Note: This story will appear in my upcoming collection Dr. Elessar’s Cabinet of Curiosities, and that’s why I’m posting this teaser. However, it has already been published in “Kindle” format, and there is a link to that below, in case you cannot wait for The Cabinet to be published*.
HOLE FOR A HEART
Jonathan Lama drove west along Interstate 80 on a warm, late spring day, headed for Chicago. His journey was at least partly an excuse to test the recently purchased ’97 Mustang convertible he drove. He was not a true car aficionado, but he liked the Mustang, and he had a good friend, Rob Gardner, who was a mechanic and lived near him. When Jon had told Rob that he was looking for a second car and had found the Mustang for a very good price, Rob had all but offered to go in halfsies just to have the chance to work on and restore it. Rob plied his trade only part-time—and under-the-table—since a severe back injury had left him both eligible for disability benefits and honestly unable to work a full schedule. He was, however, good at what he did, and after much effort and a fair amount of additional expense, he pronounced the car ready for long-distance travel. All the remaining work was cosmetic.
So far, Jon had no complaints about his friend’s efforts. He’d previously only driven the Mustang around central New Jersey, where he lived. In the beginning, it had ridden rough, and the speedometer had malfunctioned, making Jon nervous every time he took it out, though it had been easy enough to match the speed of traffic.
Now, the speedometer had been replaced and checked and was working as it should. The engine ran powerfully on all eight cylinders, and Jon could barely tell that he wasn’t driving a brand-new car, at least based on those criteria. The interior still needed a lot of work, and the car’s paint was noticeably faded, but Jon had never disagreed with Rob in prioritizing functional issues.
Once the car was ready for a real journey, Jon had taken some time off to go on a trip. He did contract IT work for several companies throughout New Jersey, and his schedule was flexible. Even better at his own job than Rob was at his, Jon never lacked employment when he wanted it. His skills were in high demand, despite the large number of competing IT professionals in the marketplace; Jon was simply the best, so he could choose his jobs to suit his preferences.
He’d decided to take his newish Mustang out to Chicago for a few days. He’d gone to college there as an undergrad, and he loved the city pretty much any time it wasn’t winter…which, he had to admit, narrowed things down somewhat. Still, during the late spring, Jon had found few places more beautiful than the Windy City. He couldn’t wait to drive up Lake Shore Drive, to pass the museums, to go downtown—he wanted finally to look at that reflective, bean-shaped sculpture in Millennium Park, which he’d never bothered to visit when he’d lived in the city. He wanted to go northwest and see if Long Grove still existed; if it did, he would gorge himself there on candy, donuts, and crafts, and would bring home some of the fantastic, locally made jelly and jam he’d found there. As a surface to which to apply that jelly and jam, there were few things better than the locally made scones; these had been even better than the donuts. Also, Jon wasn’t sure if it was out-of-season to get cider, but if it wasn’t, he was going to by God get some. Just thinking about it made him smile.
He knew, though, that he’d have to be on his guard against wistfulness when he was in Chicago. That was where he’d had his only long-term relationship, and where he’d been left by the love of his life. They’d been together for almost three years and had even shared an apartment during senior year; Jon had needed to hide that fact from his own parents, but hers, oddly, had never seemed bothered.
Allison Chaney—a name Jon usually avoided thinking—was as ambitious as she was bright and beautiful. She wanted much from life and had seen in Jon someone with the potential to become one of the software tycoons who had sprung up like weeds all over America in the preceding few decades. In this, she was probably right; Jon recognized the fact without fear of egotism. He was exceptional both at programming and at the hardware side of the IT industry, and at some level he truly loved it. Allison had seen in him the soul and capabilities of a Michelangelo in his field, and though that was perhaps taking things a bit far, Jon knew he could have been extraordinarily successful. This was confirmed by the fact that he made more money working ten hours a week on contracts than 80% of New Jersey citizens did working full time. Even though Jon usually took longer than he honestly needed for most jobs, he was still the most sought-after contractor in central Jersey, according to those who sought him.
Yet Jon had never desired the life of a Gates, a Jobs, or a Zuckerberg, nor that of the seemingly endless second-tier heroes of the industry. It was simply too stressful, and the rewards were not worth the cost. He had but one life; he didn’t want to squander it playing games of one-upmanship against other computer demigods for the dubious rewards of money (lots of it, to be fair) and recognition (much less valuable, and as ephemeral as the latest iPhone version). If he was a Michelangelo, then he was one who was satisfied to be paid very well to do the occasional strikingly good wedding portrait or decorative mural.
Unfortunately, that had been unacceptable to Allison. Jon had never been certain if it was the possible wealth and fame lost or the fact that his ability would never be brought into the world in its fullest capacity that had driven her most to distraction. He suspected the latter. His personal lack of ambition—and the implicit near-nihilism that underlay it—had been the source of almost all of their fights, which had grown in frequency as graduation had approached. Allison had wanted Jon either to go into a respected graduate program, doing serious research and development, or to seek out a position in a major corporation like Apple, or Google, or Microsoft. Jon, however, had taken a job at a company near his parents’ home in New Jersey. It was not a bad job, but it had been nowhere near as good as he could have had.
He had simply been too disheartened by the amount of work, the potential strain, and the inescapable fact that no one could be the unrivaled best in the computer industry, no matter how hard one tried or how gifted one was. It was easier—in some ways, better—to be mediocre than to be almost the best. Ultimately, Allison had left him.
Jon had been heartbroken, but he’d recovered. He never expected anything special from life, and thus was never disappointed, or so he told himself. Perhaps contradicting that claim, though, he still had to force himself not to think about Allison, not to imagine the life they might have had together. By now she was, no doubt, married to some mover and shaker, or—more likely—was a mover and shaker herself, possibly still in Chicago. Jon had dated a few women since Allison, but none for longer than six months. He’d never come close to any stronger commitment. In his devastating young heartbreak, he seemed to have lost the capacity to achieve, or even to want, a deep relationship.
He shook his head, trying to drive his maudlin thoughts away. Why was he thinking about Allison after so long? He’d put her out of his mind for ages and was satisfied to have done so. He had, of course, been aware that traveling to Chicago might trigger the odd memory here and there. He hadn’t, however, expected the reminiscences to begin on a stretch of interstate in western central Pennsylvania, a region through which he didn’t think he’d ever driven with Allison.
The sky matched his abrupt gloominess. The trip had been bright and clear thus far, but now clouds had gathered, and one seemed to have shaded the sun, as if to add atmosphere to Jon’s reminiscences.
He forced himself to focus anew on his surroundings. The low, ancient mountains of eastern Pennsylvania had not yet given way entirely to the flat, level ground at the western end of the state, but they had been attenuated greatly, and Jon now drove through a region of gently rolling hills, through forest and farmland, with many miles between major cities. It was a beautiful landscape in the late spring. The trees bore full foliage, the fields had been sown and were beginning to grow, and Jon had no doubt that healthy wildlife populated the extensive woodlands. It should have been impossible to be anything but cheerful looking at such beauty, but Jon felt morose. His reminiscences—he refused to acknowledge them as regrets—had dampened his spirits.
As his car came to the top of a gentle rise, higher than most of its brethren, Jon caught sight of something curious ahead.
There was a highway exit just before the next hill, and as with many, a gas station was visible near the turn-off. At the top of that rise, just before it dropped off into the cut that had made way for the interstate, was a great, spreading, towering tree. It looked like a pecan tree to Jon, but he wasn’t sure they grew in Pennsylvania. He’d always loved those trees; he’d seen many when he’d visited his relatives in the South as a child, though he never could stomach the nuts. He’d thought they were a southern-only growth, but maybe there were strains that grew farther north. Or perhaps this tree merely reminded him of the beautiful, sprawling pecans he’d seen as a child.
In any case, it was not the tree that had pulled Jon’s focus, but what stood under it, a few yards from the trunk, an entirely different kind of planting than that great, natural growth.
In the tree’s shadow stood what looked for all the world like a scarecrow. Jon couldn’t make out any details, but it seemed a typical fixture of at least storybook cornfields: a stuffed human shape raised on a piece of wood, like a cheap, country crucifix. The presence of this entirely typical prop in an atypical location had drawn Jon’s attention, for there were no fields within a stone’s throw of the figure, nothing for it to protect from the depredations of corvids. Jon had always thought crows were too smart to fall for such transparent decoys anyway, but still, one would think that a scarecrow belonged amidst planted crops; the nearest sown field to the tree and its attendant was easily at least a hundred yards away, well behind the gas station.
Of course, another possible use for a scarecrow, particularly one under a tree, was as a Halloween decoration. It was a thousand years till Autumn, but Jon supposed someone might have put the thing up the previous October and decided simply to leave it, since it would eventually become appropriate again.
Jon glanced at his gas gauge as he rolled down the current hill and approached the next one. The tank was almost half full, so he didn’t really need to stop, but the Mustang was not easy on fuel. It wouldn’t hurt to top it off. Also, the pack of Newports on the passenger seat was less than quarter full and could use replacing.
*Dr. Elessar’s Cabinet of Curiosities will be available in e-book, paperback, and (for the first time) in hardback(!!) starting October 1