RERUNS REZOOMED: a serial novelby Jonathan Baumbach
Jack watches as Mary, the beautiful yet predatory extra-terrestial, gets vaporized before his eyes. He is taken to a sex club by a band of rogue scientists and barley escapes with his life. Finally, while wandering in the woods and contemplating a new existence, Jack is befriended and then abducted by a group of students who are investigating the dark side of human behavior.
I anticipated the two guys lugging me around on a stretcher would get tired of their assignment and it happened even more quickly than I expected. Pill had been complaining all along, mostly under his breath about my weighing more than I should and how it was discombobulating his back. “What do you want to do with him then?” Barry said. “You got a better idea?”
“Sometimes—look, don’t say anything to the others—I wish we weren’t hamstrung by being non-violent,” Pill muttered. “Anyhow, I got to answer nature’s call if you know what I mean.”
So they put me down, virtually dropped me, and Pill went off in the woods somewhere to take a leak.
“The geek drinks too much water,” Barry said to me.
“How did you get this cocoon around me?” I asked him.
“Hey, that’s one of Ms. L’s little tricks,” he said. “She’s got a little spider in her, that girl. No more questions, okay?”
When Pill didn’t return after what seemed like ten minutes, Barry called out to the others, who had moved out of the picture. No response and it was beginning to get dark. “What do I do now?” he asked no one in particular, though I was his only audience. He raised his voice, took turns putting Pill’s name and Kelp’s name into the great unknown, his voice echoing back at us the only response. Nerves got the better of him. He began to do a kind of twitchy dance to pass whatever time needed passing. “What do I do now?” he asked again.
In answer to his question, I suggested he untie me so there would at least be two of us against whatever.
He couldn’t do that, he said, repeated it several times for emphasis before taking out a pocket knife and chopping at the spidery threads that held me.
Progress was slow—the strands difficult to cut—and I had only one arm free when Kelp and Ms. L reappeared.
Kelp immediately took charge, which was what he was good at, and he suggested that instead of splitting up they all go together to look for Pill. Perhaps, said Ms. L, Pill, who had no sense of direction, had gotten himself lost by going the wrong way.
“What about this one?” Barry asked, meaning me.
I wasn’t sure what I was hoping for or even what my best hopes might be in the present situation.
“It’ll take too long to unravel him,” Kelp said, “so I think it best to just leave him here until we get back. Sorry,” he said to me.
When they were gone, I picked up Barry’s knife from the ground and used my free arm to saw away at the strands swaddling my legs. It was tedious work and I assumed they would be back before I made much progress.
Hours seemed to pass without their return and I kept at it, though my arm ached, looking over my shoulder all the while, a kind of free floating urgency driving me.
Eventually, I was able to stand on one foot. Just as I was beginning to get my equilibrium, I heard something moving in the brush edging its way toward me.
I resisted panic, held my knife at the ready in case whoever it was intended me harm. And perhaps it was the group of young adventurers returning or at least the ones who had survived temporary disappearance.
To my surprise, a small, familiar, elderly woman appeared, brushing what seemed like spider webs from her clothing. I couldn’t place her exactly, though I was sure we had met before. She resembled Molly more than a little, Molly twenty or so years down the road, a considerably older and crone-like version of my lost muse.
She greeted me with a cackle and an odd, almost benign smile.
“You look familiar,” I said. “Do I know you?”
“I don’t know,” she said. “Do you think I’m attractive?”
I could see this was a delicate question and so I worked an answer over in my head, modifying it again and again so as not to seem either dishonest or hurtful. “You have a beguiling manner,” I said at long last.
“I do what I can with what little I have,” she said, the benign smile slipping from one side of the mouth to the other. “Would you like to dance with me?”
“I would,” I said perhaps too quickly, “but I have a broken leg.”
She considered my answer, seemed to chew on it while clearing her throat. “Is that a yes or a no?” she said, holding out her bony arms in my directions
For a fraction of a second, I thought of not taking her hands, though no other alternative offered itself and I could almost hear the sound of dance music coming from some incomprehensible distance away. And the next thing I knew we were whirling about to the distant strains, my bad leg keeping pace.
I put it down to illusion but she seemed to be getting younger as we danced in circles barely touching the earth as if the laws of gravity had taken the evening off.
I wondered as we flew in circles if she were responsible for the disappearance of the others. It also struck me that the same fate, whatever it might have been, was also what awaited me.
I asked her her name.
And then, momentarily, our dance took a horizontal turn and we were on the ground and my hard-on preceded like a signpost a terrifying awareness of desire. I held onto her pillowy ass with both hands as I entered her. “Come to me,” she whispered.
And so we danced on the ground with my fickle prick between her legs which were wrapped around me like a ribbon. As soon as I came the dance was over, the music silenced, and she, the unnamed, slipped away without a word into the encroaching night.
My hair had turned white after the encounter with the crone who had emerged from the deep woods like an apparition, but I was still in one piece if conspicuously diminished.
By using the North Star as a reference (and perhaps it was another star altogether), I gradually found my way back to the highway. My plan, which was the faded echo of what had got me here in the first place, was to hitch a ride into Maine. That was before I discovered that I was already in Maine having crossed the border in the course of my travels off the beaten track.
I needed to get myself together and with, rest in mind, I stopped off at the first motel that came my way, the Down Home Inn, which was owned and managed by a undernourished ornithologist. When he informed me that Cabin 13 was all he had available—the other quarters were in the process of being updated for a Virtual Reality convention—I knew I was in for a bad time.
I fell into a dreamless sleep on top of my covers (still in my clothes) and lost the world for several hours before being recalled by a series of heavy knocks on the door.
“Open the fucker up,” a voice said, “or I’ll break the fucker down.”
“What do you want?” I found myself calling out, struck almost instantaneously that silence, a total refusal to acknowledge the intrusion, was a better way to go.
“You’re in my fucking room,” the drunken voice called back. “Get your ass out of my room.”
This time I made no answer, stood absolutely still, hoping to outwait the intruder.
There was a momentary respite and I thought maybe he had given up and gone away, but then the knocking returned with renewed vigor. “When I get my hands on you, buddy,” the voice called, “you’ll know what sorry means.”
Hoping the door was sufficiently well-constructed to withstand his assault, I returned to the bed.
No matter, I couldn’t get back to sleep while the attempt to break down my door persisted.
There were extended periods without the thumping but it always seemed to return just when I thought it was gone forever.
Finally, I heard footsteps moving into the distance and I took a deep breath and closed my eyes.
I must have dozed because there was daylight coming through the curtain when I opened my eyes again.
I showered quickly, not wanting to leave myself in a vulnerable state, and dressed with similar dispatch into the alternate set of clothes I had on hand.
I was ready to see what faced me on the other side of the door when the phone rang.
Though I had no good reason to answer, the siren call got the better of me. “Who is it?” I said, avoiding the amenities.
“If I were you,” a woman’s voice said, “I’d get out of there in a magic minute.”
Who am I running from this time I wanted to ask but there didn’t seem any point so I hung up the phone and left the sanctuary of my room.
I stopped briefly to read the message scrawled in blood on the outside of the door. “CLOSED FOR REPAIR,” it said.
I hadn’t taken two steps from the motel when a burly man well over six feet tall approached. I had noticed him asleep at the wheel of a truck parked near the office.
“I was the guy at your door last night,” he said. “I don’t remember what I said, but I hope you didn’t take it to heart. I’m a notoriously unpleasant drunk.” He held out his hand. “No hard feelings, okay?”
I shrugged. “You had me worried,” I said.
“Look, ol’ buddy, I’d like to make amends,” he said. “It would make me feel a whole lot better if you accepted a lift in my truck to where you’re going.”
I said I wasn’t sure where that might be since I didn’t know which of the several resort islands in Maine the kidnappers had taken Molly.
“Don’t worry, we’ll find her,” he said, “or my name isn’t whatever my name isn’t. You have to let me make it up to you. Please.” He got down on one knee as if he was proposing.
Sober, he seemed harmless enough, and so, not without some residual reluctance, I accepted his offer.
“What kind of cargo do you carry?” I asked him.
“The female of the species,” he said with a wry smile.
We hadn’t gone very far when we hit a bump in the road and I noticed in what must been a subliminal flash, when I inadvertently turned my head, a human arm spilling out from the tarp in the back.
The trucker, whose name was Buck, kept up a kind of jokey patter as we drove toward Vinalhaven, the first island on our itinerary, his third beer clutched in the hand that was unattached to the wheel. When we started out, Buck had warned me that it was dangerous to let him drink beyond his limit. So I thought this might be the time to say something.
“You probably have had enough, Buck, don’t you think?” I said. “You know how it affects you.”
“You think a few fucking beers is going to make a monster out of the Buckster?” he said in a voice I hadn’t heard before except perhaps outside my door.
“It’s what you told me,” I said.
“I told you that?” he asked the now empty bottle in his hand. “I guess I must be some kind of liar, huh?”
“I think I see her,” I said, pointing to a 20ish blond just ahead, carrying a package under her arm. “You can drop me here if that’s convenient.”
The truck drove up to the woman so that Buck could get a better look at her. “Not too bad,” he said, “but I think we can do better.”
“I can get out anywhere here,” I said, ignoring his odd remark.
A man came from the other direction and took the package from the woman and they went off together, arms around each other.
“What do you want to do about that?” he said as he trolled after the couple in his truck. “If she were my wife…” He left the thought unfinished.
“The sun must have been in my eyes,” I said. “I can see now that she’s not Molly.”
“It’s good you said something,” he said, chugging another beer, “because hey I was going to run that pretty boy down for you. Just kidding. Just as well. There’s a causeway up ahead to the island. Don’t worry. I’m not going to drop you before we get what we came for. Zum zum.”
By this point, I was more than eager to get away from him, but I could see that asking to be dropped off was not going to get me what I wanted.
The island was larger than I imagined it would be. I did know from remarks Molly had made that the kidnappers were in possession of a lodge near the central marina.
There were two attractive women in a Cadillac convertible that pulled alongside us and Buck, keeping pace, danced his tongue at them in an obscene gesture.
“Asshole,” the one in the passenger seat called to him.
We followed them in the truck, kept them in sight for much of the time by going 20 miles or so an hour over the posted speed limit. They lost us briefly, but then we found their car in the parking lot of a seafood restaurant called Paradise One.
Buck parked the truck at the side of the road about 100 feet past the restaurant. He laid out a plan, which didn’t make a lot of sense, that had me going into the restaurant and convincing the women to join us in the truck.
I opened my door and was getting ready to swing my legs over the side when he grabbed my arm. “You’re coming back, with the babes or without, right?”
“Uh huh,” I said.
“I’m not going to have to go in after you, am I?” he said, digging his fingers into my arm.
“Look, Buck,” I said, pulling my arm free, “I’m not afraid of you.”
He glared sternly at me, then in seeming slow motion, tears began to fall, big sloppy tears sluicing down his meaty face. I was appalled. “I love you, bro,” he said.
Before more tears spilled, I was out of the cab and working my way toward the Paradise Restaurant and eventually inside. It was an overlit, undersubscribed place specializing, from what I could tell based on the plates that passed my way, in extravagant portions.
A cursory glance of the room did not readily reveal the two women I had been assigned to approach. What it did reveal was that Molly (or a woman who could have been her sister) was in a booth at the back with two men of disparate ages that I had never seen before. She was sucking at the claw of a lobster.
She hadn’t seen me, or hadn’t let on that she had, and I took a booth which allowed, from a discreet distance, a privileged view of Molly’s area of the room.
So as not to stick out, I ordered a fish burger—the waitress said it was the Specialty of the Maison—with home made generic cole slaw and sweet potato fries.
The longer I looked at Molly’s back, the less sure I was that it was actually her. This lingering doubt proved an appetite suppressant, so I decided to visit the Men’s Room by way of Molly’s table. In a neighboring booth were the two sexy women we had followed to the restaurant, and they smiled in my direction as I passed.
I had almost reached Molly’s booth when Buck appeared, sporting a sawed-off shotgun he pulled out from under his red flannel shirt. “This is a cunt-sucking stick-up,” he announced. “You put your hands on the table where I can see them and no one will get hurt.” He was so drunk he teetered from side to side, his open fly a cavern of false hope, as he slurred his announcement.
The small crowd ignored the outburst, went on eating as if nothing untoward had taken place, as if no plug-ugly 6’6” intruder waving a shot gun had abruptly forced his way into their lives.
When Buck started spraying the room with buckshot, those of us who weren’t dead or immobilized, got down under the tables.
As soon as his ammunition ran out, Buck was taken into custody by a team of local police. Only to be released a few hours later when word came down that he was an undercover government agent on a mission so secret that only those in the highest secret places knew what it was.
In the mean time, I got to be comforted by the two attractive women from the Cadillac convertible in the circumscribed space under their table.
When the shooting stopped and Buck was subdued, when the dust cleared and the wounded were carted away, Molly and her two male companions were nowhere to be found.
My new friends and I exchanged stories and, finding one another sympathetic, we decided to make common cause. Toni and Win (Antonia and Winifred) had gone off on a vacation from stultifying domesticity—this was 4 years ago to the week—and for a conspiracy of circumstances had reached a point of no return. After running out of money, they kept themselves going by robbing convenience stores, limiting their thefts to basic necessities. It was this moral component in their circumstantial life of crime that won me over to their predicament.
My story was as it had been: it remained my intention to rescue Molly from her seemingly companionable kidnappers.
But first I had to serve as a lookout and drive the getaway car for an off-hours heist at an island supermarket.
Toni and Win couldn’t find anything they wanted in the supermarket and returned to the car 10 minutes later, empty-handed. “There’s no point liberating over-the-hill apricots,” Win complained.
We spent the night together in a motel room I had taken as a single, the women slipping in later under cover of dark.
So we shared the undersized double bed the room provided, taking turns being the one hugged in the middle. We gave the impression of liking each other in the extreme.
The next day, we drove around the island looking for signs of Molly, checking out even the most unprepossessing roads. Win stayed in the motel in the morning and Toni in the afternoon as a precaution. The Wanted posters had pictures of them together as if joined at the hip and we thought this was the best way not to attract notice.
To wean Toni and Win away from their life of crime I paid for their meals with what I told them was a stolen credit card. They were resolutely opposed to accepting charity from anyone, particularly from a man. Their entire lives, Toni had confided, had been awash in emotional debt.
On the second afternoon of crisscrossing the island, I noticed, or thought I did, Molly (or a woman who resembled Molly), walking a small white dog of familiar if indeterminate breed.
Why didn’t I say something to Toni ? Why didn’t I ask her to drop me off or to turn down the road and follow the woman with the pet dog? I have no answer to those questions, but the fact is I said nothing. It’s possible that I wanted to stay with Toni and Win one more night, which was the way it played out.
Toni and Win were planning to leave the island late the next day—they were careful about not staying in the same place too long—after giving the search for Molly one further extended try.
I was with Win this time when I saw Molly park her bicycle at the central marina and board a sailboat called Lothario. There were two others also on board, but I couldn’t tell if they were the same two I had seen with Molly at the Paradise Restaurant.
My plan was to come back after Toni and Win had gone off and wait for Molly where the Lothario had been anchored.
When we returned to the motel, we said our goodbyes, one hug leading to another, two kisses leading to one last roll in the bed. It was that hard to separate. And I knew I couldn’t go with them, much as I might have wanted to.
At first I thought the sounds were coming from us, only louder this time and longer lasting, the amplified sighs of exhausted pleasure, but to think so had been a useful self-deception.
I was in the bathroom when the gunfire started—Win had just stepped outside to load the car. I could almost swear I heard Buck’s voice saying, “On the count of three, let the shit rain.” The shelling of the motel went on for at least five minutes—I later learned there were 15 expert marksman shooting at us— which was when I lost consciousness, which was when the dream of death flashed before me only to be obliterated by the black hole that followed.
Nothing would be the same again.
END PART ONE
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Brooklyn native Jonathan Baumbach is the author of 3 collections of short stories and 11 novels including Reruns, B, Seperate Hours, Babble, Chez Charlotte & Emily and On the Way to My Father's Funeral. His stories have been anthologized in O.Henry Prize Stories, Great Pool Stories, Best American Stories, Full Court, All Our Secrets are the Same, Best of TriQuarterly among other.