David saw Johnny Faa that night.
He was at the grocery store, grabbing a few items. Upon returning to his apartment for the first time in weeks, he was greeted with a refrigerator full of expired food and a dumpster that was quickly filled with it. He was frustratingly comparing the prices of two condensed soups when he heard a voice.
“Anything I can help you with, sir?”
“Unless you can tell me why food has suddenly gotten so expensive,” David grumbled, putting the vegetable beef in the basket crooked in his arm.
“Sorry,” the man said with a laugh, “But I can tell you food was a lot cheaper when I used to buy it in the 70s.”
The voice cut him off, and it started to sound different. Nasal. Biting. Familiar.
“The 1870s, of course. Back then, though, you had to worry about whether or not you got an Upton Sinclair special in your tin of beef, or if they decided to spike your veggies with a bit of botulism. Still, it was probably better than three hours spent over a sooty fire in a tenement…”
David turned around and saw, sporting a blue vest and with much better hair, the Immortal King of the Gypsies himself, who shrugged gently.
“Not that I’d know, of course. Now…”
He took a step closer and rearranged a few of the cans David had put out of order.
“Is there anything I can help you with… sir?”
David stood there, mouth agape. It was true he looked different, different enough to not be noticed, but when his voice got that quality to it he’d heard countless times before when he talked about Alexander the Great or Chichen Itza or how he used to steal Winston Churchill’s booze. There had to be a reason he was here, David thought, some reason for him to have gone through the trouble of getting a job stocking shelves. Was it just to annoy him? For someone who literally lives forever, is it worth going through job interviews just to pull an elaborate prank?
“Gee, sir,” Faa spoke again, “you don’t look so good. Might I suggest some of our medications in Aisle 5?”
He gave David a pointed look, as if to say “snap out of it, moron.” David nodded dumbly.
“Perhaps I can suggest some items for you, over in Aisle 5… if you would be so kind as to join me.”
“I’ll take that as a yes.”
The two of them headed over to Aisle 5 which, while not actually holding any medications, did have a massive display of a football player hawking tortilla chips. Johnny directed David to stand in front of the display, and he did the same.
“Why are we in this aisle?” David finally said, catching up with his brain.
“This display keeps the cameras off us,” Faa said with a smile, “I should know, I set it up myself. So… I’ve got a few minutes to be ‘helping a customer,’ and I’m sure you’ve got questions.”
“Yes!” David said a little too loudly. Thankfully, not many people were grocery shopping in Keokuk at 2AM. David reached into the back pocket of his jeans and pulled forth a piece of yellow, lined, legal pad paper, on which was scrawled a few hasty lines of blue ink, under a heading of QUESTIONS.
“Oh Christ,” Faa said, rolling his eyes, “I didn’t think you’d go that far… nerd.”
David paid him no attention, and began quickly scanning the list for the most important question for that time and that place.
“Okay, first: did it work?”
“I’m standing here, aren’t I?”
“Fair enough,” David nodded, “So where did you end up?”
“Long time ago,” Faa muttered quietly as another blue vest walked by, “is this the kind of salsa you’re looking for, sir?”
“Not quite,” David said back, a little irked as the other employee walked away, “I’d actually like to know the date on the salsa, if you wouldn’t mind.”
“What?!” David tried to keep his voice down, and it came out as a hiss, “How is that even possible?”
“Don’t look at me, man. You’re the scientist.”
“What did you do, once you stepped into the rift? Is there air? Could you breathe?”
“It’s not the coldness of space, dumbass,” Faa replied, rolling his eyes, “It’s just the next dimension. It doesn’t make a hell of a lot of sense, so your brain looks for a way out.”
“So why did you go to the Triassic? Or… did you have no choice? Was there some sort of path of least resistance?”
“Not as far as I know. I just told myself that if I was going to make this work, and if I was going to go through everything all over again, I at least wanted to get something out of that. I wanted to see some dinosaurs, dammit.”
“Spoken like a true seven-year-old. Do you suggest the white or yellow corn tortilla chips, then?”
Faa recovered quickly as a pallet of food was carted by via another blue vest.
“Ummm… white, I’d say. I always thought the yellow ones tasted like ass.”
The coworker laughed and continued pushing his pallet.
“I see your coworkers are getting used to you.”
“Yeah,” Faa laughed, “You can say almost anything you want on third shift. These guys wouldn’t give a single shit to a dung beetle.”
“So,” David brought the conversation back, “You were able to force your brain to tell you where to emerge?”
“I think so,” Faa rearranged a few salsas, “tell you the truth, I was pretty tripped out, but I wanted dinosaurs, and the next thing I knew there I was.”
“Fascinating,” David checked a jar himself to keep up the charade, “So your brain knew that the Triassic held some of the first dinosaurs, and consciously deposited you there?”
“What? Hell, no!” Faa said with a hearty laugh, “I was just thinking about Triceratops. Figured it was in the Triassic. Boy, was I wrong.”
“This is absolutely incredible. And you’ve lived… millions of years now, coming all the way back to this point to find me, because you figured…”
“I figured after sleeping in the office for a few weeks, your food would have turned to a science experiment of its own. Plus, the work here’s not bad. I mean, remember, I spent a few centuries as a slave. At least here you can go home.”
“Well, speaking of going home…” David began, “I suppose you’re ready to go back to the lab and give us some data, yeah?”
Johnny Faa’s words all came out in a tumble: “I’m not going back there not yet.”
“I want my freedom, Dave, and I know you’ll respect that. Don’t worry, I’ll find you again, and we’ll talk. Only problem is, I can’t tell the future, so it might take me a while to find a place that’s safe. But I will find you, so don’t worry. Until then… enjoy your chips.”
David paid for his items, got in his car, drove back to his apartment, ate a pitiful dinner, and readied himself for bed, all in a daze. Just before he went to sleep, it hit him like lightning: why hadn’t he gone after him? He could have gotten the government to track him down, they could have locked him up again. He could have been a hero, an icon of the scientific world. The sheer amount of data, the breakthroughs, the knowledge would have been unlike anything ever seen before… so why did he just go home and eat nachos?
He fell asleep before he could find an answer for himself.
David saw Johnny Faa that night.