Stopover

by William Gerken

Public Domain

Science Fiction Story: What will the world be like, the day after Tomorrow, for the lonely ones who will have talents that others will half fear, half envy? William Gerken describes this strange world in which young and old will have to find new values and pursue new dreams, as they search for the answer....

Tags: Science Fiction   Novel-Classic  

When he opened the door to the shed that day, and saw the axe suspended in mid-air, he understood what was wrong.

He had been living with us for a week before I found out he was a Lifter. Even the discovery was an accident. I had started for the store, but then remembered a chore I wanted him to do. I heard the sounds of wood-chopping coming from the shed, so I went behind the house to the small wooden structure. I must have gasped or something, because he turned around to look at me, dropping the axe he had poised over a block of wood as he turned. Only he hadn’t been holding the axe; it had been hanging in mid-air without support.

The first time I saw him was when he knocked on my door. I don’t think I’ll ever forget how he looked--tall and thin, old clothes and older shoes, an unruly mop of blond hair. It was only when I looked at his face that I realized that he was more than a mere boy of eighteen or nineteen. The tired lines around his mouth, the sad, mature look in his eyes, the stoop already evident in his young shoulders; he had been forced to mature too quickly, and seemed to have knowledge a boy his age had no right to be burdened with.

“I--I was wondering if I might get a bite to eat, sir,” he said.

I grinned. No matter how he looked, he was no different from anyone else his age where food was concerned. “Sure; come on in and rest a spell,” I told him. “Marty, can you fix a plate of something? We’ve got a guest.” Marty--my wife--glanced through the kitchen doorway. After a cursory look at the boy, she smiled at him and went back to work.

“Sit down, son, you look pretty done-in. Come far today?”

He nodded. “Guess it shows, huh?” he said, brushing the road dust from his trousers.

“Uh-huh. Where you from? Not around here, I know.”

“Far back as I can remember, Oregon has been home.”

It wasn’t hard to guess why he was almost a thousand miles from home. During the war, over ten million American families had been separated, their way of life destroyed by the hell of atomic bombings. Ever since its end, people had been seeking their loved ones; many, only to find them dead or dying. Sometimes the searches stretched across continents or oceans. In that respect the boy sitting opposite me was no different from hundreds of others I’ve seen in the past ten years. The only difference was in his face.

“Looking for your family,” I said, making it a statement.

“Yessir.” He smiled, as though the sentence had double meaning.

After he had eaten, he went down to the town store to look through its records. They all do. They turn the pages of the big stopover book, hoping a relative or friend had passed through the same town. Then they sign the book, put down the date and where they’re headed, and set out once more. Almost all towns have stopover books nowadays, and a good thing, too. They helped me find Marty back in ‘63, when the truce was finally signed. In fact, I found her right here in this town. We got married, settled down, and haven’t been more than a hundred miles away since then.

Martha called me into the kitchen almost as soon as he was gone. “He’s a nice boy.”

“That he is,” I agreed. “You know, I’ve been thinking; we could use a young fella around here to help with the work.”

“If he’ll stay. There was something in his eyes; a sort of longing for someone very close to him. That kind usually takes off after a night’s rest.”

“I know. Guess I’ll drop by the store; see if I can talk him into staying.”

By the time I reached the store, school was out, and a group of kids were gathered around him, listening to his description of the Rocky Mountains, which he had crossed during the summer. The kids weren’t the only ones listening. Even the adults were standing around in the store, remembering the places they had once seen themselves, and getting such bits of news as he dropped about the other towns he had passed through. The Searchers are, next to the town radio stations, the only source of information we have now, so it’s no wonder they’re so warmly greeted wherever they stop.

Soon as he’d finished telling about the Rockies, I said we’d appreciate it if he would stay for supper. He said he would, and later, while he and Tommy, my eight-year-old son, and I were walking home, I asked him if he’d stay with us for a while.

For a moment he looked wistful, as if wishing he could stay here, and forget whoever he was trying to find. Then he smiled and said, thanks, he would stay for a week or so.

He was real helpful, too, cutting stove and fireplace wood for the coming winter, running errands, hunting for game animals, and teaching at the school. Almost all Searchers teach when they can be persuaded to stay in town for a spell. Since there are no more colleges to produce teachers, anyone who knows something useful takes a turn at teaching. ‘Fore the war, I was a mathematics major in college, so twice a week I teach all kinds of math at school, from numbers through calculus. Mostly, Searchers teach about what the places they had passed through are like.

Then, when I opened the door to the shed that day, and saw the axe suspended in mid-air, I suddenly realized why he had that sad, tired look about him all the time.

He picked up the axe from where it had fallen, and stood it against the wall. Reaching for his jacket, he said, “I--I guess I’d better be moving along, Mr. Tranton. I’m really sorry if I’ve caused you any trouble.” He started past me for the door.

“Hold on, son.” I grabbed his arm. “Why the rush?”

“I don’t want to cause you any trouble. Now that you know what I am--” he gritted the words out bitterly, “the word will get around. I wouldn’t want the others in town to be angry with you because of me. You and Mrs. Tranton have been swell to me. Thanks for everything.” He tried to pull his arm loose, but I held fast.

“Let’s go inside and have a cup of coffee,” I suggested. “I don’t know about the other towns you’ve been through, but here we don’t hate a person because he might happen to have powers we don’t.”

“Yesterday I was down at the store, and I heard one of the men sounding off about us,” he said. “He didn’t sound like he cared much for us.”

“Must have been John Atherson. He never could understand ESP, and he blames the war on it. We just let him talk; can’t change a person like that.” We went up the back steps and through the door into the kitchen. “Go on, show Marty,” I said, taking off my jacket.

He looked at me to make sure I meant it. Then he raised the coffee pot from the stove, and watched it move across the room under its own power to the table where I was sitting. Leaving the pot in mid-air, he made the cupboard open, and still standing in the middle of the room, floated three cups and saucers to the table. Then he got the cream, sugar and three spoons, put them on the table, and poured the coffee. Marty watched the coffee pot move back to the stove, her mouth open in amazement, “I heard of it, but I don’t think I’d have believed it if I hadn’t seen it.” I nodded, and she smiled at him. “Now that I know,” she said, “I’m even gladder you chose to stay here for a while.”

He grinned. “Thanks.” He sat down with us at the table, and stirred some sugar into his coffee.

“It must be hard on you,” Marty said quietly, in a knowing way. “Are you really looking for your family, or for others with ESP?”

“My father was killed during the bombings. After that, Mom and I were alone. She only had a little talent; Dad and I were the ones who were really adept. Anyway, we stayed on the small farm we owned until last spring. Then Mom married again, and I was free to leave. I think her new husband was sorry to see me go, because it meant a lot of manual work for him that I had been doing an easier way. I decided to see if I couldn’t find any others like myself, so I left and started across the country.”

“Do you have any other powers, or can you just control things?” Marty asked.

He grinned. “If you mean, am I an all-around superman, no. Dad wasn’t either. I do have a scattering of other psi talents, though, but nothing as well-developed as my telekinesis. I’m still working on them.”

Tommy came in from school just then. “Could you teach him how to use his mind that way, or do you have to be born with it?” I said.

He smiled again. “No, you don’t have to be born with it. Everyone could do it if they started training themselves young enough to use their minds to the fullest extent. All through history certain people have had strange powers. The trouble was, they were thought to be freaks instead of the better developed humans they actually were. Even now, we’re only on the threshold of learning the full power of the mind.” He turned to Tommy. “Would you like to learn how to do things, Tommy?”

“Sure. Like what?”

He glanced at Marty and me. “Like making the world a better place to live.”

Two weeks later, at a meeting of the town council, I wasn’t too worried about getting the proposal accepted. We might have some trouble with Atherson, but I figured between the two of us we could handle him. When the new business came up, I stood up and led Tommy to the front of the hall. There were a few whispers as we went, as children under fifteen aren’t allowed in the hall during a council meeting.

“Tommy has something to say to you which, I think, will interest everyone here. Go on, son.”

Seconds afterwards, we all heard, a clear “Hello,” but not with our ears; the word came from inside our heads.

Someone said: “The kid’s a telepath,” and the silence was broken.

Everybody was talking at the same time.

“I suppose you think it’s an honor to have one of them damn things for your son,” Atherson yelled. “I’m glad you’re the one who got stuck, and not me.”

“Tommy was not born a telepath, John,” I told him. “He has been deliberately trained to make use of the latent power in his brain. And I don’t think I’m ‘stuck’ either. We all know we’ve been slowly slipping into retrogression ever since ‘63. None of us like it, but there isn’t anything we can do to halt it--yet. We don’t want our children, or their children, to keep slipping backwards. If we don’t stop it in our lifetime, we may not be able to stop it at all.

“As I see it, the best chance we have to at least achieve a status quo is to accept the aid those among us with psi talents are willing to give. After all, it’s their world, too. With their help, we may be able to build a better civilization, one without the socio-political diseases that led to the war.

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