Layover in an Oak Grove
by Mary Brunini McArdle
Mary Jean Parker had never fallen out of the oak tree, despite repeated warnings from her mother and grandmother.
"She sits there reading, with her back against the trunk and her legs spread out on a flimsy branch," Estelle complained.
"Oh, Mother," Jeanie Parker replied. "She's done it for years, since she was ten years old. She's twenty now. I think it's time we stopped worrying about it."
"She should be going out more. Always reading some book."
"She has a job and she pays rent on that garage apartment in the back," Jean said. "She's mature enough to decide how she spends her free time."
The oak tree was so far back on the property it couldn't even be seen from the house. Neither could the entrance to the studio apartment on top of the separate garage. Which was just fine with Mary Jean. She worked for the local newspaper writing features, handling photographs, proofreading. Mary Jean was well-liked because she was willing to do whatever was required of her.
It was June and relatively cool among the oaks. Mary Jean was so comfortable and so absorbed in her book she didn't notice it was nearly dusk.
A few lightning bugs flew out below, accompanied by the scent of honeysuckle, roses, hydrangeas, and daisies from far away. "I'd better go in," Mary Jean murmured, closing her book. Then she heard a funny staccato noise and became aware of a faint whiff of something burning.
Branches in one of the oak trees a few yards away cracked and twisted as an object fell among them. The object settled in the crook of the tree low to the ground and sparks and smoke swirled around it.
"My God!" Mary Jean gasped. "It's a plane -- a small one. It looks old."
Then with dismay she saw someone in the plane, choking and struggling.
Mary Jean scrambled down, dropping her book and ran over to the other tree. In seconds she was up pulling on the hatch to open it. With some effort she succeeded; it was made to open from the outside. This plane is ancient, she thought. She reached in and grabbed the collar of the young man at the controls. "Out," she commanded. "You've got to help me. You've got to climb out."
He looked dazed but he obeyed. She put her arms under his shoulders and together they slid to the grass, the plane crumpling and falling in pieces out of the tree.
"We're going up to my place, over the garage," she said. "Nobody'll see us there. Then I won't have to explain how I came up with a guy my age in a tree."
He looked puzzled. "My name's Garhard. Garhard Welles. My father was English," he said, as if that explained everything."
"I'm Mary Jean Parker," she replied. "Why were you flying a plane that old, with a prop?"
"My engine failed. Don't walk so fast -- I think I hurt my ankle. Now I'm going to be in all sorts of trouble. I can't get back to Jackson without a plane. I wanted to see the Queen."
Mary Jean stared at him. "What the hell are you talking about? What Queen?"
"The Queen of Holland. She was to have been on parade this evening. She has a house in Jackson, you know."
"Garhard, did you hit your head when you crashed?"
"I don't think so, but my ankle's bleeding all over."
Mary Jean looked down at his pants leg, which was rapidly getting soaked in blood. Oh, great, she thought. I hope I have enough antiseptic and gauze. I hope this clown doesn't need stitches. How am I going to explain him to an emergency room staff?
Garhard and Mary Jean struggled up the stairs to her studio apartment. She had refused to make part of it a living-room combo; she disliked sleeper sofas. She had a tiny bath, and miniature kitchen appliances; she had made the rest of the place into a real bedroom with a double bed, stuffed chairs, and end tables. Visitors had a choice of the bed or chairs.
She led Garhard over to the bed and made him lie down. Then she found her supplies and started cutting his pants leg. His eyes were closed. "Tired," he mumbled.
"Sure you didn't hit your head?"
"I'm going to have to find you some regular clothes tomorrow. I've ruined your slacks. But I think I can pull these cuts together tight enough so you won't need stitches."
She fingered the sleeve of his shirt. "I've never seen an insignia like this," she said. "Is this a uniform?"
"Of course. Royal Netherlands Air Force."
"I'm just in training, though. At Hawkins Field. That plane is light -- I should have been able to land it without an engine. I think my ankle distracted me and besides--I didn't want to hit a house. Are your parents alive?"
"Yes -- are yours?"
"No. The Germans killed them both."
"My aunt got me out."
"Out of where?"
"Holland. To England and then with a bunch of us to the States."
"Garhard -- how old are you?"
"Twenty-one," he mumbled. "Tired."
"Go to sleep. I'll fix us something to eat later. I'm going outside for a minute."
Mary jean trudged slowly through the gloom to the trees where she had been. She wanted a better look at what was left of that plane. Most of it was in the dirt anyway.
"One engine," she muttered. "One very old-fashioned propeller. What did he mean -- ‘in training'? To fly vintage planes in air shows? And that strange insignia -- I've never seen anything like it."
She put together a hasty dinner for the two of them. Garhard was still asleep; she woke him gently.
"Got to find somebody," he said, yawning. "Got to report in." It was then that Mary Jean noticed he had a slight accent.
"I have a phone," she said.
"Can I use it?"
"Well, sure." Mary Jean handed him her cordless phone. He looked puzzled. "How does it work?"
"You press "talk" and touch the numbers." Is he for real? she wondered.
He fumbled with the phone, paused and said, "The number's disconnected."
"Who are you trying to call?"
"The hanger at Hawkins Field. I assume I'm still in Mississippi. My plane doesn't have the capacity to fly very far."
"You're just south of Vicksburg. Not far from Jackson and Hawkins Field. But, Garhard -- that hanger is completely broken down. It's deserted. Nobody works there anymore."
"That's impossible. I took off a couple of hours ago. From a military training base, so that what's left of our Air Force can continue fighting."
Mary Jean frowned. Something strange is going on here. I'd better go easy with him.
He's either a lunatic or he really is from the -- the past? And I don't want to upset him.
"Garhard, try not to worry. Later I'll get my parents to send a telegram. Tell me, were you born in Holland?"
"And this is -- "
"1941, of course. Listen, you're a very pretty girl, but are you crazy? Have you had no education, no experience?"
"I'm going to wash the dishes. I have to go to work tomorrow."
"In your local factory?"
"No, at the newspaper."
"I thought most women worked in factories in the States."
Mary Jean felt a headache coming on. He thinks I'm a "Rosie the Riveter!" How in the name of God am I going to teach this guy what's happened in the last sixty-seven years? That telephone was nothing compared to computers and microwaves and television, not to even mention modern planes and space travel! I've got to hide him.
She finished the dishes and sat beside him on the bed. She took his hand and gently began the difficult task that lay before her.
"Listen, Garhard, I've got to explain something to you. It's going to be almost unbelievable, but the evidence is right in front of us. It's not 1941. It's 2008."
Shock and disbelief overtook his features. "Mary Jean, what are you saying?"
"Oh, Garhard. I think something weird happened to you when you were airborne. I think your plane went through some sort of time twist. Your war is long over and, by the way, we won. There've been other, smaller conflicts. We're in a war now too, a very different kind of war, but a war nevertheless. A war without boundaries, without defined powers, without structured forces."
She paused, trying to think. "I know you can't take all this in at once, dear Garhard Welles. So I'm not going to try to cover sixty plus years tonight. I think right now you'd be more interested in hearing about your war. World War Two. I don't know a whole lot about it, but I'll try to tell you what I do know. Then you can sleep and we can discuss more things later. I'll get you some clothes tomorrow and I'll make you some tea and a muffin for breakfast. Would you like that? And I'll show you my kitchen so that you can fix yourself food during the day when you get hungry. I have some magazines -- read as much as you can. Mark what you want to ask questions about. But there's one thing you must promise me."
"What, sweet Mary Jean?" He smiled for the first time since he had been there.
"You must stay inside. You're not ready yet to meet other people. You don't know enough about the world today to cope. You'll learn, but it'll take some time."
She leaned over and kissed him. "Do you promise, Garhard?"
"Yes. I promise."
He leaned up on his elbow. "Mary Jean?"
"You don't suppose -- that there's some way -- some way I might get back? To my world? Now that I've met you, I would hate to leave you. But I do wonder -- and I have -- had a job to do. I miss my chums."
"I just don't know. It's such a mystery -- how you got here, I mean. How you would get back is even more of a mystery. Whatever happens, I'll help you however I can."
"I think I knew that," he said.
"Goodnight, then. I'll make a bed for myself over there. You stay in this one."
"Goodnight, Mary Jean."
Work was busy enough the next day to keep Mary Jean from lapsing into a trance. Her fingers flew over the computer keys; she answered the phone and countless questions; she assisted the proofreaders and the photographers.
At lunch she visited a department store and bought Garhard two pair of slacks, two shirts, underwear, socks, and a pair of loafers, hoping she had guessed the sizes right. There wasn't time to return home until she got off at four.
It was getting hotter -- she longed to go to the oak grove with a book, but since she had an unusual visitor she went straight to her apartment, not even stopping to say hello to her mother, who had probably started dinner. Sometimes Mary Jean ate with her parents, grandmother, and younger sister Laura Jane; often Mary Jean did not. No one would think it strange when she didn't come by.
She unlocked her front door and put her packages down. "Garhard?"
There was no answer. She went through the apartment, noticing the empty rumpled bed, then knocked on the bathroom door. No answer again. No sign of the remains of food or dishes in the tiny open kitchen, either.
She knelt down and fingered the stain she had just noticed on the carpet. Was this from yesterday? she wondered. No, it was fresh. A tiny trail of blood leading from one side of the bed to the door and down the stairs.
"No!" she whispered. "He promised. What was he trying to do? Hitchhike to Jackson?"
The blood dwindled to almost indiscernible drops in the grass, from the bottom of her stairs toward the oak grove. He's trying to get back, she thought. He's trying to get back to his own time. But how?
When she reached the cluster of oak trees, perspiring from the sweltering heat of the June afternoon, she saw that the charred remains of the small plane were still on the ground. There was no sign of the young pilot. She roamed the area for a solid hour, calling -- with no results.
Finally she returned to her apartment. Lying on her bed she cried herself to sleep.
After about two months, she realized that she would probably never see Garhard again. Many nights she broke down in tears, confused as to why she felt so desolate, so alone. "Did I fall in love with him?" she whispered. "Am I still in love with him?"
She continued to go to work, to eat dinner with her parents, to wash her clothes and clean her apartment. She functioned. But she wasn't happy. She knew without a doubt she wasn't happy and something needed to change.
In August, she took a day off work and drove to Jackson. She went by the deserted hanger at Hawkins Field, but she didn't stop. It's a shame nobody could get the funds to restore that building, she thought. Shaking her head, she went on to take care of her business in Jackson.
When she returned to Vicksburg, she informed her parents she had something important to tell them.
"You did what? her father said, amazed.
"But, Mary Jean, I don't understand," put in her mother. "You love Vicksburg. You always said you never wanted to leave, that you were perfectly content here."
"I didn't say I'd never come back," Mary Jean replied. "Someday I'm sure I will."
"This is such a surprise," Jeanie exclaimed. "Don't you think so, Estelle? Almost out of character."
"Mary Jean wants to try her wings," Estelle said, laughing. "No pun intended."
"So our Mary Jean has enlisted in the Air Force! Laura Jane, aren't you proud of your big sister? Let's wish her luck and fair weather." The girls' father put his arm around Mary Jean and hugged her.
"Do you know yet what you'll be doing?" Jeanie asked.
"If I can get them to put me through school for a Journalism degree, I'll owe them more time. Otherwise they'll give me a duty where there are places that need filling. I could end up a janitor!"
Estelle made a face. "Can't picture that."
"Doesn't matter. This feels right. I can't tell you how right it feels."
Mentally she blew Garhard a kiss. You would understand, wouldn't you, Garhard Welles? And you would approve. This new life I've chosen--I'm going to make it work. I'm sure of it.
© 2008 Mary Brunini McArdle
Bio: Mary Brunini McArdle publishes mainly online and favors fantasy, the paranormal, and science fiction, although she occasionally writes mainstream fiction. She publishes poetry extensively. A number of her stories have appeared in Aphelion, most recently Parallel Lives, June 2008.
E-mail: Mary Brunini McArdle
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