The April Editor's Pick is Ken Courtenay
Please feel free to email Ken at: firstname.lastname@example.org
UNCLE DIMITRI'S GIFT
Forty-five year old Hal Adams stood by his wife and sighed as she shopped for clothes. The only thing Hal hated worse than shopping was shopping when it didn’t involve him. Maybe that was selfish, but that was how he felt. At the moment, Beth Adams was looking at bras and sizing up some panties.
Hal still had most of his bushy blonde hair, but he was a bit over weight for his five-foot ten inch frame. He and Beth had been married for twenty-four years and had two children, a boy and a girl, who were almost out of college.
“Come on, Hal,” Beth said as she moved to another rack of clothes away from the underwear. “I have to look at some slacks for next week’s party.”
“OK, I’m coming,” Hal replied as he reluctantly followed, looking around desperately for something that he might be interested in. Then he remembered he had seen an old antique store across the street as they had pulled in to the parking lot. He had never noticed the place before and he wouldn’t mind browsing in there for a while. At least he could kill some time there and get out of the “Women’s Department” of this store.
“Tell you what Beth,” Hal said eagerly, “I’m going to go across the street and browse through that antique store. You come over when you’re done.”
“Alright,” Beth sighed thinking she’d get more done with him occupied, “but don’t buy anything we don’t need.”
“No promises,” he called over his shoulder as he hurried for the door. Once outside, he quickly crossed the street and entered the front door to the antique shop.
“Astral Antiques” was actually a large converted warehouse divided up into booths. In each ten by twelve foot booth, a vendor could display their antiques or anything else they were selling. Most of it looked like junk, but occasionally you could find something good, if you looked long enough.
The old couple who apparently owned the store sat behind the counter. The old man muttered a greeting as the bell attached to the door clanged when Hal came in. Hal returned a mumbled reply as he moved into the store.
Most of the booths were filled with old furniture, plates, or other worthless knick-knacks. Some booths were dedicated to specific types of items like old LP albums, old bed frames or clothes. The whole place had an aged, musty smell.
Hal walked through a couple of booths, looking at the various items and wondering what lives were behind each of them. He approached another booth where a young lady was looking through some jewelry.
Gazing at the antiques, he wondered if he was looking at the sum total of a person’s existence. Had someone died and their estate sold their possessions to the highest bidder? Were the children so desperate for money that they would sell Grandma’s prized china? A study of the lives behind these antiques could be interesting, Hal mused as he moved on to another booth.
As he came up to the next booth, he saw it was mostly filled with furniture. An old desk, an old dresser with an attached mirror and a chest of drawers. He was about to move on to another booth when he saw a brown wooden bookcase along the back wall of the booth. He had been looking for a bookcase to put in his son’s bedroom which he was converting into a home office. This one might fit his needs, he thought. He made his way into the booth and moved to the back to get a closer look.
When he reached the bookcase, he saw that it was solidly made. There were three shelves which contained an old clock, some books, two pictures that looked like they were from the late eighteen hundreds, and an old tea kettle.
He looked over the bookcase and thought it might be what he was looking for, but then he saw some damage on the bottom left side. A lower shelf was missing as well.
Deciding there was just too much wrong with the bookcase, Hal turned to leave when the title of one of the books caught his eye: “Twelfth Century Beliefs and Superstitions.” That would be a laugh, he thought to himself. Isn’t that when they believed in witches, dragons and sorcerers, he wondered?
Then he noticed the titles of the two other books on the shelf. One was titled “Day to Day Life During the Jurassic” and the other was titled “Exploring a Black Hole.” All of the books had the same type of binding and the same printing on the outside. He wondered if they could be part of a set.
He picked up one of the books at random and opened it up to the title page. There it said “Day to Day Life During the Jurassic” and written above the title in an elegant longhand scrawl was the following inscription:
“To Roger with my Blessings. This set of ten books is very special and valuable. They bring wonders to life, clarity to confusion. Keep them close. With my Love, Uncle Dimitri”
That’s nice, Hal thought. A little overblown on the dedication, but a nice gesture from good old Uncle Dimitri, whoever he was. The “ten books” were a series, and when Hal looked at the facing page he saw the complete list of the books. The book titles listed were:
“How Earth Got a Moon”
That’s quite an eclectic collection of subjects to have in a book series, Hal thought. He looked for the name of the author or publisher but could not find it.
Hal put the book down and picked up “Exploring a Black Hole” to look at its title page. He found the same inscription and the same list of ten books, but no author or publisher names were listed. He did the same with the third book as well.
How strange, he thought as he replaced the books. Surely there should be an author’s name on the book. He was no expert, but he had never seen a book without an author and publisher listed. It was a law or something, he thought.
Thinking he might get a deal on the whole book collection, Hal started looking around for the other seven books. As he searched, Hal saw an older woman, maybe in her early fifties, with a nineteen twenties hairstyle, heavy makeup and lipstick enter the front of the booth looking at the dresser. Hal wanted to be sure he got the other books before she did. But he didn’t see them in the bookcase or around in the booth. He wondered where the other seven books had gone. He pondered it for a moment more, and then picked up the first book he had looked at, the one titled “Day to Day Life During the Jurassic.”
Opening the book at a random place, Hal began to read. The sounds of the antique store, the lady he had just seen, and the activities around him seemed to fade away as his attention was drawn solely to the book pages.
“. . . and can not evade the acute eyesight of the flying reptiles such as Pterodactylus and Rhamphorhynchus. Once captured, the prey is then taken to the nest alive to be fed to the young so they can learn how to make a kill.
The sense of smell is also a vital survival tool during the Jurassic period. The larger carnivores, such as T-Rex, use the capability to find or follow herds and to scavenge carcasses. The raptors also profit from a highly developed sense of smell. But their speed and agility serve as their primary advantage.”
Hal looked up from the book, and felt his heart racing in his chest. His hair was in his eyes as if it had been blown by the wind. He suddenly smelled an odor that he couldn’t identify. It was a damp, outdoor, wild smell. He had smelled a lot of different things in these booths, he thought, but nothing like this. He sniffed the book, but there wasn’t anything unusual there. He looked around the booth for the source of the smell, even checking his shoes, but found nothing.
Brushing the hair out of his eyes, Hal opened the book to another random page and began to read again. As he read, the world around him seemed to drift away. The words on the page and the images they projected took Hal’s full attention.
“. . . and thus for the small mammals, night is the most opportune time to emerge from their boroughs and search for food. Small, rat-like mammals such as Megazostrodons and Docodons eat other small animals and insects (some as big as the mammals themselves). When necessary, plants are also on the mammalian menu.”
As Hal read, he noticed that funny smell again. He began to feel a slight breeze on the back of his neck. It must be the air conditioner, he thought to himself. The vent was probably up above and it must have come on.
He continued to read:
“During the daylight hours, the reptiles rule the day. By stealth, camouflage and cunning the carnivores feed on the herbivores, and each other. The carnivores come in all sizes. From the huge Allosaurus, a bi-pedal meat-eater measuring up to thirty-eight feet in length, to the chicken-sized Compsognathus, the smallest reptilian carnivore.
The dry grassy savannahs of Pangaea offer cover for the smaller reptiles and an unobstructed view of the surroundings for the larger ones. While the large herbivores primarily remain along the tree line, they will occasionally strike out across the savannah in search of fuller trees.”
Suddenly, a hideously loud shriek pierced the air. Hal felt his heart jump into his throat and he dropped the book. He thought it might have been the woman he had seen earlier having a seizure or maybe the building’s air conditioner was malfunctioning. Looking up, he expected to see perhaps the air conditioner on fire or one of the ventilation pipes shaking loose. He was totally unprepared for what his eyes suddenly saw.
He was standing out on a flat meadow in waist-deep grass. The grass was waving in a light breeze, the sun hung in the sky at a low angle. A stand of trees were about fifty yards off to his left. As he looked to his right, Hal couldn’t believe his eyes. A huge reptile, a T-Rex maybe, stood about fifty yards off to his right and was turning in his direction.
Partly fear, but mostly amazement, kept Hal frozen where he was. He watched the T-Rex as it surveyed the meadow, searching for something to eat. He heard the deep, labored breathing. He could smell the grasses and the decay of something nearby, dead. The air didn’t quite smell right and it was actually a little hard to breathe.
Hal registered all of this in the space of about five seconds. Then his panic set in. He turned towards the trees and began to run in a blind panic, the book lying where he had dropped it, long since forgotten.
The moment he began to move, Hal heard another ear-shattering shriek from behind. He could feel rather than hear the pounding steps of the T-Rex in pursuit. Hal didn’t know where he was going or what he was going to do. Some primitive instinct had set him off in the direction of the trees and he had obeyed.
As Hal continued to run, the thundering foot beats seemed to be getting closer, but the trees didn’t seem to be getting any closer at all. He chanced a look back and to his horror saw that the T-Rex had already cut the distance between them in half.
Hal tried to run faster but he was so out of shape he couldn’t muster any additional speed. His breathing was so labored he was beginning to get dizzy. He refocused on the line of trees as the ground shook beneath him from the pounding of the T-Rex’s pursuit. The roar in his ears was either the shriek of the T-Rex or his own screams, he wasn’t sure which.
Finally reaching the trees Hal ran into the small forest without looking back. He continued to run past and between as many trees as he could. If he could run deep enough to where the trees were too close together, maybe the T-Rex wouldn’t be able to follow him. But he wasn’t safe yet. He could still hear the T-Rex behind him. He didn’t dare sneak a look back. He might run smack into one of the trees and knock himself out.
Desperate, he began looking for a tree with limbs low enough for him to try to climb. But all of the tree limbs seemed to start about twenty-five feet above the ground. Either that was how the trees had evolved to survive or something was stripping away all of the lower branches.
Finally, the crashing of the T-Rex behind him seemed to be getting a little further away, but it was still coming for him. Hal kept moving, trying to put as much distance as he could between himself and the nightmare behind him. Suddenly, he saw a group of three trees growing close together at the edge of a clearing. Thinking they might provide a means for him to climb up, he headed for them.
When he reached the three trees, he wedged himself in between them and began to climb up. He saw the T-Rex about thirty yards away struggling to pass through the trees. It tried to go around the trees it encountered, but more often it just pushed the trees aside. But this gave Hal the time he needed to climb up out of the immediate danger.
He worked his way up one of the trees as fast as he could and didn’t stop until he was about thirty feet above the ground. Most of the branches and foliage appeared to have been stripped off or broken, but there was a lone branch that he could stand on and still wrap his arms around the tree trunk. Hal had an unobstructed view of the area around and below him. He looked down just as the T-Rex got to the foot of the tree he was in and looked up at him.
Hal’s eyes and the eyes of the T-Rex locked. Predator and prey. Even though Hal was up in the tree and out of reach, the terror that consumed him from that evil stare caused his bladder to release. Hal didn’t notice.
The T-Rex let out another devastating shriek and struck the tree trunk with the side of his body, hoping to knock Hal out of the tree and to the ground. Hal let out a blood curdling scream of his own and held on for dear life. The tree swayed from the blow, but didn’t break. The T-Rex hit the tree trunk again. The tree shook violently and swayed into the tree closest to it, but still Hal managed to hang on.
Then the T-Rex issued another shriek, fiercer than the first, its echo reverberating through the woods. For several minutes, the T-Rex slowly walked around the base of the tree, looking for a way to get at the meal that was out of reach. It’s breathing heavy and labored from the exertion. Hal, dizzy from his frantic run, watched from above. He held on tightly to the tree and prayed that there was no way this thing could climb up after him.
Finally, after what to Hal seemed like an eternity, the T-Rex gave up. The creature turned to leave and defecated at the bottom of the tree. Then it headed back the way it had come to look for other prey. It had apparently decided that Hal was too much effort.
Hal watched the huge monster weave its way out of the woods until it was out of sight. The smell from the bottom of the tree was disgustingly horrible and very strong, even thirty feet above the ground. It made Hal gag and his eyes water. But he clung desperately to the tree. He had no intention of going anywhere, bad smell or not.
After a few minutes, Hal was able to calm down and catch his breath from the exertion. He sat down on the branch he had been standing on, but maintained his hold on the tree trunk. He started to look around to see where he was and what he could do about his situation. That’s when he remembered the book.
“Oh God!” Hal exclaimed out loud. He had dropped the book back in the meadow. Even if he could possibly find his way back to the meadow, there was no way he was going to try to walk out into the grass and search for the book. He would never find it in all that tall grass. His panic began to return again. He had to fight hard to keep it from taking over.
How will I ever get back, Hal wondered as he looked again at his surroundings. The unfamiliar trees, the unfamiliar plants below, the unfamiliar landscape, all were strange to him. And he was still having trouble breathing. How was he going to survive? How was he going to carve out his niche in this new world and stake his claim to survive? How was he going to declare his right to live? He didn’t even belong here!
His thoughts returned to the book. Even if he did manage to find it, how could it help him get back? Well, he reasoned, it must have gotten him here in the first place. Maybe it could get him back. He hadn’t read all of it. Maybe there’s a passage that tells how to go back to the time where you came from, he thought. He hoped so. He hoped like hell it was so. He just had to find that book!
Then he remembered the inscription in the front of the book. It had been in all of the books he had seen. He started parsing the words.
“They bring wonders to life,” the inscription had said. So maybe the “wonders” of each book came to life as the book was read? Well Hal couldn’t argue with that. He was reading about the Jurassic era and damn if he hadn’t landed in the middle of it.
“...clarity to confusion” it had said. Well, there was no confusion here, everything was now quite clear. He was witnessing first-hand how predator and prey interacted. He had become a walking meal just waiting to be eaten. He had to do something to stay alive.
Then the last sentence flashed into his mind. “Keep them close.” Did that mean keep the books close and don’t let them get away, or did it mean keep the books “closed” and don’t read them? Hal pondered that one for a few moments. Maybe Uncle Dimitri was showing his sick sense of humor, or maybe his English wasn’t so good.
As Hal sat in the tree thinking about the book an alien scream echoed from deep inside the woods. It sent a chill down Hal’s spine and he gripped the tree tighter. He became aware of other strange, unfamiliar sounds all around him. The tree started to sway as a brisk breeze began to blow. It would be night soon, Hal guessed. Then what was he going to do?
As the twilight started to close in on Hal, he began to feverently pray that Beth would finish her shopping soon, find him, and wake him up. He had to be dreaming.
Hal never heard the pterodactyl as it flew up behind him, gripped his body with powerful talons and ripped him away from the tree he was grasping. Hal’s screams echoed over the forest canopy as he was carried in the creature’s claws to its nest and the hungry young that impatiently awaited them.
Ken Courtenay began writing about seven years ago. It became a way to fill the evening hours while traveling for his job with a large consulting firm. He has recently had two other short stories published.
Ken also enjoys playing music while living with his wife north of Atlanta, Georgia.