“I don’t understand why we are doing this,” Daniel Keller whined again as he flailed at a mosquito that was strangely intent on the corner of his eye.
The sky was a cloudless, washed-out denim; the sun so bright you couldn’t actually see it behind its own glare. A limp breeze kept flapping at the brothers’ booted ankles as it skittered off the water and tripped over the tangles of mangrove roots. Buzzards glided gracefully overhead, tracing some poor animal’s corpse outline in the blue. To the right something loud splashed into the river, causing both young men to startle and turn.
Caleb Keller abruptly shrugged a mosquito away from his ear and picked up the pace.
“Because it’s what we, as a society, have decided is the right thing to do,” Caleb grumbled in agitation. “When your father dies and with his final bit of energy and voice tells his sons to go to the middle of the godforsaken Everglades, and has already gone so far as to hire an air boat captain,”
“I don’t think they’re called captains,” Daniel quipped, happier once he discovered his brother was miserable.
“Air boat operator, then,” Caleb groused. “Crazy old man Keller wants his ashes spread in a swamp thousands of miles from his own home…once it’s labeled as his dying wish then suddenly we carry the burden of some insane obligation to make his dreams come true.”
“Meanwhile he’s a 1 ½ pound box of dust,” Daniel added, ducking under the whip of a tree branch. “What if they gave us the wrong box and we’re doing all of this to spread Mrs. Finklestien’s ashes in a swamp, when it was her wish to get tossed into her daughter’s geraniums?”
“No one asks to be spread in the geraniums,” Caleb growled, struggling to pull his foot out of three inch deep mud without losing his boot.
“That’s what she said,” Daniel guffawed.
The Keller brothers were fairly average looking – average height, average build, medium brown hair, normal brown eyes. Caleb was a little more solid with a little more grit to the jaw and a little more furrow to the brow. Daniel dressed a little younger than Caleb, wore glasses even though his vision was 20/20, and was currently sporting some fashionable two day stubble to go with his fashionably unkempt hair. (Which was stuck to his forehead by sweat, in a most unfashionable way).
“My point is,” Daniel danced away from a low-hanging spider web being monitored by the Godzilla of all Orb Weavers. “Good Lord I hate this place!” he shouted in frustration. “Why don’t the damned monster spiders eat the damned monster mosquitoes and then…”
“Daniel, lower your voice,” Caleb hissed. “The last thing we want is that stringy air boat operator swooping in with his shotgun to save us like we’re two damsels in distress. Pull yourself together.
“You were making some kind of point?”
Daniel retraced his steps mentally, “O yeah. What if it’s not Dad in the box?”
Caleb stopped and gave his little brother a heavy dose of Dad’s patented ‘What are you, stupid?’ look and said, “It’s not Dad in the box. That’s not the point of any of this. Dad’s already dispersed into the cosmos or whatever. He did this for us, so we could bond over his death and make memories or some such shit. He probably felt we were growing apart.”
“He couldn’t have bought us Blackhawks tickets instead?” Daniel noticed a giant buzzard settle on a tree just thirty feet away. Sweat was sliding in a sheet down the small of Daniel’s back and into his boxer briefs without even pausing at his fashionable belt. “Why couldn’t it be his dying wish that we go on an Alaskan Cruise?” he asked the buzzard. The carrion eater just shuffled a bit on his branch and fluffed his four foot wings in a shrug.
“Quit talking about cold things, you’re making me sweat more,” Caleb insisted. “I think we’re here,” he added.
Daniel followed his brother through an open spot between two pond apple trees. Nestled into the sawgrass and mangroves was a shipping container. Daniel ducked into a partial crouch and whispered urgently to Caleb, “Back up, man. We’ve got to get out of here.”
Caleb mimicked the crouch and scanned the ground, “Is there a snake? A gator?” Caleb instinctively reached for his gun, which was not at his ribs.
“No, Cale,” Daniel whispered, “that container is probably some kind of Swampbilly Meth Lab.”
Caleb signed loudly, ending in a whistle. “Man, you scared me. Get with the program Daniel, we’ve been following dad’s orange paint spots, the container has one right on the door.”
Daniel stood and grabbed Caleb’s arm. “Do you think Dad was cooking meth? Maybe that’s what this is all about. Maybe there are oil drums full of money in there.”
Caleb pulled his arm away and shook his head, “This is why we never hang out anymore. Not everything is an AMC series or a Michael Bay movie. When are you going to grow out of this dreamy weirdo phase and join the real world? It’s embarrassing.”
“It’s only embarrassing to you because you have a detective’s badge pinned to your rectum,” Daniel sulked. “And how is that shipping container not weird to you? A daub of Dad’s magic orange paint and it all makes sense? What the hell is it doing all the way out here and what does it have to do with Dad? What does it have to do with us?”
Caleb shook his head again, smiling this time. “Our whole lives Dad has been setting up his little scavenger hunts and sending us out to follow them. This is…”
Daniel cut him off, “…way more elaborate than any trip into town to pick up ingredients for a mystery barbecue or Christmas hunts to find what cabin/tent/cottage he was waiting in with a spiral ham and the old slide projector.”
Caleb swiped at a mosquito on a flight path to his face and took in the setting with a pang of heartache and homesickness. “It’s the last one, Danny. Guess he pulled out all the stops.” He turned to Daniel and handed him their father’s quest guide, “Looks like you’re up. I see a combination lock on that container but no combo written here. Time to employ your nerd powers.”
It took about thirty minutes for Daniel to decipher the fifteen digit code from the travel instructions their father had left. Where old man Keller had found the lock was a mystery in itself. Neither brother had ever seen one so elaborate. Once they had the master lock off, they released the four lock latches and swung the doors open. Inside was what appeared to be a second, slightly smaller container. It was locked. Daniel looked for a second code (after trying the first one on it) while Caleb crouched in the shade and drank a bottle of water. He was so slick with sweat by the time he rejoined Daniel, Caleb felt like he’d poured the bottled water over his head instead of down his throat.
Once the second lock was down, the Keller brothers stood poised to open the doors on their father’s last quest for them. Daniel wondered aloud if there would be another set of doors behind the second and gestured as if he were blocking out a movie title – ‘The Case of the Humid Matryoshka’. Caleb chuckled at this. It was one of the first jokes out of Daniel that he’d understood in years.
The brothers pulled open the doors on the count of three.
They were met by utter darkness…until their sun-glazed eyes had a chance to adjust to the faint reflection of light inside the container. Caleb pulled a flashlight out of his rucksack and tried to hand a second to Daniel, but the younger brother had already pulled out his cell phone and was waving its glowing screen into the dark space.
“It’s full of junk,” Daniel stated, annoyed. “I mean it’s great that Dad saved all of these things from our childhood, but what a waste of effort just to get it back to us.”
The container was packed tight with boxes against both side walls of the container. There was about an 18” wide path down the center that divided the stored items and allowed one to walk through to the back. Caleb had quickly determined that the boxes on the left were his and the ones on the right were Daniel’s.
Caleb didn’t say it out loud, but he was a little disappointed too. He had hoped to open those doors and find something amazing, or at least amusing; instead the trip had been downgraded to something like clearing the attic before the house went on the market. He stopped sorting through the baseball cards, super balls, and old detective comics when his fingers slid across the familiar texture of worn leather. Caleb worked the item free from the other detritus of his childhood and held it under the beam of his flashlight.
“Hey Cale,” Daniel called, his voice sounding excited. “Look what I found!”
Daniel held a white plastic rocket up in a ray of daylight near the doors. It was about two feet long with a red nose and fins and a sticker down the length that said USAF.
“This can’t be the same one, but do you remember the rocket I had?” Daniel’s eyes were aflame with the memory. “One of Dad’s friends brought it by a couple of weeks after my sixth birthday.”
“Yeah,” Caleb interjected, “he brought you the rocket and me an odd pair of rainbow socks with the individual toes.”
“Hells yeah,” Daniel nodded enthusiastically, “I remember that now. That’s why you weren’t wearing shoes. We were playing with my rocket in the field beside the motel and I had to stomp the button because I was the one with the shoes on.”
“You had to stomp the button because you were a spoiled little bitch and didn’t want me playing with your toy,” Caleb corrected with a grin.
“I let you go get it for me when it landed,” Daniel teased.
“And I nearly lost my foot stepping through the pane of a discarded window,” Caleb retorted.
“Dad was so pissed at us…” Daniel reminisced.
“Yeah, and I don’t remember ever playing with that rocket again. Did he take it away from you?”
“Nope. I forgot it in the field in all of the excitement. I thought about it the next day, but Dad had already forbidden us from going over there again,” Daniel picked at the edge of a sticker, still half in the memories.
“Well look what I found. This one has a great story.” Caleb brandished a beaten-up child’s ball glove tightly wrapped in a long, leather thong. As he spoke Caleb unwound the leather to display the dirty baseball trapped inside. “I had this with me the night you were born. Dad and I had been playing catch out in the yard when Mom yelled through the window that she needed to go to the hospital right away. I kinda stood back while he fussed around her – grabbing a suitcase and helping her into the car. When they were ready to go I was still standing in the kitchen, confused. Dad called to me and I just took off for the car still wearing my muddy shoes and holding on to this thing. I don’t think I even shut the kitchen door behind me.”
Caleb flopped the leather thong in Daniel’s direction, “I must have wrapped that glove 80 times while mom was in the delivery room. I was bored, hungry, tired, and I don’t know what else.”
“Well you were like, five or something,” Daniel interrupted.
“Yeah, I was being a brat, for sure,” Caleb nodded, “but Dad was really distracted – really edgy – and I think I was thrown off by his energy. Anyway, you were born eventually and we went to look at you through the glass and then went in the room where Mom was resting. We talked to her a bit and hugged her a few times. Then Dad bought us hero sandwiches and took me home. I remember we had heroes because he gave me this speech about being a big brother and told me I would be your hero, after him of course. It was a week before I realized I had left this behind somewhere in the hospital,” Caleb held up the glove. “I guess Dad got it back for me. It is weird he put it away instead of giving it back. He even had to buy me a new one to replace it.”
“It’s definitely the same glove?” Daniel asked.
Caleb nodded and shined the flashlight on his name, written in fading black marker, just inside the glove opening. On the other side of the hollow was the word ‘Brewers’ with a capital M on either side.
“I asked Dad to mark that in for me. I wanted to play for the Brewers when I grew up.”
“Yeah, that is weird,” Daniel agreed, though Caleb wasn’t sure what he was agreeing with.
“What’s that back there?” Daniel asked, shining his phone toward the end of the container.
“Dunno,” Caleb replied with a shrug, “I haven’t ventured that far. Put that phone down and take a real flashlight, would you? That thing barely pushes light out a foot and you’re going to kill your battery.”
Daniel did as he was told and wondered what happened to the little boy who actually had seen Caleb as his hero. As he shuffled along the narrow aisle between boxes of past lives, Daniel abruptly registered the sensation that a bug was crawling in his hair. He squealed a little and flailed a lot, slapping his own head to rid his hair of invaders. The flashlight hit the floor and rolled away. A chilly bug was knocking him in the wrist. When he flicked his wrist to swat the thing, he felt something else slide across his hand. It was a thin, beaded pull-chain. He pulled it. Lights buzzed to life down the length of the container.
Caleb stepped up behind Daniel and handed him the lost flashlight, “Nice dancin’, Beyonce,” he said with an audible smirk.
“Are you seeing this, Caleb?” Daniel asked, ignoring the jibe. “What the hell is that thing?”
“I know not, young Padawan. Looks like one of those landspeeders from Tatooine.”
“I don’t know what’s more shocking, you making an accurate Star Wars reference, or the fact that there is seemingly a landspeeder parked at the end of this metal box,” Daniel said.
“Star Wars was mine first kid, those prequel movies may have come out during your heyday, but the originals were all mine. You never even liked Star Wars before they brought in the dancing teddy bears.” Caleb brought up the old argument as they picked their way down the aisle past some boxes that had spilled their contents across the path like a dead fall.
Daniel sighed, “Can we focus please. Do you think it’s some kind of movie prop? Do you think it might actually work?”
“Danny, wait,” Caleb put a heavy hand on his brother’s shoulder.
Daniel turned around to look a question at Caleb, but his brother was crouching down to pick something up from floor. He stood, holding a large book. It was wrapped in a leather thong, much the same way the baseball glove had been.
“Dad’s journal,” they both breathed in unison.
“I’ve searched his room and office for this thing a hundred times since he passed,” Caleb said emotionally. “I can’t believe it’s been here all along.”
Daniel ran a finger along the leather of the cover, all thoughts of Star Wars and hovercraft toys forgotten. Old man Keller never went anywhere without his journal. Many times in their lives the brothers had tried to steal it and unravel its secrets, but something had always interfered with their snooping. When Caleb had reported to Daniel that it was not with their father’s effects, he’d felt the last piece of his grief come back and kick him in the gut all over again.
Finding the book made swamps, mosquitoes, and crazy huge spiders worth it. Dad may not be in the box of ashes, but he was definitely in this worn leather diary. Daniel felt choked up and almost lost it when he met Caleb’s eyes and saw the well of tears at the brink of spilling over. He closed his hand over Caleb’s and said, “Open it.”
The lights flickered out in the container and a fizzing sound hissed into existence in a back corner. There was a confusing whump-whump that ramped up to a whir then whumped back down to silence. The lights came back on and a man stood between the brothers and the “landspeeder”. He was pretty average looking, but his hair was white instead of brown and there was a touch of something wild in his eyes and at the edge of his smile.
He took a long step toward the brothers and stood straight, thumbs tucked into the loops on his jeans, “I’d have never guessed I could have raised two such weepy, little, momma’s boys. Look at you about to cry over a book.” Old man Keller harrumphed.
Daniel and Caleb’s mouths hung open. There was nothing happening in either man’s head for a full thirty seconds as they stood in a shipping container, inside another shipping container, on an island in the middle of the Everglades, thousands of miles from home…in the presence of their dead father – who currently appeared to be alive. The mental silence broke like the sound barrier and questions flooded into their brains with the force of a tidal wave.
“Dad” was the first word spoken. For Daniel it came out with a question mark, Caleb’s was followed with a very distinct exclamation point.
Old man Keller raised his hands to hold the flood of questions back for a few moment’s longer, “Okay boys, I don’t have a lot of time to spend here, and it’s really important that you don’t say too much to me about how I died and all. I’ll get to why in a minute. Actually…okay. I’ve been practicing this for the last few hours but nothing can really prepare you for being in the moment.” He took a few deep breaths before continuing.
“Some things you should know. I’m your Dad, obviously, but this me is alive. Again, obviously. Before I came here, I was in Egypt and it was May 23rd, 2010. So we all know that I have died by this particular date in your timeline, but I have not personally died yet in mine.
Thing number two. A really long time ago, a grandfather in my family line built a time machine. He passed the science and mechanics on to his son who improved upon it and passed it on to his.” Their father took a moment to gesture behind him to the “landspeeder”, “That’s it right there.”
The brother’s gaped at the vehicle for a moment and returned their gaze to their not yet departed father.
“Okay, in this container are boxes of journals, tools, schematics, gizmos, and time travel whats-its. Take some time to study them and familiarize yourself with how it all works. Also, take care to read the red journals. These will describe all of the really stupid stuff our family did with the power that messed things up royally. Don’t repeat that part of our history.
“In the front of my journal there are “the rules”. It’s pretty strict, but highly necessary. That machine down there is not for joyriding in. The first rule of time travel is that you don’t talk about time travel.” Their dad grinned a moment at his own joke, Daniel managed a confused twitch of a smile in reply.
“Too soon, understood. Okay sooooo…O, behind the rules are a few pages that catalog what’s in the container. Uuuumm, there’s an air conditioning unit and small fridge over there so you don’t bake to death. Also in the master journal are a list of clients so you can get started. Most of them are museum curators, but there are a few bibliophiles, an anthropologist, one guy who writes novels about ancient conspiracies…you’ll look at the list and figure out the rest.
“Very important, never take passengers. Only the two of you should ever put your butts in those seats, until you have your own sons to pass the tradition down to.
“O and Daniel, before you ask, the reason girls can’t travel has to do with ovulation. The device messes with their reproductive clock. My dad thought he could get around that by taking your grandmother for a quick jaunt to see the pyramids being built after she went through menopause and she ended up pregnant with your uncle Tommy at the age of 63.” Keller stopped to take a swig from a water bottle in his cargo pocket.
“Can somebody hit that a/c please? I’m sweatin’ like a grifter in church who just dallied with the butcher’s wife.”
Caleb grinned and worked his way to the chill box on the wall. There was a slight path between the boxes to get to it that he hadn’t noticed before.
“Danny, take this fob,” Keller said and dropped a black car remote into his hand. “This controls the doors from inside and out, we’ll cool off faster if they are closed.
Daniel hit the lock button twice and the doors settled back into place.
Caleb called from across the container, “Why didn’t you tell us all of this sooner, Dad?”
“Fair question. I had thought to be done with it all, for good. Just kill the family business and let you two have normal lives. This may seem like a fun adventure at first, but one day you’ll see it for the major pain in the ass it really is. Also, I was kind of worried about you Caleb, and how you would handle everything. You are the first person in the family to ever join law enforcement. There are millions of injustices in the history of our planet and we can’t do a damn thing to change any of them. That’s really important. I wasn’t sure you could restrain yourself.”
Caleb opened his mouth to protest, then he pictured himself shooting Hitler in 1937 or warning people outside the World Trade Center. How could you know and not act? Daniel watched his brother’s face as he weighed the two types of responsibilities against his own sense of justice.
“How do we do it, Dad?” Daniel asked. It was an open question, but they were family and their father knew what he meant.
“You just don’t allow yourself to see it as an option. We can observe, we can collect things after they’ve been lost,” he gestured to the boxes, “but we cannot change one second of history. And if you have any doubt, read the red journals.
“Caleb, I think you should start with the red journals and let your brother work on the mechanical end. Daniel, pay close attention to the science.”
Both men nodded, lost in thoughts of awe and trepidation.
“Okay, I’ve got just enough time for a test drive,” Keller grinned, “Let’s take care of that while the a/c does it’s thing. When we get back I’ll pop the hood and show you where she likes to be tickled.”
“When are we going, Dad?” Daniel asked with a smirk.
“I promised your mom a long time ago that I’d bring her adult sons to meet her one day. Let’s go give her a squeeze.”
Caleb gave his father a stern look, “I thought you said we couldn’t talk about time travel?”
“Your mother and I spent our whole lives together, it came down to telling her the truth or having her leave me under suspicion of adultery. I loved her more than the whole of time.”
Daniel beamed, “I can’t wait to see her. C’mon Caleb.”
“Guess this wasn’t a complete waste of time after all,” Caleb Keller thought as he called shotgun for the passenger seat in the family time machine.