Samount Gugar v2
Short story - around 2900 words
Main characters - August Morgan (high school senior who stops for lunch at a local diner
on his way to a job interview),
Julie (August's best friend who works at said diner. She's graduating Valedictorian and
moving to New York)
Dr. Samount Gugar (Sixty-something-year-old staffer for the General Services
Administration. He's August's interviewer and stops by the diner for a quick bite)
Saratoga, New Mexico is a desert town. It’s the typical sort of place with one traffic light for three hundred odd residents living across sixty square acres. We have two eateries, a gas station, a school building, and enough empty space in between. Next door the barren New Mexico frontier stretches into the horizon.
There is a local military base that uses the desert for internal activities – usually violent experiments. To their credit, an alarm always goes off prior to any major activity. The base is the biggest employer for Saratogans, who mostly supply menial labor for relatively decent wages. I suppose the government presence is also why we are so scarcely populated and why people my age aim to get out after high school and never look back.
I sit in Marie’s Café and look out the window. Across the street is Mike’s Restaurant. I’ve eaten exclusively at Marie’s since Julie started working the counter.
The corner of my eye catches my parents’ gray pickup. We wave at each other as the truck rolls up to the red light, stops briefly, and then crawls through. Running the sole traffic light in town is a Saratoga quirk. They dropped me off on their way out of town. I graduate high school in a few months and other than math, my grades aren’t stellar. So I’m looking into getting a job as a janitor at the base. I have an interview in about an hour with a Dr. Samount Gugar. The interview is in the school building down the street and I thought I’d eat lunch in the meantime.
A flock of birds dash across the pure blue sky. The horde is larger than usual. I count thirty-three plus minus two. Thirty-three birds this time, but measurements must account for uncertainty. Plus minus is an overlooked necessity. I like numbers so I count everything and appreciate precision.
Julie is a salt skeptic so I add salt on the down low. The lid isn’t quite fastened. I don’t worry about it.
I have a bite from my bacon-and-egg-on-a-croissant sandwich. I savor the taste of the warm bouquet of eggs and grease. The bacon has the lightest crisp as it bursts in my mouth. I shut my eyes and get lost in the orchestral sounds of the clattering silver ware and indistinct conversation. The front door opens and tinkling wind chimes kill my reverie.
I look over my shoulder at the man who enters. He is lanky in a brownish sweater and wears a white fedora with a black band. His hands fiddle in his pant pockets as he approaches the counter. Professor pops into mind.
Julie greets him with a smile, which he returns. Her long brown hair is tied back, as if it were a bushel of barley. Curls that don’t quite fit her ponytail wreath down one side of her face. Her violet blouse shimmers under the fluorescent lights.
He sits on a stool and sets his fedora down on the countertop, revealing a mop of longish white hair. They speak and he flashes her some sort of card, which I find strange. Then she takes his order and goes to prepare it. My gaze must be lighting him up because he turns and looks at me. Startled, I turn my eyes back to my sandwich, but my hand hits the salt. The canister falls on the table. The lid stays on. I pick it up and tighten the lid. Twenty-seven grains escaped. Plus minus three. I choose three because it is the smallest whole number that leads to the smallest double digit percentage approximation for twenty-seven. I swipe them off.
My meal’s barely warm now. That’s the rub about eggs and bacon. Their best qualities are like comets blazing through the sky. They never last. Hesitate and it’s over; the eggs get cold and the bacon turns dry. I gobble it down and once only crumbs remain, I look back up at the counter.
Julie serves the man a plate and when his fingertips touch the china’s edge he smiles. But deep lines frame his cheeks like parentheses. They talk a bit more before she leaves him to it. I peg him at around sixty.
I can’t shake that there’s something odd about this man. A pounding in the pit of my belly suggests I know this man. He seems pleasant enough, if Julie’s smile is a standard to judge amiability. Something is still off. I don’t have the slightest clue who he is. It bothers me.
I want to know more about the guy. Another sandwich seems the perfect excuse. I grab the dish and head over. Talking to Julie is a bonus. Julie isn’t my girl. Maybe she is. In truth, I don’t know where we are. I know only where we’ve been and where we’re going.
We’ve been in the same class since kindergarten and spend summers together. In June, she’ll graduate valedictorian and go to a New York college to study physics. I will graduate. I would likely repeat a grade if I wasn’t a rock star at trigonometry and calculus. It’s the other subjects that I can’t bring myself to care about – and Julie has tried her best. Bless her heart. So, for at least a year, we will go our separate ways.
Julie is waiting for me when I reach the part of the counter that loops into the wall. Behind librarian-framed glasses, her eyes are hazel, veering toward green. I think it takes a special sort of girl to wear pointed glasses today.
I hand over the plate. Her thick ponytail jumps over a shoulder when she turns her back to me. She pauses facing the grill. Her blouse flutters tenderly against the top of her jeans.
She nudges her chin to the side she asks, “eggs and bacon, August?”
“Is there anything else?”
“Eggs and sausage,” she shrugs.
“That’s all right.”
She grabs a couple of eggs from a cabinet fridge and cracks them open over the grill. Then she ducks under the grill and emerges with a handful of bacon that she throws down to an immediate sizzle. She flicks her hair back. The rows of heated metal disappear from view.
There’s a chair by the grill and a magazine lies open on the cushion. The title “Higgs Boson may present insight into the possibility of time travel” tells me it’s a science magazine. The font and headers support this reasoning. However, my deductions aren’t necessary because I know Julie devours The New Scientist.
I don’t like physics particularly because nothing happens in the field. Absolutely nothing. The last big discovery was in the 1940’s. Since then nada. Even the Higgs Boson is old. It’s been debated and deliberated since the 1960’s. I lack the patience to wait half a century to see if I’m on to something. With menial labor, at least you see your contribution.
“You’re deep in thought,” she startles me and I find her leaning on the counter in front of me. The pads of her fingertips touch the back of my hand.
She only smiles, but the undertone says you would have jumped to the ceiling if I weren’t holding your hand.
“I was thinking about what you were reading. The Higgs Boson?”
“You made it out from here?” she turns her head to the chair and her curls slide onto the smooth sheetplastic, “And upside down, too. Good job.”
“Reading comprehension, Sugarcakes.” I tap a finger against my temple.
She clears a wisp of hair from her cheek. “Sugarcakes? Starting to work up that courage to ask me out, are we?”
“Takin’ a bit of a stretch there, don’t you think?”
“August, you haven’t been to Mike’s since I started working here and switching eateries is like switching churches in Saratoga.”
“You’re reading way too much into it, but you can’t help it as a girl.”
There’s a faint smirk on Julie’s lips as her eyes widen. “August, you’ve chased me since we started high school. And you were bad at being subtle, because you’re a boy.” She leans in, forearms resting on the countertop, prohibiting me from interjecting. “You’re running out of time, sugarcakes. Now or never.” She raises her eyebrows.
“That reminds me, when are you going to New York?” I try to shift the conversation.
“July-ish. But maybe a little later, if you make it worth my while, Dahling.” There's a hint of honey and iron filings as she accentuates darling to get dahling.
“Well, I’ll think about it.” I want to sound tough.
“You do that.” Julie heads to the grill.
She scoops up the eggs and bacon and puts them into a sandwich and on a plate. “You’re coming to visit, naturally. I’ll be back for the holidays, though you still have to properly request my return.” She lays the plate under my nose and follows with a slight shrug of a shoulder. It’s nothing new; but together with the whiff of smoke that floats its way up, hitting all my senses, it’s all I need.
My heart paces as I say, “So what do you say, then? Before July, I’ll give you a midnight tour, when the facilities are nearly empty. I’ll swipe the keys or something!”
“Years of dreaming up this moment and that’s your big reveal? We gotta work on your dream execution! I’ll draw up the details. It won’t be on the base. You’re meant for more.”
“What’s wrong with the base?”
She stops me and says, “Physics at Delford University isn’t exactly the cakewalk that Saratoga was. I can’t really watch over you from New York, so you better not be satisfied as a grounds keeper. You’re just passing through. I will hold you to that. You better do more.” Her gaze lasers through me and I desperately search for an escape.
I notice the man finish his food. He checks his watch. Julie follows my eyes.
“Finished, Samount?” She heads over to him.
“Yes. Thank you.”
She hands him a bill and he tells her to keep the change.
“His name’s Samount?” I ask her.
“Dr. Samount Gugar from the General Services Administration. Decent guy, I think. Pays really well.”
My eyes light up. Julie blinks for me to fill her in. “He’s my interviewer.”
“Well, for what it’s worth you have the same taste in lunch.” She smiles then goes over to Samount.
“Samount, hi. This is August Morgan. I think he has an interview with you later today.” She urges me with her eyes to get up and go over. I oblige. Librarian glasses aside, Julie isn't one to shy away.
“Extraordinary.” Samount slaps his palm on the counter. The base alarm blares. We are caught off guard and all jump up. Samount is undisturbed.
“Sorry about that folks - just testing a new alarm system.” He speaks to the customers then whispers to us, “suppose I should have said that earlier.”
“We’re used to it.” I butt in.
“Even if we jump!” Julie backs me and Samount chuckles.
He hands me a white business card that reads: Dr. Samount Gugar General Services Administration Regional Staffer.
“I thought the base conducted interviews.”
“It did. We’re overhauling a couple things. The United States Government is dynamic. We’re always improving.” He shakes my hand, “The GSA handles level 1 interviews now. “
He looks at his watch again. “It’s Friday and I live out near the California border. August, is it all right with you if we do the interview ahead of schedule. It’s a formality only and you'll get to ride in a helicopter.”
Julie and I look at each other. Our eyes are wide. All that’s really registered for me is helicopter.
“Absolutely!” I say as Samount stands. He is not the sort who comes to mind when I picture a government official.
“An absolute pleasure.” He shakes hands with Julie and kisses the back of her hand. For that brief moment it seems as if he breathes in her very essence. Finally, he lets go and whispers, “Lovely.”
I find the scene strange and look over at Julie who, for a second, stands as if she were caught in a trance while her arm slowly lowers by her side.
Samount puts on his fedora. With a hand on my shoulder, he says, “Time to go.”
I follow him out the door and under the New Mexico midday sun. The alarm blares. But I don’t particularly care because on an empty plot behind Marie’s Café a black and yellow helicopter awaits. A tumbleweed brushes up against its skid.
“Not much time.” Samount puts a hand on my shoulder, as if to say walk faster. I do as told. He whirls his free hand in the air and I can hear the helicopter start up. The slouching propellers rise and begin to spin. The tumbleweed promptly jets on away. Samount presses his hat down.
We’re both ducking by the time we reach the helicopter. “Watch your head,” Samount calls out but all I hear is a whisper. He pushes my head down as if arresting me. I scoot into a cushion and feel the machine lift off the ground before Samout gets inside, but he manages to board. He struggles with door, but is able to close it.
“You good, Dr. Morgan?” The pilot, in aviator glasses and headphones, nudges his head toward Samount.
We both answer yes. I immediately blush but can almost swear the pilot said my last name. I shake my head as if trying to come to my senses.
In the air, I look out glass window at the panorama of Saratoga. I realize we are flying away from the base.
"We're taking a longer route," Samount says as if reading my mind. A few minutes pass and we are deep over the desert.
"Have I been kidnapped?" There's no sense in making a scene so I choose know the situation I'm in.
"No." Samount says with a chuckle. But a twinge of sadness rings in his voice.
I look out the window again. Saratoga is just a speck near the horizon now. I see a line of smoke heading from the base's general direction toward the town. Then it lowers into the town. To my horror moments later, a fireball erupts. It's small, but I can tell. It grows, changing into a cloud as it rises.
"Wh-Wha." I try to speak but can't. We hit turbulence. The helicopter shakes and tilts; the old man grunts, but I’m overtaken by everything around. After a while our helicopter stabilizes. I glance over at Samount. He's looking at me.
"What was that?" I can't see my face, but I know I'm bright red.
"I'm sorry." His voice is resigned.
"Go back! Get the others!"
"There's nothing. It's all dead. Just radiation."
I'm in a state of shock. My heart is one beat away from jumping out of my chest. I want to spring out of my seat and take over the helicopter. It doesn't matter that I wouldn't know what to do with it. In the end, I'm paralyzed.
Samount slides his business card in between my fingers. It calms me for some reason. "Think it through," he says as my eyes scan the card.
Dr. Samount Gugar
Regional Staffing Director
General Services Administration
There's a circular government logo on the upper left corner, but it's otherwise empty. I concentrate on his name: Samount Gugar. It dawns on me. "This isn't your name." I look up at him.
“No." He fidgets in his seat and pull out another card which he puts in my hand. It's manila colored and with a more professional, rough texture. It reads:
Dr. August Morgan, Ph.D.
Chief Physicist, Applied Relativity Continuum Department
Delford University, New York
My chin hitches up. And when our eyes meet, he nods.
"We have the same name." The words are whispered and possibly slurred.
"Yes. It's all right. You can say what you're thinking. In fact, you need to say it."
"You're me?" I blurt out the question.
"Fifty years removed, in fact." The edges of his lips curve up into a shy smile.
"A lot will happen these coming decades." He looks to his side at the window.
"The alarm. What's happening?!"
"A terrible miscommunication and excellent execution. There will be televised hearings. Careers implode. But the dead won't care about any of it."
"You knew this would happen."
"Julie." I clench my fists.
"You will honor her memory. August, your research will change everything."
"You could have saved her!"
"No." He shakes his head as if surrendering.
"But you took me. You could have saved her!"
"Because fifty years ago I sat there," he points to my seat. "And on this day, in fifty years you will sit here." He pats the cushion on his side. Then he leans in, his palms on his thighs. "This has all happened before. One day, you will be on this side. You do not influence the events. Your research will explain why. But you might as well hear it now first. Nothing can change. Even the conversations are the same. To the word." He slides back in his seat.
"No," I whisper defiantly.
"This won't be consolation, but you will see her one more time. She will be the driving force behind everything you do."
I'll get Julie on this helicopter. I'll find a way. I vow to myself.
"It's a vow you'll break." He locks eyes with me, but adds a disarming smile.
I only nod. Not to the man before me, but to my promise. I'll find a way. I look at the man. He leans his head back against the glass and slides his fedora over his eyes.