The Mini-burger

FanFic in the Birmoverse

Back Home Again in Indiana, by James Brooks

Trains were too damn slow, Jim thought, watching the snowy scenery go by. Still, they were better than the flying cans that passed for airplanes here, and probably far safer. And he should’ve been glad to get any time off at all. There was a war on, or so the saying went, justifying everything from FBI arrests to meat shortages. Yeah, he was one of the lucky ones, thought Lieutenant Commander Jim Brooks. Lucky as you could get, being thrown through time, eighty years in the past.  

He’d had his friends aboard ship. If you couldn’t make friends as a PAO, you weren’t doing your job, he thought with quirked lips. He’d had his things, too. Rank did have its privileges — more cabin space for the things that made life aboard ship, and now life in the past — comfortable. A flexipad, multifunction radio, the essentials of 21st century life, they simply couldn’t be bought here. And he’d had them. He’d almost them, of course. Anyone who’d had anything remotely electronic had been tempted. The astronomical amounts of money people had offered… well, what was the use of money if you couldn’t buy what you wanted?  
He really shouldn’t have been taking the time off. There was so much work left to do back in California… riding herd over newspapers and radiomen eager to report on the happenings in the “Hidden Valley” as some of them were putting it. He had almost laughed when he’d first heard of the term. They weren’t producing salad dressing, but state-of-the-art aircraft and tanks, things the whole country wanted to know about. And he’d had to control what got out and what stayed secret. It was a lot easier when all you had to do was ask the reporter not to run the story, sure, but it was always good to be there on the spot when someone had a question. Nobody would begrudge him getting a Christmas vacation, though, not when he had something almost no one in the transported fleet had — a family.
Sure, everyone had grandparents and great-grandparents out there, but that was the problem. They were out there. Most crewmen didn’t know where their families were, and finding them was proving to be difficult, if not impossible. That, plus the need for war work, meant most members of the future fleet were staying in California for Christmas. They buried themselves in their work so they didn’t have to think too hard about what they’d lost. He’d been lucky, he thought again, turning to watch the scenery go by the observation car’s window.
“You one o’ them folks from the future?”
“I’m sorry?” Jim turned from the window to see who had asked the question.
“Ah mean, I just ain’t never seen a uniform like that one there, before.”  
The man was pretty unremarkable. Brown suit, somewhat rumpled, but that was normal on a train. About the only remarkable thing was his moustache, a blond thing that combined with his clothes to make him look like an ‘80s pornstar cast as a cheap film noir private eye. His accent made him out to be from somewhere nearby. Rural Indiana, uneducated, for sure. Most people around here were. No GI Bill, after all.  
 “Jim Brooks.” He extended a hand. The man took it in a firm, rough grip. Farmer traveling for Christmas, probably. Jim smiled. “And yes, from the future. Can’t rightly say whether it’s our — this — future or another one, but it’s some sort of future, either way.” Jim hated copying the man’s accent, but it was something he’d always done… he couldn’t help it. And besides, people tended to trust folks who sounded like them.
“Ah really hope ya don’t mind me askin’ all these questions, ya know, but ah read one of those “histories” you all published… some really good stuff there, ya know?” The man seemed ecstatic to be talking with one of the “future people” who had been mentioned in newspaper stories and radio broadcasts across the country. For all the coverage, most of the soldiers and sailors of the fleet didn’t travel much beyond California and the Zone. Those who did tended to stick to the big cities like Washington, New York, and Philadelphia. There had been an enormous wave of interest about the fleet, but as recruitment kicked in, that wave had died down some. Jim hadn’t fielded as many questions on the train across the country as he thought he might have. Still, there had been one or two people like this man, intensely interested in the future, but reluctant to talk about it, mainly because of all the bad things — the riots, discrimination, and the like — that had arrived with the fleet.  
“Well,” Jim said in response, “we’re not aliens or anything. Not like Orson Wells’s Martians.” Jim was proud to have gotten that contemporary reference off, and it must’ve hit the mark, since the man laughed.  
“Ah guess not,” the man said, recovering. “But Ah’m gettin’ ahead of myself. The name’s Nate Burleson. Just headin’ inta town to meet with the family, ya know? What about yerself? Where you headin? If ya don’t mind me askin, of course,” he added hastily.  
“Of course not, Mister Burleson. I’m actually heading ho— well, to visit family up in Alexandria. It’s up near Anderson, if that helps. I just hope we can get there before we all die of old age,” Jim said, waving a hand at the train car around them.
“True enough,” Burleson said, chuckling. Several of the passengers in the car turned at the sudden sound before returning to their windows, gazing out of the observation car at the end of the train, looking at the sunny central Indiana snowscape rushing by. “Can’t say I ever thought of you all havin’ families, to be honest. The radio madeja all out to be machines.”
“Good to hear we didn’t meet your expectations,” Jim answered, the smile slipping slightly.  
“Don’t get me wrong!” Burleson sensed he had said something wrong, but wasn’t sure what. “Ah mean ah heard a lot of stories about you all lettin’ wimmen inta the army. I mean, my two boys are out there somewhere. Ah caire about what happens ta them, ya know?” He paused, near tears. Jim, for once, was speechless. “Ah woory about ‘em, ya know. Ah don’t really caire about wimmen in the Army if they can fight. Hell, you can have your queeros and pinkos too, if ya want. Ah just wanna have my boys home agin with me.” He seemed on the verge of breaking down.
“Hey there,” Jim began. He wasn’t sure what he could say to the man, but he’d give it a shot. “I’m sure they’ll be fine… we’ve got the best men and women in the world out there. I can’t speak for everyone in the fleet, but all we care about is if a person can fight. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a man, woman, Mexican-American, or whoever. If they can fight, we’ll take ‘em. We’re in this together. With everyone pitching in, we’ll beat the Japane— the Japs and Krauts, and they’ll come home. We’ll all come home.” The words sounded cosmically tacky, like someone reading a press release aloud, but it seemed to have an effect. Burleson didn’t look like he was going to fall apart right there on the train.
“Listen,” Jim said, making a show of looking at his watch, a 21st century digital model with radio. “We’ve got an hour before we get to Union Station… I’m heading up to the diner for lunch. Let me buy you a round. For your kids.” Burleson didn’t answer for a little while, then shook himself out of his stupor. He smiled.  
“Sounds like a plan to me.”
They spent the rest of the trip to Indianapolis in the dining car, Burleson getting drunker and drunker. Jim matched him for the first two rounds, but gave up after that. Even for the standards of the time, he was hitting the bottle hard. Maybe it was just the holidays, combined with his sons being deployed away from home. Jim had never had kids of his own, something that he had regretted as his fortieth birthday approached, but he was glad he hadn’t had to put any kids through the trauma of being left behind when he and the fleet had been taken to 1942.   
The train slowed as it pulled into the station, wheels clanking over a switch as it changed tracks. The brakes squealed, bringing the train to a halt. The train filled with the sounds of passengers gathering their bags and stretching their legs, ready to leave the train to travel home or simply as a stopover on the way to the East Coast. Jim didn’t move. The train’s passageways would be packed with people trying to disembark, and he needed to move a big steamer case full of presents, something he didn’t relish doing in crowded aisles. Patience — that was the key. He’d done the same thing in crowded airliners back in the 21st.  
With nothing better to do, Jim turned his attention back to Burleson. “How were you planning on getting to your wife’s folks’ place, Nate? I mean, if it’s not too far out of the way, I might be able to give you a ride.”
“Aw, gee, thanks, Jim,” he said somewhat slurrily. “It’s not out of the way at all. Ah mean, you’re headin’ north, right? I just need a lift to Broad Ripple… it’s on the north side o’ town. But if that’s too far outta your way and all, don’t worry about it… Ah think ah got money forra cab.”
“No shit!? Broad Ripple? I grew up there!” Jim had been shocked into profanity, practically jumping out of the dining car’s booth.  
“Yep, 6142 Kessler, unless Ah wrote down the wrong number,” he said, fishing out a scrap of paper from his pocket and holding it in an unsteady hand. “So ah guess ya can take me? I’d be much obliged.”
“Of course I’ll take you! I didn’t think I’d have time to drop by the old neighborhood — hell, it really is old now. Tell you what,” Jim said, standing up from the booth amidst the crowd moving through the train car. “I’ll grab my stuff, you grab your bags, and I’ll meet you on the platform, okay?”
Jim moved through the flow of people to his sleeping cabin, while Nate got to his unsteady feet. Jim grabbed his duffel and the enormous steamer trunk from the cabin, slowly making his way through the crowd. They were dressed a lot better than folks traveling in the 21st would’ve been, and they walked a lot slower, even the ones carrying less than he was. Something about the time, maybe. As annoying as it was, it was the kind of thing he’d wanted to see. You couldn’t get a real feel for the country back in the Zone, or even in California at large. This was real America, working and living. He could’ve taken a flight, saving himself three days. He’d taken the longer trip, trying to assuage his conscience by justifying it as a work opportunity, the better to get a feel for what people were thinking, what reporters were looking for. It wasn’t something you normally did… normally you knew enough about your reporters and who they were writing for. That’s what made a good PAO. Not in this case. It was all just too different.
The station, for instance. Here, Union Station wasn’t the gleaming edifice of the 2020s, remodeled for the use of Starbucks, the Gab, and Venture Out. Neither was it the rat-riddled fleatrap of the 1980s and 1990s. It was simply a train station, special only in its size. It had an air of simple use about it that simply wasn’t there in the future. People seemed to take it for granted in a way he didn’t think he ever could. They blended in, even those in uniform and whose salutes Jim had to return until he felt like he was back in Purdue ROTC with the workout his arm was getting. His unfamiliar uniform drew looks, making him feel like he fit in even less. It only made him even more anxious about meeting the — his — family again… if it still was his family.  
It was chilly in the station’s airy lobby, but it was downright cold when Jim walked outside. Even the nanofibers in his uniform could only insulate against so much. Nate must be freezing in only a wool suit, he thought. Fortunately, the car was easy to find. The car renter had it warming up for them, and stood there clapping his black-gloved hands and bouncing up and down to keep warm. He hurried up to them, clearly eager to get out of the weather.  
“Mister Brooks? I’m Reid Doughten. Got your car right here, no problems. Here, let me take that trunk for you.” Jim reluctantly gave up the trunk, which Doughten took with a grunt, placing it in the back seat of the car with an effort. There wasn’t room in the trunk for it, but there was room there for Jim’s brown Navy-issue duffel and Nate’s suitcase. Once those were secure, Reid took the time to show Jim the features of the Packard — the lights, wipers, gearshift, steering, heater, and radio. After that was done, Jim paid the man in cash. They shook hands, and that was that.  
“Have a Merry Christmas, Mister Brooks. Just be sure to have it back here by the first… just tell ‘em at the transportation desk that you’re returning one of the cars, and we’ll take it from there. Have a good one!” He ran inside, leaving the two men in the car, ready to begin what Jim hoped would be a happy trip. Jim’s stomach didn’t have butterflies in it so much as California Condors, or so it felt.  
Fortunately, the roads hadn’t changed much. The orderly grid of Indianapolis’s streets still made sense, and Meridian Street still ran north. Both men craned their necks as they drove through downtown, taking in the sights and sounds of the snow-covered city. Burleson looked to see new sights, while Jim looked to see the old. At least the Circle was still the same, he thought, longingly. The Soldiers and Sailors Memorial was still there, but it only made the loss of everything else all the more apparent. Conseco Fieldhouse, Lucas Oil Stadium, Circle Centre Mall — hell, even Market Square Arena and the skyscrapers that had been there before Jim was born hadn’t been built yet.  
The Scottish Rite Cathedral was still there, he thought. Probably didn’t do many high school graduations yet, judging by the number of people going into the place… probably for evening mass, he thought. The car, stopped at a light, stalled out. Jim restarted it with an effort. It’d been a long time since he’d driven a car that wasn’t an automatic.
The rumbling of the car’s stall brought Burleson’s attention back to the interior of the Packard. “Don’t drive much? Can’t say ah do, either… just too tough with all tha rationin’ and stuff. But you all probably got robot cars that drive ‘emselves in the future, don’tcha?”
“Close enough,” Jim said, gritting his teeth as he pushed the car back into gear to the sound of grinding gears. Nate looked smug, settling back into his seat to watch the scenery go by.  
It wasn’t long until they were in Broad Ripple. The scenery fell away from enormous mansions lining the road to empty, tree-lined lots before reaching Broad Ripple, a suburb of the Indianapolis that was far, far smaller than Jim remembered. The roads, where they existed, still went the same way, however, keeping them from getting too lost. A light snow had begun to fall from the sky as the afternoon moved closer to the winter sunset. The house Nate guided them to was utterly unremarkable, just one of dozens of small brick homes, bare snow-covered trees in the front yard. The car pulled up to the curb, brakes squeaking.
Both men got out, Jim helping Burleson get his suitcase out of the car’s trunk. “Ah’d lahk to thank ya for that ride, Mister Brooks. You wanna come in for a bit? Ah’m sure they wouldn’t mind…” The front door of the house opened and a woman appeared in the doorway.
“About time you got here, Nate! Don’t dawdle there in the cold… you’ll catch your death,” she yelled. Nate looked sheepish. “That’s the wife, ya know? Always lookin’ out fa me.”
“I couldn’t tell,” Jim said dryly. “Thanks for the offer, Nate, but I really need to get up north. No telling if the snow’ll get worse or not. I’ve got to get home… if it is still home.” That last part was said under his steaming breath.  
“Hey, don’t let it et you up. It’s lahk ya said… we’re in this together. Ah’m sure you’ll do fahn.” Nates wife yelled from the doorway again, causing him to move that way. “Thankya fir all yer help, Jim!”
Jim watched as he walked up to the door, enveloping his wife in an enormous embrace. He walked to the car, waving one last time with his arm on the roof of the Packard. The door of the house shut as he got back in the car and started it up. If only I were so lucky, he thought.
The drive north was even more depressing. His neighborhood didn’t exist — it was a cornfield, as was the spot where Glendale Mall would have been in the 1960s. The only recognizable feature of the neighborhood was the ACE Hardware store. Its neon sign looked the same as it had before being replaced with a modern one back in the 21st. He didn’t stop to look around — it would’ve been too much. The interstates didn’t exist either, of course. He was glad he knew a couple different ways to get to Alexandria using surface roads. The drive was uneventful as the snow began to fall harder. His was one of the few cars on the road, thanks in large part to rationing, he thought.  
The only incident came as he drove through Elwood and nearly ran off the road when he saw an enormous billboard proclaiming the town as “The Hometown of Wendell Wilkie, the Next President of the United States” in bright red letters. That hadn’t been there before — it must’ve been left over from 1940. The towns he drove through were strangely in far better shape than their 21st century counterparts. They even seemed to have more people in them, if that were possible. Fewer cars, but more homes and more buildings. He wondered why.  
When he finally got to Alexandria, crossing the railroad tracks that even in the 21st signaled the borders to town, he saw the same thing. The Aladdin Lamp factory seemed to be running full-tilt, trucks pulling in and out of the gate in a steady stream despite the fact that it was Christmas Eve day. He had to brake suddenly to avoid one that pulled out in front of him. Across the road, the warehouse his grandfather had owned — would have owned, at least until it burned down — stood, new as day. So did the Blue Key Tavern, right across the street from the factory’s administrative offices. He’d never seen it like that, not even as a little kid coming to town to visit his grandparents.  
He crossed another set of tracks, this set square in the middle of town. There was the old train station — he’d seen it in ruins as a little kid, the American eagles painted on the wood weatherbeaten and faded. Here they were, almost as good as new, obscured only by the snow that was falling from the darkening sky. He turned on to Canal Street the last part of his trip. The car rumbled over the bricks that paved the road — indeed all the roads in Alexandria, a vestige of the town’s heyday as a natural gas center, something that was only now coming to an end.
There it was… it looked almost the same as it had in the 21st, when his uncle David had bought the house and fixed it up. A solid, three-story Victorian, it was even more impressive set against the bare, snow-covered branches of trees that were far smaller than they were when he’d seen the house last. It stood alone, no other houses nearby — they evidently hadn’t been built yet. He opened the car’s door, maneuvering onto the sidewalk with difficulty. The curb was as high as it’d been before, making it difficult to exit the car. The snow came down heavily, falling in large flakes as he advanced toward the front door. Would they accept him? Would they reject him? If that happened, what the hell was he supposed to do, just head on back to California and the war?  
That’s what most of the fleet was doing, just working through, trying not to think too hard about the fact that it was Christmas, and that all they had was each other, alone in the world. At least they were alone together. He stopped in his walk up to the house, snow collecting on the blue shoulderboards and hat of his travel-rumpled uniform. There was a four-star flag in one of the upper-story windows. Four stars — four sons in the armed forces, fighting in the war. Four? That wasn’t right… there should’ve been only three: Walter, John, and Michael. None of the other boys would’ve been old enough to enlist, if he remembered correctly. The fourth star was blue with a gold border, showing that son had enlisted in the Fleet. Maybe that was it, he thought. One of the others, someone he was forgetting, had probably been inspired by the stories about the Fleet and enlisted in the “force from the future.” That was a good sign — if they were flexible enough to accept a son enlisting in the Fleet, maybe they’d accept someone who was a member of that fleet. He started walking again, shoes squeaking on the fresh snow on the concrete walk.  
But maybe he’d enlisted over the objections of his parents. Maybe they had been pushed away from the Fleet. His hand stopped, ready to knock on the hard oak door. He could turn away, just go off and never come back. They’d never notice, just go on living their lives like they had before; like they seemed to be doing now, judging from the noise of conversation and laughter that came through the wood of the door.  
He’d never be able to live like that, though. He’d always have regrets if he didn’t go through with it. He had to do it. If it went off well… that’d be a bonus. He’d just be happy with not being turned away. His hand came down on the door, once, twice, three times. The conversation behind the door stopped, heavy footsteps coming closer. The door opened, casting light into the darkening evening.  
“Can I help you?” The man who stood at the door seemed to be about Jim’s age. He had rough hands, one of which rested on the door, holding it open. A wedding band glistened in the light. He wore a turtleneck that seemed to nearly go up to the top of his balding head. His eyes were tired, but seemed to glisten with humor, as though he understood a joke that no one else got.  
Jim took off his uniform cap, snow falling onto the porch. “I’m Jim Brooks, sir. We spoke on the phone last week. I… I hope I’m not interrupting anything, sir.” He extended one hand from where it had been nervously twisting the cap, distorting the imitation leather. He didn’t get a chance to say anything more.
The man at the door brushed aside Jim’s outstretched hand, instead enveloping him in a tight embrace. “Good God, it’s good to see you,” he said. “Since you called, Martha and I’ve been in a flurry, imagining what you’d be like… our great-grandson from the future. Here, lemme get a look at you.” He stepped back from the embrace, looking over Jim, who just stood there, stunned. “But I’m forgetting my manners. You’ve got to be freezing — come on in!” He put an arm around Jim’s shoulders, guiding him inside and shutting the door behind them with a well-practiced foot.  
“Kids, come ‘ere! Your Uncle Jim’s home from the war,” he yelled in a bellow that filled the spaces of the house. “The little ones wouldn’t understand, so we told ‘em you were their uncle,” he explained in a whisper. Above them, bangs and running feet signaled the approach of Jim’s grandaunts and granduncles, kids no older than fifteen. Jim’s great-grandfather, the man who had welcomed him at the door, looked on with a smile as the kids ran up to give Jim little hugs and kisses, or, in the case of the boys, firm handshakes. Older relatives, great-grandaunts and great-granduncles, brothers and sisters of Jim’s great-grandfather Alexander came into the room as well. They gathered around, smiles on their faces to welcome the newest member of the family.
It was all too much for Jim — the kids, the faces, the kindness… it was all just so overwhelming. He needed to get out. “Is there a bathroom nearby? Long trip and all, you know.”  
Alexander was understanding. “Sure, right behind you there. Just be sure to jiggle the handle.” Jim extricated himself from the crowd of people — no, family members — with an effort, including one little girl who had latched on to his uniformed leg and was sitting on his foot. He closed the bathroom door, locking it behind him, and sat down heavily on the closed toilet seat, head in hands, elbows on knees.  
The tears were really flowing now. It was all too much — faces that seemed half-remembered, photographs viewed once and made real now, in the flesh. The people he’d looked at those photographs with — his mother, father, sister, and everyone else he’d ever known — they were the memories now. They’d never even get a chance to exist. Gone forever… no, even worse. Never existed. The friends he’d had in the fleet, gone now too. Killed either by the Japanese and Germans or when the fleet had been thrown back into the past. Gone without a chance to find their families, without a chance to create a new life here, to create a better world than the one they’d left behind.  
He pounded his fist on his knee. No, they weren’t going to let this world turn into that one. There wouldn’t be a 9/11 here. No suicide bombers, no invasions, no nuclear attacks. They’d win this world over on their terms, just like winning the war against the Axis. The Fleet would defeat both the Axis powers and the cruel Axis of Time that had separated them from everyone they’d known and loved by creating a new home. He wiped his eyes and flushed the unused toilet. That old world was gone now, like it had never existed. He unlocked the bathroom door and stepped out.  
Dozens of faces met his. He looked for one in particular, one fourteen-year-old boy who stood on the stairs watching the commotion below. Too proud to come down, but too interested to stay upstairs, he stood there — Jim’s grandfather. Staring at the boy, he spoke to the family — his family, and smiled. “It’s good to be home.


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