John E. Stith is the author of nine novels, including “Redshift Rendezvous,” a Nebula Award nominee, and “Manhattan Transfer,” a Hugo Award Honorable Mention. Several of his works with Ace Books and Tor Books have been bought by the Science Fiction Book Club and optioned for film.
He has optioned several feature-film screenplays, and has sold to television (Star Trek). He lives in Colorado Springs.
The following is an excerpt from his novel “Pushback.”
Each week, The Colorado Sun and Colorado Humanities & Center For The Book feature an excerpt from a Colorado book and an interview with the author. Explore the SunLit archives at coloradosun.com/sunlit
2019 Colorado Authors League finalist for Mystery
The following scene takes place early in the novel. Dave Barlow, the protagonist, has just arrived at the location of his ten-year high-school reunion. With him is a relatively new girlfriend, Cathy.
To the right, at the bottom of the stairs, Cathy and I spotted a reunion welcome poster, and moved to it. A big arrow pointed upward to the second floor. An old picture of the graduating class had been enlarged under the banner, “Mountain Lake High School Class.”
I started up the stairs, then hesitated. The class picture showed sixteen people. Two rows, young men in the back, young women in the front. Eight and eight. My class had had twenty. But the picture had my year on it.
I looked more closely and got my first twinge of unreality. They had gotten the picture wrong. It had to be a different class. But I didn’t recognize the faces in the photo as being classmates ahead of me or behind me by a year or two. So they really had it wrong. How hard could it be to get the right class photo?
At least the school in the background was right. It was a long building in the “WPA Rustic” style, boxy, made from local stone. It could have been a National Parks building. The sixteen kids were posed right next to the school sign, just as my class picture had been taken.
“Someone must be embarrassed,” I said. “This isn’t our class.” I took another look. One of the women in the front row was a stunner. Blonde, perfect-teeth smile, like a smiling model if you can imagine such a thing. I would remember her. I was wary of too-beautiful women, but I did have a minor in art appreciation.
The woman had bangs and straight hair that fell to about the middle of her neck. I had never seen her before. But I wished she’d been in our class.
Puzzled, I reached for Cathy’s hand and tugged her toward the stairs. “Come on. We’ll figure it out.”
My knee twinged and my ankle snapped as we climbed, but I was used to that. The stairwell walls sported more school photos intermixed with the restaurant’s own photos. Another of the school building, from a different angle. A group of teachers. There was Ms. Grayson, my cranky geography, political science, and history teacher. Runners on a track, too far away to recognize faces. Possibly a debate, shot from the back of the room. Five students singing. My free-floating unease grew.
We reached the second floor. Within just a couple feet of the top of the stairs, a table partly blocked the path. I felt uncomfortable, off-balance in the narrow space between table and stairs. Two nametags lay on the tablecloth. Hanging on the front of the table was a duplicate of the screwed-up poster on the first floor. Same banner text, same eight and eight students. Behind the table were two people about my age, late twenties. One was a muscular guy with medium-length hair shot through with brown and blond. Squared-off jaw. The guy’s name tag said, “John Dyson.”
The other person at the table was the stunning blonde woman in the picture.
She wore a name tag saying “Liz Bennet.” Reading the tag was a reading-comprehension and focus challenge because she had on a very low-cut top. Her blonde hair was now curly, more like a grown-up Shirley Temple than her hair in the group photo. Her top was vivid red. Her bra was white.
“This floor is reserved for a school reunion tonight,” the blonde said politely. “Sorry for the inconvenience.”
“No, I—er, we’re here for the reunion.”
“Oh, I’m sorry. I don’t recognize all the spouses. But I don’t know if we have enough dinners.” She fingered the two remaining nametags. “These are for Max and Joanne. I’m afraid I don’t have you on the list.”
I scratched my forehead, the feeling of confusion turning darker in my brain. Was this something like Candid Camera or Borat? “Hey, something’s wrong here. I’m Dave Barlow. I’m a graduate of Mountain Lake High School. Maybe there’s—”
I glanced at Cathy, who looked as baffled as I felt.
The blonde hesitated, shuffled a short stack of pages in front of her. “Say your name again?”
“Dave. Dave Barlow. Maybe if you got one of the people from the class.”
“I am one of the people from the class,” she said, puzzled.
“But I don’t remember you.”
“I’m sorry. I just don’t get this,” the blonde said. “We had sixteen members of the graduating class, and you’re not one of them.” She bent sideways to grab something from her purse, giving me quite a view, then straightened. In her hand was a copy of the school yearbook. I had my own copy at home. At least this would clear things up.
She flipped open the book, revealing some familiar pictures, but as she reached the individual photos, my stomach lurched.
Even before she turned the book so I could see better, I knew this was wrong. I took a closer look as Cathy moved a small step away from me.
Eight and eight. The sixteen people from the group photo. There were Liz and John from right in front of me. They looked fairly similar to their pictures, but many people can transition from eighteen to twenty-eight without massive changes, apart from hair. I was not there. No one I knew was there. I searched the faces of people sitting at the booths and tables beyond. No face looked familiar. A central bar area had more people on stools. None of them looked familiar.
I steadied myself by leaning on the table.
“Something’s wrong,” I said. “There can’t be two Mountain Lake High Schools?”
“Look,” John said. “It might have seemed funny to try to get a free meal, but it’s not happening. Maybe if you crash a larger party.”
“But I’m not crashing. I belong here. What’s going on?”
John rose from the table, looking for a moment less like a classmate and more like a bouncer.
A dozen ideas flashed through my head. I could maneuver past John and grill the people at the tables. I could call the manager and tell him the party here was a hoax. I could call the police, tell them—tell them what? Tell them I was going crazy? Was I?
The flurry of ideas died down. Even if I didn’t have a super aversion to fighting, this was not the kind of problem a fight would solve. It would just make things worse. I turned, stunned and confused, to Cathy. “Come on. Let’s get out of here.”
“Just a minute, OK?” Cathy’s confusion mirrored mine.
Fight-or-flight mode had kicked in with a vengeance. Flight was way out in front. I wanted to get out of here. As fast as I could. I tried my damnedest to avoid conflict, and if I stayed here, the situation had conflict written all over it. This just had to be a setup. I was not going crazy.
I scanned the crowd again, feeling my pulse race, sensing the perspiration on my forehead. “I really want to go, Cathy.”
And then I looked at her face. Her expression had changed, hardened.
A chill raced down my back. I was that guy. I was the guy who left his dog without food or water. I was the guy who scammed her and broke her heart. I was a liar, a poser. She backed away from me, the look in her eyes something I never want to see again. Abruptly I was acutely aware of the damage that had been done by the boyfriend who turned out to be a con man. He probably made her feel she was partly to blame, that she was somehow a magnet for criminals and sociopaths.
Cathy wasn’t going to cry. I could see the anguish on her face, but she was rigidly under control. “Is this your high school or not, Dave? Is this why you didn’t want to come to the reunion?” She picked up the yearbook and looked closely at the sixteen faces and then at the cover.
“I dragged my feet a bit, but, no. This is crazy.” Bad word choice.
“Yes. It is. Something’s wrong.”
“I agree. But you know me.”
“I thought I did. But this doesn’t make any sense.”
I summoned calm and got nothing but more anxiety. “I don’t know what the purpose is, why this is happening, but this is some kind of setup. I’m being totally honest here.”
“Just a sec.”
It was bad enough that this reunion was all wrong. But to have it affect my relationship with Cathy would be ten times worse. A hundred. The increasing stress level made me feel out of breath, struggling to get from the depths to the water’s surface.
“Come on, please. Let’s get out of here. I can make some phone calls and get to the bottom—”
“Wait. Just wait. I have to think.”
I said nothing. There didn’t seem any more I could say. I knew the damage con-man Terry had done to her. Maybe in her own way Cathy was almost as damaged as I was.
She couldn’t meet my gaze. “Look, Dave, I’m sorry. I’m just not going with you right now. I need to process this, and right now I—I don’t feel safe.” She moved another step back, hitting the wall.
“But—how will you get back to the Springs?” My world was falling apart and here I was the pragmatist. Great response.
“I’ll take a cab. I’ll walk.”
“Look, I can just drive you—”
“I said no!”
I stepped back. I hated that word. I tried so hard to avoid it. Normally I’d rather not even ask the question if “no” was a possibility. I would take the long way, walk instead of ride, if “no” was a possibility.
I had just turned invisible. The blonde said, looking at Cathy, “Several people here live in the Springs. I’m sure we can find you a ride or chip in for a ride.” She cleared her throat. “You don’t think your friend is dangerous, do you?”
I swung toward her and searched her eyes. I had trouble reading her, but I imagined I saw some compassion there. Or maybe just curiosity. Or perhaps that was what I wanted to see.
“No, I’m not dangerous.” That was mostly true.
I looked back at Cathy. Her jaw clenched. Brow furrowed. Her anger was palpable. If anyone was dangerous, it was her. My pulse pounded so loudly other people must be hearing it. My tell-tale heart.
Her reaction seemed over the top to me, but I wasn’t the one who’d been conned and lied to and cheated on. And I knew I had my own hot buttons. She was likely reacting as much to the past as to the here and now. Maybe I was the stand-in right now for all that was deceitful and manipulative about some men. And I certainly hadn’t been entirely candid with her about my PTSD symptoms and the reason for them.
I stood there, feeling hollow. Two choices lit up—two paths. One, fight for Cathy, make a scene, push back. Two, retreat, avoid bringing more conflict into my life. I’d already had enough conflict to last a lifetime and I wanted no more. If Cathy was able to believe these strangers over me, what other hurdles lay down that road? Cathy’s reaction robbed me of any remaining will to fight right now. I just felt numb.
“Something is very wrong here,” I said carefully. “But it’s not me.”
Cathy said nothing. She would no longer meet my gaze.
I nodded. “I’ll get your bag.”
I’d taken a couple of steps down the stairs when she spoke. “Dave, I’m sorry. Maybe this is more about Terry than about you, but I’m scared. I just can’t come with you.”
I processed that for a few seconds and then nodded. “You want to just borrow my car? I can get back on my own. ”
She shook her head.
Cathy’s red overnight bag was in the trunk, next to my own bag. I retrieved hers and went back into the restaurant. Liz was waiting at the bottom of the stairs.
“I can give the bag to your girlfriend,” she said. “Good luck.”
I didn’t get it. She seemed genuine, not ironic. I nodded and handed over Cathy’s bag.
I turned toward the doors. I put my hand on the inner door and took a glance up the stairwell. I could see only to the landing. No sign of Cathy.
I pushed through the pair of doors to the cool evening air, leaving behind the second woman I had ever loved.