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The Whitman Inn

By Matthew Wuertz

 

Dave followed the stagecoach route through the woods of southern Indiana, his heart still thundering in his chest.  The cool, autumn air buzzed with the sound of cicadas and crickets while twilight set in around him.  He felt certain he was alive, which meant that his device had unexpectedly worked.

            He pulled out his cell phone to check the time and quickly realized his foolishness.  “No service here,” he said to himself with a laugh, hoping it would ease his nerves.

            When darkness came, Dave second-guessed everything.  He didn’t know that much about the nineteenth century, at least not as the particulars went.  What kinds of animals dwelt in the forest?  Were there still Indian tribes in the state, and if so, were they friendly or hostile?

            Dave hadn’t told anyone he was going, not that he had many people to tell.  He was thirty-one and divorced with no children.  Work had laid him off a month ago in order to “weather the storms of change,” or some such nonsense that his manager had echoed from the executive team.  As for his friends, they might notice his absence after a month or two of no-shows to game night, but he wasn’t sure they’d be bothered enough to look for him.

            The road bent and sloped downhill.  Dave saw the dim lights of a house about a half-mile away.  That had to be it, he thought.  He was a little disoriented because of the difference of the landscape from his time, but he couldn’t think of another structure that would be along the road so close to his point of origin.

            He heard voices as he drew closer, at least one man and woman.  When the man laughed, it drew Dave almost as strongly as the space-time anomaly that had pulled him into the past.

            The two-story wood home revealed little of its architecture in the dark, other than a long porch that groaned as he stepped onto it.  Near the front door, he peered through a square window, discovering a quaint parlor filled with a couch and chairs.

            Before Dave could knock, the door swung open.  He faced a slightly taller man with wrinkles and graying hair, but there was such merriment in his eyes that he seemed ageless.  “Good evening, sir,” the man said.  “How may I be of service to you?”

            Dave dipped his head.  “Is this the Whitman Estate?  I heard you had an inn here.”

            “Yes, sir.  I’m John Whitman, and we do host guests on occasion.  Do you require lodging?  I daresay that you won’t find much hospitality either north or south for at least thirty miles.” 

            He looked past Dave for a moment.  “Did the lantern go out on your coach?”

            “What?  Oh, I didn’t travel by coach.  I walked here.”

Mr. Whitman laughed infectiously.  “Walked here?  From where?”

“I only walked about a mile, but I’ve traveled much farther than that.”  He took a breath.  “I’m from the twenty-first century.”

The older man smiled.  “Yes?  Well, come in.”  Pointing to Dave’s bare, bony arms, he said, “You certainly dressed the part, though you must be a bit chilled from dashing about without a proper shirt or jacket.”

“It was warmer where I came from.”

Mr. Whitman led Dave to a round, oak table in the front room of the house.  Kerosene lamps bathed the room in an orange glow.  It reminded Dave of times in his childhood when thunderstorms would knock out the electricity, and his mom would light candles. 

“I shall ask my wife to prepare some food,” Mr. Whitman said.  He walked towards a hallway off to the right and stopped abruptly.  “Ah, forgive me, sir.  I’ve forgotten my manners in all of the excitement of your arrival.  What is your name?”

“Dave.”  When Mr. Whitman pressed his face forward and raised his eyebrows, Dave added, “Baumgarten.”

“Ah, a nice German name.  I shall return momentarily, Mr. Baumgarten.”

Dave settled into one of the chairs, surprised at its comfort despite the lack of padding.  This was simply ridiculous, he thought.  He was actually sitting in the original Whitman Inn.

The wooden walls around him were barren, except for a painting of bucolic fields near a river.  Dave recalled how the restored inn from his time displayed historical information along the wall, arranged beneath large captions to draw readers.  “John Whitman,” read one of the captions near the door, and Dave had read the article beneath it more than all the rest.

            An uneasy feeling suddenly fell upon Dave when he considered that Mr. Whitman might contact the authorities (of some sort) to apprehend him on the charge of insanity.  His suspicions increased when he unmistakably heard Mr. Whitman say, “From the future.”

            Dave rose as quietly as he could and approached the hallway.  “No, the future as in hundreds of years from our present time,” Mr. Whitman was saying..

            “I’m afraid I don’t quite understand,” a woman’s voice answered.

            Mr. Whitman laughed.  “Don’t you see?  He’s a play-actor here to entertain us.  The lieutenant governor likely sent him here from Indianapolis.”

            “Oh, how fun!” she replied.  “Can I tell him that I arrived from the past?  I want to be from Elizabethan England.”

            “No, no, you mustn’t ruin his show, Tabitha.  It isn’t a play if all the audience is on stage with the actors.”

            “Very well.  I’ll just be myself.  That’s enjoyment enough.”

            With brisk steps, Mr. Whitman crossed the hall before Dave could retreat.  “Ah, there you are, Mr. Baumgarten.  Mrs. Whitman will be along with some refreshments shortly.”  He handed Dave a wool overcoat.  “This should warm you in the meantime.”

            “I appreciate that, Jo- I mean, Mr. Whitman.”

            The older man motioned to the table.  As soon as they sat down, Mr. Whitman clapped his hands together.  “So tell me, what is your trade in the twenty-first century?”

            “I’m a software developer professionally and an inventor on the side.”  Dave had rattled off his one-liner so many times that he didn’t even pause to think about what he’d just said.

            “What are the job responsibilities of a software developer?”  With a wink Mr. Whitman added, “Did I get that right?”

            Dave tried to think how he could explain such a profession to a man in the past.  “I build things that help businesses increase their profitability and efficiency.  I try to automate manual processes.”

            Mr. Whitman laughed.  “You sound like a politician.”

            Mrs. Whitman was a petite woman whose dark hair was streaked with gray.  She bustled into the room carrying a tray of food that Dave thought was too big for her, but she set it on the table without commotion.  “Here we are,” she said.

Sliced, dense bread and a multi-colored cheese lay spread on the tray with a trio of yellow apples on one side.  Dave took an apple and wiped it on his jeans.  “Thank you,” he remembered to say before biting into it.

            “You’re welcome, dear.”  Looking to her husband, she asked, “Shall we not say grace?”

            “Oh, yes,” Dave said sheepishly.  He bowed his head and closed his eyes.  He was certain he felt their gazes upon him, but he wasn’t about to say a word.  It wasn’t that he didn’t know how to pray, but he’d left his Christian upbringing behind when he’d left home for college, realizing that he simply didn’t have an interest in church.

            “Heavenly Father, we thank you for our guest tonight,” Mr. Whitman prayed.  “We ask for Your blessing upon our conversation and this food.  Amen.”

            When Dave opened his eyes, Mr. Whitman waved a hand towards him.  “Mr. Baumgarten was just telling me about his business as a software developer and an inventor.”

            “Oh, an inventor?” she asked.  “What have you invented?”

            Dave blushed.  “Well, nothing, really.  I guess I’m more of a hack.  I tinker with ideas people already had.  That’s how I was able to come back to this time.  The patent expired on the original invention, so it fell into the public domain.”

            “Well, even duplicating another’s efforts can be quite a challenge,” Mr. Whitman said.  “You should be proud of yourself.  After all, we haven’t met anyone else from the future, so perhaps you are the only one to figure out how to make the invention function correctly.”

            Dave set the half eaten apple back on the tray.  “Everyone’s thinking too broad.  They keep trying to make a device that can work on a large scale, like ships, planes or spacecraft.  I was able to take a much simpler approach, a single-person device that integrates with a cell phone.”

            “Listen to all those inventive words,” Mr. Whitman said.  “I must say, you’ve got my mind racing.”

            With a grin, Dave unclipped the cell phone from his belt and flipped it open.  “I know you think I’m an actor, but maybe this will convince you otherwise.”  He held the phone out to Mr. Whitman.

The screen illuminated the deeper wrinkles in the man’s face as he carefully examined the phone.  “I don’t understand what this is,” Mr. Whitman said, “but I know it isn’t an actor’s prop.”

            “Its basic use is to call someone in a different location,” Dave explained.  “The sound of a person’s voice is sent from one phone to another.  You could instantly speak with someone else anywhere in the world.”

            Mr. Whitman handed the phone back and brushed his hands on the front of his shirt.  “Did you not fear the repercussions of such a visit?” he asked.  “Our time was undisturbed once.  Now, your influence, however minute, is impressed upon us.”

            Dave shook his head.  “You’re thinking about time all wrong.  Moving from one time to another is like taking a trip from here to New York City.  No one worries about changing New York City in the present, but it is no different than changing New York City in the past.  The only difference is that from a time perspective, you’ve already gone there.”

            “I think I understand what he’s saying, dear,” Mrs. Whitman said.  “Our home in 1840 is a place that Mr. Baumgarten chose to visit.  He might have wandered in from Indianapolis within our own time period, or he might have arrived from a future location.  Regardless, from God’s eyes, he came to visit us this night.  That is the only history this night and place will ever know.”

            “Yes, that’s a good way to look at it,” Dave said.

            Mr. Whitman folded his hands.  “Why have you come here, Mr. Baumgarten?”

            “Things haven’t been going well for me lately.”  He smiled bleakly.  “Actually, things are a mess.  I was at a loss for what to do. 

            “I visited my hometown.  I really don’t know why I went.  My parents are both dead; Mom died last year.  This isn’t how it’s supposed to be for someone in their early thirties.  It’s like I’m an orphan with only casual acquaintances with the rest of my family.

            “Then I started tinkering with this device, but I thought that even if I were able to cause an anomaly, it would likely rip my body to shreds.  Honestly, I was hoping it would. 

            “Some people might have chosen something simple for a test, like going back a few minutes in time, but I thought of my test run like a wish.  If I could go anywhere, where did I want to go?  That’s when I remembered all the trips I’d taken to Whitman State Park as a kid.”

            “I’m afraid I don’t understand,” Mr. Whitman said.

            “About thirty years from now, this town will be abandoned.  Historians aren’t sure if it was due to a changing marketplace, or maybe because the stagecoach lines lost favor to the expanding railways.  Regardless, Millersburg literally drops off the map and is forgotten.

“Sometime in the 1920’s, people from my hometown push for this area to become a national park to draw in tourists.  While they’re setting up roads and mapping the area, they come across a number of the original buildings of Millersburg.  I can’t imagine how exciting that must have been.”

            Dave stretched out his arms.  “This room was all they found of the inn, and it was almost in disrepair, but they were able to rebuild from the foundation.  From what I’ve seen so far, they put together the puzzle of how this place looked pretty well.”

            “So our home is to become a museum?” Mrs. Whitman asked, her eyes turning away.  “What about our children?  This was to be their legacy,” she whispered.

            “Perhaps you shouldn’t speak anything more of this,” Mr. Whitman suggested.  “You’re upsetting my wife.”

            Dave’s face fell.  “I’m sorry, Mrs. Whitman,” he said.  “Your children are fine.  In fact, they’re part of the reason I came here.  You see, my mother’s maiden name was Whitman.”

            Mr. Whitman smiled.  “So we’re your ancestors.”

            “That sounds so distant,” Dave said.  “You’re more like the grandparents I never had.”

            “Well, now that you’re here, what would you like to do?” Mrs. Whitman asked.

            Dave rolled a second apple around in his hands.  “Do you know what a tourist is?” he asked.

            “A traveler,” Mr. Whitman said.  He raised his eyebrows.  “You, for example.”

            “In my time, it’s common for people to take trips all over the world, exploring new places, new sites.  Imagine if people could travel here and stay at the original Whitman Inn.  People would pay me well for such an opportunity.  And I could compensate you generously, of course.”  A couple of shiny nickels from the extraordinary profit ought to do it, Dave thought.

            “I thought your device only worked for one person,” Mr. Whitman said.

            “I think I could bring back two or three people at a time, and that would be plenty.  Unless you wanted to build more rooms.  Oh, but you never did that, so never mind.”

            “If you know what I’ve already done, then you must already know my answer,” Mr. Whitman said.

            “Well, I don’t.  I found no record of my coming here.  That’s part of the reason I thought the device would fail.  All I know is that you’ve entertained a variety of guests over the years, so why not host some people from my time?”

            Mr. Whitman frowned.  “I don’t think I want those kinds of guests here.  You’re more than welcome to stay with us, though.  You are a bright, young man.  We could use your help with bookkeeping, and an extra hand at the mill would be welcome.  Maybe you can use your skills as a software developer to make us more efficient.”

            “But we’d be passing up a fortune,” Dave argued.  “That’s the kind of change I’ve been looking for.”

            “We are already quite fortunate,” Mr. Whitman said.  “You say you’re looking for change, and I’m offering that to you.”

            Dave didn’t answer.

            “Why not sleep on it?” Mrs. Whitman asked.  “I was about to make up the spare room.”

            The younger man stood up.  “I think I need to get back.  This is all a bit of a jumble for me and not really what I expected.  I could probably come up with a better plan for the tourism thing if you think you might change your mind.  That idea just came to me a few moments ago.”

            Dave tried to hand the overcoat back, but Mr. Whitman refused to take it.  “I wouldn’t want you to catch cold before you get back.”

            Mr. Whitman walked Dave to the door, keeping his hand on Dave’s shoulder.  Dave felt a bit awkward from the gesture, the closest thing to a hug he had felt from another man since he was a kid.  “I hope to see you again soon, Dave,” Mr. Whitman told him.  “Don’t forget that you have family here.  Even if you can’t live with us, we would appreciate a visit every now and again.”

            Dave looked the man in the eyes briefly, judging the sincerity of the statement.  “Thank you.” 

            When the door had closed behind their guest, Mrs. Whitman came to stand beside her husband.  She leaned against him, and he kissed her forehead.  “The Whitman’s have a good line, wouldn’t you agree?”

            “We do,” she said.

            A light rapping drew their attention back to the door.  Mr. Whitman opened it tentatively.

            Dave stood on the stoop, but his face was lightly bearded, and he carried a large bag.  Instead of jeans and sneakers, he wore dull brown trousers and hard shoes beneath Mr. Whitman’s overcoat.  “I heard you could use a hand at the mill,” he said with a broad smile.

About the Author

Matthew Wuertz develops software in addition to developing fiction.  His stories have appeared in several magazines, including Abyss & Apex and Heroic Fantasy Quarterly.  Matthew lives in Indianapolis, Indiana with his wife and three children.  To learn more about Matthew, please visit his blog: http://matthewwuertz.blogspot.com/.

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