Times Are Different in Port St. Joe
On stepping inside the real estate office and looking at the clock on the wall, Bob and Heather let out a gasp in tandem. It was almost eleven o’clock, and their closing had been scheduled for 10 a.m. Bob looked at his cellphone, which now read 10:52. Just a few minutes ago, it had said 9:48.
An attractive, lightly tanned lady in her late forties with tinted hair, dangly earrings, and stylish sunglasses pushed up onto the top of her head stood up from her desk. “I’m Susan. So glad you could make it!” she said, showing not the slightest sign of irritation.
“We are sooo sorry,” Heather said. “I don’t know what happened. I thought it was only ten, or nine-forty-five, but the clocks tell us otherwise.”
Susan laughed and said, “Welcome to Port St. Joe. It happens all the time. We’re tucked between two different time zones, and it drives everyone nuts! I take it you didn’t get my voicemail, asking if we were still on. I should have texted, because coverage here can be a little spotty. Please, sit down.”
On her desk, Susan had a photo of herself, an older man, and a man in his mid 20s wearing a Florida Gators baseball cap. They were posing on a fishing boat, the young man proudly holding up a huge marlin.
It was a simple closing, as they paid cash. Bob, a photographer, and Heather, an artist, had both fallen in love with the small Gulf town for its slow pace as well as its beauty. The condo was beautiful, tucked in from the ocean by a row of palm trees and small tropical bushes. You could actually see the dolphins from the beach as they carried out their daily migration back and forth every morning and afternoon.
The day they moved in, Susan celebrated by taking them out for dinner at one of the local seafood restaurants, which was packed even at 5:00 p.m. When Bob and Heather arrived, Susan and her husband were already there. He was 10 to 15 years older than Susan, with crystal blue eyes and a bit of a paunch. The waitress was taking away an empty drink and handing him another.
“Oh my God!” Heather said. “Please tell me we didn’t do it again!”
“No worries,” Susan said, standing up, and introduced them to her husband, Richard. “Because of the time glitch, we get used to taking life at a very leisurely pace.”
“The trick I always use,” Richard explained, “is to set any battery-powered clocks you have to the right time and use them as your gold standard. So, wall clocks, oven timers, and the clock in the car are the best ones to use.”
“That’s a great trick,” Bob observed.
“Necessity is the mother of invention. So, Susan says you’re some kind of photographer.”
“Yep. Nature photographer. I love capturing rarely seen animals in their natural habitats. How about you?”
“I’m a contractor, but I’m mostly retired now. We’ve built quite a few condos along the beach, but we’re starting to run out of available beach space.”
“I’m surprised no one has built a big hotel here.”
“Oh, believe me, people have tried, but we have extremely strict zoning ordinances, and quite frankly, I’m happy to have it that way. I don’t want to turn the area into another Panama City.”
“What about the other side of the road?” Bob asked.
“What road?” Richard asked, with a trace of irritation.
“Route 30A. I mean, all that development has happened between 30A and the gulf. What about the other side of the road? People would still pay to be near the ocean, even if they have to walk a few more feet.”
“The other side is just swampland. It’s all intractable.”
“As soon as I saw the road, I was curious about it. I’d love to get back there with my camera!”
“There’s nothing back there but gators!”
“I’d love to get some pictures of them in their natural habitat.”
“And I told you there’s nothing back there!” Richard snapped.
He rattled the ice in his glass, took another drink, and sighed reflectively. “Look, I’m sorry, but I once invested in a lot back there and tried to build on it and it was damn near the death of me. It certainly was the death of my—”
“Richard, please!” Susan interjected, and he immediately changed course.
“Yeah, I was used to thick vegetation, snakes, even the occasional alligator—they’re just an occupational hazard here in Florida. But the kind of crap that kept crawling out of that forest would just make your skin crawl. Stuff I’ve never seen before. Stuff that didn’t belong here.”
“In Florida?” Bob asked.
“In the goddamn century. In the goddamn milennium or any time since the ice age!” Richard said. “Have you ever heard of worm holes?”
“Richard, so help me God, don’t start on that!” Susan said, on the verge of tears.
“Well, have you?”
“I think I remember it from some science fiction story, but I can’t remember who wrote it. Was it H.G. Wells?”
“Ever hear of Albert Einstein? It was his theory—basically, that there are holes in the fabric of time and space that link distant places or two points in time. And, well, I’d say his Theory of Relativity turned out to be true.”
Susan sighed in exasperation, took her napkin out of her lap, and slapped it down on the table.
“So you believe in worm holes?” Heather finally asked, very timidly.
“I ought to!” Richard said, looking away. “My son disappeared down one! He was helping me with the construction site and just disappeared into the brush and never came back!”
There was silence again as Susan glowered at Richard. Suddenly, she beamed at Bob and Heather and asked, “Have you been to Apalachicola yet?”
Heather shook her head and Bob cleared his throat and said, “Not yet.”
“You have to!” Susan said. “It’s a charming old fishing village, but right now it’s having its reincarnation as an artists’ colony. Even though it’s a tiny town, they have a half-dozen art galleries, and art dealers come from all over the east coast to snatch up the artwork. Would you like to see it? Maybe tomorrow?”
“We’d love to!” Heather said before Bob could even open his mouth.
Bob could feel Heather’s body get rigid, and then she started gnashing her teeth, tell-tale signs that she was having a bad dream. He tapped her awake and asked, “Are you all right?”
“Jesus! I dreamt I was walking on the beach and my feet kept falling into worm holes!” she said groggily.
“Oh, honey,” he said as if he were talking to a small child. “Worm holes don’t really exist!”
“But Einstein believed in them!”
“All right, maybe they exist—maybe out in space, light years from here, but I seriously doubt they exist here in Port St. Joe. I mean, you’d have heard about it! Physicists and astronomers would be flocking to this place.”
“Well, maybe they don’t know about it. Maybe most people don’t.”
“Why don’t you think about something else and go back to sleep?”
Right on time, according to Bob’s old sports watch, Richard and Susan pulled up to the condo in their black BMW. Susan got out and let Bob take the front passengers’ seat and sat in back with Heather. “You’re going to love this!” Susan said.
They drove up 30A, and Bob observed how thick the swampland was on their left. The ride to Apalachicola was only 20 minutes and, despite it being the main route along the coast, they only encountered a few oncoming cars on the way. Not far up the road, Bob saw a small dirt road and a large sign, overgrown and weathered. “Well, there’s someone putting something up.”
“That’s old!” Richard snapped.
“How do you know?”
“Because that was my project.” The tone of his voice told Bob not to bring it up again.
They had lunch at a restaurant with a high terrace overlooking salt marshes. Back in the kitchen, young guys in ponytails were shucking oysters with speed and precision. Out on the terrace, they had raw oysters and soft-shelled crabs while a gentle sea breeze carressed their necks and shoulders. Herons and egrets waded through the shallow water. Seagulls hitched rides on fishing boats, their eyes on the day’s catch. Bob couldn’t help taking small breaks from his meal to photograph scenes in the distance.
Next, they strolled down the narrow streets, checking out the art galleries. Apalachicola was an archetypal early 20th century town with a square that was home to a courthouse and a hotel with the word “HOTEL” actually painted on its brick facade. There were terraces and wrought-iron balconies that called to mind Savannah and New Orleans. To Bob, it was a photographer’s paradise.
At each gallery, Heather sought out the owner and gave him or her one of her cards advertising her website. The galleries were festooned with assorted paintings of shrimp boats in the marsh, fishing boats in the Gulf, and marsh homes on stilts. Many included local fauna. One depicted a great blue heron taking off from the shore, casting a giant shadow on the sand as if it were a latter-day pterodactyl. Others showed gulls in flight, sand crabs migrating en masse from their tiny holes, and a bald eagle coming in for a landing, its talons extended in front of it. At one of the galleries, Bob became transfixed by a painting of a panther, sleek with fine golden fur.
“That’s a Florida panther!” said the gallery owner. “They’re generally shy around people, but you see them around here from time to time.”
“Really? I thought they were nearly extinct,” Heather said with a fake air of authority. “I mean, has anyone actually seen one?”
“I have,” Richard said, and he didn’t seem entirely pleased about it. “The construction site we passed. Like the man said, they’re shy around humans, but there are plenty of them across 30A.”
The next stop was a huge secondhand antique and curio shop. There were all kinds of things—sponges, for which Appalachicola was famous, starfish, alligator heads, nets, lawn jockeys, maps, and statues.
“Check this out,” Heather said, holding up an old-fashioned wooden stereoscope. It had two photos mounted across from two eye holes and when you looked through the eye holes, you saw a three-dimensional view of a stork standing on the shoreline. “I’d love to have this, but I don’t know where I’d put it.”
She looked up to see that Bob was no longer standing there. He was at a table, examining what looked like a two-and-a-half foot sword. He whisked it back and forth in front of him. She put down the stereoscope and walked over to him. “What’s with the sword?”
“It’s not a sword, it’s a machete, for cutting through brush.”
“I know what you’re thinking of doing. Just don’t!” Richard said from right behind them, making them flinch, before walking away.
“Honey, where are the car keys?” Bob asked, his camera strapped around his neck, looking under various small stacks of Dear Resident mail on the counter.
“They should be right there on the—” she said, pointing to the coffee table, when her cellphone rang.
Bob wandered over to where she had been pointing. He immediately spotted the keys and grabbed them.
“What the fuck!” Heather said to herself, taking the phone away from her ear and staring at the screen in disbelief. “What the fuck?”
Bob rattled the keys in his hand, eager to get going before Heather drew him into some sort of convoluted conversation and the last of the daylight faded. “I’ll see you tonight!”
He walked down the steps to the ground floor, out into the driveway, and to the car.
“Wait, Bob! Hold on a second!” she screamed through the kitchen window.
“Look, the light’s fading! We’ll talk about it when I get back!”
Heather ran down the steps and reached the driveway just as he was backing up. “I just got a totally staticky call and a really weird text! It said that I shouldn’t let you take the car!”
He knew from years of experience that when she got hysterical like this, there was no reasoning with her. It was best to let her cool off and then find out what the problem was—if there even was one. “Whatever! We can talk about it when I get back!” he said, shifting the car into drive.
“You don’t understand!” she cried out, but he was quickly moving out of earshot. “The call and the text? They were from you!”
As Bob drove slowly down 30A, his cellphone rang. As expected, it was Heather. He thought about letting it go to voicemail, but decided to answer it. Fortunately or unfortunately, all he got was static and some kind of howling sound. He hung it up and continued to look for Richard’s construction site.
He almost drove right by the sign. There was a slight indentation in the vegetation, a sign of what might have once been a driveway, and he pulled in to see what was once the foundation of a small house, now caved in. Grabbing the machete, as well as his camera, he got out of the car and looked around. The brush was quite dense, but there was a spot where it seemed a little less so, and he decided that it might once have been a road or at least a path. He started down it.
A text came up on his phone: “I got a text from you while you were standing right there in front of me!!!” Then: “It told me not to let you take the car. Something is going on.”
He began swinging the machete into the brush. It took several swings to clear anything. The Costa Ricans they’d seen on vacation made it seem so easy. His arm got tired after only a few yards of headway.
His cellphone chimed, and he looked at it again. Another text from Heather: “Whatever you’re doing, PLEASE STOP! COME BACK HOME!”
He was about to text back something—anything—when he thought he saw some movement in the brush. Very quietly, he inched toward it. He saw a patch of brownish-tan, definitely some kind of animal, but what? He brought the camera to his eye and began to zoom in on whatever it was, in hopes of getting a better look at it.
There was some kind of distortion, a kind of spiral right down the center of the image. It couldn’t be the lens, as the lens would not suddenly warp itself. He wondered whether it was something electronic. He checked out the settings on the camera. Perhaps he had inadvertently clicked on some kind of halo effect? But everything seemed normal. Everything, that is, except the image. He kept inching forward. Whatever movement there had been in the brush seemed to have stopped.
He looked down. What he thought must have been a road or a path had evolved into some kind of dry river bed, with water still trickling downhill—or was it uphill? Through some kind of optical effect, possibly due to the surrounding topography, the water seemed to be moving uphill. He started to get a strange whiff of sulfur—not burning sulfer, but a mild rotten egg smell, similar to what he’d smelled on some of the volcanic Caribbean islands, like St. Lucia and Guadeloupe. Down the trickling river bed, a horseshoe crab skittered, and then another, and a third. Despite the spiral effect in the viewfinder, he snapped a few pictures of them, hoping to fix the photos later.
Horseshoe crabs were common in Florida, though he was surprised to see them this far from the ocean. He had always been fascinated by horseshoe crabs, for their prehistoric look, the nasty, thin, spiked tails and a carapace that looked like its edges could cut glass. He remembered reading somewhere that the species had survived, virtually intact, for hundreds of millions of years.
As he was continuing upriver (or downriver?), he felt a strange, electric vibrating sensation. He instinctively looked at his cellphone again, his hand now tingling fiercely. No new messages from Heather, but now the time display was bouncing around. It wasn’t just a matter of it bouncing between time zones this time. Even the minute display was going random, counting forward and backward very quickly.
He glanced at his digital watch to discover the hours were ticking by like minutes and the minutes were ticking by like seconds—backwards. He moved his arm around to discover that the watch advanced quickly when it was in front of him, but returned to normal when he held it close to him.
He took a decisive step forward, felt a zap of energy, and now the watch seemed to be running normally again. The landscape had changed dramatically. There was swampland on either side of the river bed. Not swamp, exactly. The water was black and oily and thick, forming bubbles of what he guessed to be methane—swamp gas—and popping in little noxious clouds. Now it looked like a sulfur pit, like the one he’d seen at Yellowstone Park decades ago. As his sensory input ceased making sense, his heart started to race.
A giant beetle, the biggest one he’d ever seen, startled him by skittering over his foot.
Up ahead, a figure came out of the brush—a young man with shorts, work boots, and a T-shirt hanging from the back of a Florida Gators baseball cap to act as a sun shield.
“Yo!” the young man called out. “Are you one of the guys my dad hired? Which way back to the site? My bearings are totally messed up!”
“I’m afraid I’m lost myself!” Bob called out, and he began to realize exactly how lost he was. He hated the question he was about to ask: “Is your father by any chance named Richard?”
“Yeah! You know him?”
His hand now trembling, he called Heather, but got only static. He hung up immediately and texted: “DON’T LET ME TAKE THE CAR!” followed by “NO MATTER WHAT!”
Maybe this time it would work. Maybe this time she would convince him.