, he was surprised there was a bus stop here, where one black road met a duller road on a featureless plateau. There was a bus shelter, shining chrome and most enclosed to cut off the wind, and inside there was a schedule saying when the next bus would be. There was also a LED Display showing where the bus was now, as well as the weather, and a little scrolling ticker of news and events.
"Is this magic?" Cal asked.
"No, this is just government spending. They had a lot of money to invest in rural transportation a few years ago, and this is what came of it. You should see the transit center where you are going, it is inside an opera house and you can get coffee and tea at 4 AM and then take another bus even deeper into the desert."
I wasn't sure Cal knew what year it was, he had been gone for a while. I could ask him, but that might be rude.
But I had to tell him that sometimes the buses were magic, and how I had first discovered that, a few years past 20, living in a 100 square foot basement room and waking up every morning, wondering what had gone wrong. It was worst when I woke up, it went away in the day when I was busy doing things, and then at night it came back, me staring at my dark ceiling and wondering why he had done that. This was before I knew any magic, and even worse, before we really had an internet. But I had my research skills, which were better than both. I had gotten in the habit of taking rides that summer, on all the little intercounty buses that traveled between intersection towns. I had all of the schedules, and saw how they connected to each other in distant towns. Only one day, looking at the schedules, I saw an irregularity. You could take a bus that stopped almost at the top of the mountain and turn around, and 10 minutes later, a van would come and take you to a coastal town, down a winding, screeching-brake road in the coastal range. Only, apparently, the van reached that town sometime before the bus met it. I thought this was a misprint. But then, looking at the web of schedules, I realized that at a certain point, things failed to commute. Lost in the bold for AM and italic for PM time schedules, these buses seemed to wind into some sort of sideways time.
And with what was on my mind, I decided to test it. I guess the spark was in me already, that I took it as a possibility that bus schedules weren't misprints, but rather a real blueprint to a different type of time. And I wanted it to be true, I had someone I needed to talk to. And so I set out, one day, waiting in gas station parking lots and community halls, living off of candy bars and string cheese and watching miles of green rush past, shrouded in a damp fog, until I finally got to my destination.
It was a shopping mall with three churches and two day care centers, a consignment shop, and someone's driftwood art shop, and not much else. And there, in the middle, sitting on the benches, the ones intended for bored husbands to sit on while there wives were shopping, was who I had come to look for. I can't say much about our conversation now, because I don't forget, the dull fog of time and timelessness had slowly eaten away at my memories of that---afternoon? Morning? Night? He knew what he had done, knew why he was waiting there, and would be waiting there for a long time. I offered to get him a pretzel before remembering that he couldn't eat and that I had always hated pretzels. It was hard to believe that this was happening, and then I remembered that beyond the normal surreal early morning feeling that this also really wasn't happening, at least not in common time. That was a turning point for me, and I briefly had a swelling feeling of ecstasy and mastery as I realized what I had done. But he told me that even though I had learned to move sideways through time, I didn't own or control time any more than someone could own or control their own life. And so I felt the victory of entering a mystery and the defeat of realizing I could never understand it at the same time, a good lesson for any magician. And he started to fade away from me, or rather I faded for him.
I told this story to Cal over some time, in a slightly different form, as we watched the little dot representing his bus wend closer to us on the LED display. At times I forgot that I was even talking to Cal, he has that effect on people. He blended into the bench he was sitting on as I told my story, and I am sure most of this time stuff was overly-familiar to him, although perhaps not so much our human ways of looking at it. And then his bus came, the only other passenger a woman bound for the opera house, and I got back into my van and thought of the warp of time in that mall, and of these new rumors of the fall of Tanelorn.