Biologist Arlo Perez has spent his whole life avoiding decisions, confrontations, anything concrete. Anything resembling a commitment. When his lover, Miguel, dumps him, a depressed Arlo decides to put down roots in Merced, a small California town nestled between Yosemite and the old gold-panning country region. There, he secures a new fellowship at a college and looks forward to adventure and fun.
But just as he’s getting used to normal, he gets a whole lot more than he bargained for.
One day when his car breaks down, Arlo winds up at the mercy of a deranged garage owner in Port Hueneme. And somehow, he finds himself tossed back in time to an era of knights, dragons, and pit fights. Suddenly, he’s in Mexico, 1867, and there’s only one way out—fight or die.
Can Arlo get himself out of this horrible and confusing mess? Can he stop feeling out of place and out of his senses? Or is he completely out of time?
“Well, are you going to do it?” Aunty Margie asked me. “Are you going to book it?”
My finger hovered over the send function of the Zim Ride website. Damn it. Procrastination had been my lifelong handicap. It didn’t help that I detected the sadness in her tone, but I couldn’t help it. I had to get out of here. Aunty Margie’s typical, open-mouthed breathing started to annoy me. I used to find it endearing, but now it irritated me. Man, I was becoming a crotchety old geezer, and I was only thirty-one.
“Arlo, are you always this indecisive?” she asked. “Or are you being cheap?”
“Cheap? Me? Yes.” I stifled a sigh and wished, not for the first time, that I were a rich man, but I’m not. If I were, I’d have my own car, and I wouldn’t have to haggle with people, negotiating a shared ride in their vehicles.
This one looked good. Man, did it look good. First of all, there was no way I’d get home to Merced any cheaper, I had to admit. And then there was the car itself. The guy had a Daimler, of all things, that he needed to transport to Northern California. He had three spots in the vehicle. Two were taken. I’d be the third and last.
If I were a rich man, perhaps I’d believe in intuition, hunches, and that sort of stuff. But when you’re poor, you can’t afford those luxuries. Living by your wits is cheaper, and so, you get desperate. You tend to make stupid, dumbass decisions. Not that Zim Rides are bad. Heck, they’re great. It’s just that being, as I said, poor, I tend to fly by the seat of my pants, operating on my wits, but unfortunately, these questionable talents don’t actually take me anywhere.
I wind up haggling on zimrides.com, a new trip-sharing site that helps you hitch a ride anywhere you want, with a bunch of strangers. At very low prices. I had to admit it was a fantastic bargain. All I’d have to do was chip in twenty-five bucks toward gas and pay for any snacks I wanted during the trip. The driver guaranteed me one stop between Los Angeles and my new hometown of Merced. A sleepy town a hundred and fourteen miles south of the state capital of Sacramento, it had been hard to find anyone tootling up that way, but Graham, the driver, assured me it was no problem to drop me there.
Nothing could beat the price, and I’d been hunting since I booked my first-ever Zim Ride down here two days ago. Until my friend Josie mentioned it, I’d never heard of the site. Now I was dreaming of road trips all over the country, for nominal prices. Where had this thing been all my life?
I knew I had to act fast. So why was I reluctant? Why was I worried? What was bothering me that I couldn’t put my finger on it? I couldn’t even put it on the send button.
“Well?” Aunty Margie prompted.
Well? the Daimler guy typed on the screen.
Talk about being ganged up on. Sheesh. I’d already typed the word yes, and this time, I hit send.
I smiled at Aunty Margie, but a feeling of dread crept over me. I’ve seen plenty of movies about hapless passengers getting hacked up by drivers. As a teenager, I saw the movie The Hitcher and sat in frozen terror as actor Rutger Hauer thumbed a ride from a guy and calmly told him he’d just dismembered the last guy who gave him a ride.
“I want you to stop me,” he’d said. Those words still haunt me.
When the driver managed to push him out of the vehicle, Rutger hitched a ride with a pretty girl, then tied her between two semi-trailers and tore her, screaming and crying, into pieces.
Then I remembered the episode of I Love Lucy, where she and Ethel hitch a ride to Florida with a very strange woman they start to believe is a hatchet murderess.
That damned Graham accepted me as a passenger, then changed the departure time. We messaged back and forth about where we’d meet. I already knew from my first booking that nobody gave their exact addresses when arranging a pick-up. We agreed to meet at the gas station kitty-corner to my mom’s over-furnished townhouse on Coldwater Canyon.
I wouldn’t be able to get out of dodge for five hours, and after the worst New Year’s Eve on record, I couldn’t wait. I had promised myself I’d be back home in Merced before the New Year began, but like so many of my promises to myself and others, I fell short of the mark.
It would have been easy to slip away the day before had I not discovered the foreclosure notice lurking at the bottom of the clothes dryer. Man, oh man, had that bummed me out. Nobody had told me. When I confronted Aunty Margie who shares the premises with my mom, who is her older sister, the poor thing began to sob.
“Oh, thank God,” she’d said, throwing herself into my arms. She was so thin I was afraid if I hugged her too hard that I’d break her spine. Now that I had possession of all the facts, I had to get out of here before I said something I’d regret.
Or, maybe wouldn’t.
“Were you this sketchy when you were involved with Miguel?” Aunty Margie suddenly asked me.
“Yeah, sketchy. You duck and weave like a boxer.” She waved a wrinkled hand in the air. “You judge us, Arlo. You distance yourself. You get snarky and panicky. How the hell did he put up with you?”
How the hell did she have me so pegged? “Takes one to know one,” I retorted.
The two men I’d been sitting with dragged me into what looked like a barn. They gave me a mighty shove, and I fell flat on my face in the weirdest smelling mud I’d ever come across.
Pain radiated down my neck and arms. My body sagged in the mire. I worked hard to lift my face and, when I looked up, I blinked, and blinked some more. Blinded by the thick, soupy, foul mud, I couldn’t believe what was coming for me, as in right at me.
Lots and lots of dragons.
And there was Miguel walking through the middle of them, dragging his left leg behind him. He was covered in blood and seemed half-dead.
What the hell was he doing? He was a writer. He had enough trouble working up the enthusiasm to go to the gym, let alone fight.
A roar went up, and I realized there was a huge crowd of people. The dragons’ heads went up and fire shot into the sky. The sudden burst of heat made my eyes burn, and my skin twitch with discomfort.
“Miguel,” I whispered.
He looked at me, myriad emotions flickering across his face, and he fell down in a heap at my feet.
The two men hauled me into the center of an arena. I blinked, and swallowed, and wanted to cry. One crumpled man in chainmail lay huddled against a fence. There was blood in the dirt, and a roar went up in the crowd. I freaked out when the biggest man I’d ever seen in the scariest-looking chainmail lifted a massive sword and said, “I want you to stop me.”