Bryce smelled a rat.
He sighed. He knew what it meant. He would have to clean up the garage. At least until he found the dead rat.
So he started in. He was eighty years old, and increasingly absentminded, so if he encountered something that needed doing, he generally did it immediately, lest he forget. The stench of the rat would not ease on its own if ignored. The body would be there somewhere, buried under or behind assorted junk. If he could get at it.
It had been some time since he had shaped up the garage. In fact he had mostly stopped coming in here, since he gave up driving, and things had pretty much accumulated on their own. But in time it would need to be cleared out, when the house was put on the market, because—
Because Bryce had between one and two years left to live. His doctor had given him the word: he had type two diabetes because he had grown too fat, and his blood vessels were three-quarters clogged because he had eaten too many fatty snacks, and the formerly inert prostate cancer was beginning to become assertive because, well, just because. He had to exercise, reduce his weight, and stop sleeping so much in front of the TV. He needed to get out and interact with other people, becoming more social. He needed to challenge his brain instead of being a mental sponge. Or else.
Bryce had lacked the gumption to do any of those things. Exercise was too much work, and his fading eyesight made it harder to recognize people. So he was faced with the or else. That meant he would die, and his house would be sold in the process of putting his estate in order. It wasn’t much of an estate; forty-odd years of office work had not paid any fortune. The two of them had been comfortable, however, not requiring much.
Then Bev had died, and any remaining ambition Bryce might have had had dissipated like windblown smoke. He existed; that was most of what was to be said for him. Their sons had expressed concern, but they had lives and families of their own, as did their grown children, his grandchildren, so they mostly left Bryce alone. His increasing grouchiness of age might have had something to do with it.
He got to work, slowly, because he did not have a lot of energy to spare. He might have to do the job in installments, until he penetrated to the rat’s nest, wherever it was. Too bad odor was not more specific, so that he could orient on it efficiently and be done with the distasteful chore. As it was, he would soon be grimy, because layers of dust covered everything. Roaches and silverfish skittered away, resenting the disturbance. Bryce grimaced; he should have donned gloves for this dirty work, but naturally hadn’t thought of it. It was just too complicated to go back to fetch them from the house, assuming he could find them.
Almost immediately he had to fight off a wave of nostalgia. There were things here dating back decades, to when the family was more active and ambitious. Useless things that he had not been able to throw out, because that would have been like discarding part of his wife, or a son, or a friend, or his own youth. He knew it was foolish, but he just couldn’t do it. So the junk accumulated, reminders of hopelessly faded memories.
He had lived a mediocre existence, and not entirely because he had to. He had made obvious mistakes of judgment and passion, and paid for them. If he could somehow live his indifferent life over, he would be a lot smarter about that. He would do the right thing instead of the convenient thing, the decent act instead of the selfish one, the prudent decision instead of the reckless one. He might not be richer or better known or respected, but he would be a better man. That would count for a lot, personally.
For one thing, he should have made more of his ability to sketch. He was no artist, and had never worked with paints, but if he had a pencil and paper he could sketch anything he saw, accurately enough so that others could immediately recognize it. He still liked to draw things; the house was piled with old pencil pictures, and he always kept a stubby pencil and a little notepad in his pocket. It was his sole creative expression, and it made him feel good. Had he taken art courses, who knew what he might have made of it? So he would definitely follow up on that.
And a fat lot of good that resolution was, at this stage in his wasted term! It was easy to make fine resolutions when there was no prospect of having to follow through on them.
But he was woolgathering, one of his bad habits. It was time to get back to work.
Here was an old push-lawnmower, overwhelmed by cobwebs, as dated in its fashion as Bryce was in his own. There was a similarly old circular rattan chair, once a comfortable novelty, but in recent decades useless because Bryce knew that once he sat in it, he would not be able to get back out of it. It was piled with junk: a bucket of dry-rotting wooden clothespins for laundry that no longer got hung out to dry in the sun, a bag of tattered clothing that Bev might once have worn, an empty picture frame that could have pictured his present empty life, several battered paperback novels that would never be reread, and a bright yellow box.
Bryce didn’t recognize that last. Could a granddaughter have left it here? But no granddaughter had been here in the past decade, and this wasn’t the kind of thing to be left and forgotten. It was too pretty: it almost glowed with a xanthin luster. Also, there was no dust on it, so it couldn’t have been here long. Yet who could have left it here? The garage was locked from the outside, and the neighbors were not the kind to intrude. It was as if it had simply floated in on its own and found a place to perch.
In a moment he realized something odd but surely significant: the dead-rat odor emanated from the box. Such an awful smell from such a lovely object! Could that be coincidence? It had the one fragrance that was guaranteed to make him search it out promptly. So it must have been placed for him to find.
He picked it up and opened it. Inside were three objects: a tiny pillbox containing a yellow capsule, a small vial of yellow fluid, and a bound yellow notebook. Each had lettering on it. The pillbox said FBU NF, the vial said ESJOL NF, and the notebook said SFBE NF. What did it mean?
Bryce had never been any genius, but in the old days he had diverted himself with newspaper word puzzles. That repeated NF looked like a two-letter word. There were only so many of them. Suppose the letter B were substituted for the letter A? The letter F for the letter E? A childishly simple transcription.
And just like that he had it. The pill said EAT ME, the vial said DRINK ME, and the notebook said READ ME.
Like Alice in Wonderland. Who knew what effect such things might have on a person? Nothing magical, surely, but they could be candy—or poison. It was best to leave them alone.
Except that someone must have left them for him. Why? He had no close friends anymore; they had all died. Similarly, he had no enemies. What possible reason could any stranger have had for such an obscure contact? This was curious indeed.
Well, hell: what did he have to lose? He took the pill and swallowed it.
Nothing happened. So much for that.
He unstopped the vial and drank its few drops of golden elixir. It was neutral in taste. Again, nothing. What had he really expected?
So he opened the book and started reading. It was in the same code, so he had to change the words letter by letter, tediously. It was a curious, probably nonsensical message.
THIS IS A SECRET ONE-WAY PORTAL TO THE LAND OF XANTH. TO ACTIVATE IT, SPEAK THE MAGIC WORDS
He paused. What magic words? It didn’t provide them.
This must be someone’s idea of a joke. Bryce tucked the book in a pocket and went on with his cleanup, since he was now well into it and had nothing better to do.
He discovered his old recumbent tricycle, buried under more junk. He hauled it out and brushed it off. The chain was oil-caked but seemed serviceable. The tires were solid rubber; he had gotten tired of repairing punctures and switched to these ones that might wear out in time but would never go flat. The trike should be ridable despite its long neglect.
And what about him? Could he still ride it? Balancing was tricky on such machines, because the rider was low to the ground. He had learned the art, but his old reflexes might not be up to the challenge. Still, the trike should be secure against even his clumsiness. It was a bike, not a trike, that required balance. He had been confusing the two, in true senior moment fashion.
Well, hell, again. He opened the garage door and hauled the trike out onto the pavement. He would try it, and if he crashed, well, that was the luck of the draw.
Startled, Bryce looked up. There was a dog. Female, healthy, older, with short black and white hair, fairly solid, with somewhat floppy ears. He was generally familiar with dogs, but did not recognize this one. “Well, what breed are you?” he asked.
She shrugged, obviously unable to answer the question.
Bryce left the trike and approached the dog. “May I? I want to look at your tag.” It was always best to approach any strange canine cautiously, though this one seemed friendly.
She shrugged again. Taking that as a yes, he petted her shoulder, then reached for her collar. There was none. Evidently there had been one, but somehow it had been lost along with the tags.
“You must be lost,” Bryce said. “And maybe hungry and thirsty. Let me fetch you some water and whatever else I can rouse up. Wait here.”
He went back into the garage, glancing back. The dog lay down in place, doing what he had asked. That was a good sign.
He entered the house, found a pan and some leftover pie, and brought them out. He set them down before the dog. “Sorry it’s not more. It’s all I have at the moment.”
She merely looked at him. “It’s okay,” he said reassur...