Winston waited. Finally, she reached into her pants pocket and handed a small silver key to Winston. The number 3227 was printed on one side. It was warm from her body heat.
“What’s this?” he asked.
“A key to the safe deposit box in the Wells Fargo bank around the corner. It used to be a First Interstate Bank…” She paused to consider. “…thirty-five years ago. When your father paid for it.”
Winston considered that, thinking of the photo in his locker, his father’s hand reaching toward him. In a way, that’s what was happening now.
“So what do I do with this?” he asked.
Her expression showed carefully controlled anxiety. As he studied the narrow angles of her face and the deep green and brown of her eyes, Winston realized for the first time that his mother was actually a beautiful woman. Why was she still single? For that matter, why was a brilliant scientist wasting her life tossing eggs and coffee at people? She should be famous, not anonymous.
Then he realized the truth. She wanted to be anonymous. All of her decisions, from her job to their home to the way they avoided going out in public, were designed to avoid attention. For him. All of this was about him.
“You go in,” she said, “show them the key, and put whatever is in the box in your backpack.”
“You don’t know what’s in the box?”
She shook her head. “Oh, I know. I just hoped I’d never see it again.”
Winston closed his fist around the key and felt its teeth dig into his fingers. He grabbed his backpack and opened the van’s door.
When Winston rounded the corner, he saw the Wells Fargo up ahead, another bland community bank with a handful of shrubs breaking up the glass and concrete monotony. Inside the lobby, glass-doored offices lined one wall, and a row of teller windows filled the other. In the far left corner, a thick glass panel shielded the many-layered and bolted door of the bank’s vault. Coming in from the early afternoon heat, the bank felt cool and welcoming. Nevertheless, Winston’s heart hammered as if he were in an 800-meter sprint.
Two of the teller windows stood open. He approached the farthest one. The attendant was a young Asian lady dressed in a white blouse. She had green eye shadow and gold earrings that dangled an inch or two under her bobbed haircut. The little gold nameplate outside her window read JANET.
“Good afternoon,” she said as Winston stopped before her. “How can I help you?”
The other teller stood at her window, looking down at whatever papers were on the counter before her. Behind them, an older lady in a navy suit jacket and slacks stood with her back to Winston, typing at a computer. It was another lazy day at the bank. Nothing to worry about. No reason to feel he was doing something strange or wrong. At least half a dozen security cameras stared down at him.
He set the key on the counter. It clattered on the cool granite surface, surprisingly loud. The older bank lady turned her head and looked toward Winston out of the corner of her eye.
“I’d like to get into—” Winston’s voice cracked, and he quickly cleared his throat. “Sorry. I’d like to get into a safe deposit box.”
Janet looked back at her manager. “Sue, do you have a sec?”
The older lady hit a few keys, triggering her system’s screen saver, then walked over. Sue had a leathery look about her. Her gray hair was cut short, and she wore thin, black-rimmed glasses.
“Can I help you?” she asked in a voice almost as deep as Winston’s.
Winston used an index finger to nudge the key through the teller window gap. Sue slid the key into her hand and examined it, one brow arching. She looked from the key to Winston, then at the white streaks in his hair. He fought the urge to swallow.
“Please step over to the glass door,” the manager said.
Winston obeyed, moving to a thick glass panel that shielded the many-layered and bolted vault door. Sue stepped in front of another computer near the floor-to-ceiling panel.
“Three…two…two…seven,” said Sue as she typed in the key’s numbers. “Your name?”
“Winston Chase.” It didn’t even occur to him to use a fake name.
Sue typed it in, confirming the spelling as she went. “May I see some identification?” she asked.
Winston suddenly became aware of how dry his mouth felt. He reached for his wallet.
“I don’t have a driver’s license,” he murmured.
“Birth certificate? Passport?”
He had a few dollars, a half-filled Taco Del Mar punch card, and his student ID. Feeling horribly young and awkward, he opened the wallet for the manager to see and handed her the Shifford Middle School card. She eyed it warily, turning it in the light, then handed it back to him.
“Where’d you get that key?” the manager asked.
“From my mom. It’s a…birthday present.”
Sue radiated skepticism, but she only offered a noncommittal “hm,” then leaned forward and hit a key. The glass door’s lock gave a soft buzz as its bolt clicked back.
“Step through,” she said, coming around the computer.
There was no temperature change on the other side of the door, but as the panel swung closed behind him, Winston felt the air around him grow closer, more confining. The bank vault’s rectangular doorway stood open, as did the inner doorway of iron bars just inside of it.
“Sign here, please,” said the manager, pointing to a log book beside the computer with a pen she then held out to Winston. He signed. She grabbed the white card that dangled from a strap around her neck and passed it before a sensor mounted alongside the vault door. A light on the sensor pad changed from red to green.
Sue handed the key back to Winston and motioned him into the vault.
Beyond the door waited a tall grid of safe deposit boxes. Unlike in the cartoons, there were no stacks of gold bars or piles of neatly bound bills. Whatever riches the vault contained lay in those hundreds of locked compartments.
Even with the vault open, the steel chamber felt immediately claustrophobic. The cool, dry air seemed to smother the sound of his breathing right in front of his face. He had the sense of being in a giant coffin, even though the space was the size of a two-car garage and amply lit by overhead lamps.
Sue stepped to the right, scanned across the numbers stamped on the small brass ovals attached to each box, and found number 3227. Each safe deposit box had two keyholes positioned alongside a small handle in the center. She inserted hers into the right keyhole and looked back at Winston. “Now yours, please,” she said.
Winston inserted his key into the left hole.
“Please make one half-turn clockwise,” she said.
In his nervousness, Winston turned to the left, quickly caught his error, and turned the key the other way, feeling it click through gears as it twisted 180 degrees. Why was he so nervous? Would that make the manager suspicious enough to call security or the police?
Sue turned her key back to its starting position, and Winston followed her example. They both withdrew their keys, then she grasped the handle and pulled box 3227 from the wall. The surprisingly large container measured only six inches high but a foot wide and almost two feet long. Balancing it in both arms, the manager handed the box to Winston and led him across the vault to a counter where he could examine the box’s contents.
“This table is outside the view of our security cameras,” she explained. “You can take as much time as you like. No other patrons will be allowed inside the vault while you’re here. When you’re ready, just slide the box completely back into its space and tap on the outer door for someone to let you out. Any questions?”
Winston shook his head and watched as she left, making sure the iron-barred door shut behind her. Except for the barest whisper from the air vents, the chamber stood completely silent. Heart pounding, Winston tilted the box and set it on the bench, feeling objects inside slide from back to front. He lifted a hinged panel on the deposit box’s top and started removing the contents. He felt the urge to dump everything in his pack and run back to his mother, but curiosity held him in place. This was the closest he could remember ever being to direct contact with his father. He had to know. Now.
The first object baffled him. It was a leather pouch filled with thirty or forty sky blue marbles, each of them about the size of a grape and shot through with sparkling veins of white. Why marbles? Maybe these were leftovers from his dad’s childhood that had some sentimental value.
Next came another leather pouch just like the first, but the clink of what had to be coins inside lifted Winston’s expectations.
Now that’s what I’m talking about, he thought.
He undid the drawstring and, sure enough, the top of the pouch opened to reveal a folded stack of green bills. Removing the cash, he nearly jumped up and down at the sight of an inch-deep pile of gold and silver at the pouch’s bottom. These weren’t dollar and half-dollar coins, he confirmed as he examined one gold piece. It depicted a woman carrying a branch in one hand and a torch in the other. On the obverse side, an eagle flew from right to left under the words “UNITED STATES OF AMERICA TWENTY DOLLARS.” It had to be some kind of collectible gold bullion. Winston had never heard of a twenty dollar coin.
This sparked another idea in his mind. He thumbed through the wad of bills. Sure enough, latest one was from 1974. Winston had watched enough TV to know that people could be tracked not only by their credit card use but also by the cash they spent if the bills were somehow exceptional. He suspected that a pile of money over forty years old could be pretty noticeable. He stuck the bills in his pocket.
Next, he pulled out a strange metal object. At first, Winston thought it might have some kind of use in cooking. It was glossy silver and apparently made of hollow metal tubes, roughly the size and shape of a wine bottle. From an oval ring at the large end sprang six slender pipes that at first ran perpendicular to the oval, then swooped inward, twisted around each other as they formed the shape’s neck, and tapered toward a point. The object spanned about twelve inches from base to tip and had an interior crosspiece between two of the tubes.
On impulse, Winston slid his right hand into the oval and grasped the crosspiece. He didn’t know what to expect. Some little whirlwind of CGI special effects? The appearance of a time-bending wormhole?
Disappointed, Winston moved to stuff the thing into his backpack, then he noticed that the crossbar tube had turned from solid black to a dull, rusty red. OK, that was interesting. He’d have to come back to it later.
The next object looked to be a thin ring of stainless steel, no thicker than the end of Winston’s pinky, and about ten inches in diameter. Its slightly flattened sides were adorned with geometrical markings etched into the surfaces, and two opposing bulges on the ring, each the size of a silver golf ball, gave the thing an odd but graceful symmetry. The thing felt surprisingly heavy for its slender size — coated lead, perhaps. As the metal slid through his fingers, he had the sensation of static electricity on his nerves, like petting a cat during a dry, chilly winter day. The object aroused Winston’s curiosity, but he couldn’t take the time to puzzle over it now.
In his right ear, Winston felt a pressure building. After a moment, the pressure gave way to a high-pitched tone — his tinnitus. All his life, this ringing in Winston’s ears would strike randomly, blot out most of the hearing in one ear for several seconds, and then vanish for weeks at a time. He’d never seen any pattern to its appearance, but it struck him as oddly coincidental that it should strike right now. Perhaps it was stress-induced.
Again…weird. But into the backpack the ring went.
Winston removed the last object from the deposit box: a small photo scrapbook. The cover was a faded, powder blue canvas. Each of the dozen or so thick black pages within lay protected by clear plastic sheets. Thumbing through the book, Winston found all but the first page empty. This page contained two 3” x 3” photos with rounded corners. They had that grainy, rough feel he’d seen in Shade’s family photos from the 1970s. The first picture was a black and white of some guy standing in front of a river, and the second showed a road construction crew in front of a pile of dirt.
This, Winston decided, was the worst family photo collection ever. Confused and frustrated, he dropped the album into his pack.
He looked back into the safe deposit box and saw nothing left.
No way. That couldn’t be everything. Except for the money, he’d discovered nothing but junk.
Winston grabbed the back end of the box and lifted it, shaking the thing from side to side. Something tapped against the front of the box. Winston set the container down and lifted the lid. He found a piece of folded yellow paper inside. The cursive handwriting on it was somewhat messy but still legible.
I so deeply hope that you, your mother, and I have been able to share a long life together. I hope you are a strong, successful person, with a wonderful family of your own. I know that whatever happens, you will make me proud.
With luck, you will be reading this in a world where there is no more war, a world in which the mighty lift up the weak. That is why we all fought these terrible battles. Yet if that improbable world comes to pass, it will be the first such occasion of it in known history. That is why I am leaving you this, in case the unhappy day comes that you must use my past to protect your future. You may well need all of your wits and speed to find the other four items that brought us to this time and place. Guard them well, and destroy them if necessary. This is imperative.
You are so small as I write this, but already you are my alpha and omega, my everything. Be smart, be safe, always be cautious, and remember that you can achieve anything you know to be true and good, so be wise.
Never, never give up. I love you more than mind or heart can express, Winston, now and always.
Winston refolded the sheet and placed it carefully in a backpack pocket where it wouldn’t get crumpled, all too aware of the tears obscuring his vision and rolling down his cheeks.
“Now you tell me,” he whispered.
Something nagged at the back of Winston’s mind, something he was both eager and terrified to recognize. At first, he pushed the feeling away. Simply reading the note had been enough. His father had thought of him, said he loved him, and taken enough care to provide these things for him at a time when Winston thought he had no family other than his mom. Before this moment, Winston had always believed that he’d been more or less abandoned. Proof to the contrary lay in his hands and ate away at a deep disappointment and anger that Winston had never fully acknowledged.
There was more, though, and before he consciously realized what he was doing, Winston turned the scrapbook page back to the first image.
Winston stared through brimming eyes at the man in the fedora. He did not recognize the man’s face. The jawline, the chin, the nose… They triggered nothing.
The eyes, however…
Even in shadow, those eyes held a sly wit, maturity, sadness, and quiet energy that seemed familiar. The angle of the brows. The way those brows half-hid a probing, sideways stare.
To share a long life together.
Winston felt the strength leave his legs, and only his elbows on the counter kept him from falling.
A long life.
Two words formed silently on Winston’s lips: Mister A.
What had the old man said when they’d last parted?
I cherish every minute.
Winston had to stand for a moment at the bench, clenched fists on the safe deposit box, and wait as the emotions roiled through him and spilled over. The tightness in his chest ached, and he fought to keep from breathing. If he relaxed at all, even to draw breath, the thin wall holding back his sobs would surely shatter.
Minutes later, when Winston finally had himself under control, he crammed everything into his backpack except the cash, which remained in his pocket. He slid the box back into its wall slot, wiped the tears from his face one last time, and called through the iron bars. With a discerning look at his face, the manager let him out and silently ushered him back through the glass door and into the bank lobby. Winston guessed he wasn’t the first person to come out of that vault looking different than how he went in.
He started toward the front doors, then remembered. He detoured back to Janet’s teller window and placed the stack of bills on the counter.
“Can I swap this old money for current money?” Winston asked. “I’m worried that it might not look right to people and they won’t take it.”
Janet lifted the bills and started flipping through them. “I think so,” she said. “Would you mind waiting while I clear this with my manager?”
A minute ticked by as she conferred with Sue, the two of them speaking low with their heads bowed. Winston was starting to have serious doubts about trying to get the money exchanged, and he wondered if the bank was taking its time in order to give him newer bills that were marked with special, easily tracked serial numbers.
At last, the teller returned with fresh bills and a smile.
“Here we go,” she said. “Sorry for the delay.”
She counted out the money for him: twenty-five hundred dollars exactly. Winston guessed this would have been worth quite a bit more when originally locked in the vault.
Stuffing the new cash back into his pocket, Winston thanked her and left. When he got back to the car, his mom did her best not to look like a nervous wreck.
“So how’d it go?”
“Fine,” he said. “Turns out I’m the heir to a small European country.”
“Ha ha,” said his mom, not looking amused in the slightest.
“It’s some money, some marbles, a couple metal thingies, and a note. Oh, and some pictures.”
She nodded slowly.
“From Mr. Allen,” he added.
She started, then glanced at him warily and rested a hand on his knee. “I’ve never told you in case…in case things went wrong. It was to protect you. And him.”
“Things kind of seem to be going wrong, Mom.”
She took a long, shaky breath. “Yes. They do. I’m so sorry, honey.”
“I know. Can we go back for him?”
He knew the answer without even seeing her face. Of course not. Mr. A would be too sick to travel with them, and, assuming that Bill was some sort of planted surveillance, he would have called for help immediately after Winston left Progress Oaks.
My mouth, thought Winston. Always my stupid mouth getting me in trouble.
Winston felt the day’s weight press upon him, and he slumped into his seat. He needed time to think. And food. All of this turmoil had done nothing to lessen his appetite.
His mother took another deep breath and nodded, seeming to accept something. “OK,” she said.
For an instant, he thought she’d answered his earlier question. “OK?”
“I think we’ll be fine in Portland for one night. Let’s get a motel room and plan our next steps. We’ll start in the morning.”
“Start what?” Winston asked.
His mom put the car in gear and pulled into traffic. Without looking at Winston, she said in a very matter of fact tone, “Looking for pieces of the time machine your father hid forty years ago.”
“Ah,” said Winston. “Of course.”