Quintessence

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EXCERPT

Quintessence by Kelli Jae Baeli

A buzzing in my head brought me awake. I blinked at the glass a few inches over my face. Ceiling tiles, a florescent light fixture beyond the transparent barrier. I placed both palms on the canopy, feeling a little like I was in a coffin. Pushing on it, I heard another sound like airbrakes again, and the canopy folded back, as if I was emerging from the cockpit of an F16.

I sat up.

At the foot of the tube, sat Ethan Pritchard. He looked just like the photo on the back of his book. Scruffy salt and pepper hair and a white beard framed a rather Einsteinish countenance.

I thought back and realized I had gotten out of the tube and left the barn, even recalled driving down the road…did I imagine that? Had I instead reached my destination? If I was still in the tube, why was it now horizontal?

“Welcome. What’s your name?” Ethan Pritchard asked with a grin.

Blinking away my momentary confusion, I said, “Jason. Now where’s my father?” What was wrong with my voice? It sounded restricted, like I had lost a lower register.

His smile gradually increased, and he clapped his hands together and made some silent supplication toward the ceiling. He looked at me again, and I thought he might actually cry.

I struggled out of the tube and stood up. “What the hell is—” I noticed, then, that my shirt was different. And my boots were softer and not of the cowboy variety. But those details paled in comparison to what was sitting on my chest. Two soft mounds of flesh. Stunned, I could only look up at Pritchard with confusion.

“Maybe you should have a seat there. I have to explain what just happened to you…”

Those two protuberances were not man-muscles, but breasts. I had breasts like a girl. My voice…it was higher. Like a girl’s voice. I could feel my heart abusing the hell out of my ribcage. Then Asimov wandered in and hurried over to me, putting his feet up on my leg. I rubbed the nappy hair of his neck. His coat seemed a slightly different color. That’s when I noticed I had a ring on my right hand. It was a class ring. I held it up close and read the logo. MIT. My eyes drifted drunkenly over to Pritchard. “What—”

“Now, just take a breath. Everything is fine. I’ll explain it all, and you can ask me whatever you like—”

“I’m getting out of here. Where’s my father?”

“Just let me—”

“Where the fuck is my father!?”

Pritchard moistened his lips, smoothed his beard. “You’re looking at him.”

I had this moment then, where I felt I might be floating. Like this was a very vivid dream, and I expected to look at my hands, and wake up on the side of the road, tipped over in the van, suspended only by a seat belt, after having fallen asleep at the wheel.

“This is just as strange as it seems. There’s a lot to absorb, and I understand how confused you are.”

I studied his face. He had my eyes. My nose. He looked a lot like me. “You’re my father.”

“Yes.”

I moved a little stiffly to the doorway, overwhelmed by the sensation that something very important was missing. And that something was supposed to be between my legs. I felt castrated.  Reached down to cup myself, and felt only a void space where my manhood should be. I recognized the living room on the other side of the kitchen. It was the house by the barn. The one I had pilfered food from. It appeared lived-in, unlike the last time I was there. There was no blanket of dust on everything. Someone had cleaned. Moved a few things around, added other things. And I was still feeling a little woozy. “I get it…” Wow. Just for a minute I thought I was in the Twilight Zone.

Pritchard moved up behind me. “You get what?”

“The tube…it went underground and came up here, and it had some gas hose in it somewhere that knocked me out, probably a hallucinogenic… which explains my—” I looked down at the incongruity of breasts, thought of my higher-pitched voice. “—my gender change…and you also switched my clothes…”

The doctor laughed merrily.

“That’s it, right?”

He stopped laughing. “Sorry. It’s significantly more complicated than that.”

“Just give me the Reader’s Digest Condensed Version.”

“I…it can’t be condensed—”

“Try.”

He sighed. “Very well.” –and searched for a simple statement. “I brought you into one of your alternate realities with a device I invented. The tube I call the ARM.”

I waited. Letting the statement sink in. It never sunk. It just hovered there on the surface, aggravating me, a little frightening.

“If you want to join me for coffee at the table, I’ll make sense of this for you.”

Ignoring his invitation, I headed straight out the front door, pausing in the driveway, looking for my van. There were three cars in the driveway. One was a silver sedan that had rounded fenders much like the old cars in the 50’s. The other two were SUV styles, but altogether odd, compared to the ones I had seen in my lifetime. One brown, and one the color of coffee with cream. I was a bit surprised that they had round wheels, as if this reality had somehow managed to make a vehicle roll on squares.

My attention on the barn, I started for it. Sprinting over to the large door, I grabbed the handle and pulled. It squeaked open to reveal a room just like the room I stayed in before all this got so crazy. There was a large rug in the center, but it was mostly green instead of the blue I remembered. I knew the room was different, too. The hand written journals were replaced by a computer on the desk. But I was only interested in The ARM. I stepped over and kicked the rug away to reveal the circle of light.

The coffee can was not in sight, and instead, I found a small cylinder of comparable size, that had a handle on the top. I assumed this would serve the same purpose. Grabbing it off the desk, I leaned down to press it into the circular indention.

The wood panel whirred upward, the Bank Tube or ARM or whatever, rose to full height and stopped with the airbrake sound. It was not silver anymore, but white.

I pressed a button on the outside and the door slid open. I stepped in. I wanted to go back to my life. Back to my gender. The one I understood, the one that made sense. I wanted out of this nightmare reality.

As I closed the panel, I heard Pritchard yelling, “No!”

That susurrus second of air and then…

The panel slid open, and I saw her spin around to face me, lift a handgun and cock it. My mother. I flattened myself against the round wall, and hit the panel button again, and the door closed as a shot ricocheted off the housing. The door opened again, and I fell out into the arms of Ethan Pritchard.

“Oh my god…” I mumbled.

He helped me stand upright. “Are you okay?”

“What the hell was that?”

His arm came around me as he led me out of the barn.

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