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Today's Story by Thomas Wenig

My journeys of late had taken me to one desolate wasteland after another.


Before the end of the trip, I needed to trade. My journeys of late had taken me to one desolate wasteland after another, dwindling my supplies to a few cans of beans and a lone match. Luckily, the clock ticking on the nightstand confirmed that I was in the midst of civilization before I even opened my eyes. Had I ended up in a dry desert or frozen tundra, it would have been me against the elements.

The clock displayed that it was already late afternoon, but I couldn’t blame myself for oversleeping; climbing through the trees to escape a pack of huge prehistoric wolves would wear out anyone. At the window I pulled back thick curtains to reveal a small town nestled among mountain peaks, flanked by thick redwoods on all sides. The hotel sat at the end of a broad street with shop fronts and restaurants where people strode by in jeans and t-shirts. Based on the styles, I guessed I was somewhere around the turn of the twenty-first century. A good time for resupplying. But as for place, I would have preferred a big city where pawnshops and rarity dealers were easy to find.

I let the curtains fall and took advantage of the running hot water to shower and shave–one had to enjoy the amenities while they were available.  My clothes were a mess, my shirt still bearing the scars of a run-in with an angry Neanderthal and my trousers slashed where a smuggler’s saber had cut me. I was glad to find a pair of jeans and a button-down shirt mysteriously waiting in a dresser drawer. Maybe they were left over from a previous occupant. I could never say for sure.

I picked up my leather satchel–like the clothes I woke up in, the bag always followed me from trip to trip–and left the room. When I reached the hotel’s front desk I approached the attendant. “Are there any pawnshops in town?” I asked, which earned me an awkward look. “Or shops for rare coins, collectibles, that sort of thing?”

The attendant pondered for a moment, then said, “There’s a place that collects stamps down the street, Amelia’s. Her father passed away recently, but I think she’s reopened now.” I thanked the attendant and left, glad to be away from the hotel before anyone had a chance to ask who I was or how I had reserved a room. Both were questions I was never able to answer easily.

A sign painted in a flowery hand at the end of the street marked the gift shop. Inside, I found myself surrounded by touristy knick-knacks:  postcards, local art, key chains. The pretty young woman behind the counter offered a welcoming smile that didn’t quite reach her eyes. “Hello,” I said. “I’m looking for the owner.”

“That’s me.” She held out her hand. “Amelia.”

I hid my surprise as we shook hands. I had assumed Amelia would be older; stamp collecting was not usually the hobby of attractive women in their twenties. “I understand you deal in stamps?” I asked. She nodded. “I have something that might interest you.” I reached into my pack and pulled out a small leather case. Inside was a black square the size of a thumbnail with Queen Victoria’s profile in white. I placed it on the counter.

Amelia’s eyes lit up, and my spirits perked. At least she wasn’t an amateur. “A Penny Black stamp. In perfect condition, and unused!”

“I’ll make you a good deal,” I promised.

“Sorry, I couldn’t afford that. I dabble in adding to my personal collection, but nothing that rare. Or that pristine, anyway.” Amelia stared in awe at what was to her a century and a half old relic.

“To be honest, I’m in a bad position. I lost my wallet, and I’m not from around here. Make me an offer.”

Amelia looked up and shook her head, “I could offer you a few hundred bucks, but that’s it.”

“Done,” I said, smiling. Amelia narrowed her eyes suspiciously. “I told you, I’m in a bind. I need the cash or I won’t even be able to buy dinner.”

Amelia studied the stamp for a long moment and finally said, “All right. Deal.”

Three hundred dollars. It sounded like a fortune. The stamp was really worth far more than that in the early twenty-first century, but I rarely had the right type of currency for where and when I awoke.  Throughout my trips, I had learned to procure cheap, common items in one place and time and sell them when rare and expensive in another.  Trading what had been bought with a half penny in the middle of the nineteenth century for a new tent, canned food, and fresh water was a real bargain.

Amelia opened the cash register and frowned. “I don’t have the money here. Let me close the store and I can run home. It’s a slow day anyway and I was thinking of closing early.”

Amelia locked up the shop and drove us to her house on the outskirts of town. “Come on in and have a seat,” she offered when I waited at the front door. I would have been content to take the money and be on my way, but I didn’t want to risk making her suspicious again and sour the deal. I followed her inside, through an entryway and down a hall lined with family portraits.

I then stepped into a living room that read like a history of my life.  Drawings and paintings and maps of a hundred places and times hung on the walls. Antiques covered shelves and little tables: old swords, rusted guns, faded photographs, yellowed documents, and even pieces of clothing.

“It’s all my father’s. He was a history buff,” Amelia said as I scanned the treasures. Her eyes brimmed with tears that she wiped away with a sleeve. Apparently she had been quite close with her father, the wound from his death still fresh.

To break the awkward silence, I pointed to a blade on the wall.  “That’s a fourteenth century long sword, isn’t it?” I knew that it was.  One had almost taken off my head, once. “And that’s a rifle from the Civil War.” It was strange to see all the pieces together, like a mishmash of old friends from different times congregating for a surprise birthday party.

“You know about this stuff?” she asked me.

“I have experience in pretty much every era.”

“My dad, too. We’d sit in here and he’d read histories to me before bed instead of fairytales.” Amelia smiled at the memories in the room. “We liked ancient Rome best of all, though. It always seemed so exciting, so romantic.”

“It’s actually pretty dirty and miserable unless you’re a rich senator,” I said, and then added, “or so I’ve read.”

“I suppose. Still, it was my favorite. I wish we had something Roman in the collection.”

I turned and Amelia was handing me a stack of bills. I took it and said, “I should get going.”

She hesitated for a moment, then replied, “Do you have to? I haven’t had anyone to talk to about any of this stuff since… well, it reminds me of my dad, in a good way.”

I scanned the room for a clock, but found none. The small town would probably shut down early, and with it my chance to resupply. But when I looked at Amelia again I recognized the look in her eyes. I had seen it a thousand times before, reflected in a frozen lake or a burnished set of armor, or in a polished hotel room mirror: loneliness. Who knew it better than I did?

Over pizza and a bottle of wine, Amelia and I talked history into the night. “Oh, I’ve kept you late, haven’t I?”

“It’s alright,” I said.

“Do you need a ride to the hotel?”

“Ah, well…”

“You don’t have a room, do you? Stay here, then, in my guest room. I kept you so late.” The stores had all closed hours ago, so I agreed. She showed me the room and kissed me on the cheek like an old friend. “Thank you,” she said. I simply nodded.

I snuck out of bed before drifting off, passing the kitchen with cabinets stocked full of food. It would have been easy to swipe a can or two, but I had sworn to avoid resorting to thievery a long time ago. In the room full of treasures, I pulled three newly minted Roman coins out of my bag and added them to Amelia’s collection.

I awoke in a small shack, vicious winds threatening the decrepit walls. I pushed open the door to a barren expanse of ice and snow stretching to the horizon. I shut it, then started a small fire with my last match and opened a can of beans.


Thomas Wenig is a writer from Danville, California. He has had several short stories published, and continues to work on new science fiction and fantasy stories while writing his first novel.


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