Updated: Jan 18, 2022
Chapter One - The Cave
"What makes you special?" I asked into the microphone.
"Well, I'm pretty unique, and I've been singing since before
I could walk," replied the voice in my headphones.
"Oh well, you are pretty unique, I see! Obviously, you're the only beautiful blonde who can sing in Nashville. Musicians
never travel halfway around the world to come to Music City.
You can only be unique. Unique is special, one of a kind. You can't be sort of unique or slightly unique. You are either unique, or you are not. I'm sad to say that you do not fall into the unique category. My advice would be to go back to Pensacola." After ending the Skype call, I continued, "Don't miss me too much this week. I'll be taking a much-needed vacation with my 'very unique girlfriend.' Until I broadcast again, please remember this, life is good, and I'm gone."
Patience is a quality I never claimed to possess. Honesty, however, is my strong suit and vastly underrated. My podcast has one hundred thousand listeners who tune in three times a week to hear me tell the truth. Most of those indie artists I interview have no clue they can't carry a tune until I enlighten them. They all believe everything their mother ever told them. Mom was always in the front row at every talent show and, even today, remains your biggest fan. She will continue to support you when you move back into the basement and take on a part-time job until the music career finally takes off. It's the same story, conversation after conversation.
By the time I laid my headphones down, I had heard a knock at the door followed by my girlfriend's voice saying,
"Hi, it's me, your 'very unique girlfriend,' Mr. Arthur Daughtler." Smiling, I opened the door to greet Niki with a soft peck on the cheek. After roughly ten minutes of getting lectured about how I should be more likable, we headed outside to the car. Nik popped the trunk, I threw my bag in, and we headed out.
"You know we could have waited until tomorrow morning to leave. Clarkstown isn't even an hour's drive," I said. My girlfriend spent the next forty-five minutes explaining how she never spends time with her friends and that it won't kill us to be a day early. She's sharp, so I'm sure she caught me rolling my eyes as we cruised down the interstate. My focus turned to the lines on the road as Niki's voice grew faint. Her best friend's wedding is the reason for our getaway. Being around large groups of people was never my favorite thing in the world, but my biggest fear will be all of the subtle hints directed toward me. We've been dating two years, and everything has been incredible so far, but there's no way I'm ready to tie any knot.
After a decent night's sleep in a semi-soft hotel bed, we wake up to the sound of laughter and screaming outside of the door. It looks like the bride is rounding up all of the bridesmaids for pictures downtown. It's not exactly my ideal vacation. The ladies strolled in wearing matching denim shorts and blinged-out shirts with the wedding date across their chests. I did my best to act excited while Niki slipped into the bathroom to get ready. For some reason, all of her friends followed her in, so it gave me a chance to get dressed.
Downtown Clarkstown seemed ripped from a travel brochure out of the past, except for new cars, clothes, and cell phones. I'm not complaining because I can dig the charm and nostalgia. It's a nice break, escaping from 2021 and the hustle of a big city. After observing the same pose with a different backdrop several hundred times, I decided to slip away. The local museum looks like an excellent place to make my escape. The sounds of my girlfriend and her besties giggling vanish as the door closes behind me. With a sigh of relief, I begin to scope out the history of our state's fifth-largest city.
After striking up a conversation with the curator, she urged me to check out the tornado exhibit from 1999. Looking at her nametag, I said, "Nice to meet you, Julie," as she hurried me along, never making eye contact. My guide smelled like an ashtray, and her teeth were stained yellow from years of smoking. Julie was pleasant nonetheless, and there was no way I could resist her extreme bubbly attitude drenched in the excitement of our past. No doubt she'd give her left arm for an autograph of any dead president. She is at least twice my age and has twice the energy of anyone I've ever met. Her enthusiasm is borderline insane, but I roll with the awkward pleasantries of her company as I get a personal guided tour.
The curator walked slightly in front, making giant-sized hand gestures while explaining each detail of the tragedy that happened over twenty years ago. I noticed she was making a clicking noise with her mouth in between dates and times. At first, I felt like she was directing the sound at me as a way of urging me to keep up with her pace. It was much like the noise a dog owner makes when calling their pet, so I was slightly offended until reasoning it was some weird tick she couldn't help. Julie explained how the F-3 tornado struck the area just after 4 a.m. on Friday, January 22. She could tell I was a little surprised after the last tidbit of knowledge and asked what I was thinking. I mentioned how it was nothing big, but the date of the disaster was my birthday. I failed to tell her it was not only the same day, but I arrived at 4:01 a.m. My tour guide paused to take a closer look at me. You'd think she had seen a ghost by the look on her face. Her fingertips gently brushed over my cheek as a relieved smile overtook her expression. A hand rested on my left shoulder, and I heard a whisper, "I see you found a new girlfriend; it didn't take you long."
After greeting Nikki and introducing her to Julie, we decided to move forward without the leadership of my all-knowing tour guide. As we walked away, Julie said she'd see me soon. "That was strange; I wonder if she touches all of her guests that way?" Niki said firmly. She told me we had to get moving because there was a lot to do before the wedding. Then she wouldn't stop talking about how beautiful her friend's engagement ring was. On that note, I pretended to stop to study the collage along the museum wall. Niki broke my concentration and directed my attention toward a particular strip of photos. It looked like the pictures people would pull out of those photo booths from long ago. The image was of a couple obviously in love, and the guy could have been my twin brother. Nik jokingly said that I'd been busy making all kinds of girlfriends in the past twenty minutes. We laughed and went on about the uncanny resemblance.
That evening we all sat around having dinner in some fancy restaurant. All of the ladies made fun of me for using the wrong fork while my thoughts drifted to the museum earlier. I couldn't get the girl from the photo out of my head. She was familiar but not in a Deja Vu kind of way. I can't explain it aside from the feeling of heartbreak. The young lady was definitely a stranger, but the closeness and hurt inside me were real. Niki cleared her throat in an attempt to bring me back to reality and join the conversation. I did my best to contribute, but nothing sparked my interest the way my mystery woman did as she beckoned for me.
It was mani-pedi day for the ladies, so this gave me a pass to do my own thing. The museum was calling my name, but I fought the urge to revisit my imaginary girlfriend and the pleasantly weird curator. I decided to Uber over to Dunbar Cave for a hike to clear my head. I asked one of the rangers how to find the cave entrance. He said it's locked up for the day, but any one of the trails would take me right to it. Smiling, I strolled off to explore the park. In no time at all, I'd arrived at the mouth of the cave and felt the cool air surround my legs as I moved closer. Sure enough, a gate blocked the entrance, and I placed my hands on the bars as if I was an inmate waiting for the cage to open. The hinges creaked as I let go revealing someone had forgotten to properly secure the entrance after the last tour of the day. Curiosity got the best of me, and I peeked over my shoulder before disappearing into the abyss.
It was apparent I'd be needing the flashlight on my phone after taking maybe ten steps. Once I lit up the area, it felt exciting to scout around, and the rush of breaking a few rules on my adventure was intense. The further I went, the air got crisp, and I felt quite a chill. An icy damp sensation tickled the hairs on my arms while I took deep breathes, enjoying the naturally filtered freshness moving through my nostrils. My head became light, so I paused for a moment and dropped my phone. Of course, it switched to the strobe effect as soon as it hit the ground, which worsened my situation. My solo rave in a cave made me incredibly dizzy as I fought even to stand up straight. When it became too much for me to handle, I noticed the outline of a couple holding hands and running in my direction. Before passing out, I was at least confident they'd make sure I got help.
It's an odd sensation to open your eyes in complete darkness. I've had dreams before where I knew it was a dream, and I was able to force my eyes open and wake up. It was wishful thinking because this time, I was not asleep. There I lay in the dirt, complete silence surrounded by blackness. Frantically I moved my hands around, trying to find my phone, but I came up empty-handed aside from a few small pebbles. Those two who ran at me earlier decided not to help and took my phone instead. I'm not too fond of the human race sometimes. Maybe this is karma laughing at me and dropping hints that I should be more humble. Jokingly I thought to myself, "Things could be worse. I could be planning a wedding with a bunch of women I can't stand."
Reality set in, reminding me that I had no idea how long I'd been in the cave and how Niki was probably worried sick. Afraid to stand, I began to crawl around, thinking I would eventually see the light and I'd be safe. The earth beneath my palms and knees started to vibrate while the sound of a train approached from behind. A deep howling wind pushed against my backside and almost knocked me over. Disoriented and unbalanced, I stood straight up and sprinted away from the rumbles and rattles in the distance. My skin scraped against the wall, and my head bounced from the surrounding rock numerous times as I ran full speed. Unsure of what was approaching, it was in my best interest to keep moving as fast as possible.
"Hey!" I heard off in the distance as I increased my momentum. The voice came from just ahead; running in that direction was my only option. Terrified, I wondered If I had gone the wrong way in all of the confusion. Unsure of myself, the best plan was to continue moving away from the approaching nightmare hot on my scent. Yes! A flashlight! It was flickering just ahead, and all I had to do was get to it. Before another breath could escape my body, I saw a flash followed by total darkness once again and then silence.
Chapter Two - New Life
My eyes opened and instinctively shut tight as the sun invaded my sleep. Once my pupils focused, I noticed a curious group of young children staring at me before yelling, "He's awake!" A large rimmed ranger hat provided shade as the line of kids backed away to make room. "You kids head back toward the bus and find your teacher. The tour is over for the day. Go on! I have to help this fine young gentleman out," said the ranger.
The kids hurried off as the ranger tended to a bump on my head. He seemed familiar, but I couldn't quite place him until realizing it must have been his father I'd met earlier to ask for directions. My mouth was terribly dry, but I still managed to say, "Your dad said it was chained up; I guess he was wrong." A concerned look fell over the man's face as he offered water and urged me to drink slowly. He then helped me up and mentioned I had a concussion as we walked toward the welcome center. "You ran right into the gate earlier before I even had a chance to open the lock," he told me as we stopped a moment to rest. He recommended a trip to the doc to look at the bump on my head because I was obviously delirious. I asked how he could be so sure it was a concussion, then he smiled and said, "Well, you mentioned my father, and I haven't seen him since he died ten years ago in 74." I responded by saying, "I'm sorry, but you meant he was seventy-four when he died?" A little irritated, my ranger friend again explained that his father died in 1974, ten years ago. I guess I must have hit the gate pretty hard after all because nothing was adding up.
We made it to our destination, and I had a seat outside to wait for an ice pack. The ranger returned and asked my name. With an outstretched hand, he said, "Nice to meet you, Arthur; I'm Jerry." My new friend asked if there was anyone I could call. Reaching for my pocket, I recalled why my phone was missing, and upon further investigation, my wallet was gone as well. Then I asked Jerry if I could borrow his cellphone because someone took mine in the cave, or even better, he could order me an Uber, and I'd be on my way. By this time, Jerry lost his patience and said, "Look, buddy, I've had about enough of this. There is a payphone right around the corner. The park closes soon, so make your call and get to the doctor." Jerry handed me a quarter, said goodbye, and hurried down the closest trail. Desperately, I tried to make sense of what had happened and figured it had everything to do with the giant lump on my forehead.
It was the first payphone I had ever seen outside of images online. It didn't matter that I had no idea how to use it because I never took the time to memorize Niki's number anyway. My best bet was to try and get a ride back to the hotel. As I looked around for a potential taxi, I noticed that all the parking lot cars were quite old. A closer look revealed that my mind was slipping more than I could have imagined. The dates on the license plates all read 1984. Doing my best to remain calm, I stopped a woman jogging by, and she proceeded to remove her Walkman. She then confirmed that it was indeed 1984 before bouncing off again and adjusting her headband. It's impossible! I'm like negative fifteen right now. No way is this happening for real; I must still be passed out somewhere after hitting my head.
Feeling a dizzy spell coming on, I knelt to close my eyes. The song Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go drew closer until the music was directly over me. The walkman lady was back and offered to help. Already expecting she'd say no, I asked her for a ride anyway. To my surprise, she said it was no problem, and she would drive me wherever I had to go. We hopped in her Chevy Cavalier, and we were on our way.
My big-haired driver's name is Jules. Talking a mile a minute, she informed me that I was out of luck if I smoked. The car lighter went directly to the trash the day she bought the Cavalier because it's a nasty habit, and she wasn't about to let anyone burn a hole in her seat. She also apologized for the dog hairs because she recently moved out and adopted a Beagle puppy she named Rossco. We drove for several more minutes, and I couldn't help but notice how the scenery had changed, and traffic was nothing compared to my ride earlier in the day. Everyone seemed happier, and the city itself appeared cleaner. When we arrived at the hotel, the giant structure I had slept in two nights already was nothing but a big hole in the ground with a sign in front that read, "Riverview Inn coming soon." At this moment, I knew things would never be the same again.
After thanking Jules for the ride, I stepped from her car and stood, trying to come up with a plan. I'm lost and alone; worse than that, I have nothing, no identification, no car, no money, and no one. My girlfriend's parents haven't even met yet, so trying to find Nik was undoubtedly out of the question. The immensity of the situation weighed on me heavily as I began to sob. I then heard, "Arty, are you alright?" come from the Cavalier still parked beside me. Without a word, I got in and sat there with nothing to say except, "Arthur, not Arty."
My talkative friend told me that I had a kind face, and she could tell I was in trouble. She explained how someone had once helped her, and she assumed it was her turn to do the same for another stranger. It was a welcoming gesture, but I was still shocked at the act of kindness. We pulled away from the empty parking lot, and I had no clue where we were going.
Jules treated me to a cheeseburger and some fries from a local place called Super Giant. The total price of my meal was barely two dollars, including the soft drink. It was by far the best burger I had ever tasted, and the fries were perfect. The news was playing in the background as we ate dinner, and the reporter talked about a terrible accident across town.
Jules informed me that she could not date anyone at this point in her life because she was taking a break, and I shouldn't get the wrong idea. I told her it never crossed my mind, and I knew I was not her type anyway. "What's that supposed to mean?" she asked with a scowl. On the ride to the hotel, I noticed how she'd looked at every attractive girl we passed on the road. "You're a lesbian," I casually said as I threw another fry in my mouth and washed it down with my soda. Shocked, she turned the volume down on her radio and mentioned how I was mistaken. I told her that I could care less if she was gay, and it wasn't a big deal. Her eyes got puffy, and tears streamed down her round face while attempting to hide the intense emotions. She reluctantly spoke the truth and informed me that she had never told a soul of her secret. I assured her it was nothing to worry about and everything would be fine. It actually meant we had something in common. Both of us were into girls, so there would be plenty to talk about from now on. After wiping her face, she smiled and expressed that it felt good to get it off her chest and let me know we'd be best friends from now on. And she was right; we did everything together.
I tried telling Jules I was from the future a couple of times, but she always laughed and told me to lay off the hard stuff before passing the joint. She even humored me with trips to Dunbar so I could attempt to get back home. The evenings ended with an overabundance of burgers and fries from our favorite stop. I ended up taking odd jobs all around town to help my best friend with bills. The tobacco fields were my least favorite choice, but I was pretty good at waiting tables, so I stuck to that for the tips. We even managed to save a little to get ready for my big plan. Jules always made fun of me, but we trusted each other, and that's all I could ask of her. I had to make many adjustments, but with her help, I managed to fit in, and we became a great team.
She never questioned my ability to sing along with brand new music or my knack for placing winning bets on the big game. It helped growing up in a house full of sports fanatics. I never cared much for football, but it's all anyone talked about several months out of the year. I lost a few times because all of these games happened well before I came around, so I did my best to remember old conversations between my uncle and father.
Curiosity got the best of me, and I asked Jules if I could borrow the car for half the day. "The keys are on my dresser," was the answer I needed before heading out the door. I patted Rossco on the head and took off. My stomach filled with butterflies the closer I got to Hendersonville. I hadn't seen my parents for months, and it's not like they'd recognize me anyway. Mom still lives in Oregon for now, but I've seen Dad's childhood house on several Sunday trips out to the country. We were never very close, but I'm curious to see what he looked like in the eighties.
Niki flashes in my thoughts all the time, but oddly it wasn't because I missed her. It has more to do with memories that don't exist. Even if I did miss her, it wouldn't matter because she's a ghost. I'd never noticed it before, but I've always been alone.
My exit was still several miles away, but the needle was on empty, and I had to pull over soon. As I pumped my gas, I couldn't help but laugh at how easy it would be to drive off with free fuel. In 1984 everyone paid inside after filling their tanks. After handing the cashier a five, I went ahead and purchased a pack of candy cigarettes for the remainder of my trip. The eighties are interesting. On the way out of the store, I ran into a scrawny kid with a football in his hand. He was polite and said, excuse me as he made his way to the beef jerky. As he passed, I noticed the writing on his jersey. The name Daughtler was in big, bold letters across his back. "Hi, Dad," I said under my breath.
Using the Cavalier as a seat, I waited on my father to finish his purchase. He approached me, and I said, "The Raiders took it home this year, didn't they?" We struck up a conversation, and he passionately told me that the Raiders were ancient history, and the team to beat t