Chip Foster gripped his briefcase so tightly, the handle pinched the folds of his palm. He switched the case to his other hand. Tried to calm himself, tried to relax. Today wasn’t going to be good.
His efforts were of no use, though, and his routine trek through the park wasn’t helping. He choked on the cold, heavy morning air.
He was going to lose his job today. He knew it. He’d been a salesman at Peters’ & Sons Oil – though it had always been Peters and never any sons – for nearly ten years, the last four as sales manager, and in a single day it would all be for nothing. Still, Chip wanted to pretend everything was fine. And if he wanted to hold his illusion as tightly as he held his briefcase, well, that was his choice. But maybe it wouldn’t be an illusion. Maybe Mr. Peters hadn’t heard about the incident.
The man knew everything that went on in that building. It was like he had cameras hidden in every corner.
More likely he had a cadre of spirits spying for him.
No, there was no way Mr. Peters hadn’t gotten word of Chip’s tirade against Priscilla Northers. Chip had unleashed a long and colorful rebuttal against his least favorite customer. She’d deserved it, though. Chip had taken every snide comment and rude remark from the old nag for years and yesterday he’d had enough. Mrs. Norther’s jowls had flapped shut as she stood defiantly and walked quickly out the glass paned doors. Two minutes later she fell over dead.
Chip was glad. If there was one bright spot in this whole debacle it was that the crone was gone. It was almost worth losing everything. Almost.
Mr. Peters, however, would not be so pleased at losing one of their wealthiest patrons. Now there was someone else Chip wouldn’t mind seeing drop dead.
Norman Peters certainly hadn’t made any friends with his way of doing business. Every conversation was a chance for a new deal and every deal was a chance for him to pull the wool over someone’s eyes. No, no one would miss that slime ball when his time came.
Chip came alongside Grimm’s Pond. The wind came off the water and chilled the sweat across his temples. Ice crusted the shore in a thin sheet like the brown ‘round one of Gwen’s blueberry pies.
A warm slice of pie sounded like heaven right now. Nothing reminded him of summer like pie and summer was far better than the unrelenting, unforgiving cold of winter. He thought back to when summer meant warmth and freedom. He thought of the summer Mr. Kauffman had paid him and Robbie Andrews to build a fence for him and they got to keep the leftover wood. Chip and Robbie built a treehouse with it, the best anyone had ever seen. It was the greatest summer of Chip’s life.
He snapped back to the present. Robbie was dead now. What Chip wouldn’t give to spend even a little more time with him.
He switched his briefcase back to his other hand and rounded the southern curve of the pond.
Something was different.
Different wasn’t anything new in Gloaming Gap. Different was normal here. Still, sometimes different was unexpected.
An island roosted in the middle of the pond. An island that wasn’t there yesterday. It’s trees were barren but they huddled with thin grey vines and fallen branches binding them so close Chip couldn’t see between them. In the island’s shadow a small man in a weathered boat rowed toward him.
Chip pretended not to see the man and kept going.
“You there! The one in a hurry to go nowhere. Do you have the time?” the stranger asked as he beached the vessel. He was dressed in a heavy brown coat with a thick brown scarf wrapped under his red beard. He had a round nose, pink from the cold, that reminded Chip of a stubbed toe.
Chip checked his watch. “It’s twenty past eight.” He shook his sleeve back over his wrist and pushed ahead.
“You don’t want to go that way.”
Chip stopped and glared at the man. “What do you know about where I want to go?”
“I know enough.”
“I don’t have time for this. I’m late for work.”
“It’s twenty after eight. You’re already late. What’s a few minutes more? Not that it really matters. The old bastard is going to fire you today anyway.”
Sometimes Chip really hated living in the ‘Gap. Nothing was ever as it seemed. “Who are you?”
“I’m someone who wants the same things you do. At least I did once. Now there’s only one thing I want.” The stranger stepped out of the boat and onto the path. He leaned on a pipe with a jagged, rusted end. Spots of oil and blood stained its length. “I have an offer for you, Chip.”
“What kind of an offer?”
“One that gets us both what we want. You see that island there?”
“You mean the one that’s never been there before? I see it.”
“Good. Now, isn’t there somewhere you’d rather be than on your way to losing everything?”
“Yes,” Chip admitted.
“I thought so. After all, who wouldn’t want to go back to that summer when you were twelve. That’s when life was easier, freer, and worthwhile. That’s not just better than what you have now. It’s better than anything else. Isn’t it?”
“I thought I’d be twelve forever.”
“What’s your offer?”
“Go to that island, and you get to be twelve again. You can live out the entire summer there, day by day. Exactly as it was.”
“What do you get out of this? What do you want from me?”
“Your briefcase. Specifically the keycard in the top right side pocket.”
“What do you need my keycard for?”
“To get into the executive offices on the second floor of Peters’ & Sons Oil.”
“There’s no money up there. I can tell you that.”
“I’m not interested in money.”
“Then why do you want in there?”
“I’m going to kill Norman Peters.”
Chip took a step back.
“Don’t look so surprised, Chipper. You’d do it yourself if you had the guts.”
“They’ll know you used my card to get in. They’ll pin this on me.”
“Nonsense. They’ll think I stole it and killed you, too. But three months from now, after you’ve relived the best summer of your life, you’ll return to a world rid of Norman Peters. You might even get your job back. What do you say?”
“Why do you want to kill Mr. Peters?”
“I worked for him once, just like you, a long time ago, and then my employment and my life ended at the same time. Both were on his hands. He’ll do the same to you. You know he will.”
Chip fidgeted with the change in his pocket. He’d never thought of his boss as a killer but somehow it didn’t surprise him. Chip pictured him as some sort of low-level godfather, ordering hits on janitors who stumbled on secrets they should never know or a salesman who gave his best customer a heart attack.
He released the coins in his hand and felt them clamor in his pocket. If he stayed in Gloaming Gap they’d be all he had left before long.
He set his briefcase down in front of the stranger.
“We have a deal,” the stranger said. “All you have to do is get in the boat.”
Chip placed a wary foot into the boat and sat down to the oars. He folded his coat on the seat across from him and shoved off.
The stranger watched as Chip reached the island and disappeared between the trees before turning back to the path. As he walked, his legs stretched, and his beard withered away. His nose was pulled to a point, and his eyes changed their color. To any who saw him walking, it looked as though Chip Foster was headed to work, a briefcase in one hand, a broken pipe in the other.