After the fact by Fred Saberhagen

He was standing at the white door of his room, and pulling it open, before he realized that this wasn’t the door leading out into the hall. This one instead opened into an adjoining bedroom, where a white hospital-type screen blocked out most of the light that would otherwise have shone in here from the hallway. In this dim room there was a fair amount of what looked like hospital equipment.

This room too contained a bed, but the figure under its white sheets wasn’t Jan, that was for sure, damn it all anyway. And it was far too long a figure to be Pilgrim. Yes, a long and bony figure—really a familiar one in these parts—with dark hair and a darkly bearded face that showed as little more than a mass of shadows above the sheets.

Stupidly, without any real intention of doing so, Jerry took one more step closer to the bed, and then another. He stood looking down at that shadowed face for what seemed to him a long time. He began to feel a cold sensation in the pit of his stomach—but the feeling, like everything else, was too remote to be of any real importance. Then the figure on the bed stirred lightly, as if in sleep, and Jerry turned away from it hastily and stumbled back into his own room.

He had one thought: if it were only wine that had befuddled him, what he had seen just now ought to have shocked him sober. So what had overcome him was more than wine. And that meant—

The last thing he saw clearly was the white bed from which he had arisen, swinging up to claim him, with finality this time.


Coming back to life was a slow, gradual, and painful process. Jerry’s head was throbbing with what felt like the patriarch of all hangovers. To make matters worse, at some time during the night someone had stolen his soft white bed, substituting for it a bag of some coarse, malodorous fabric that crackled each time he moved as if it were stuffed with very crisp and durable dried leaves.

Somewhere outside the barricade of his eyelids, light had reappeared. It was daylight, he supposed. But that was no cause for rejoicing. He was in no hurry to behold what daylight might reveal. In fact he was rather afraid to find out. He couldn’t really remember what had happened to him last night.

He had been through a job interview, of sorts.

Oh, he remembered that much, all right. He, Jerry Flint, the graduate student from the big city, had driven down to Springfield to talk to some people about a job, and had made a total and utter ass of himself. That much he could remember with bitter clarity, though a great many of the details were still mercifully obscure. And then just at the end of the evening, before he had passed out totally, he had looked in the bed in the next room of the converted farmhouse, and thought that he saw—

Jerry groaned. With eyes still shut, he extended a leg to find the edge of the bed. He needed a bathroom, and the need was going to become urgent very soon.

His exploring foot could locate no edge, and in another moment or two Jerry had realized that this was because there was no bed. By now one of his eyelids had come unglued and opened, and with this advantage he could see that he was indeed lying on the floor. An unfamiliar floor. Between him and its rough-hewn, unfinished planks there was only the thickness—the thinness, rather—of a stained mattress that really did crackle with his every movement, as if it contained cornhusks.

It seemed that the folk of the Pilgrim Foundation were blessed with an exquisite sense of humor, as well as pots of money. Not only a cornhusk mattress, but they had also changed Jerry’s clothes for him. He was now wearing some kind of handmade gray shirt—it felt like good linen—and shapeless trousers that looked somewhat the worse for having been rolled in dust and leaves. Over his shirt he had on an embroidered vest, that came down past his waist. There were stockings—unfamiliar ones—on his feet, and a kind of enlarged bow tie loosely looped around his collar.

In a far corner of the room, which was barren of all furniture except the mattress, stood a pair of leather boots. The heels were too low for cowboy boots, but they were high-topped and laceless. Beside them, resting on some kind of brownish folded garment, was a high stovepipe hat of approximately the same color. A shapeless bag the size of a small suitcase, made of cloth fabric except for its two cord carrying handles, rested beside the clothing.

This was the same size and shape as the room in which Jerry had fallen asleep—but no, it wasn’t the same. It might have been the same room once. Last night’s room had had two doors, and two windows, and here were two doors and two windows in the same locations. But these windows lacked screens or shades, as well as nearly all their glass. Green leaves, as of dense bushes, were crowding in from outside; he must be on the ground floor. Through the broken windows came in the smell of lilacs and the song of robins.

For a minute or so he stood unsteadily in the middle of the room, turning round and round in a kind of hopeless stupidity. He stared at the faded and weathered wallpaper—last night the walls had been painted—and at the white-painted woodwork. Yes, as far as the general architecture went, this looked like the same room in which he had fallen asleep last night. But last night’s house had been decorated and comfortably furnished, and this one was long abandoned.

When Jerry stumbled over to the door to the room adjoining and pushed it open, there was no one in there either. This chamber was as barren as the one in which he had awakened, and its windows were broken too. Outside the broken windows, birds were singing cheerfully. No doubt they had a good idea of where they were.

The need to find plumbing, or some emergency substitute, was fast becoming an imperative. Jerry, wary of the splintery floor, got his feet into the boots. They fit him perfectly, and felt as if they had been already broken in. Then he went down the hallway looking for a bathroom.

He needed only a few moments to decide that he was wasting his time. There wasn’t a bathroom in this house, not on the ground floor anyway, and if there was one upstairs it couldn’t be functional. So he would just have to go outside. Somewhere…

He reached a back doorway, from which the door was missing. Untended fields surrounded the house for as far as he could see. In a back yard overgrown with weeds were a couple of ramshackle outbuildings, including a privy partially screened from the house by tall hollyhocks—barren of flowers this early in the year—and more spring-blooming lilac bushes. The door of the privy squeaked open on what looked like homemade hinges when Jerry pushed it in, and a field mouse scurried out of his way. The smell inside was very old, but still pungent enough to be the final trigger for his nausea.

Emerging some time later from the wooden sentry-box of the abandoned latrine, Jerry felt considerably better, though his head still ached and his hands trembled. At least he was back in the world again, and prepared to deal with it.

In a great silence he walked completely around the deserted house, confirming that he had the place entirely to himself. Then he stood for what felt like a long time in the back yard, looking things over. He shaded his eyes with a hand when he looked east against the morning sun. There were no other houses nearby in any direction; there was what looked like another farmhouse, about a mile to the south, but that was too far away for him to be able to make out any details.

Whoever had concocted this joke had known what they were doing, and had spared no effort or expense.

From where Jerry stood he was able to see a part of an unpaved road that passed close in front of the house. There were no phone lines along that road, no utility poles of any kind. He could see part of a split-rail fence, much like the ones at New Salem. There was no traffic passing. He watched for what felt like a considerable time—his wristwatch was missing—and not a single vehicle came by.

When he gave up at last and re-entered the house, his first sickness and confusion had passed, and he could look at things more thoughtfully. Now Jerry noted the complete absence of light switches. Not surprising when there were no incoming wires visible. Nor were there any electric outlets in the barren walls, any more than there was running water in the kitchen. He’d passed a hand-levered pump in the back yard.

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Categories: Saberhagen, Fred