Critical Excerpt from “The Travelers”

ImageThis is a crucial excerpt from chapter 3 of “The Travelers”.  In 1947, the Bennetts, a World War II GI and his British war bride, left Southampton with only each other but arrive in New York as a family after a North Atlantic encounter with an otherworldly, desperate mother and her two small children.  Now, in the present day, Guy Turner, a melancholy black film maker, has a haunting prelude with the now elderly mother in a corridor aboard Queen Mary which thrusts him into a supernatural mystery decades in the making.

~ ~ ~ ~

Indeed, the corridor dipped lightly far ahead of them, the paneling glowing warmly from the softly-lit fixtures in the ceiling corners while the lines of handrails on either side led the eye even farther.  The cabin doors were like silent, regal sentries standing guard over a hallowed pathway that stretched into the past and was measured by years rather than feet.  The deck began to rise imperceptibly into the distance, then there was the golden blur of door, panel, and handrail as they melded mysteriously into one with the final illusion of a pin-prick of darkness reaching infinitely upward.

When Guy raised a hand to rub his eyes, static electricity jumped from his fingertips to his eyelashes.  Mr. Vaughn jerked his hand back when the key shocked him with a blue snap upon contact with the door knob.  “For Heaven’s sake,” he said, and Guy watched as he began examining the keys again with infuriating slowness.  Guy had decided to lie of a previous engagement and make a hasty exit when he heard an unusual sound down the corridor; a soft, rippling sound like water running over rocks in a shallow creek.  He turned and a figure appeared distantly, walking toward them through the slashes of golden light given off by the light fixtures.

“Mr. Vaughn, I really need to run,” he said.  “I’m sorry, but I still have quite a bit to do at the studio tonight.”

Mr. Vaughn half turned with what Guy assumed would be an appeal to stay, but instead the keys fell to the carpeting with a metallic whimper and he whispered, “Good Heavens.”  Guy followed his gaze and with pure and absolute astonishment watched as the figure grew clear:  an old, long-haired woman, completely naked, approaching with small, tentative steps.

Out of the corner of his eye, Guy saw Mr. Vaughn shakily lift a cell phone to his ear.  “Security to Main Deck,” he said in a low tone.  “The Churchill Suite.”

She was a deeply lined, dark-skinned woman with feet horribly misshapen by arthritis.  Her gray hair swung behind her waist as she walked, her shoulders raised and rounded.  Her hips sagged ponderously, more from age than extra weight, and her breasts hung like pears against her chest with dark, olive-colored nipples:  the return of Eve after five hundred generations.

Then she stood before them like a timid deer, her eyes pensive as she looked from one man to the other, perhaps in the hope of detecting compassion.  She settled her dark eyes on Guy and moved closer.  Her eyes did not reflect the depths of madness or dementia but rather an incessant plea.  She swallowed before speaking as though choosing her words carefully in fear of misunderstanding.  When she opened her mouth, the voice that fell from her lips was deep and strong though she spoke slowly in a language Guy did not recognize.  It sounded faintly Latin with many l’s and t’s and when she finished, she begged him with her eyes.

Guy could only return a stare of incomprehension to her and she brought a hand to her face in anguish.  She looked down and mumbled softly to herself, and when he saw that her lids were brimming, he too shared in her frustration.  Suddenly her facial features were resolute and she met his eyes again with more determination than before:  another approach had obviously occurred to her.  Raising her hand without moving her eyes from his, she held before him a plastic name tag upside down in her fingers, the recessed letters yellow with age.  Then, with pronunciation as clear and resonant as the peals of a bell on a cold, crisp morning, she uttered the name on the tag:  “Bennett.”

And the effect on Guy was a needling tingle in the small of his back that whirled up his spine to the base of his skull and down again.

“I don’t understand,” Guy said inadequately, in a voice he could hardly hear but she evidently understood this by his blinking expression and turned to Mr. Vaughn who could only regard her with his mouth agape.  She turned back to Guy.  She repeated, even slower but with greater urgency, emphasizing each syllable, “Ben-nett, Ben-nett.  BEN-NETT!”  She looked up to him imploringly, but when she obviously recognized the futility of communication, her arm fell limply, even angrily, and she began weeping.  The two men were helplessly dumbstruck as she stood before them for a moment, a portrait of despair, then she turned and began walking back down the corridor, sobbing softly.

Though shocked, Guy had no impression of the supernatural.  She was a mortal who spoke in a foreign tongue.  But time as he had always known it stalled when she began her retreat.  Halfway down the corridor her feet did not seem to fall on the carpeting, as though she were walking up an invisible incline that did not match the true rise of the deck.  There was the rippling sound again, then she shimmered like a heat wave rising from pavement and quite simply disappeared.

Now there was no time, just a dislocating sense that he was being pulled into deeper waters of reality than he was ever meant to encounter.  An undertow of fear dragged him along, his stream of consciousness flowing faster and deeper until he thought he must surely pass out.  The utter reality of the experience crashed in waves upon him until there was nothing in his existence but her pathetic eyes holding his; those dark, helpless, searching eyes that overwhelmed everything, past and present.  The empty corridor already haunted him, or rather the memory of her departure from it haunted him, playing over and over in his mind in the eternity of frozen time.  Then, far away, he heard his heartbeat beckoning him, louder and louder, marking the seconds of a world changed forever, and time abruptly tumbled into its proper march with his heart and mind racing wildly to keep up.

Mr. Vaughn was collapsing against the door with a dazed, uncomprehending expression when Guy returned to the present.  The bewildered man reached for Guy’s arm as he sank and brought a hand to his chest and began gasping for breath.  Two security guards rounded a corner from the opposite end of the corridor and broke into a run with guns drawn when they saw Guy standing over the fallen man.  “He’s having a heart attack!” Guy said irritably, and some semblance of normality returned.  As one knelt beside Mr. Vaughn, the other called for an ambulance.  Ozone hung heavily in the air.

It required his greatest act of courage to look back down the corridor.  It was quiet and undisturbed as though years had passed since those bare feet had padded down the carpeting and, for a moment, he wondered if it had really happened.  He noticed something on the carpeting where she had stood before them and when he squatted to retrieve it, his knees trembled so violently that he had to balance himself with a hand on the wall.  He stood and looked down at the name tag in his palm, contemplating his own newly found Rosetta Stone and the long journey he was about to embark upon.

            

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