John W. Patterson
Word count: 2,385

A Warped Sense

(Science Fiction, Urban Fantasy)


     I don't usually talk about my odd friends -- or strangers for that matter 
but in this  case I make the exception. I'm not using real names but some of the 
place names and the dates are essentially accurate.
     I first met Renaud while on a camping vacation in Canada. He explained how 
he had been hiking the Bruce Trail up to Tobermory, Ontario. What a hidden gem 
of enchanting beauty -- that's another story in itself. I had just broken camp 
and was starting off on a fourteen-hour drive to Scranton, PA. The gas station 
attendant shook his head and let me know that wasn't his idea of a vacation. I 
suppose he wanted me to fool around in the CN tower of Toronto or do the 
guardrail squeeze at Niagara Falls. I just wanted to see the farmlands of little 
Madisonville and sleep under American skies again. Besides, my wife and kids 
were waiting there. They were up from Asheville, NC for a 65th wedding   
anniversary party. Anyway, this is a story about Renaud, not me.
     Just two or three miles south of Tobermory, Renaud appeared in my high 
beams, thumbing his way into my life. I don't remember what made me stop for him 
but there he was running up behind me as I leaned over to open the passenger 
door. Half a dozen Allan Holdsworth CD cases went cascading out the door onto 
the roadside.
     "Oops," I said, "excuse the clutter."
     Renaud handed the stuff back to me as he leaned inside. He placed what I 
thought was a shrouded birdcage on the seat between us and got in, slamming the 
door shut. "Where ya headed?" I asked, pulling back onto the highway.
     He didn't answer at first, which bothered me somewhat. He looked at what I
  thought was his watch, holding it very close to his face.
     "South, as far as route 10," he blurted, "gonna catch the trail again near 
there."
     "What trail is that? The Bruce cuts away from 6 near here and winds east 
around the Georgian Bay. Route 10 is a bit out of the --" I suggested.
     "You would like for me to get out at the next pull-off up ahead?" he 
retorted.
     "No, I was only trying --"
     "Thanks anyhow but route 10," Renaud cut back, "is exactly where I'm 
headed."
     With all that cleared up we drove on without speaking for another ten miles 
or so. There was something I didn't like about this guy. His stoic presence was 
draining, a tension filled the car. To add to the uncomfortable air, that odd 
cage on the seat between us kept me jumpy. Whatever was in there didn't smell so 
great and it would twitch about, skittering and scraping at the canvas cover 
through the chicken wires. Renaud would lay his arm over it at times and the 
activity would calm down.
     Once when Renaud dozed off I deftly reached over, thinking of catching a 
peek at whatever he had in there. For the first time since he got in the car, 
Renaud awakened now, looked me squarely in my eyes, shaking his head "no". I 
raised my eyebrows as the little boy caught in the cookie jar. Renaud smiled and 
went back to sleep.
     This guy had to go. Why did I ever pick him up anyway? It wasn't like me to 
stop for anyone, especially someone who looked like this dreg.
     Renaud's shoulder-length hair, was dyed a sickly yellow, and braided in a 
very neat rat's nest. He sported a full beard of black with reddish streaks 
along what ears I could see. His hat was some Mongolian maelstrom of hide and 
matted fur. His clothing was bizarre in that it was a baggy, seamless, pile of 
confusion. Renaud looked like he was wearing a duffel bag. At times it I swear I 
couldn't focus on him -- I mean I saw him through a haze. I figured it was 
fatigue or old-age-floaters plaguing my vision. He was tall, 6' 3" to be exact. 
He stood a gaunt, stooped enigma in my path. Rasputin on the roadside, sitting 
now right next to me. Great, just great.
     "Ever hike the Appalachian Trail," I spoke up, "ugh -- I don't believe I 
caught your name."
     "No. Name of the week is Renaud. You like?"
     "Yeah sure, mine's --" I began.
     "Max Yeager of Asheville, NC, USA, 1-910-867-53 --" Renaud chuckled.
     "Hey, what's going on?"
     He held up a CD case I had personalized and tossed it up on the dashboard. 
The mystery in the cage hissed and tossed itself against its enclosure. I 
decided to pull over after the next hill. I'd soon eject Renaud and his hidden 
homunculus from this twisted game of words.
     Renaud began coughing and shaking. He popped something out of a pocket and
sprayed the back of his throat. He pitched the tube in my backseat and appeared 
okay again.
     "Are you sick, Renaud?"
     "Yeah, you could say I'm terminal, a marked man, Dr. Doom, a rainbow 
rider."
     "Are you --- contagious? You need to roll down your window or do something 
like cover your mouth next time."
     "Thanks for your selfless concern there Max."
     I began to pull off the road.
     "Not here man," Renaud looked at his watch again, "It isn't near enough 
time. Thirty more minutes and I'm gone. Just a little further, I won't cough 
like that for at least 12 hours. I'm not gonna infect you. It's asbestos fiber 
lung disease. My old job, I'm only killin' myself slowly. You're safe Max. 
Please gimme a break. I'm too tired to keep walking. I'm on a schedule. I'm 
meeting an old friend near where you're taking me."
     "All right, all right! I guess I'm a bit paranoid," I answered, pulling 
back onto 6, "You're not the typical hiker or hitchhiker for that matter."
     "Please define typical."
     "Okay, okay. What hiker carries a pet in a shrouded cage? What is in that?" 
I asked.
     "Is that a definition of rhetorical questions," Renaud began, "or are you 
ignoring my question and prying into my personal business?"
     "You are impossible!"
     "Hmm, a typical hiker, let's see," he was taunting me, "Backpack, hiking 
boots, bedroll, tent, plastic maps, cool shades, all scratched up, sunburned 
perhaps, tales from the trails, chitchat, and so forth."
     "Stop it, Renaud," I said, "What's in the stinking cage?"
     "It does intrigue you," he turned and locked his eyes on me, "does it not? 
First, what do you keep caged and covered from view with you at all times? Your 
past, nasty little affairs, dreams twisted around your own secret desires or do 
you flee, aimlessly now, from the death of hope? Tell me, Max. Go ahead. You'll 
never see me again after this morning's mist is burned away by the dawn. Get a 
load off."
     This guy was unreal. For the next 25 miles we talked of love and death, joy 
and bitterness. Dreams and desires poured out of the two of us. It was as if I 
was talking to myself once I got started. Renaud understood me explicitly. His 
observations anticipated and echoed the flow of our conversation. How could he 
so easily gain my trust and what was happening between us? We neared the 
intersection of route 10 and route 6.
     "Pull off over there onto that dirt road," Renaud told me, "Thank you, Max, 
your time with me has been very good for me. I trust the same for you?"
     "Yes, I am sorry --" yawning I continued, "Excuse me, I really need some 
coffee."
     "No, Max. You need to rest here and sleep awhile before driving anymore. 
Trust me."
     We stopped the car and went onto the dirt road a few car lengths. I was 
going down fast. I couldn't figure out this deep tiredness. I felt drained like 
my soul had journeyed long and hard into the night of Renaud's probing world. He 
exited the car and began down the deserted lane.
     "Renaud, where ya headed?"
     "Home, Max, east of Scranton, PA."
     "What?"
     "My Scranton, Max, my world, my time."
     He turned around and walked off, heading deeper in amongst the dew-heavy 
wood. I tried to get up and follow him but I only fell over to the passenger 
seat. I was dizzy, my head heavy.
     "Renaud, wait a minute! I don't get it!" calling after him, "Please come 
back. I'm sick, I think. I need help!"
     He turned slowly and came over to me smiling.
     "I don't usually do this for you guys but," Renaud whispered, "I really 
like you Max. I wouldn't mind trading places with you. You're very fortunate, 
ignorant, short-sighted, but blessed."
     My mind raced and plummeted toward the wall of sleep. Renaud reached into a
  pocket I couldn't see and pulled out a strange object of obsidian and silver. 
It was a knife. I instinctively drew back and barely sat up. I reached for the 
keys. They were gone.
     "Max, I won't hurt you," he said, holding the knife to his throat, "It's 
time to show you the edge of a painful reality."
     "Renaud, don't do it!"
     Laughing at me, he began shaving. As his beard fell away, I was laughing 
with him. It was a dry-heaved, mind-shattering laugh. Pulling his hair back 
then, I could see Renaud's face clearly in the dim glow of my car's interior 
light. He knelt down and put his face close to mine.
     "I am you, Max, and you are me, Renaud," he wept, holding my hands up to 
his stubble-rough face, "and I need to go home, soon. My hokmah is ready and 
awaits the jump."
     "Are you my long lost twin brother or something, Renaud?" I muttered.
     "You wanted to see what was in this cage, Max?"
     He pulled of the shroud and opened the cage door. A frog, full of eyes on 
its back, jumped out staring at me. Where I thought its eyes should have been, 
were two horned growths resembling antlers. I drew back in disgust, my head 
lolling over to rest on the steering wheel.
     "The hokmah will not hurt you Max. He has taken what he needed of your 
soulfire and can now jump me home. Forgive me for not asking your permission 
first but you wouldn't have understood."
     Renaud started off again, the hokmah hopping behind him. I pulled together 
all I had left in me to cry out to him again.
     "Renaud, what did you mean about trading places?"
     He stopped once more. The hokmah began to swell at his feet, Renaud was 
pulling a stiff plastic hood up around his face, flipping a black visor down.
     "It's been done voluntarily by others like us before. Sometimes you guys 
get drugged, murdered, whatever and the trade is very one-sided. We've got folks 
getting psych-rubs back home, all claiming their world is elsewhere. Then 
there's the tricky Peripheral types," Renaud went on, the hokmah, now the size 
of a grizzly bear, awaited the jump, "You can ride this beast in my stead and I 
can remain. Choose now, Max. You have two minutes and forty-five of your 
seconds. The hokmah knows when to jump and it will not remain here. It must 
return or it dies in its present morph." 
     "No, I can't go," I said, "Renaud, what of your home? What do you return 
to? Who am I there? Who are you, I mean?"
     "Mostly, the same things drive us crazy there and we seek the similarly 
elusive peace.
  There is no Canada. It is all the United Provinces of North America," he spoke 
in leaving, climbing onto the hokmah's neck, gripping its eye-horns, "Oh yes, 
there was no Civil War as there were never any slaves, nor slave trade with the 
UPNA. Your US territories absorbed what you know as Canada during the early part 
of the nineteenth century. None of this really matters now does it?"
     "I guess not --well this is goodbye then, Renaud?."
     "Yeah. Thanks for the lift. I am glad I got to meet you in person. Mirror-
worlds voyeurism is a prevalent sickness back home. It bores me. Max, beware of 
Peripherals for the next few weeks. They like to backtrack hokmah jumplines to 
prey on the unwary. Please excuse this unlikely event. I'll do my best to dip 
into some unpeopled worlds on my way home. It serves to distract them most of 
the time. If they do find a way here, remember this. They seem to appear just 
out of sight, to either side of you before they converge and jump you. You wind 
up where they send you. It's like your hide-and-seek game to them. One last
thing, not all is as bad as it seems to be. In other worlds, it is usually 
worse. So long Max Yeager. My real name is --"
     At that moment Renaud's hokmah leaped toward me and vanished. I passed out.

  				*   *   *   *

     "Good evening sir. Feeling all right?" the officer asked.
     "What time is it --no, what day is it?" I asked, leaping out of my car.
     "It's Friday, June 20, 8 p.m., Mister --"
     "Max Yeager, I need to get back on the road. I overslept and am six hours 
behind schedule. Please excuse me, officer," I pleaded.
     "Sure, sure, on your way then," the guy said, looking at me funny, "Your 
little pet got away there, it must've gotten the cage door open."
     "What? Oh right, too bad. See you sir. I'll be leaving soon. Thanks again!"
     The patrol car pulled off and I pitched the hokmah cage into the high grass 
where I last saw Renaud. Pulling out back onto route 6, I headed for Scranton, 
PA. As I drove on into the night, I kept hallucinating multiple Renauds thumbing 
on the roadside. No way. Not this time.
     Three groggy hours later I neared Niagara Falls and the Canadian-US border, 
only it wasn't there! I stopped the car and got out. I read the tourist sign, 
"The United Provinces of North America Welcomes You to the Great Niagara 
Cascades".
     I sat on the grass, rocking back and forth, looking for a hokmah, any 
hokmah.

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"I wanna go home now!!"