This is one of my favorite stories. Sadly, due to world events, it’s always timely…
Gets Tickled and the Fish Trap
From the book Free Pecan Pie and Other Chick Stories
Amazon-Paperback and Kindle.
Janelle Meraz Hooper
Downtown Tacoma, the year 2100…
The injured veteran took a crumpled piece of paper out of his pocket and checked the address. This was it: 2121 Pacific. He stepped back and surveyed the shiny, black glass that fronted the structure. There was no sign above the door. Who ever heard of a bus station with no sign?
He shrugged and entered the building. Instantly, he found himself in a Northwest Country Bus Station—a company that had been gone for years—with empty wooden benches for waiting passengers on one side and a 1950s style luncheonette, complete with chrome stools and plastic counter, on the other. Even the waitress wore a starched pink uniform with white trim on the sleeves and a flower folded from a printed handkerchief pinned over the pocket. She smiled at him and motioned for him to sit in the chair nearest the cash register. He noticed that every seat at the counter was filled, but no one was eating. Instead, they all seemed to be waiting for something.
Somehow, the young vet felt that he was part of the reason for their wait, although he couldn’t imagine why. Another strange thing: all of the other diner patrons were Indians. They smiled as if they knew him. When he looked around some more, he saw that the view out the plate glass window had changed from the busy Pacific Avenue to a view of Commencement Bay that was actually behind them.
The waitress said softly as she passed the veteran, “You’re next, Honey. You take care now.”
He heard a rattle above his head, then a loud, girlish giggle. Looking up, he saw a huge Indian fish trap, woven out of twigs. The Indian next to him cried out in delight when a live salmon fell from the huge basket onto the counter in front of him. There hadn’t been any salmon in Puget Sound for years. The Indian picked up his thrashing fish, put it under his arm, and left. The next Indian moved up to sit in his place.
When the first fish fell, the veteran was sucked up into the trap. Just then, another vet came hesitantly through the door. The waitress smiled at him and motioned for him to sit in the first chair by the cash register. The waitress said softly as she went past him, “You’re next, honey, you take care now.”
The Indian next to him smiled and shook his hand. “I am Running Water. And you are Pete.”
“How did you know?”
“We’ve been waiting for you.”
“Why am I here? Where am I going?”
“Up there.” Running Water looked toward the fish trap.
Just then, there was a rattle up above, and a huge fish fell down in front of Running Water. At the same time, the vet felt himself being pulled up toward the ceiling. With a friendly wave, the Indian picked up his fish, put it under his arm, and left.
The next Indian moved up. Another soldier came through the door and was seated.
Meanwhile, Pete found it slow going as the trap narrowed. He was surprised that he wasn’t in pain. At the top, his head bumped against the inside of the lid of an old iron pot-bellied stove. The lid rattled as Gets Tickled opened it. With no effort, she pulled Pete through the small hole into her kitchen that had a huge pile of live salmon in the corner.
“Who’s down there now?” she asked Pete. “Oh, it’s Rock’s Hard,” she said as she peeked through the hole. “He and his wife are alone now.” She picked up a smaller fish and threw it down. Rock’s Hard waved and called, “Thank you, Gets Tickled.” A loud giggle answered him. He picked up his fish and went home.
The vet that was leaving the bus station just as Pete came in was still in Gets Tickled’s kitchen. Both men felt themselves pulled toward the beach outside Gets Tickled’s front door.
“Hi, I’m Pete.” Pete said to his fellow vet.
“Good to know you. I’m Charley. Have you noticed your pain is gone? Mine is.”
“Yeah. When I first felt myself being pulled toward that contraption downstairs, I was sweatin’ it. I’ve been in constant pain for months and I thought that being pulled up to the ceiling was going to kill me, but I didn’t even feel it.”
“The trip didn’t hurt me either.” Charley agreed.
Check this out,” Pete said to Charley as they approached two new lounge chairs, “lounge chairs with our names printed on them—just like Hollywood.”
The two stretched out in the comfortable chairs and felt the warm sun soak into their skin. Their clothing changed to swimsuits.
“There’s quite a few of us here. I have a feeling we’re all veterans.” Charley said as he looked around the beach. “Maybe we should go over and introduce ourselves.”
“Good idea. Just let me rest here for a little bit first. I want to savor this body that for the first time since the war isn’t hurting me anywhere.”
Pete fell asleep and Charley watched him softly breathe in and out. While Pete slept, another man appeared. So did a new lounge chair with the name “Frank.” Charley shook his hand and said hello.
“What the hell am I doing here?” the befuddled man asked. “First I’m getting off a plane in the middle of a desert, the next thing I know, I’m going through some crazy fish basket in a bus station diner.”
“Were you on duty there?” Charley asked.
“Hell, no, I was there to pick up the body of my brother. He was killed in the desert war.”
“You went over there to pick him up? That’s unusual.”
“I know, but my mother has some kind of crazy idea that a man’s spirit is still alive for days after he dies, and she didn’t want my brother to be alone. She begged me to go pick him up.”
“Talk about being in the wrong place at the wrong time. You must have been pegged as a vet who fit the criteria of the rest of us.”
“What criteria is that?”
“I don’t know.” Charley admitted. “We’re hoping to find out more later on tonight.”
“Are we dead?”
“We’re not alive. I know that because I’m no longer in pain. Are we dead? Don’t know. Must be.”
“This, whatever it is, is a mistake. I’ve got to get back. I’m not dead. I’m not even sick!”
Pete looked over to see that the whole crowd was moving toward tables laden with food. He was famished.
“Let’s go eat. Maybe we’ll find some answers while we’re over there.” Charley said.
Pete opened his eyes, saw the newcomer, and leaned over and shook Frank’s hand. Nothing after today would surprise him; he supposed that the newcomer got there the same way he did.
“Pete, this is Frank. We need to see if we can get him back down through that fish basket. He’s here by mistake.”
“Frank, you must have a hell of a story. I can’t wait to hear it, but let’s eat first.”
It was a happy group of soldiers that gathered around the food-laden table. The whole scene was like something out of a 50s beach movie.
“Hey, here he is, back from the frozen level,” a man named John waved to a friend. “I told you you’d be back.”
“Damn, it was so cold there I almost got frostbite on my nose. But it was beautiful.”
He turned to Frank, Charley and Pete, and explained as he shook their hands and said a quick hello, “Hi, I’m George. I got permission to go to a winter level because I’d never seen snow when I was on earth, and I wanted to experience it. John warned me that I wouldn’t like it.”
“There’s different levels?” Pete asked. “Where are we anyway?”
“That’s a common question around here. The best we can figure, we’re in some kind of a holding pattern for vets. Maybe some kind of a dimension/purgatory kind of thing. None of us really knows.” John loaded his plate while he talked.
“How long have you guys been here?” Charley asked.
George shrugged. “It’s hard to tell. Maybe minutes. Maybe days. We’re not sure if they have time here.”
“That’s fine for the rest of us, but Frank is here by mistake. How do we get him back on earth?” Charley asked.
“I don’t know of anyone who has ever gone back. Sometimes, one of us switches to another level just for fun, like George.” John laughed. “Frank, can you remember how you got here?”
“I was slightly injured while I was in the desert, but I wasn’t a soldier. My brother was killed over there.” Frank’s eyes searched the beach for his brother.
“Is his brother here?” Charley asked John.
“No, you guys are the only new men here. He could be on another level.”
“If he’s not here and not on another level, I wonder why not?” Pete asked. “Aren’t we all soldiers?”
“Yes, but if you look around, there’s not enough of us to account for all the battle deaths. We think that there’s a common thread that brings us all here, but we don’t know for sure what it is.”
“Is it possible that there’s a level we don’t know about? A … er … lower one?” Pete quietly asked, glancing at Frank.
“Could be. For right now, let’s try to figure out how to get Frank back home,” John suggested.
“Any ideas?” Charley asked.
“There is a girl here who seems to be the hostess. Maybe she’ll help us out with Frank. Here she comes now.” John lifted his arm and waved over a young woman wearing a swimsuit with a baggy khaki shirt pulled over the top for modesty. “Hey, Lauren, can we talk to you for a minute?”
“Hey, Guys, what’s up? Not enough food?”
“No problem there,” the man joked as he surveyed the laden table. “We’ve got a stowaway here. This is Frank. He’s not a soldier. He wasn’t even injured.”
“Where were you?” Lauren asked Frank.
“I was in the desert, picking up my brother’s body. He was the soldier.”
“Do you remember anything?”
“I just remember that I picked up a little boy who was crying and helped him find his mother. All of a sudden, I was flying up into some sort of basket. I ended up here.”
“I’ll see what I can find out.” Lauren made a note on her clipboard.
“Have you seen my brother?” Frank asked Lauren.
“No, Frank, I haven’t. I’m sorry. Only a few vets come here.”
“What few is that?” Charley broke in to ask.
“Only soldiers who were trying to save someone else’s life. We have other levels with soldiers from the other sides of the battle lines. We keep you guys separate so you can get some rest.”
“We’re dead and we still can’t get along?” Charley asked.
“Dead? What makes you think you’re dead? You’re just moved to a different level, away from your real body, while you either go through difficult surgery or recover from a coma. Didn’t you see your medical charts behind your lounge chairs?” Lauren pointed to a pocket in the back of each chair. “I’m sorry I wasn’t here to greet all of you, but we ran into a problem down on earth, and I had to go back.”
Turning to Frank she said, “Let me check this out. I’ll get back to you.”
Sometime during the night Lauren gently shook Frank’s shoulder. “Wake up, Frank. You were right. This was a mistake. You’re going home.”
“That’s great. How?”
“I’m going to have to guide you back down the fish trap. After you end up in the bus station, you’ll be on your own. While I’m down there, I have a pickup to make. There’s an Arab boy who would be too frightened to make the trip by himself. I’ll hand deliver him to the Mid-Eastern level. He could be the boy you helped.”
“What did he do?”
“He stepped in front of his mother to protect her from gunfire.”
“Sounds like him. When will he be able to go home?”
“He won’t. At eight-thirty tomorrow morning the whole Mid-East will be gone. Some maniac will use nuclear weapons and misjudge their power. Palestine, Israel, Iran, Iraq—all of them—will be contaminated for thousands of years.”
“Isn’t God going to stop it?”
“I don’t think so. From what I hear, He’s had it with all of them.”
“That’s a story to take back home.”
“Sorry. You won’t remember this conversation or this place when you get back to earth.”
Lauren’s voice began to fade and Frank began to hear his wife’s voice plead as she shook his arm, “Frank, Frank! Are you okay?”
Frank opened his eyes to find he was stretched out on a sidewalk on Pacific Avenue surrounded by 911 medics. Had it all been a dream?
“Honey, what are you doing in this part of town? We were supposed to pick you up at the airport—and where did you get this big fish—isn’t it a salmon?” his curious wife asked.
Frank looked over and saw a huge salmon flapping around next to him on the sidewalk. “Honey, I swear, I’ve never seen that fish before in my life,” he said.
No one but Frank heard the girlish giggle that floated down between the office buildings. A big smile moved across his face, but he didn’t know why.
Read the book- This story was originally published in my short story book, Free Pecan Pie and Other Chick Stories. Paperback and Kindle (etc.). Suitable for YA and up.
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