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User:Erastus/Just the Right Shoes for This Life

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This is set in Posti's Walk-A-Mile Universe, with his blessings.

His original story is here.



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Walk-A-Mile story universe

Just the Right Shoes for This Life

by Erastus Centaur

Chapter 1

Great! Just Great!

The boss was droning on, but Rusty hardly heard him. Rusty was too preoccupied with endlessly repeating in his head the last thing he did hear the boss say.

"Sorry, Rusty, we have to let you go."

How could they? It was the ideal job for me, Rusty thought. I liked the work. It paid the bills. What's more, it paid the alimony. He just couldn't be out on the street now!

"... let you go ... let you go ..."

How was he going to pay alimony now? He and Cheryl and come to an amicable understanding that the marriage was not working. He had thought that meant they could have an amicable divorce. It had caught him completely by surprise that Cheryl had turned the divorce proceedings into an opportunity to fleece him. Her lawyer had even managed to include the clause that he still had to pay alimony even if Rusty lost a job, the rotten guy.

"... let you go ... let you go ..."

Cheryl kept the house. Rusty made do with a small apartment. Small was good. He didn't have much to put in it. Cheryl had kept the furniture too.

Without a job, how was he going to keep even this little bit of shelter? One missed rent payment and he would be out on the street. For that matter, one missed alimony payment and he would likely be in jail, given Cheryl's current predatory practices. At least in jail he would have a roof over his head.

"... let you go ... let you go ..."

The company had already downsized so much due to the stock bust and ongoing recession. If they have to lay me off, Rusty thought, it can only mean one thing. The company is about to fold. Just great. As thanks for his loyalty, he loses his job after everyone else so he has to contend with hordes that are already unemployed and had first crack at the few jobs still available. Besides, all these newfangled startups consider anyone over the age of 33 to be old, a has-been, a fossil, washed up, an old dog that can't be taught new tricks. Might as well take a shovel and pile on six feet of dirt. And Rusty was 35.

Rusty realized his boss had stopped talking. He looked up. His boss had his hand out. As Rusty shook it, the big guy said, "I'm sorry it had to end this way. Take care of yourself."

Yeah, right. Take care of yourself, he says, thought Rusty. There aren't any jobs out there. My ex had drained my savings and made sure I won't ever get any savings. And I'm about to be tossed into the street for missing my rent, if not into jail for missing an alimony payment.

Rusty gathered up his few personal possessions and left. He drove to the apartment and parked the car. He didn't bother to take the stuff inside. He needed to walk. Just walk.

Rusty walked for hours. He didn't bother eating as his gut was too tangled in knots. He wandered, stopping to look at whatever penetrated his foggy brain, and very little did. Yeah, there were the ducks along the pond in the park and a gaudy display at the clothing store, but that was about it.

It was late afternoon when Rusty realized he had been sitting on a bench at a bus stop and another bus driver had pulled away after glaring at him through the open door. He didn't know how many other buses there had been before this one. He looked around and realized he didn't know where he was. Not that it mattered.

He got up from the bench and wandered away. Within a block he found something that caught his attention. Why did a shoe store include horseshoes in its display?

He looked over the display. It was vast! There didn't be any unifying theme to the shoes, other than they were all shoes. He had never seen so many shoes in one place, nor had he seen such a wide variety. And that was just what he could see through the window. He couldn't see to the back of the shop through the grime on the window.

Rusty had never thought of shoes much, but this place almost looked like a museum for shoes--except it was too disorganized. Rusty-- truly--had no place else to go. Why not spend a little time browsing?

On his way in the door, Rusty found the name of the place and had to laugh. "Walk a Mile," it said. What a cute takeoff on that old proverb!

"Hello dear," said a woman. She was busy at one of the piles of shoes, though her efforts didn't seem to have any effect on the chaos there. Amazingly, though the pile was jumbled, pairs managed to stay together. The woman wore what could have been described as a housedress, though it wasn't new. Her hair had a hint of gray in the brown and she looked to be... Well, Rusty realized that she had a face such that it wasn't possible to tell how old she was. "Feel free to browse," she said, waving an arm at him. "I'll be glad to help if you need anything. Go ahead and try on anything you like."

I'm not in the market for shoes, Rusty firmly told himself. I can't afford it. The phrase, "Let you go" echoed around his brain for a moment, until he firmly reminded himself, that's enough! It won't do to dwell on that anymore.

Now that he was in amongst them, Rusty could see the wide variety of shoes. There were workboots, dress shoes, sandals, track shoes, golf shoes, cowboy boots, penny loafers, children's sneakers, high tops, hiking boots, shoes with ties, shoes with buckles, slip-ons, Earth shoes, gardening clogs, dancing slippers, Dutch wooden shoes, tap shoes, moccasins, slippers that covered just the toes, slippers that looked like rabbit heads, ballet pointe shoes, knee high boots in a garish red leather, flip-flops, platform shoes, Japanese clogs, rhinestone studded shoes. He could identify shoes from many eras. Roman sandals that tied up the leg, shoes a German prince might wear, boots of a Nazi SS guard, those of a medieval serf, an American flapper, a Russian peasant, a Canadian Inuit. There were snow shoes, ice skates, ski boots from a variety of ages, baseball cleats, fisherman's hip waders. Shoes that were white, black, brown, red, blue, tan, green, pink, gold, leather, suede, velvet (velvet?), covered in fur, lined with fur, made of rubber, plastic, silk. There were tiny baby shoes all the way to a pair of army boots that declared their size to be 22E. There were...

By this time, Rusty's mouth hung open in astonishment. "Excuse me."

"Yes?" said the woman.

"Where... how did you get so many different kinds of shoes?"

"Some I buy from people that don't need them anymore. Some I take in trade. But most I collect them just because they strike my fancy."

"Does that explain the horseshoes?"

She had a slight twinkle in her eye. "Yeah. I love all kinds of shoes. It's too bad that the only animal that wears shoes is the horse."

Rusty began think this woman must be--just a little bit--strange.

His mind went through what she had said, "You take shoes in trade?"

"That's what I said."

"What are your terms?"

"You give me a pair of shoes. I give you a pair of shoes."

"What about the discrepancy in price? Some of these shoes have to be worth lots of money!"

"Doesn't matter."

Rusty looked at her a moment. She seemed absolutely sincere.

Rusty glanced at the shoes on his feet. They were nondescript shoes for wearing around an office. Rusty'd had them for years and they looked it. Maybe he was in the market for new shoes after all. If he could find a pair of shoes that were suitable for a job interview and not drain the bank account.

"Where I might find some office shoes in size seven-and-a-half, triple E?" Rusty hated having feet that small and wide. Most stores carried sized only down to 8D.

"I'm sorry, but you have to pick out the perfect shoes on your own. And don't worry about size. I'll have it fit you."

Rusty gazed across what seemed like acres of shoes in huge random piles. "How am I going to find office shoes in all that?" He waved an arm, taking it all in. "Don't you believe in customer assistance?"

She turned to face him with a hint of fire behind the eyes. Even so, when she spoke, it was with unfailing kindness and patience. "I'm sorry that I can't help you with your search. If I did so, I would have to charge you for my time. If you need customer assistance, I can recommend many fine shoe stores nearby."

Rusty realized he could run up quite a bill for even a small hourly rate. Money he didn't have. Time he had. Lots of it.

Rusty sighed. This could take a while.

He started down between the rows of tables and display racks, marveling that in the jumble each shoe was next to its mate.

Rusty's eye caught a classic wing-tip. He never considered the style much before, but maybe he should leave the menial work behind and go into management? This is the management shoe that was almost a cliche. He picked it up and looked it over. Rats. It was a 12D, much too large. He set it down.

"I said I can fit it."

"Huh?" He glanced at the woman. She had her back to him and hadn't appeared to interrupt whatever she was doing at the table.

"I said I can fit it." She turned around and faced him. "If it is a shoe you like, try it on. Don't worry about the fit."

"But it will be too big!"

"Some people never listen," she muttered, striding over to him. "Have a seat." She pointed to a nearby bench. "And take your shoes off."

Rusty sighed. He pulled his left shoe off. She gently, but firmly, slipped the wingtip over his foot. It was obvious she had done this many times before. A few quick flicks of her fingers and the bow was neatly tied.

"But it doesn't..." was out of his mouth before he considered what his foot is feeling. "But it does fit!" That's amazing! He looked at the two feet side by side, each in a different style of shoe. The left one looked noticeably larger than the right. Yet each foot felt it was in a shoe of the proper size. How did she do it?

"Let's try the mate, shall we?" Before Rusty had a chance to say anything, she slipped off his old right shoe and put the wingtip on his foot, tying the bow as deftly as she had before. "There. How does that feel?"

"Amazingly, it feels just fine." Rusty said. This was all a bit too much.

"Well, then, why don't you step outside and walk around a bit. I have only one rule. If you walk less than a mile by the time you take them off, you can have your old shoes back. If you walk more than a mile, they're yours and I keep your old ones in trade."

As he stepped through the door, Rusty felt his head spin for a moment. He closed his eyes.

As the spinning settled, Rusty heard an unfamiliar man's voice. "Well, well, well. David has decided to do his duty after all. You're just in time."

Rusty's eyes snapped open to see a youngish man dressed in a suit staring at him. Rusty looked around and found he was standing in an office, not at all like the urban street just outside the shoe store's door that he expected. How did he get here?

He realized he still had his hand behind his back holding the door handle. If he stepped through a door and ended up in an office instead of on the street, shouldn't he be able to step back through the door and be back in the shop?

He turned around to do just that. The door didn't say, "Walk a Mile." The letters spelled out, "Henderson and Wylie Financial Services" across the glass (though backward from his view). He opened the door and saw a small open area with elevator doors.

"Not so fast," said the voice in his ear as the door was pulled out of his grasp. "Now that you're here, we are going to go through with it."

"There must be some mistake. My name isn't David, its Rusty."

"Now don't try to play dumb now," said the stranger. Rusty could hear an undercurrent of menace in the man's voice. "If you had legally changed your name, you certainly wouldn't have come back here." The man pulled on Rusty's arm.

Rusty resisted. "I need to sit for a moment, get some water. I had a bit of dizziness when I came through the door. My head is still spinning a bit." While true, that last part was now more figurative than literal.

"Sure. We've got a bit of time yet." The man guided Rusty to what was probably the secretary's chair. "Sarah!"

A woman's head appeared from around the corner, "Yeah, Jack?"

"Could you get Dave a glass of water?"

"Sure thing." The head disappeared.

While they waited, Rusty looked around the office. Compared to the cubicle warren that he had been fired from that morning, this place looked like it was dripping in money. Instead of posters with inspirational sayings on them, this place had actual paintings on the walls. The desk he was sitting at looked to be real wood and mahogany at that, not the Formica covered surface he had known so long. Rusty reached his hand out to touch the wood.

It wasn't his hand.

The fingers were much longer. The hair on the back of the hand was thick and blond, not sparse and brown. The arm was encased in a navy suit, not in the expected office casual tan long sleeve tee.

Rusty felt a twist in his gut and the color drain from his face.

The secretary returned just then. She stopped short when she saw Rusty's face. "You don't look so good. You even look a bit green." She handed him the water. He drank eagerly.

Jack said, "Dave's just fine. Aren't you Dave." Rusty could hear the forcefulness in that voice. "He's just a little worried about his presentation to Henderson coming up in ten minutes."

The secretary didn't look convinced, but she disappeared behind the corner.

Rusty didn't care to get on the wrong side of determination behind that voice. The way those eyes glinted, Rusty could tell this was a dude one didn't want to tangle with. He had no idea what was going on, but it seemed safest to play along.

"Perhaps," said Rusty, "you should remind me what this meeting with Henderson is all about. Whatever made me dizzy seems to have blanked my mind."

"Selective memory, huh? Well, I'll be glad to refresh it for you." The eyes glinted again. "You are going to calmly ask Henderson for a half million dollars. When he asks why, you will threaten him with revealing what you know about the Romelly account. If you manage to get the money, you turn ninety percent over to me."

"And if I don't do all this?"

"I call the police and tell them about your embezzling activities. I think they would fascinated with the discrepancies I've found in over two dozen accounts."

Rusty took a stab at what was really going on, "I did not embezzle," he said with as much conviction as possible. "There is no such evidence in those accounts."

"There is now," said Jack with a grin worthy of a shark.

Rusty sat there for a moment.

"Come on," said Jack. "We had better get into the conference room. We'll wait for Henderson there."

As they walked, Rusty reviewed what appeared to be happening. It didn't make a lot of sense, so he tried to stick with the facts. One: He had been in a shoe store and had admired some wingtips. Two: Though the shoes were not his size, they fit perfectly once they were on his feet. Three: The owner had practically shoved him out the door with those shoes on and once through the door, he had seemed to jump into in someone else's body at the moment a crime was about to happen.

Whatever was going on. Rusty didn't like it.

They had taken their seats as Rusty reviewed what the woman had said once he got the shoes on. Something about walking a mile in the shoes. Ah yes, if he hadn't walked a mile, he could just take the shoes off. He certainly hadn't walked a mile in the office. It was worth a try.

The conference door opened. As Rusty's partner in crime turned to greet the new guy--must be Henderson himself--Rusty quickly pulled one foot up, untied the shoe and slipped it off.

Chapter 2

He was hit with a moment of dizziness, then found himself sitting in the shoe shop again. He glanced down to check that he was wearing his own clothes and that his hands looked like his own hands.

He turned to the shopkeeper. "What just happened?"

"Ah, you're back," she said. "Those shoes must not be for you."

"I step out your door and right into an embezzlement scheme. What is going on here?"

She looked directly into Rusty's eyes for a moment. "I think you figured it out."

"I see. How did you get those shoes."

"I imagine their owner stopped in to swap for a new pair. He got tired of his life and wanted a new start. If I remember right, he took a pair of moccasins and didn't come back."

"Can't we stop that embezzlement crime?"

"You could have, but you chose not to. Don't feel bad, the original owner didn't either."

"Then we'll have to destroy those shoes!"

"Sorry. No. They may be the perfect pair for someone who can stop the crime or who relishes the intrigue. You, on the other hand, are now free to select another pair or leave my little shop."

Rusty pondered that for a moment. What he had seen was bad, but his own life wasn't all that appealing either. He thought back to the office politics of his former job. While he didn't think the supervisors and managers engaged in embezzlement, office politics could get pretty rough. They had no qualms about stabbing each other in the back, trying to score points in some mysterious game with those higher up. Rusty was suddenly grateful he hadn't gotten into management and knew he would never want to wear wingtips again.

But here was a chance at a completely new life. What did he want to do with it? What did he want to be when he grew up?

He wandered around the displays, thinking about the lives the shoes represented. Snowshoes and ski boots were out. He didn't like cold weather, at least not enough to live in it. The Japanese clogs and the Ukrainian boots were out. The culture would be way too strange. Firemen boots--too dangerous. Rhinestone shoes--ugh!

His eyes fell on a pair of workboots. A job in construction? If management didn't suit him and working in an office warren was old hat, why not go in the other direction? Take a job outside, get some fresh air, use his body (and he might get a good one), be able to see what he had accomplished during the day.

He chose a large pair, hoping that implied a large body. His size was average now. Perhaps it was time to try what it was like being big and maybe even intimidating.

He slipped the large boots onto his feet and walked confidently through the door.

Rusty didn't feel dizzy this time. One moment he was striding forward. The next moment he was waking up from a face plant.

He groaned. He was feeling quite sore. He opened his eyes and lifted his head to see several pairs of workboots.

"Gus, are you there?" Rusty heard the voice coming from behind his head. Glancing to the side, he could see a pair of workboots of someone kneeling beside him.

He groaned again, then decided to roll over so that he could see the kneeling figure better.

"Oh good," said the figure. "You're still with us." How many fingers do you see?"

"Two," said Rusty. "What happened?"

"They never remember traumatic events." The figure sighed. "You fell off that beam." He pointed upward. Rusty rolled to a sitting position and looked up. The beam seemed to be a long way up. Rusty felt the color drain from his face again. "The fall could have killed you."

"All right you lazy bums. Get back to work!"

"Hold on a moment, Jack. Gus fell. He might be injured."

"Jack turned to Rusty. "Can you stand?"

"I think so."

"Then get back to work."

Jack straightened and addressed the whole group. "Did all of you fall? No? Get back to work."

The crowd dispersed. The guy that talked back to Jack offered Rusty a hand to help him up. "Are you really feeling OK?"

Rusty stretched as he stood. "I feel sore and have a headache, but otherwise I think I'm OK. Your name escapes me just now." He worked real hard to suppress a grin.

"Gus, this is Tony you're talking to. We've known each other for ten months now." Tony peered at Rusty. "You can be infuriating sometimes. I can't always tell when you are serious or teasing. Better be safe than sorry. You had better stay on the ground for a while, in spite of what Jack says. I'll run interference if there is a problem."

"Thanks," said Rusty.

If there were men working "upstairs", finding a place in the shade under the building wasn't a good idea. Rusty turned to the row of pickup trucks. And stared. Each one was a vintage truck from the 1930s and '40s. How was it that a bunch of construction workers each had a vintage truck? Then he noticed something else. These trucks weren't in the pristine condition of a vintage car buff. They were beat up and covered in dirt, about the way a construction worker's truck should look. Why buy a vintage truck and subject it to such abuse?

Rusty walked over to the line of trucks and gave them a good looking over. He saw the license plates that didn't look like the ones he knew for vintage plates, they looked like normal, every day plates-- except the date on them was 1947.

It wasn't until he passed a cab with a newspaper scattered across the bench seat that reality sunk in. The paper was dated July 29, 1947. Rusty had resumed Gus's life fifty-five years in the past.

Rust felt his knees gave way. He sagged against the truck, then slowly lowered himself to the ground. Well, Tony had said to take it easy.

It was interesting to watch the men climb along the girders. They looked like a well orchestrated team. Rusty noted how each man quickly reattached his tether as he moved along, doing it in smooth movements of long practice. Rusty was glad he wasn't up there. He didn't think he could get that tether attached right without a lot of practice.

While he sat there watching, Rusty thought over the situation. If the former occupant of this body had fallen, what had caused it? Had Gus really died? Did he--Rusty--get the shoes because someone had given the shoes to the shoe shop after Gus's death? That was a gruesome thought.

Rusty though that if he was in the body Gus had left behind, he had better become familiar with it. He found he was dressed in a t-shirt and jeans, which seemed to be the uniform of the construction crew. He had a hardhat on his head, but it didn't seem to be as sturdy as the ones he had seen from his own time.

His arms seemed to be long and muscular, the hands looked to be used to manual work. The skin was darker than before and a check under the sleeve confirmed not all of the darkness was due to the sun. There wasn't much hair on the arm, though what was there was black.

The jeans looked to be much slimmer and longer than before. Pulling up the cuff showed muscular legs and the same dark skin. Pulling out the tail of his shirt revealed a slim waist and decently muscled abs also covered with the same dark skin.

He tried to get a good look at himself in a reflection in the glass of one of the trucks, but the light was all wrong. He did see he had straight hair and that it was pulled into a ponytail. The ponytail reached to the middle of his back. He also noticed a red headband.

He looked around for a sideview mirror, but discovered such things weren't common in 1947. None of the trucks had one and he didn't want to climb in one to use the rearview mirror.

Well, if he couldn't get a good look at himself in the windows, maybe a driver's license would have a decent picture (though he doubted a license picture from 1947 would have a chance of being better than the poor photos used in 2002.

He found the wallet in the back left pocket, but there was no driver's license. Figures. In a city one could use public transportation. What he did find was a black and white photo. It showed two Native Americans. The man looked to be tall, slim with big shoulders, and a ponytail with a headband. He looked to be barely out of high school. The woman also looked young. She came up to the man's chin. Her hair was also long and dark. She was full figured, but also looked very young. He turned it over and read the inscription, "My dear Gus Nighthawk, Please return to me as soon as you can. Love always, Lily." The date was September 15, 1946.

So I ended up in the body of an American Indian, thought Rusty. That thought reminded him of reading about Mohawk Indians that were highly prized construction workers as they weren't afraid of heights.

Rusty studied the face of the man in the photo, presumably now his. It was a strong face and rather pleasant. This may not be so bad.

"I thought I said to get to work, not moon over your girlfriend!" Jack had a firm grip on Rusty's shoulder, pulling him up. "We have deadlines to meet. I can't afford to have you lounging around, even if you bumped your noggin'."

They were interrupted by a couple guys coming from the building. One of them held up a piece of rope that looked quite worn. They were shouting, "Hey Jack! Jack! Need a new tether. This one's about to break." When they were close enough they shoved the worn part in Jack's face.

"Come on, ya wimps. You should be able to do your job without that silly tether. You know I don't keep extras around. They're too much money."

They had attracted some attention and more of the men were walking across to Jack. Now that he was looking for it, he could see that two, maybe three, others were Mohawks.

"I'm not working without one," said the one holding the rope.

He and Jack glared at each other for a moment. The other man said, "I found this where Gus fell." He held up a piece of rope with a frayed end. "And I found this where Gus had been working." He held up another piece with a frayed end.

A couple things were suddenly very clear to Rusty.

Gus had died from that fall.

Rusty had been put into his reanimated body.

Jack didn't care about safety.

"I quit," said Rusty.

"If you do, you won't work in this town again. You can be sure I can make that happen." Rusty had no doubt Jack could. "You'll never earn enough money to see your squaw again. No, you can't quit." Jack turned to the assembled crowd. "Now get back to work! All of you!"

A couple more things became clear in Rusty's mind.

As fine as this new body was and though it would be fun to play at being an Indian, this wasn't going to work.

His knowledge of 21st century America wasn't going to get him a job in mid-century society. There were computers around--a small number of primitive machines--but no one was going to allow him near one. The wonders he knew about wouldn't be accepted coming from an Indian.

He couldn't get the money for training in any current profession. He would be stuck in low paying jobs. An alternative would be to go to an Indian reservation, which in mid-century was not a pleasant place to be.

His options were to work for a guy who didn't care whether he lived or join the ranks of the poor.

Rusty lowered himself to the ground and began untying a boot.

"What do you think you are doing?" yelled Jack. "Get back to work. All of you. There is work to be done. A building to build. We can't be standing around--"

"Jack!" It was Tony's voice, loud enough to cut through Jack's tirade. Rusty kept his attention on his boot. "None of us are going back up until we have proper safety equipment. You may think only of money, but we want to be able to go home at..."

Tony's voice faded as dizziness overtook Rusty.

Chapter 3

Rusty sat for a moment in the shoe shop waiting for the world to stop spinning. By then the shopkeeper had come over to him.

"The original owner of these boots died, didn't he." Rusty's voice was full of accusation.

She didn't take the bait. "It is quite possible. I don't know where most of these shoes have been and what happened to their owner. I do know and what you apparently figured out that when you put on their boots you take over as if they hadn't died. Whether that is a good thing or not, I have no way of knowing."

She paused. Rusty didn't say anything. She said, "So have you decided your original life isn't so bad after all or do you want to try another pair of shoes?"

"I've entered into a life with a backstabbing colleague and one with a greedy boss. But my original life had that as well. It wasn't any better. I guess I'm still trying to get away from it."

"In what way was this boss greedy?"

"He valued money more than his workers lives."

"Ohhh," she said. "That's bad." She patted his hand. "The store will be open as long as you need it."

Now what? Rusty wandered between the tables and racks of footwear for several minutes. The shopkeeper seemed to ignore him.

His eye seemed to linger over the hockey skates. Nah. He found hockey confusing. Football? Too prone to injuries. Track? Boring.

He paused for a moment. Why sports? Why was that attracting his attention?

Well...

If he was transferred into someone else's body, he surely would be able to play the sport. The body would be healthy and strong. Would he find a segment of humanity he could get along with?

Perhaps yes. Rusty thought back to his high school days and his time on the baseball team. They weren't a great team, but they did end the season above .500 and he had enjoyed the camaraderie. Perhaps he should choose baseball. At least he knew how to play the game.

Rusty continued his walking, looking for baseball shoes. As expected, he saw many pairs. Which to choose? Was there a way to find one pair from a life he might enjoy, where the previous owner had been happy?

Alas, there was no way to know.

By this point, Rusty had passed up a dozen pair. He spotted a pair a little different from the rest. There was a logo of an Indian on the side of the shoes. Somebody from the Cleveland Indians had left a pair of shoes here? Everyone on his high school team had dreamed --at least for a while--about being in The Show, joining a Major League team. What an opportunity!

Rusty slipped the shoes on and strode confidently to the door.

When the dizziness faded, Rusty found himself sitting on a bench in a locker room facing what he assumed was his locker. From the way one ankle rested on the other knee and from the position of his hands, it was obvious he had come into this body as it finished putting on the shoes.

Rusty looked around. The name above the locker he faced said "Darryl Billingsley" but it was on a piece of cardboard in a bracket. The locker room looked old and in need of paint, not what he expected of a Major League team. The uniform he was wearing looked too worn to be new this season, even if it was now October according to the calendar on the wall, the kind with one page for each day.

Another player turned a bit so Rusty could see his back. Rusty gasped. The unifirm had "Spokane Indians" on it! Not Major League at all! This team was Minor League. The teams were filled with the eager upstarts wondering why the had to toil in the Minors and with the dregs of the sport, the older guys who couldn't admit they would never make it to The Show.

He felt an arm on his shoulder. He looked up into a face that looked like it hadn't come to terms with a dream that would never happen. "Hey, Darryl. You Okay? For a moment you looked a little green. And then you gasped like you were in pain."

Rusty reached up to put his hand over the hand on his shoulder and smiled a little smile. "Thanks for the concern, buddy, but I'm fine."

A note of teasing crept into the other man's voice. "You'd better! I'll need you to close for me today. We wouldn't want our star reliever to have a bad day this close to the playoffs!" The other man's face grew serious. "You hadn't answered me yet. Are you in?"

"In what?"

"You don't remember our discussion from yesterday?"

How to cover for this one? "Um... I guess I put it out of my mind. What was it about?"

The other man looked around and realized the coach was walking in. "Sorry. Can't talk about it now."

What was that about? wondered Rusty.

Was he about to be caught in another unpleasant situation? The coach was starting his pre-game motivation speech, but Rusty found he had another more important issue to think about. How many times from the dugout to the pitchers mound make a mile? Is there a designated hitter in this league? How many times around the bases do I have to allow for? How far is it from here to the dugout and the bullpen? And the big question--How long can I stick around before I lose my chance of escape?

Rusty tuned into the coach while pondering that last question. "This is the big one, men. We win this one and we're in the playoffs. Lose it and you will be left wondering what you could have done differently, and those thoughts make for a long winter. I'm sure you know that since this is an important game, there will be a lot of Major League scouts watching to see how we handle the pressure. For some of you, a win could mean more than a chance at the Minor League playoffs."

The coach paused for a moment. "Everyone says a win over our opponents from Great Falls should be a piece of cake. Don't let that talk fool you into letting your guard down. Treat it like a walk in the park and they just might break their losing streak. Now go get 'em!"

The team cheered and surged out to the field. Rusty hung back so that he wouldn't look too stupid as he paused at the door to get his bearings.

Rusty watched with interest during warm-ups and preliminaries. It had been a while since he had attended any game and had never attended a Minor League game. He was amused at the difference between the young players trying to impress scouts and older players doing things with a minimum of fuss. It was nice having such a great seat for the game.

The game began with Roger McAllister on the mound, the guy that had been so mysterious. He retired the side quickly. The Spokane hitters responded with a single, an out, a double, and a sacrifice to bring a runner home before the end of the inning.

Rusty was both amused and concerned when the Great Falls hitters managed to get a runner in during the top of the second inning.

Spokane was scoreless in the bottom of the second and McAllister retired three batters easily.

A run by Spokane in the bottom of the third was answered by a run by Great Falls in the top of the fourth. The same thing happened in the bottom of the fourth and top of the fifth. Once Spokane got a run in the bottom of the fifth to finish the inning, the coach pulled McAllister and sent Rusty in.

During his warm-up, Rusty noticed that this body seemed to remember how to pitch. The motions were much more fluid and accurate than he had ever managed in high school. He hadn't been in this body long yet he was amazed at how well he could control it.

Though Rusty's body knew how to pitch, Rusty's mind hadn't kept such things as strategy and hand signals from either the previous mind in this body or from his youth.

He walked the first batter. The second got a single.

The catcher called time out and he and the coach came out to the mound.

"Why aren't you following my signals?" said the catcher. "We usually only yell at umpires for being blind."

Okay, thought Rusty, how do I get out of this mess? His pause made the coach very interested in the reply. "Sorry," he finally said, "I had a mental blank about what they mean."

"You've been pitching all summer and forgot what the hand signals mean?" said the coach, shaking his head. "And you manage to do it during an important game!" He turned and walked back to the dugout.

"A quick refresher, then," said the catcher. "One finger for fast, two for slow, three for curve. I move my hand around to indicate high or low, inside or outside." He put a bit of edge into his voice. "Do you think that little peanut sized brain can remember all that for more than ten seconds?"

"Yeah," said Rusty, "I got it."

Rusty struck out the next two batters though getting close to a full count on both of them. He misread another hand signal and fed the batter a pitch that was low and fast.

The better connected for a pop-up, which Rusty fumbled. One runner scored.

The coach pulled him. Rusty sighed with relief.

Once Rusty was in the dugout, The coach barked, "McAllister! Billingsley! With me." On the way past the batting coach, he brushed his right eyebrow twice. The batting coach's smile vanished as he nodded.

The two pitchers followed the coach to his office. He closed the door, locked it, and turned to study them a moment. "I had to think for a while to come up with why your performance was so bad today. Then I noticed Jimmy Ganni sitting behind home plate. Suddenly it all became clear."

The coach paused and glared at us each in turn. McAllister began to fidget. He had rested one foot on the other knee and now was running his fingers across the knot in his shoelace.

"You're throwing the game. Aren't you."

Rusty was pretty sure he saw rage, defiance, and denial flit across McAllister's face before he brought it under control. McAllister remained silent.

"That," raged the coach, "is the worst sort of betrayal I can imagine. You may be making a ton of money from this, but you are hurting your teammates. They will be denied the playoffs because of your greed. They will be denied another chance to play in front of scouts and perhaps a chance at The Show. The police should be here any minute."

"But throwing a game isn't illegal!" said McAllister. "The only penalty is expulsion from the league."

Rusty suddenly realized that McAllister was admitting to it. The other pitcher's intent was to collect the reward and retire.

It seemed the coach did too as his eyes narrowed a bit. "Throwing a game isn't why the police are coming. You committed fraud. You did not put out your best effort as your teammates expected. The victims of your fraud are your teammates."

McAllister began to look a bit panicky when there was a knock on the door. The coach unlocked it and let in two policemen. The coach said, "Ah. Come in. Please arrest these two men on the crime of fraud."

The policemen closed in around Rusty and McAllister. "Can't we at least take a shower?" said McAllister.

"No," said the coach. I want you seen in that uniform when the press gets word. It is that uniform you disgraced."

As one of the policemen reached for Rusty's wrist, he said, "Just a moment, officer, I have something in my shoe."

"Freeze!" shouted one of the policemen. "Hands on head." Rusty complied. "I'll take the shoe off for you. Which one?"

"Left," said Rusty.

The cop undid the laces and tugged at the heel. Rusty was overcome with dizziness.

Chapter 4

As soon has his head stopped spinning, Rusty opened his eyes--just in time to see the left shoe drop to the floor. Rusty waited for the shopkeeper to amble over. "Well?" she said.

"Baseball pitcher. A teammate threw the game. I didn't do well on the pitcher's mound and was also accused. Before leaving the stadium, I asked the cop to remove my shoe."

Rusty sat quietly for a moment, then said, "What happens to the people left behind when I take off a shoe?"

"I really don't know," she said. "It probably depends on how I got the shoe."

"Well, what happened to the cop that pulled off my shoe and I vanished?"

"It sounds like you took over for a guy who was disgusted with his life, so it would be as if you had never been there. If the guy designated for relief isn't there, someone else has to do it. Whether that person is arrested would depend on how well he played."

"What about the construction guy who fell to his death? That happened way back in 1947. What about his sweetheart?"

I'm sure she would have made sure he got the proper funeral."

Rusty pondered that for a few minutes.

"Do you want another pair of shoes?" said the shopkeeper, interrupting Rusty's reverie.

Conniving and greedy bosses, teammates willing to throw a game. Humans could get downright nasty to each other. There had to be some good people out there. Didn't there? There were some people that knew right from wrong. Weren't there? Out of all these shoes piled in this room, there had to be a pair that had belonged to a person whom everyone loved, who had died a sudden death that would allow him to take over.

It wasn't exactly a cheery thought--wishing some good person had died suddenly so he could take over.

Rusty wandered through the piles of shoes, touching a pair here and there. Snowshoes, fur lined shoes, ice skates, and skis were out. He didn't like the cold. He didn't want to struggle with another language, so the Russian, Japanese, Greek, Dutch, and German Nazi footwear could be bypassed. He didn't want the kind of life to which the rhinestone shoes belonged. His recent experiences had eliminated sport shoes, workboots, and anything that remotely looked like office shoes. What kind of shoe hadn't he tried yet?

His eye fell on a pair of what looked like ballet slippers except they didn't have the rounded toes of pointe shoes. This must be a man's ballet shoe then, he decided. That brought to mind the few (very few) times he had seen a ballet. The dancers had been graceful, even the men. How could there be any ugliness in a life so caught up in making beauty?

It was worth a try. Wasn't it?

Rusty put on the ballet shoes, guessing how the laces were to go. This could be interesting. People could find themselves watching a klutzy dancer. He carefully walked through the doorway.

Hoo Boy! As his vision cleared, Rusty found himself flat on his back staring up at a circle of faces with one face very close. That face spoke, "Oh good, Ivan, you're alive."

Wonderful, thought Rusty, I get to inhabit the body of a guy who just died.

The voice went on. "Are you hurt? Can you get up?"

"I don't know yet," said Rusty. "What happened?"

"It appears you fell into the orchestra pit. You could have done serious damage to yourself." You ain't kidding, thought Rusty. "It is good to see you're okay."

Rusty did a mental inventory. He hurt a little bit, but not a lot. Nothing seemed to be broken. He used his hands to push to a sitting position. That went well. He slowly stood. The dancers around him applauded. Well at least most of them.

He looked down. He was wearing a t-shirt and tights along with the dance shoes. The body underneath the clothing looked to be in mighty fine shape.

The one who had leaned over him appeared to be the one in charge. "Okay, show's over. Back to work."

The crowd went back on stage and took up positions as for the start of a dance. Along the way, he heard a voice from behind say, "Don't think this is over, Korsakov." The turned to see who said it, but couldn't tell who spoke.

Rusty wasn't sure what to do, so hung back. After a moment he realized that the dancers formed a regular pattern and there was an obvious gap. Rusty stepped into that place. Perhaps he could blame the coming fiasco on being hurt in the head.

Much to his surprise, it didn't turn out that way. When the music started, his body seemed to know what to do. It was invigorating to dance like this. He felt graceful and that he was expressing deep emotions he had never thought were there. He figured that muscle memory was at work. He leaped. He spun. He expertly lifted and supported his partner. He was having a wonderful time! He wished the moment could go on forever and understood why dancers did what they did.

Perhaps this is the life for me, thought Rusty, though things may be a lot different when learning a new dance and someone referred to the steps by name. He also thought about how many dance steps make a mile. How soon would he need to decide whether to go or stay? But the dance went on and Rusty began to put those thoughts out of his mind.

Rusty felt something slam against his left knee, sending him sprawling. Whatever had happened, his knee hurt. He didn't dare put weight on it. It hurt just to move, so he decided to simply lie there.

He heard a collective gasp when he fell and within seconds, he was surrounded again with anxious faces.

"That looks bad, Ivan," said a woman. "Don't move. Knees normally don't bend that way."

The director--the person who had hovered over him before--came into Rusty's view. She glanced at Rusty and pulled out a cell phone. "Hi. We need an ambulance at the Regent Theater. It looks like a damaged knee." She turned off the phone and turned to Rusty. "I'm so sorry, dear. It really looks like your dancing days are over. This is a bad one. And you were looking so good in this last dance."

I was? thought Rusty. This last dance? That means it was me, not the previous occupant of this body!

She straightened up and used her I'm In Charge voice. "Mister Tanayev! What were you doing out of position!"

"I was out of position?"

"Don't play innocent with me, buster!" She turned to the dark auditorium, shielded her eyes from the stage lights and said, "Tyler?"

"Yes, ma'am." The voice appeared to come from the light booth.

"Did you catch all that on video?"

"Sure did."

"Please take that cassette to my office." She turned to Mr. Tanayev. "Would you like to explain it to me now or wait until the police get here?"

"The police?"

"Yes. The charge will be assault and battery. I bet if we wound the tape back far enough, we'll find that Mr. Korsakov didn't fall into the orchestra pit, he was pushed. This wouldn't be a bit of professional jealousy, would it?"

That certainly pushed a button. Mr. Tanayev went into a tirade. "I'm a better dancer and he gets the good roles! I'm stuck in the ensemble and he gets the solos! You call what he does dancing? He could phone it in..."

Rusty tuned him out and turned to the ballerina sitting by his head. "Could you pull my shoes off?" The grimace from pain was not faked.

"I'd hate to disturb your leg."

"Perhaps you could start with the other one. I've got an itch on that foot and I doubt you could scratch it through the shoe."

Rusty endured a big stab of pain when she pulled the ties out from under the leg and tried very hard not to show it. He was relieved when a moment later the dizziness overtook him.

Chapter 5

Once his head stopped spinning, Rusty slumped in the chair. He didn't hurt now, but the pain had been incredible. The memory of it still lingered.

"It was bad, wasn't it," said the shopkeeper with sympathy in her voice.

"Yeah," Rusty whispered.

"What happened?"

"Professional jealousy by another dancer. He killed the original owner of the shoes by pushing him into the orchestra pit. When I revived the body, he settled for a career ending injury. Oh man, did that hurt!" Rusty winced in memory.

"You look like you could use a spot of tea. I'll be right back."

Rusty took the time to simply sit.

She returned sooner than Rusty thought possible, carrying a steaming mug. It smelled wonderful, definitely herbal.

The shopkeeper busied herself while Rusty sipped the tea. When she heard him set the mug down, she came over to him. "Have you decided what you want to do now?"

"I've decided I'm tired of humanity. There is so much pain we inflict on each other. I want to get away from all that pain."

"What about all the love that humans show to each other? What about the selfless worker in the soup kitchen, the joy of children playing, the satisfaction of a job well done, the simple helping hand in a time of need?"

"It may be there, but I haven't found it."

"I'm sure there are those types of people in all the shoes here."

"Maybe so, but I can't bear any more pain in the attempt to look for such a person."

"So how do you get yourself out of this mess?" She paused to collect her thoughts. "You can walk out that door in your original shoes. People have remade their lives before. You can too. You can leave here determined to be the kind of person you are searching for." She studied his face for a moment. "Or you can walk out that door wearing someone else's shoes. I will not allow the third option of committing suicide in this store." She said that last part in a voice that allowed no compromise.

"I could be your assistant."

"Sorry, but no. You could not live the way I do."

Rusty sighed, the let his eyes wander around the little shop. Russian shoes, Japanese shoes, Greek shoes, Roman shoes, sandals, boots, pink, gold, brown. The mass of shoes dissolved into a blur. Wingtips, loafers, saddle shoes, hiking boots, horseshoes, tap shoes, hip waders.

Wait a minute.

Horseshoes?

Rusty stared at the horseshoes for several minutes. He was thinking can I really do it? Can I give up my humanity? Is my humanity worth keeping? As those thoughts churned through his brain, he moved from display to display. He hadn't paid much attention to horses. It just now struck him that horseshoes came in a variety of sizes.

"Could you tell me how many different size horseshoes you have?"

The shopkeeper rattled them off without taking her eyes from the shoes she was sorting, "I have those available in pony, mule, donkey, riding horse, and draft sizes."

"Has anyone ever put on a pair of horseshoes?"

"One. A guy named Bob."

"What happened to him?"

"I don't know. He stepped through the door and never came back. Once a person steps through the door, I can't find out what happened to them unless they come back and tell me."

"So you never hear of the happy endings?

"On occasion I do. Some people will verify that the shoes are what causes the change by taking them off. They pop back in here. If it has been a good experience, they'll slip the shoe back on quickly. A few people will tell me a sentence or two before they slip the shoe back on."

Rusty pondered the nearest horseshoe for a moment. "How did that Bob guy wear a horseshoe?"

"He slipped nails through the shoes and held the nails between his toes. He did it right in front of the door so he only needed to take a couple steps.

By this time Rusty had lined up horseshoes of each size. He pondered his selection. Racer? Draft?

The shopkeeper interrupted his musings. "I must warn you that you must consider taking horseshoes as permanent."

"Don't I get to walk a mile in them first."

"That rule still holds. But please think about this. If you actually become a horse you won't have the ability to take the shoes off. You won't be able to ask a person to take them off. You may not even have enough wits to think of doing it."

"Oh!" said Rusty. No, he hadn't thought of that. In his mind, he ran over what she said. "Back up a bit. Is there a chance I might not become a horse?"

"As I said, I don't know what happens. Ever since Bob went through here, I've wondered about it. Mind you, my curiosity isn't great enough to try it myself. But I've thought Bob could have become everything from a human who gets off on pony shoes, to some blend of human and horse, to full horse."

"Pony shoes?"

She tossed him a pair. They were black shoes that had a sole in the shape of a hoof and also kept the heel high off the ground.

Rusty set them aside. "Way too kinky for me."

"But if you 'wear' the horseshoes, you might end up in a body that thinks they aren't kinky enough."

Draft, Rusty decided. He wandered through the displays making sure the pair of horseshoes he had in his hands were the largest available. After spending time in a few other bodies, he understood bigger was better.

Now that he had a pair of the largest horseshoes in the store, he walked over to the door, leaned against the frame, and looked at the metal in his hands, thinking. This one was for keeps. There would be no turning back if he ran into a bad situation. If he was a horse, he might have a cruel master. If he ended up in pony shoes, his partner might be sadistic. If he was some blend of human and horse in a human world, he might be a freak.

He glanced at the shopkeeper, who was busy sorting shoes. Rusty suddenly realized that when she was not helping him, she was sorting the shoes. It seemed to have absolutely no effect on the chaos on the display tables.

Rusty walked over to her. "It appears that you collected all these shoes," he swept a hand around to include the whole room, "from people who have died or were unhappy and wanted a different life."

"Yes, that's right."

"Is the same true for the horseshoes?"

"No. It's not. I just like horseshoes and consider my collection to be incomplete without them. The horseshoes around here have never been used."

Well, that was a relief. There was a lower chance (certainly much lower than the current 100%) of popping into a bad situation.

Rusty went back to lean against the door frame. Should he do it? Could he do it? He thought about the lives he had visited and his original life. Being human, to put it bluntly, sucked. The real question now before him was actually straightforward. Would life as a horse or horse hybrid have a better chance of being a good life?

Put that way, the choice seemed pretty easy. Life as a human seemed to have a close to 100% chance of being miserable. Though the right value was unknown, Rusty felt sure the percent chance of having a miserable life as a horse was much less than a sure thing. There was hope for a good life.

One part of his mind said, This is for keeps. Are you sure?

Another part responded, Ya got any better ideas? And when was life a sure thing?

Rusty sat down in a chair by the door. He removed shoes and socks.

He walked over to the shopkeeper, hoping he didn't catch a sliver in his toes. "Um, do you have any horseshoe nails?"

She held out her fist. It looked like there was something in that fist, so Rusty slid the horseshoes over his forearm, cupped his hands beneath hers. She dropped four nails into his hands.

He walked back to the chair by the door. He put his left foot on his right knee, then held a horseshoe against his toes. He adjusted the shoe a bit until two holes lined up between his toes. He slipped two nails in and felt them slide between his toes. While keeping the nails in place, he set the shoe on the floor. He did the same with the right foot.

Rusty opened the door and used his toes to push the shoes to just inside. He put his toes around the nails. It was obvious he wouldn't have a good grip on the shoe or the nails, but that wouldn't matter, at least not for long.

Very quickly, Rusty picked up his right foot. He closed his eyes. And stepped.

The dizziness was much stronger and lasted much longer than it had before. Rusty kept his eyes closed until he was sure the dizziness was gone.

Even before he opened his eyes, Rusty noticed the aroma. It was wonderful! It smelled like he was in the middle of a garden on a beautiful day in mid May in which everything was in bloom at once. On opening those eyes, he was pleased to see his nose hadn't been wrong. It was a garden and quite a large one. He couldn't see anything that marked its end either straight ahead or to the left or right. Rusty noticed something strange, at least to his limited knowledge of botany. Many trees appeared to have both blooms and ripe fruit.

Since he wasn't waking up to a face plant and wasn't surrounded by others, Rusty had time to look over the body he now wore.

The first thing he noticed was that his mind did not appear to be diminished. He had thought about "flowers" and "fruit" using words. A quick mental count to ten settled the matter. Second, he didn't have a muzzle. He could judge distances as well as before, his field of vision was the same, and the nose between his eyes looked to be human normal. He could see one difference without a mirror--the hair on his upper lip was blond and a lot thicker.

He put a hand to his face to feel for any other changes. As the fingers came into view, he realized at least I have a hand. These fingers were longer than before. He ran his fingers through the thick mustache then over his mouth to his chin. Yep, he had an equally thick beard. Tugging on a few hairs, he could see it was blond. The rest of his head felt normal. There was no bald spot.

He glanced downward. He had a very human chest and abdomen with the human normal amount of blond hair over some impressive muscles.

But what was below that was very much not human. The lower parts of his abdomen were covered with blond fur and below that were two solid looking legs, the portion below very knobby knees sported long pale blond hairs which obscured, he was sure, hooves. Lifting one up and shaking it did indeed reveal a large hoof.

He had a brief moment of panic when he realized his manhood did not hang between those legs. A twist of his shoulders and a glance behind him showed the rest. There were two more legs and a tail.

With a tiny bit of concentration he could make those hind legs move and swish the tail.

Centaur. The word suddenly came to his mind. He was now a centaur.

The idea both pleased him and annoyed him. This body was built for strength and the images of centaurs he remembered depicted a wonderful nobility. As a body it looked to be a fine one. He had kept what he felt were the necessary human parts--the brain and hands. And if he was to be blended with an animal, the horse was as good as any and a lot better than most. It was obvious he had strength and he probably had a good deal of speed.

But he was now a freak among humans.

A rumble from his horse part reminded him that he hadn't eaten in several lifetimes. All of the fruit on the surrounding trees looked delicious, even if he couldn't put a name to many of them. The apple tree was closest, so he started there.

After working through two apples, he started towards another tree. It was then he heard noises. It sounded very much like happy humans. He could hear talking and singing and it sounded like someone had some type of flute.

Rusty knew that those happy sounds could change in a moment, especially if the sounds came from humans calculating how to make money off a centaur, either by making him part of a circus act or issuing fines for stealing fruit. He glanced around for a hiding place, but there didn't seem to be one. The trees weren't close enough together to offer seclusion for this large body. Maybe he could get a human to pry off a horseshoe before going too far.

Before he could think of alternatives, he could see the group through the trees in the distance.

They were centaurs! He wasn't a freak. He was just one of many.

A moment later, he heard a shout and the flute player stopped playing. Evidently he had been spotted as the other centaurs changed course to meet him. He knew he didn't want to hide from everyone for the rest of his life (how long did centaurs live?) so he might as well meet them now.

There were five in the group that approached, two females and three males. He had plenty of time to study them as they came closer.

One female looked like she had just reached adulthood. She was a beauty, with curves in all the right places. Her fur was the same dark red as the hair on her head. She had shaggy white hair on her lower legs that covered her hooves.

The other female looked like she could have been the young female's mother, though her fur and hair was a lighter red.

The horse part of the largest of the males looked like a Clydesdale with chocolate fur and shaggy white stockings. His beard was thick and brown. Rusty wondered if he was the young female's father.

A second male looked like the young female's little brother, at about the age when little brothers become pesky. He had a hint of a mustache.

The last member of the group was the one holding the flute. His fur was full of white and tan patches that extended down to his knees. Below that, the fur was white and short. His thick beard was the same color as his tan patches. Rusty guessed he was a bit too old to be the oldest male's son.

"Hello," said the young female, holding out her hand. "You must be new here. I'm sure I know all of the centaurs and yet you don't look familiar."

Rusty shook her hand and said, "Yes, I just arrived."

"But how did you get here?" she asked.

Before Rusty could reply her father said, "Probably the same way I did, Calla." He now faced Rusty and held out his hand. "Hi. I'm Bob, though I'm known around here as Posti." Rusty shook the offered hand. "Please pardon my daughter's bluntness. Other than births, you are the first new person she has seen." He put his arm around his daughter's shoulders. "My guess is that you were in a strange shoe store just before you came here."

"How did you ... Ah yes, the shopkeeper did mention a guy named Bob that had tried on the horseshoes."

"Yep, that's me. Though when I did it I wanted to be a complete horse. Mind you, I'm not complaining about the results."

"Dad," the young male patted his father's flank. "You just used a buncha words I don't know yet."

"And those words are?"

"Shopkeeper and horseshoe."

"I'll make it easy for you," said Posti. "There aren't any shops or shopkeepers around here, so it might take a while to explain that one. As for horseshoe ..." He turned to Rusty. "Could you raise a hind leg?"

"Sure," said Rusty, though he was a bit mystified.

Posti and the two youth circled around behind Rusty. Rusty raised a leg and felt Post grab it and tilt it so they could see the bottom side. "That is a horseshoe," said Posti.

"Doesn't it hurt?" said the boy. "Why is it there?" said Calla.

"No it doesn't hurt," said Posti. "And it is part of the magic that brought him here. After we've traveled a while, we'll help him take it off. He won't need it here." Rusty felt the hand let go of his leg and he set it down.

Posti said, "Would you like to join us? Since you are new here, I'm sure you don't have family. I could tell you about this place along the way"

"Where are you going?" asked Rusty.

"Off to visit friends. I'm sure they'd love to meet you. The important thing for you is they are more than a mile away."

"Dad, what's a mile."

"A very old measure of distance."

"Sure, I'll join you," said Rusty. They resumed their journey. "And you've got me very curious. Where are we? I don't know any place on earth that is good for growing both apples and oranges."

"Would you believe we're not on Earth?" said Posti.

Rusty turned and stared. "We're not? How do you know?"

"The star patterns are quite different. There's no Big Dipper in the north. We call the pattern the Northern Necklace."

"So where are we?"

"I don't know in relation to Earth. I just think of this place as Eden or Paradise. You won't find much of the conflict, the greed and backstabbing you find on earth." Rusty shivered at the thought of what he had found during his body-hopping. "This is an idyllic place to live."

"I could use an idyllic place. And to find such a place while in a body like this is, as you say, Paradise."

Posti stopped and turned to Rusty with a twinkle in his eye. "Shall we pry off that horseshoe now or do you first want to walk a mile?"

The answer to Rusty was obvious. He winked at Calla.