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User:Posti/After and Before

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After and Before

Author: Bob Stein

A flash of light caught Bill's eye as he rappelled down the side of the cliff. Gripping the rope to slow his descent, he braced his feet against the craggy surface and twisted around for a better look. There it was again. Definitely something man-made moving down there. Maybe some other backpackers. The reflection was awfully high up in the trees.

Looked like a mirror. He hadn't seen anything when he started down from the abandoned roadway. Even hanging halfway down the side of the mountain, thick pine needles partially blocked the reflection from view. Another glint. Damn! It was probably just a piece of foil, or maybe some other metallic trash caught in the branches. But he couldn't take the chance. It could also be someone signaling for help. At least he had the cellular phone along. If someone really was down there, he could call for help right away.

Whoever it might be, they had sure managed a difficult climb. The trees here were enormous, and tightly packed. At least the reflection was coming from a hole in the branches close to the cliff itself. He could check things out without going all the way down. Kicking off, he slid down another twenty feet. "Hello?" He listened carefully, but there was no response to his shout. "Anybody down there?"

Another flash. Pretty deep inside the jumble of limbs. Maybe they couldn't hear him. He dropped down until he was level with the tree tops, and twisted around for a better look. It was dark under the canopy of branches. There was something, though. A shape too regular to be part of the trees. And large. He got a sick feeling in his stomach. A plane?

Fighting growing apprehension, he walked himself sideways until he was directly over the hole, and dropped down far enough to grab the branches. As his eyes adjusted to the lower light, the shape became more recognizable. What the Hell? He blinked and stared harder. It was a car.

Loosening the rope, he began to climb down towards the improbable sight. A thick mat of pine needles obscured most of the body, and the front was buried in what looked to be some enormous bird's nest How could a car could have gotten here? The crumbling road above had been closed for at least 20 years.

The debris was dry and loose, allowing him to brush off the back end fairly easily. Pitted chrome letters spelled out 'CHEVROLET' across the rusty trunk lid. He didn't recognize the shape, but the car was definitely ancient. The paint was long gone from the license plate, but the stamped letters were still readable. Connecticut. 1965.

From here, he could track the car's path back to the old road above. Must have hit the corner too fast, and gone right over the edge. The missing branches were up front, snapped off as the Chevy plunged down. Apparently, enough of the larger branches had grown together to absorb the impact. That didn't explain what it was still doing here.

Granted, it would cost way more than the car was worth to try to get it out. It seemed like someone would have at least gotten it the rest of the way down. The relic was a real safety hazard, especially now. A lot of the branches under the relic were dead, providing more show than support. In fact, he could hear some ominous cracking coming from below.

After making sure his rope was secure, he moved alongside. The sides and top were streaked with rust and moss, and he couldn't see through the built-up crud over the windows. Could be the car was stolen, and had been pushed over the side. He found the back door handle and tugged on it. Surprisingly, the mechanism still worked, and he heard felt the latch give. Could be the car broke down so far from any place that the owner just got mad and abandoned it here. The hinges had rusted up, and he had to tug to pull the door open. Could be the owner was still inside.

"Shit!" He scrambled back, just managing to face down before breakfast was launched towards the forest floor. It took a while to settle both his nerves and his stomach. Finally, he steeled himself and looked back in. The Chevy entombed a whole family. Looked like they'd been killed by the impact. The good old days before seat belts. Dad had part of the steering column sticking out of the back of his mottled green shirt, with Mom and Junior forming a grotesque tangle against the windshield.

The inside of the car was in surprisingly good shape, as were the clothes on the bodies. The child's red and white striped T-shirt was still bright, as was the fluffy white blouse on his mother. He wondered if there was a way to identify the family. No way he was going to check the bodies. Best to leave that for the authorities. It was sad. After all this time, there might not be anyone left who even remembered them. Well, they'd sure get some attention now. Probably be a front page item for the supermarket tabloids.

The branches cracked again. He double-checked his rope. Figures. After all this time, the car wants to fall when he gets here. Guess his added weight was just too much. Best to get out of here and bring back one of the Rangers. Just as he was starting to close the door, he saw a large paper bag lying against the back of the front seat. Kings Department Store. Curious, he leaned over for a better look. A colorful cardboard box identified its contents as a genuine GI Joe from Hasbro. Amazed, he pulled one out. The toy soldier behind the cellophane window looked as pristine as the day he was made. Damn! These things were worth a fortune now.

He grabbed the bag, only to discover another identical box behind it. Must have spilled out of the bag during the accident. He was amazed that the kid hadn't opened at least one. All the better for Bill, though. He leaned across the car, straining to catch the corner of the box. Just as his fingers caught the edge, the car gave a sickening lurch.

Dropping both boxes, Bill scrambled back, only to get knocked back inside by the door as it slammed closed. On his rope. He got thrown forward as the old Chevy fell a good twenty feet. The screams didn't start until he remembered what the crunchy cushions under him were. Then the last big branch broke, and the car finally completed the plunge it had started all those years ago. He was still screaming when the car hit.

"Danny?"

He jerked upright, eyes wide and heart pounding.

"Are you OK, honey?"

Blinking in bewilderment, Bill looked around frantically. The car. He was in the car. Falling, falling... The seat under him bounced, and he grabbed for support. No, not falling. Rolling hills were flowing past outside the window. Cars passing in the other direction. Old cars that looked new.

A cool hand touched his cheek, and he snapped his head forward again. And up. A young woman was looking down at him with a worried expression. Maybe 30. Too much lipstick. Hair pulled back under a scarf. A white blouse with puffy sleeves. The driver was about the same age, with a crew cut. Some sort of bright green golf shirt. The man glanced back in the rear view mirror.

"Finally awake, Sport? You missed some pretty scenery."

He looked between the two, feeling dizzy. And with a growing feeling of dread, dropped his gaze down to his own slender, small body. Oh God. He was the kid. The dead kid.

"Danny, what's wrong?" Cool fingers again. "Talk to me, honey. Are you sick?"

Not dead. His heart was pounding like a jackhammer, and his throat was tight and dry. But he wasn't dead. Slowly, very slowly, he forced himself to calm down. The woman was frowning now. "I'm...." He tried to clear his throat, and then realized that the high, thin sound was probably normal. "I'm OK, uh, Mom."

She looked relieved and sat back down in her seat. "What was it? A bad dream?"

Bill closed his eyes. "Something like that." OK. He was now some kid named Danny. It was what? 1965? He wouldn't even be born for another 5 years. And he was gonna die when Daddy here drove the car off a cliff. When? Judging from the clothes, sometime soon. No, wait. He looked down at himself again. Jeans and a striped T-shirt. But the stripes were blue and white. The one on the dead kid had been red and white.

Something else was missing. The bag from Kings and those damned GI Joe’s. If everything was supposed to be the same, then the accident wasn't going to happen right away. Besides, the mountain wasn't anywhere in sight.

With immediate and violent death apparently postponed, fear gave way to a slightly hysterical euphoria. Was this some strange life-after-death thing? Or more accurately, a life-after-death-before-death thing. He giggled nervously, earning a mildly curious glance from 'mom.' What was that old TV show? Oh, yeah. Quantum Leap. Where the guy pops into somebody else and has to fix history before he can go back. It sure looked like Bill had been somehow sent back into the dead kid's life before the crash. If he could stop the accident from happening, then he'd not only save the family, but his own life as well.

It was a pretty ridiculous idea, but then, he was in a pretty ridiculous situation. What were his alternatives? Try explaining things to the man and woman up front? That might be interesting. 'Hi! I'm not really your son. I'm an assistant store manager from the future.' Might save the kid's life, only to get him stuck in mental hospitals for years.

He looked at the passing scenery again. The two-lane highway wasn't familiar. If this was the same area, a lot was going to change over the next 30-odd years. Billboards advertised products half-forgotten, or never seen. Morton doughnuts. God, how many years since he'd had those? And the cigarette ads. Missing the warning required in his time. Guess the Surgeon General hadn't started raining on the tobacco parade yet.

The nostalgia trip was so fascinating, he almost missed the sign welcoming him to Hinkle. The cheery white sign sent a chill down his spine. He'd never been here, but the Hinkle exit off the interstate was less than an hour before the Park.

"Let's stop somewhere, Pete." Mom started rummaging through a large white purse. "I want to pick up a couple of things for the baby." Baby? What baby? "Jackie has been having a tough time with the bills, and she's so stubborn. I swear, that sister of mine is gonna drive me crazy." OK. The baby was a cousin.

Pete nodded. "Just keep it low-key. This new chariot hit the budget pretty hard."

"Oh, don't I know it!" The woman shook her head. "Men! That Studebaker was perfectly good. Why you had to rush out and buy this hot rod..."

Raising an eyebrow, Dad sniffed in mock disdain. "Hot rod? Madam, this happens to be the Car of the Year in three different magazines. And my automotive expert recommended it. Right, Tiger?"

It took a second to register that the driver was referring to him. Oh, great. Was he supposed to be some kind of car nut? Bill barely knew where to put the gas on his battered old Nissan. "Uh, right, Dad. It's a really, uh, cool car." He wasn't able to work up much enthusiasm.

"Oh, that's a sterling recommendation." The mother twisted around to grin back at him. "Remind me to ask you for advice when I start looking for a really 'cool' washing machine!"

"Aaargh!" Pete clutched at his chest playfully. "I've been shot down by my own troops! What happened to all that talk about 409 cubic inches, and positraction rear ends? Maybe I should just trade the Monster machine here for one of those nice, practical Corvairs? You'll be the hit of the High School parking lot when you pull up in that!"

Mom rolled her eyes. "Honestly, Jack! The boy is only 8 years old!"

"So? In another 8, he'll be ready for his license. And I can get another new car and he'll end up with this."

"Would you mind waiting until we make the first payment on this car before you start planning buying another?"

Bill leaned back, amused by the good-natured bantering. They seemed like nice people. He didn't remember his parents being like this much. Everything had been so serious all the time. His own father would never paid extra for a big engine and fancy options. Not that Bill had had a bad childhood. Just that his parent's hadn't had much time or energy to be part of it.

The car was slowing down. "How about the store over there?" Jack pulled into the parking lot without waiting for an answer. "Go ahead and get whatever you want."

"No!" Bill pressed his face against the glass as he stared at the store's neon sign. "Not here! Don't buy anything here!" King's Department Store.

Both parents turned to look back at him. Mom gave him a quizzical stare. "What's the matter, honey? We always shop at the King's back home."

"Uh..." His mind raced, trying to come up with some logical reason. "They have better prices at WalMart!" No, wait. That chain wasn't around yet. "I mean, K-Mart!" When he saw the blank expression, he figured that was a strike as well. "Sears! What if she wants to take it back?"

"Take what back? Danny, you're not making any sense."

"Uh, whatever you buy her! Jackie! Aunt Jackie!" He clenched his fists, trying not to lose control here. "I mean, there's gotta be Sears stores all over the place. It'd be a lot easier to return stuff you buy there."

The father grinned. "Looks like he has a lot of faith in you, Jenny. Must remember that tie you got me for Valentine's Day!"

"Well, I never!" Jenny gave an exaggerated huff and crossed her arms. "On to Sears, then. We certainly don't want Aunt Jackie stuck with the terrible gifts I'm gonna pick out!"

Kneeling on the seat, Bill watched King's recede through the back window. He'd done it! No King's meant no GI Joe’s. And that meant he wouldn't have a reason to reach into the car. No, it was better than that. He'd changed things. Maybe the accident wouldn't happen at all now.

Shopping was a strange experience, which started as soon as he got out of the car. The height difference between his adult height and this child's body really became obvious when they were all standing. His eyes were level with Pete's stomach. Things felt different, too. He had a lot of energy, and felt stronger and faster than he could ever remember being. Yet he had to strain to hold the door open for his mother. For Jenny.

He got his first real look at Danny in one of the store's mirrors. Sandy brown hair, so short it was almost a crew cut. Bright blue eyes, and a spatter of freckles over a pug nose. Average to cute for a kid, even with those enormous front teeth. Both the parents seemed to be pretty nice-looking, so he'd most likely be fairly handsome. Assuming he lived long enough.

Even though he'd avoided King's, he maintained a safe distance from the Toy section. That was actually harder to do than he thought. Not only did Pete keep trying to steer him in that direction, but his own curiosity was hard to control. After all, most of the toys over there were valuable collectibles in his time. And there was a part of him that really wanted to relax and just be a kid again.

Dinner was a real treat. The local Dairy Queen, complete with curb service and waitresses on roller skates. Cokes in little glass bottles, and food that could only be served in an era that didn't know about unsaturated fat yet. It was terrific. And messy. Part of Bill's Sloppy Joe ended up on his shirt, and he had to suffer the indignity of having Jenny wipe his face off with a napkin, and then pull his shirt off in the parking lot. He didn't see the clean one she retrieved from the trunk until she was pulling it over his outstretched arms. Red and white stripes. He almost tore it off, but figured 'Danny' had been enough trouble for one day. Besides, with the toy soldiers no longer in the picture, he'd at least saved himself.

Or had he? The sun was going down by the time they pulled back out onto the narrow highway, and he saw his mother looking over the map. "Want to take Route 27, Pete? The scenery is beautiful. And it saves a good hour."

Bill leaned over the seat back, feeling anxious. Mom shifted the map so he could see it, probably figuring he was just curious. Without the wide ribbon of the interstate, it was hard to figure out where they were. Hinkle. There it was. This two lane highway they were on must be Route 60. He followed the double line up to a smaller branch. Route 27. It cut alongside the National Park boundary, twisting directly over the mountains. The road over the cliff. GI Joe’s or not, he wasn't traveling that route. Not tonight. "Isn't the main highway better road? We could go a lot faster."

His Dad raised an eyebrow. "A straight shot across the mountain instead of all the way around the base? Besides, there's no police on Route 27. Hardly anybody uses it anymore. And the Monster machine is rarin' to go!"

An enormous lump formed in Bill's throat. He could see what had happened. Pete had a lead foot and a fast car. Must have lost control, maybe swerved to avoid an animal or a fallen rock. And it would still happen. Giving up the GI Joes might keep his future self from getting trapped, but this family would die. He was sure of that.

"Please, Dad. Let's take the main road." Bill swallowed, unable to think of any good reason. "I'm scared of the other road. If we take it, I think we'll die."

There was a long silence. Finally, his father exhaled loudly. "Whoa! And I thought you were hard on your mother's shopping! Think ol' Dad ain't man enough to handle the Monster machine?"

Bill tensed, picking up a little resentment in the man's voice. Sore subject, here. God, how could he work this out? "Uh, no Dad! You're a great driver. I'm just..." He struggled for words. "All those curves! I'm feeling sorta sick, Dad. If we take the mountain road, I might throw up all over the new upholstery!"

"Sick?" Mom leaned over and felt his forehead. "Why didn't you say something, Danny?" Oh! Maybe it's food poisoning! Do you feel OK, Pete? You had the Sloppy Joe, too."

"Yeah, but I didn't have a triple banana split afterwards." Pete sighed, but seemed to have lost any anger. "OK, Tiger. Route 60 it is. Slow and steady. And if you think you're gonna vomit, you let me know, quick! Deal?"

"Deal." Bill sat back down as his mother folded the map. This emotional roller-coaster had left him exhausted. Still, he forced himself to stay awake. Had to make sure they didn't change their minds. He looked up at the headliner, wondering about the future. What would happen now? In the TV show, the guy leaped out of the strange body as soon as the future was fixed. Of course, that was TV. What if he was stuck as Danny?

The prospect was more than a little appealing. His new parents were fun, seemingly successful, and loving. And growing up again in the sixties could be great. Oh, he didn't expect things to really be like Happy Days. But so many of the problems weren't around yet. Drugs were just starting up. Violence in schools was mostly unheard of, and you could walk mostly anywhere and be safe.

Besides, he wouldn't be your average 8 year-old. A Bachelor's in Computer Sciences might not go far in his time, but in 1965, he probably knew more about electronic systems than anyone else in the world! He'd be a genious! Maybe become the new Bill Gates before Gates even got started!

Route 27. He clenched his fists as the sign flashed by, and held them until the exit itself was lost in the darkness behind them. Finally. It was over. Exhausted, he flopped back across the seat, thankful for his small size and the width of old cars. He wondered what he'd find when he woke up. Whichever life he returned to, he was gonna have an interesting story to tell.

"He asleep?" Pete slowed the car a bit while Jenny looked over the back seat.

"Yes. Poor thing. Tuckered out from all the excitement, I guess." The woman chewed her lip thoughtfully. "Pull over here, Pete. I want to get something from the trunk." Once they had stopped, she took the keys from him and got out carefully. Pete pulled out the map and looked it over again while she rummaged in the back of the car.

He folded it up as she got back in and shut the door. "Ya' know, Jenny, Route 60 is gonna make us pretty late getting in. Didn't you tell Jackie to expect us about 9?"

She handed him the keys and looked back at the sleeping child. "Oh, go ahead and take 27. He's asleep now. The motion shouldn't bother him."

Pete gave the bag she had brought back from the trunk a curious glance as he started the car. "Whatcha got there?"

"A couple of those new GI Joe dolls. Picked them up at Kings just before we left." She leaned over and placed the bag where Danny would see them. "He'll be so surprised when he wakes up."

The End.