Originally appeared in Time Streams: A Fiction River Anthology
Jason leaned against the old F150 staring at the night, unable to shake the fight with Rachel from his mind, the one she seemed so intent on starting. Moonlight prickled through the oaks hed planted at the edge of his land and splashed across the paint remaining on the chipped black hood. He sighed as he slid down the edge of the brown paper bag, taking a long slow drink of bourbon straight from the bottle. At least it wasnt the cheap stuff, the kind that burned when you swallowed it. This went down smooth. Already he felt his head swimming.
Maybe Rachel would be better off without him.
He rocked his head back and stared upward. The full moon, as it seemed to do so often, frowned back at him, seeming to pass judgment. Stars faded into the darkness, as if the heavens themselves sided with Rachel. The rest of the sky looked just as bleak, clouds rolling in from the south, the threat of another August storm hanging in the air. It would be just his luck to get drenched.
Not that it mattered. Not for much longer, anyway.
He sighed, taking another drink. He didnt even like bourbon but it had been the only booze in the house, bought months ago when his brother-in-law visited, the kind RobbieRobert nowsaid he learned to drink while in school out east. Jason had just thrown it in his truck on the way out, grabbing it off the shelf in the garage. If there was a night to drink, tonight was it.
This had been the worst fight yet. And maybe the last.
After two years of marriage, the fights came more frequent. At first they were over simple things. Money, which they never seemed to have enough of, or his job. She always wanted him to do more for himself than just work in the factory, spitting out bolts and nuts at his spot on the line, coming home stinking of grease and grimenow he didnt even bother to wash it off every daymaybe even take some night courses so he could move up.
He knew what she was saying that she wanted more than him. Maybe that was why she started in on him tonight, telling him he needed to get unstuck, whatever that meant.
And Rachel deserved better, deserved more than this little town, hidden on the prairie on the edge of nowhere. She deserved culture, deserved comfort, deserved things he just couldnt provide. Not here in Little Nord, North Dakota, and not on his income.
Jason sighed, taking another long drink.
Hed known that when he first met her, known that from the first time he saw her in high school, her dark hair flowing down her back, deep brown eyes catching his with an almost bemused expression, that she was out of his league. And somehow she didnt care. She made sure to go off to college to study business up in Dickinson instead of all the way over in Grand Forks like her daddy wanted her to. Jason made the trip up every weekend, driving his rusty old pickup to campus, always feeling out of place even though she made a point of showing him off. And then, when she was done, she came back home.
Jason should have just let her go after high school. Maybe she would have been happier then. She could have found someone who deserved her.
It sure wasnt him.
Tonight had been different. Tonight she brought up kids again.
How can we have kids if we aint got no money?
Well make it work.
Make it work. No, he understood what she needed even if she didnt want to admit it.
Fuck! he shouted, shaking the bottle at the judgmental moon. The only answer he got was the first cold drops of rain falling on his face.
Jason stayed there, drinking occasionally, letting the rain wash over him, soaking his t-shirt and jeans. Wind started picking up, blowing in with the storm. Even then he didnt move.
Only when the clouds covered the moon did he decide it was time.
The door creaked mournfully as he opened it. He slid onto the long bench seat, the torn cloth long ago covered by a blanket. The air in the truck smelled like old pine, the faded air freshener hanging from the mirror twirling from the wind streaming through the open door. He gripped the steering wheel, clutching it between his hands and leaning back against the seat, bottle tucked between his legs.
Rain began pelting the truck, huge thick drops that slammed into the metal, like a drummer marching him to the end. Violent streaks of lightning ripped through the night, streaking almost to the treetops, and he jumped, thunder chasing quickly after rumbling the truck.
Hear you loud and clear, he slurred.
His head felt heavy but he had a moment of clarity; sleep this off and talk to her in the morning. Let her know that it was okay if she wanted to leave. Let her know that he understood.
Another bolt of lightning shot down as Jason finished off the bourbon. Then another. And another.
Soon there was a flurry of lightning strikes, all shades of blue and purples, colors he had never seen in lightning before. They seemed to flicker around him, and he felt the hairs on his arm rise, a sense of urgency growing.
Most struck just over a nearby ridge. Damn if he would pass out before seeing why.
Jason fumbled with the clutch as he shifted the truck into drive, driving over ground toward the small rise. Lightning erupting in angry waves lit his way and thunder seemed to chase him. As he topped the rise, he stopped, not sure what the hell he was seeing.
Where the lightning struck, the ground below him was charred and glowed. Small fires burned, fueled in spite of the sheeting rain. Huge holes gashed the ground, leaving it looking as if the earth was splitting.
He slammed on the breaks but momentum and earth sopping wet from the recent rains pulled him down toward the flames, toward where the lightning struck the ground.
Another bolt blinded him.
He felt its energy through the truck.
He was thrown violently, truck and all flung into the sky.
Somehow he was tossed from the cab, flailing against the rain and the night, everything blurring around him. He passed out when his face slammed into the soggy ground. The last thing he remembered was the taste of mud and the smell of oil.
Bright sunlight burned through his closed lids, forcing Jason to flicker his eyes open slowly. Dry grass rested against his cheek and he smelled the thick stink of oil somewhere nearby. His body ached as if hed just spent the entire day in the saddle.
Moments passed before he remembered: the drink, the storm, the truck. Rachel.
Damn. Somehow he was still alive.
He pushed himself slowly up and looked around. Last thing he remembered was sliding over the small rise in his truck. And then the strange lightning surge.
There was no sign of the ridge, no sign of destroyed earth, and no sign of his truck.
Where the hell was he?
No truck meant walking. Already it was hot so he didnt look forward to a long walk back to town. He staggered to his feet, boots stirring up dry dirt, as he looked for something familiar. His head pounded like he had been trampled by a herd of cattle and his mouth was dry, his tongue fuzzy and thick, and he tasted the dirt he had lain in all night.
Not far in the distance stretched a line of trees, tall oaks with faded leaves, that he suspected signified the river that ran through much of this land. He couldnt have driven much past the border of his land. Once back on his own land, he would be able to reorient himself, find a way back to town.
He knew what he needed to do. It was time to tell Rachel to move on without him, give her permission to leave.
Jason staggered among the oaks and saw the river cutting through a shallow stream bed. With as much rain as they had been having recently, he was surprised to see how low it was. Hadnt it been nearly flood stage?
He looked up. A woman came walking along the river bed wearing leather pants in a strange cut that flared around her hips. A long sleeve shirt of grey and blue had sleeves rolled up over her forearms. A wide brimmed hat tilted on her head. Dark hair bound in a loose tail spilled out beneath. She carried a small box that she slipped into her pocket when she saw him.
Yeah? he said.
She froze and frowned, her brown eyes narrowing. The expression reminded him of Rachel. Are you okay? she asked.
Jason pushed himself off the dry ground and managed to steady his feet. Dirt stained his palms and he wiped them on his jeans. He squinted against the sunlight, the pulsing in his head making it hard to think straight. I think so.
Then why are you on my land? she asked. She stood with her hands on her hips, and though she was tiny, she looked as if she demanded an answer.
Your land? he asked. His head felt thick and cloudy, but most of the riverbed was his land. He was too hung over to care, too hung over to make a big deal about it, and needed a ride back to town. Can you get me back to town?
Her eyes narrowed and she looked him over, staring at his sweat stained shirt and jeans before stopping and staring at his boots. She slid a step toward him, coming up out of the riverbed a little. Which one?
Jason shook his head, the question confusing him. How far had the lightning storm thrown him? Little Nord, he said.
Her mouth twisted in a bemused expression, her lips parting as if she wanted to say something, but cut off instead. Come with me, she finally said.
She started off, not waiting to see if he followed. She took him up to a small dirt road where a sleek grey pickup was parked, hood more sloped than any hed seen, just a trace of dust coating the shiny paint. He recognized the Ford logo on the front, the same that had been on his, wherever she now rested. Jason hadnt seen the new models but didnt much care for them.
He popped open the door and climbed in and sat on a cracked leather seat. The truck had all the new electronics, lights and panels lining the console. Even though it looked new, it had the same smell to it that his truck had, a sense of age and character.
The woman saw his face and shrugged. Yeah, sorry. Kinda of an older model. Doesnt have all the newer stuff but she still runs good She shrugged again. Besides, kinda hard to keep anything nice out near the field, you know?
With the pounding in his head, he wasnt sure he heard her right. Sure, he answered, but knew plenty of ranchers with brand spanking new trucks pretty much every year. Do you have anything for a headache? he asked.
She grunted and shook her head. Maybe when you get to Little Nord. She said the towns name with a smirk.
Whatever. He pressed his hands against his temples and closed his eyes as they started off, waves of nausea rolling through him as they drove.
What were you doing out by Little Muddy? she asked after theyd driven a little ways.
So at least it was Little Muddy River. Jason was beginning to wonder what had happened. Dealing with regret, he said.
The woman looked over at him. Why out here? she asked.
He sniffed and looked out the window. Trying to find perspective. Make some hard decisions. Time to let Rachel go, he knew.
She looked over at him. It cant be all that bad, she said.
Jason shook his head. You ever feel like theres a part of your life youre doin wrong and its easier to just go along and not make any changes?
The woman watched him for a moment and shrugged.
Well Ive finally realized what needs doing.
Just because you dont like your past dont mean you cant like your future.
Jason leaned back and closed his eyes. Are you some kind of therapist? he asked.
She chuckled. Just got common sense. No need to get stuck in time.
Jason shook his head, thinking that sounded like something Rachel kept trying to tell him.
So. Whats your name?
Jason didnt even bother opening his eyes as they bumped along the dirt road. Jason, he mumbled.
The woman grunted, making it sound like a laugh. Jason, Im Mel. Where am I taking you?
Mel? Probably short for Melissa or Melinda, but he didnt know anybody by that name, especially not anybody that drove such a new pickup.
Licking his dry lips, he rattled off the address.
She grunted again, as if confused, and punched it into the GPS.
Jason finally managed to open his eyes when they reached the flat road. Dust blew across the road, billowing up into a great brown cloud that Mel just whipped through as if unconcerned. It wasnt until they reached the outer edges of town that the wind settled.
He knew right away that something was off.
Little Nord was a small town, barely more than two thousand people, most living their entire lives in the town. When Jason was a kid, he had once planned to get away from Little Nord, maybe go up over to Bismarck. But then he grew up and he and Rachel settled in. She never had the family problems he knew growing up, never had the father that hit her until he drank himself to death, the mother that never managed to get the strength to fight back, the release of his death freeing her to fuck her way through town.
The only thing his family ever gave him was 200 acres of land outside town, handed down to him after his dad died, farmland that he was never particularly good at farming. The only thing he really loved was walking the land.
The edge of town seemed to have changed overnight. Chucks service station, the old Amoco, once marked the south end of town before it broke out onto County Road 5. A small line of storage units stood across the street. Small houses lined the streets on either side, leading toward Main Street. None of that was there.
Instead, a line of rickety wooden buildingsnothing more than shacksabutted against each other in a haphazard line that stretched for as far as he could see. He saw women hanging laundry on lines, kids running and screaming, a few elderly folks sitting on makeshift chairs and staring out at the road.
Only then did he see that the road narrowed from four lanes somewhere just inside the edge of the shacks. County Road 5 had never been four lanes.
Where are we? he asked.
Mel glanced over at him, her brown eyes looking at him with bemused expression. Where do you think you are? she asked.
Jason stared at faces watching the truck as they passed, most looking as dead as he had every right to be. The road tore straight through the shacks, the horizon almost perfectly flat, steady wind blowing up dust all around, and knew this wasnt Little Nord. Might be North Dakota, but no place that he had ever visited.
Even though it was a four lane highway, no other cars drove along the road. Heat rose off the pavement. A faded sign in the distance rose above the tops of the shacks, the first break in the horizon, but he saw it was just a shut down service station, walls faded and crumbling, paint long since given up on. A few more of the wooden shacks, each bigger than the last, leaned against it before they finally ended.
No idea, he muttered.
Mel grunted again.
As they drove, the scenery started to change. Rough wooden shacks turned into ramshackle houses looking like palaces compared to the dumps they passed on the way in. Most were faded and run down, and in spite of the heavy rains they had been getting, grasses of the lawns burned and dry.
The stench of oil on the air grew thicker. In North Dakota it was something you got used to, especially with the new excitement up in the northern part of the state, but he didnt remember it as often in Little Nord. As they turned off the main road, he saw a plume of smoke rising somewhere to the north. He wondered where she was taking him.
Mel made a few quick turns before something triggered in his head. She was trying to take him home. But there was no way this place was his home.
Then she stopped outside a house. The small rambler was faded, once yellow paint now seemed nearly white, the glass in the windows across the front of the house shattered, huge shards still lying in the dead lawn out front. The driveway sloped upward toward a pull under garage, plastic roofing cracked and falling.
In spite of that, he recognized the house as his.
What is this? he asked.
Mel looked at him and snorted. This is the address you gave me.
Jason shook his head. This was and wasnt his home. His home wasnt new, but he kept it nice and neat, making sure the paint was clean and fresh for Rachel. The driveway hadnt cracked and fallen into disrepair. Windows had been intact. Even his lawn was green, not burned and dead.
What had happened here? What was this?
What had happened to his home?
Mel smiled at him condescendingly. This is Nord, she said. Not sure why youd call it Little Nord. Dont think its been called that in years. Probably not since the boom. Now its just Nord. She shook her head. Most of these houses were long abandoned, now taken over by squatters. Lucky ones live here. She tipped her head slightly back toward where they came in. You saw where the rest live. You go further on 5 and you get to Tarsten City, of course they sort of run into one another since the boom.
Nothing she said made sense. What boom?
She laughed. What boom. Christ, like you wouldnt know! Seeing his blank stare, she shook her head. You dont know?
Jason looked up and down the street. Everything looked both familiar and yet foreign, as if time had run past him overnight, leaving his home tossed about in time.
Mel rested a hand on his arm. First there were the Bakken fields to the north, she said. Damn near destroyed Williston, before it finally exploded.
Jason nodded. Ever since oil had been found there, everyone else had it in their mind that they would find a similar find. People came from all over thinking to strike it rich, filling places like Williston and Watford City to the north, turning them from a comfortable farms town into something different, something few really wanted as the tankers and water trucks and the people filled the prairie, all with everyone trying to make a better life. Even Bismarck got in on it, letting the oil companies keep leasing the land, so that everyone thought they had the same chance as the big companies. Problem was, no one did.
Then the Remsan fields boomed in 2025. Probably all connected to Bakken really, but could never really get at the oil before then. We got laterals running from Tarsten almost all the way to Montana, she said with a sense of pride. As the workers moved in Nord became a migrant town and Tarsten exploded. Tried to keep Nord better cared for but . She shook her head. So if youre from Nord, you should know that. Now tell me, Jason, she said, turning toward him. Where are you from and why are you fucking with me?
So much of what Mel said didnt make sense that Jason didnt know where to start. Its only 2013, he said. Somehow, looking down the street and seeing how rundown everything was, he knew it was not.
I should have known better, Mel said, slamming the truck back into drive. Shouldnt ever have given you a ride, but damn if Id leave you wandering on my land. She shook her head as she muttered to herself. Find a guy with dried blood in his hair and probably been drinking and I dont call the sheriff. Serves me right, she said. Well, now Im taking you to the hospital.
Jason sat back, staring out the window blurring by. A dust storm kicked up, blowing dirt though the streets, obscuring the confusion somewhat. Something else Mel had said stuck with him, nagging at him.
Those were your lands? he asked.
She didnt turn toward him as they headed back onto the wide road that had once been simple blacktop leading though Little Nord. Now it was four lanes and cracked. Signs dotted the road every so often, markers pointing toward Tarsten, a city that shouldnt even exist. None of this should exist.
Your lands? he asked. The question felt important.
Mel nodded. Everything along Muddy is my land. Why?
Jason felt his stomach begin to flutter. What did you say the oil fields were called? he asked.
She glanced over, the look she was giving telling him that she couldnt wait to just get him out of her truck. For some reason she wasnt willing to leave him on the side of the road. Christ. Youre full of strange questions. What were you drinking?
Bourbon, but he didnt say it. You called the oil fields something.
Remsan fields? she asked. Used to be Remco rigs all over. Tarsten was pretty much built on Remco money. Now Remco just leases the land. Easier that way. Doesnt change who owns it.
Remsan fields? Jason felt his heart leap and pound in his chest. Where am I? he whispered. When am I?
Mel laughed nervously. She stepped harder on the gas. Maybe you havent noticed, but its 2038.
Jason felt the world seem to spin around him. Assuming Mel wasnt crazy, that would mean he should be fifty-one. Rachel would be fifty.
If it didnt seem so damn real, he would think this was just a dream.
Or maybe he had actually died when the lightning struck him, throwing him into the night. Maybe Rachel finally got the release from him she deserved.
Jason Remsan died over twenty five years ago.
Jason shivered hearing himself described that way as Mel looked at him with hard eyes tinged with hurt. She turned in her seat, angled in such a way to keep him in sight. Her left hand hovered on her thigh, ready to grab the door handle at any moment and leap out of the truck.
Jason had convinced her to pull off to the side of the road just as they crossed through what she called Nord and into the outskirts of Tarsten. The transition was sharp and marked by tall painted concrete walls, as if the planners of Tarsten had wanted to keep the people living in Nord out of their city.
On the Nord side, the walls were covered with graffiti, swirls of color the only bright and vibrant thing he had seen since coming into the town. Just past the border of Nord, on the Tarsten side, the high wall was painted differently, painted all along the wall to look like flowing prairie dotted occasionally with oil rigs, as if hiding Nord from the people living on the Tarsten side.
Everything on the Tarsten side looked completely different. Businesses lined the wide street, bright flashing signs that looked more like flat screen televisions than store signs marked everything from groceries to liquor to home furnishings. There were stranger stores too, places that advertised Chipping and Augments. Even a huge sprawling building, each floor set off with darkly tinted windows, set off the road that looked like a hospital but had a sign for NanoCare. Beyond the main road, new houses stretched as far as he could see, green lawns well manicured, siding painted with blues and yellows and greens. On the road around him zipped cars that looked more like elongated bubbles. Few had logos that he recognized. He saw huge refineries in the distance.
What do you mean dead? he asked, staring out the window.
Mel moved her hand closer toward the door handle. I mean, as in no longer living. Gone. Exploded in a lightning strike, nothing but the charred remains of his truck found. That was when the Remsan discovery was made, when he was found. First it was natural gas, but surveyors eventually found deeper deposits of oil trapped in shale beneath that.
Jason shivered, thinking back to the storm, of the flames burning in spite of the rain. Had the lightning been attracted to the gas leak or had that simply been chance? Somehow, he had gotten his wish, had died in that storm as he had intended when setting out that night. And yet he had not died.
What happened to Rachel? he asked.
Jason nodded and turned back to Mel. Her brown eyes looked suspicious and hard, but familiar too. Rachel Remsan, he asked.
Mels eyes narrowed. Did you know her?
Jason kept his face neutral and nodded. I know her.
Mel looked down. Well, she had a hard time after he was gone. Had to learn how to manage the gas fields, geologists and surveyors and even guys from Bakken all trying to convince her to sell. Mel looked up and her eyes had changed, softened.
Jason recognized the expression.
She was smart, though, had a business background. Got herself a good lawyer. Secured her rights and only leased them out when she was ready. Started Remco from the ground up. Mel pulled herself up as she spoke, her eyes brightening.
Jason sighed. Rachel finally got to put her business background to use, finally had a chance to do something for herself. Better than that, she finally got away from him. It was like the lightning storm gave them both a gift.
After he sat there silently for a while, Mel fidgeting with the steering wheel, he managed to get the nerve to ask, Did she remarry?
Mel looked down. Always said she didnt want anyone that just wanted the land, not her, so she waited. I always thought she just never found anyone she could love as much as Jason. Her voice caught as she said the name.
Jason looked over at Mel and saw her as if for the first time. He saw the same dark hair, the same sharp cheekbones, the same eager brown eyes. This was Rachels daughter.
How old are you, Mel? he asked.
She tilted the hat on her head and her mouth tightened. In case you didnt notice, oil towns are mostly men. I get my pick and youre not my type, she answered. I dont go for the drunk and the crazy.
How old? he pressed.
Suddenly he understood why Rachel had been so angry that nightonly last night to him. Not because she wanted to fight, but because she had something to tell him, something important. And he was too damn thick to listen.
And those were your lands? he asked.
Damn you really are messed in the head. Didnt I already say that? She shifted in the leather seat and looked to shift the truck back into drive. Time to get you to the hospital.
Jason reached across and held her arm back from grabbing the shifter. Her skin seemed to tingle when he touched it. No. Ill get out here.
Here? she asked. Theres nothing here but shops. Listen, Jason, I think you need some help. Besides, its supposed to finally rain today. Youve got no place to go and you dont want to get stranded out there.
He tried to speak, but his voice caught in his throat, suddenly raw. Rachel had done it all without himraised a daughter, started a company, hell, probably even helped build this city. Rachel had managed to have a lifewithout him.
It hurt knowing that he had been right. She had been better off without him.
Seeing Mel, seeing the confident woman who was so much like her mother, made that even clearer.
Jason smiled sadly, suddenly knowing what he had to do. The lightning strike had given him a gift, but not the one he thought at first. Maybe he could finally manage to do what Rachel had been asking him to do for years.
Youve given me plenty.
As he climbed out of the truck, she looked back at him with eyes that were so much like Rachels. Where are you going to go?
Jason looked over the horizon, staring back down the road at what used to be simple County Road 5 and was now something more. The shacks of Nord stretched out like a wound across the land. Beyond that was the river, his land, where flames and a lightning strike had sent him here. There was a heaviness to the air, a hint of coming rain. Lightning flickered in the clouds rolling in. Thunder boomed, distantly.
Jason Remsan was dead. There was no reason to change that now.
Somewhere out there, he finally answered, nodding away from town, only now able to do what Rachel had asked for years. Only now able to get unstuck.