A short story
“I don’t think we should be doing this.” Gerry Nevis squinted as the sunlight assaulted his eyes. The more he squinted, the more impossibly high Angela and Thomas appeared.
They ascended the billboard like monkeys in an arboreal forest.
Rusty, iron spikes protruded from either side of the old, wooden pole, making it, in Gerry’s opinion, a climbing structure of dubious integrity. The wood groaned.
Cold shivers shook Gerry.
“Come on, wuss,” Thomas shouted. His words drifted down like helicopter seeds spinning from a sycamore.
Angela released one hand and leaned into the abyss. “Whooo, whoo!”
Angela scaled another two steps. “Come on, Gerry! We’ll have fun at the top.”
Gerry wondered what would happen if a freak breeze suddenly struck. Even on days like today, when the air was still and quiet, the sky cloudless, Mother Nature could hurtle dangerous surprises.
“Gerry! Gerry! Gerry!” Thomas pumped his fist in the air.
Before sneaking out, Gerry had considered what his parents would do if they found he was violating lockdown, but dismissed that worry. They couldn’t ground him since he was already grounded, like all America was grounded, like the entire world was grounded. Nobody who didn’t have to be outside went outside, and that’s how it was since the pandemic started seven months ago.
Except teenagers. We’re the rule-breakers. Gerry chuckled at his insight.
Breaking lockdown was easy. Scaling a billboard that seemed to touch the clouds—that was terrifying.
He surveyed the Bob’s Big Boy advertisement, which showed a boy wearing a white shirt covered with red and white checkered overalls holding a plate with a giant, triple-decker burger. On the sign’s left side were an arrow and the words: “200ft, turn left.”
The billboard’s color had faded from decades of sun, wind, and storms. The town’s Big Boy went out of business years before Gerry was born, but the billboard, erected in 1961, still stood as a monument to another era. Gerry and his friends nicknamed their town, Bench, Ohio, "Bob’s Big Boy, Ohio,” because the sign was the oldest and most prominent feature on Route 15, the main road leading into Bench.
Lightning struck the billboard multiple times a year, and although it never caught fire, scars covered the billboard's front and back.
Angela's tan legs swayed over the billboard's ledge. Somehow, she and Thomas had reached the summit.
Angela sent a wink Gerry’s way, and Gerry’s heart melted.
He would climb Mt. Everest to be with Angela.
Gerry wrapped his fingers around the iron step above his head and planted his left foot on the spine in front. He drew hurried, spasmodic breaths as he put his life in the hands of this fragile artifact.
Angela grabbed Gerry’s hand as he reached over the ledge. She slid away from Thomas to make space for Gerry to sit.
Gerry could see their houses in the subdivision on Bench’s outskirts. A grain silo and a few small farms stood between the billboard and their homes. “How much longer?” Gerry asked.
“My parents say at least another two years,” Angela replied. “We’re going to be in lockdown until 2024. No movies, no parties, no school, no county fairs, no restaurants until then.”
“What about a vaccine?” Gerry asked. "It's been over half a year. There should be one soon.”
Angela shook her head.
“It already feels like forever.” Thomas turned to Angela. “Your parents are doctors and can work. They’re lucky. My dad’s a librarian and has been out of a job since the first month. It’s all of us cooped up all the time. The county food truck comes around once a week, and guys in moon suits leave food on our porch. And let me tell you, the food tastes like it’s been farmed on the moon. It’s torture."
"They also give out Pop-Tarts."
"Yeah, nice for a couple of weeks, but I’ve had cherry Pop-Tarts for breakfast every day for months," Thomas said.
“Sara Gepheart and Lois Trager died yesterday,” Gerry said.
“Oh no.” Angela wiped her eyes with the back of her hand. “How did they catch it?”
“Sara's parents had approved jobs outside the house. Her parents got the Kazki virus, then they did. I don't know about Lois.”
“Are their parents dead, too?”
"That's sixteen from our class. Eight boys, eight girls."
"Mr. Maginnis, Ms. Brewster, and other teachers have died, too," Gerry added. “You’ve been tested recently?”
“Yesterday,” Angela replied.
“Me, too,” Thomas snapped. “We told you that.”
“I know, I know. I'm just a little shaken up about Sara and Lois.”
Thomas knocked on the ledge. “Let’s change the subject, okay? We didn’t escape our home confinement to be morose. This is a happy day. Who knows when we can sneak outside again, so let’s make the most of it.” Thomas retrieved a silver flask from his pocket and took a long drink. “Whoa. That’s strong.” He passed the flask to Angela, who took a swig, then offered the flask to Gerry.
Gerry emptied the flask into his mouth and stood. He extended his arms like Leonardo DiCaprio in Titanic and yelled, “Yes!” Despite the pandemic, despite being inches away from falling to his doom, he felt vibrant and alive, like color added to a black and white movie.
Surprise filled him as he stood on the ledge. He looked at his hands, the ground, and Angela and Thomas, and wondered what strangeness coursed his veins. Whatever the cause of this sudden courage, he embraced it.
“I’m flying,” he shouted to the world.
“Gerry?” Angela asked. “What are you doing? Are you crazy? Sit down."
A gust shook the billboard.
Gerry teetered forward.
Thomas slapped Gerry’s belly, propelling him backward into the billboard.
Gerry's center of gravity shifted, and instead of bouncing off, he fell into and through the billboard. The sign’s faded colors zipped by, a kaleidoscope of earth tones. The fabric stretched as if made of rubber, like a trampoline that didn’t push back. Thunderless lightning flashed inside the sign, sheets of blinding white all around him. The billboard's fabric continued to expand until it popped like a balloon.
Gerry laid on the grass behind the billboard, limbs out like a snow angel. He queried his legs and arms—nothing seemed broken, bent the wrong way, or bleeding. He wriggled his fingers and toes—all fine. Gerry got up, and dashed to the front of the billboard to tell Angela and Thomas he was okay.
They were gone.
Did they run home to call an ambulance? Gerry didn’t think he'd been unconscious. Everything happened quickly, but if he’d been knocked out, his head would hurt, and there would be a bump.
Where are they?
Gerry looked up. The sign was no longer pale and cracked. It looked brand new. The boy’s eyes were lively and alert, and the burger was realistic enough to eat.
A low rumble approached from behind. A vintage car, baby blue with shiny, silver fenders and bulbous curves, ambled down Route 15.
The vehicle screeched to a stop, creating four small, black clouds where the rubber and pavement met.
A woman with short, curly hair sat in the passenger seat, and there were two toddlers in the back. Nobody was wearing a seat belt.
They don't look like essential workers to me. What are they doing out, breaking quarantine? A whole family?
The driver, a man with crew-cut hair and a skinny, blue tie, clicked off the radio, which had been playing Elvis Presley’s Can't Help Falling in Love. He rolled the window down, his arm pumping like a steam locomotive's side rod. "Say, son, do you live around here? Is the Bob's any good? We've been on the road since Pennsylvania and are famished."
The children in the back nodded.
"Uh no," was all he could muster.
"No, you don't live around here, or no Bob's burgers are no good?"
"I don't know."
"Okay, we'll just have to find out for ourselves." The man clicked the radio back on and sped off.
Gerry walked home, but his house wasn’t there. Neither was the access road leading to where his house had been. Gerry backtracked into Bench’s town center. The Wal-Mart on the town's outer ring was gone. The strip mall with Gerry’s favorite pizza restaurant, gone. As were most landmarks he was familiar with, save for the barbershop, the Bench Post Newspaper building, the A&P supermarket, and the library. Gerry walked by Bench High School—it was still there, minus the new gym and the annex in which he had most of his classes.
Goosebumps crawled along Gerry’s neck.
Vintage cars, like the one driven by the man who asked about Bob’s Big Boy, rumbled along the street. Automobiles the size of boats with big tires and big, shiny fenders, chrome side mirrors, quad headlights, and fins. Cars painted baby blue and lemon yellow.
Behind him, a red, white, and blue barber shop pole undulated like a serpent.
Gerry’s knees weakened, and his breath shallowed. Gerry walked to a blue newspaper stand outside the barbershop.
The banner headline read: “Funding for Bench Rec Center Approved,” and beneath that, “Military Coup in South Korea.” But the most critical information on the newspaper’s front page was the date: May 17, 1961.
Nineteen-sixty-one. That’s not possible.
Gerry crossed his legs and sat down in front of the newsstand, staring at the unimaginable artifact. He pressed his palms against the glass, hoping the headline would change to, “Vaccine Discovered. World Saved.” But the headline didn’t change, and neither did the date. He had traveled sixty-one years into the past.
A rumbling white truck caught his attention. Harrison’s Milk Delivery.
Traveling on the opposite side of the street, a red convertible blared Runaway.
Gerry didn’t recognize the song, but he noticed a cracking, static undertone like...AM radio?
“Are you all right?”
Gerry stood and turned to the woman behind him.
She was holding a stroller and wearing a paisley, blue dress. The stroller was old-fashioned, with tall rubber wheels, a metal frame, spacious, black enclosure, and a large canopy.
Behind her were Arrow Pharmacy and Gibson’s Men’s Suits. Both stores had large front windows and a shared green awning.
Gerry brushed his hands against his jeans to clear the dust off and shook his head to clear the fog. “Yeah, fine. Just reading the news.”
“It’s only a nickel.” A mother’s expression of empathy covered her face. “Do you need a nickel?”
“I’m okay, thanks. I read everything I need to.”
The woman glanced at the newspaper stand. “The rec center will be done by the time little Sally’s old enough to use it.” She tickled her baby’s neck.
Sally will have her own children, maybe even grandchildren, when the plague strikes in sixty-one years. Will any of them survive?
Gerry sprinted back to the billboard and scaled it again. He pressed his back into the canvas using his legs for leverage. Nothing happened. He turned to face it, pounded his fists against the advertisement, and shouted, “Take me back to 2022. I want to go home.” Gerry banged his head against the sign, stopping only when he felt bruises.
But did he want to return to 2022, where death loomed everywhere? Maybe he was lucky. Maybe he should accept his fate, especially because he didn’t have any choice.
The year 2022 had Angela and Thomas, his parents, and a world he was familiar with. But what kind of world was it? A world he couldn’t taste or touch, a world where any of his friends could suddenly die from the virus.
Gerry returned to town, wandering like a lost puppy. He passed a bakery, the post office, jewelry shop, and bike store until he found a phone booth with a phone book, something he’d only seen in old movies. Gerry flipped through the B’s. Bench Apple Farm, Bench Barbers, Bench City Hall, Bench Hardware, Bench Library, Bench Town Hall, and what Gerry was hoping for: Bench Orphanage. Gerry would have a roof and a bed.
Over the following weeks and months, Gerry formulated a plan for what he would do with the rest of his life. He wanted a purpose, whether the billboard had one in mind for him or not.
Gerry was fifteen now, but when the Kazki virus ravaged the planet, he would be seventy-six, an unfathomable age.
Gerry knew, like everyone else in his time knew, exactly where and when the pandemic began: a petting zoo in Indianapolis on December 21, 2021. Piglets and parrots combined genes with a six-year-old girl who touched and kissed the animals—patient zero. A few lines of genetic code from two different species mixed with the girl’s rare genes.
The hybrid virus spread quickly among the girl’s family, friends, classmates, and teachers.
While politicians dithered and debated quarantines, the virus snuck by bus, car, train, plane, and boat to nearly every state in America, and to Canada, Mexico, the United Kingdom, and Japan. A week later, when Indianapolis got the total lockdown it needed, it was too late. The virus was in the wild. Within six weeks, it had invaded every country in the world. Within two months, two million people had died. Over the next half-year, a billion perished. And death refused to stop.
The Kazki Virus, named for the petting zoo, Kazki Park, had become the deadliest the world had ever known.
“Where are you going?” Magda pulled the blanket back. “You stole the blanket again.” She rolled toward Gerry, who was already sitting on the bed’s side. “What time is it?”
“It’s early, babe.”
“What time?” Magda’s face was half-buried in the pillow.
“Four o'clock," Gerry whispered. “In the morning.”
“I didn’t hear the alarm.”
“You took an Ambien.”
Not last night. Gerry needed as clear a head and as sound a body as his seventy-six years would allow. “Go back to sleep, love. I’ll make you breakfast when I’m back.” If I’m back.
Today was the day his entire adult life orbited around. Gerry had spent the past six decades preparing to change the future. He had joined the Marines after college to learn to kill. He trained his mind, too, receiving a Ph.D. in biology to better understand the virus. He had the skills, knowledge, and wisdom to prevent the plague.
Until he was twenty, Gerry thought all he’d have to do was approach Angela and Thomas before the virus struck, explain the future to them, convince them he was their friend by revealing secrets that only Gerry would know, ask them to approach somebody in authority, and have the zoo closed. Patient zero would never visit it, a straightforward plan that would save the world.
On Gerry’s twentieth birthday, however, he realized his plan would undoubtedly fail for a simple reason: Even if Angela and Thomas believed him, what adult would believe them?
Gerry considered alerting the Centers for Disease Control about the pandemic. If he amassed sufficient credentials and money, people in power would listen to him. He shelved that plan, too. Listen, yes, but they’d add him to the crazy person’s list.
Gerry gave careful, measured, and deliberate thought to killing the girl, patient zero. He could murder to save a billion lives.
He would walk right up to her, and before her parents or anyone else could react, put a gun to her head, and pull the trigger. Patient zero would die a painless death.
But was killing the girl necessary? Did she have to die either from the virus or a bullet?
There was a better way. All he needed was to keep the girl—that girl with the lethal genes—and animals apart. The pandemic would never start if the girl never came close to the animals. No contact, no pandemic.
Gerry parked on the far side of Kazki Park's parking lot. He pulled a large, wheeled duffle bag to the fence between the parking lot and zoo, unzipped it, and got to work. Gerry took out the first of the dozen cardboard animals from the duffle. He had carefully created effigies of the animals in Kazki Park: pig, parrot, donkey, llama, fox, sheep, house cat, cow, meerkat, rabbit, goat, and raccoon. Each cardboard cutout stood four feet tall, with a width proportional to the animal. The cutouts were on stakes.
As he planted the first animal, the fox, in the ground outside the fence, rustling from the nearby woods caught his attention. He slowly turned—slow was the way he did most things at his age—and found himself facing a pistol and face covered by a black bandana.
The masked gunman remained silent for a few seconds.
Gerry reached for his wallet to offer the man his money, but the man wagged his finger, then put it over his masked mouth and whispered, “Shh.”
The gunman asked, “What are you doing here?” It wasn’t a gunman. The voice belonged to a woman, who, from the uneven fissures in her voice, seemed to be in her sixties, possibly seventies, like Gerry.
“I’m putting up decorations. See?” Gerry didn’t stammer. He had rehearsed what he'd say if the police or somebody else spotted him. Slowly, so as not to spook the woman, Gerry reached into the duffle to pull out another cardboard animal, the rabbit.
The woman kept her gun pointed at Gerry’s chest as she cocked her head sideways. “Say something.”
“Talk. Just talk.”
“Talk about what?”
“I don’t know. It doesn’t matter. Recite the Gettysburg address.”
Halfway through Abraham Lincoln’s speech, the woman lowered her gun, and her finger slipped further away from the trigger. Could he grab it from her? Was her mind wandering, which would give Gerry the advantage and opportunity to disarm her? To save the world, he’d have to risk death by bullet. He'd have to try.
“What’s your name?” she asked.
“No. Tell me your name.” She raised the gun. Her finger slipped back into the trigger guard.
“People call me Gerry.”
“Is your last name Nevis?”
“Who are you?”
She removed her bandana. Her close-cropped hair was dyed blonde, her face wrinkled but not overly so, her eyes sky-blue. She was close to his age—he had guessed right. “You look familiar.”
“I’d better,” she said. “I’m Angela Biglow.”
Gerry’s jaw went slack. He dropped the cardboard rabbit. “You can’t be. That’s impossible.”
“No more impossible than you being Gerry Nevis.” She kissed his cheek. “Fellow time traveler.”
“What are you doing here?”
Angela returned the gun to a holster in the small of her back. “I suspect I’m doing the same thing you are.”
Gerry’s mind whirred, hurried visions spinning through his mind like a film reel running at one hundred speed. He relived his childhood: running down the hallway on the last day of school, yelling at the top of his lungs, celebrating his fifth birthday with his parents, spinning wildly on the Mad Hatter ride at Disney World, bowling a strike at a class bowling party.
He imagined himself slow dancing with Angela and kissing her at a school party, something he’d never done in this timeline or that.
“Thomas?” Gerry asked.
Angela shook her head. “He died on July 3, 2022, a few days before I traveled back in time.”
A hot tear burned his cheek. “The billboard?”
“Yes. I wondered what happened to you. One moment you were standing in front of the billboard like you owned the world, and the next, you were gone. After Thomas died, I snuck out again and returned to the billboard, which had taken on a mystical vibe in my mind. The billboard that hadn’t been changed in six decades, the billboard that pointed to Bob's Big Boy as if it was still in the business of selling burgers, the billboard that got repeatedly hit by lightning but never burned. I climbed it again. I interrogated it like it was a living thing, barraging it with question after question. I felt frustration, sadness, and anger all mixed together. I faced the billboard and slammed it with my fists. My arms’ momentum propelled me through the wood. And then I was in 1961.”
Gerry stroked his chin. “Heightened emotion. I was bubbling over with exuberance and bravery when I fell through. I’d never had those feelings in combination before. I wonder if emotional extremes activated the billboard’s time portal.”
Angela shrugged. “Maybe.”
“Why didn’t you contact me? Didn’t you assume I was in 1961 too?”
“I couldn’t find you.”
“Sorry. I picked a new identity. I wasn’t Gerry Nevis anymore.”
“I think we should compare time travel notes later. It will be light soon, and I need to get into position.” Angela waved her hand at Gerry’s duffle. “And you need to put aside whatever you were planning to do. I’ll stop this.”
“What is your plan?”
“To shoot and kill patient zero.”
“We don’t have to kill her.”
“Yes, we do. It’s the only certain way to prevent the pandemic. You know as well as I that without the girl, Kazki never happens. Her death is the only way to be sure.”
“I have another plan.”
Angela glanced at her watch. “Tell me quickly.”
“It’s her birthday, you know.”
“The one billion people who perished had birthdays, too. If we do this right, Thomas lives, your parents live.”
Angela’s words struck Gerry like a sledgehammer to his heart. “My parents?”
“The pandemic got them, too.”
“How? They were in lockdown. They never went out.”
Angela shook her head. “I can’t say. Maybe the virus hijacked a trip on a parcel. Maybe their pizza delivery person was ill, and that was the night they didn’t wash their hands right. Kazki was insidious. Will be insidious if we don’t stop it.”
“My plan is to set these cardboard animals on fire. The material they’re constructed from is slow-burning. I’ll place them along the fence. One dozen animals burning—it’ll look like there’s a cult. Kazki Park will close while the police investigate. Parents will be afraid to bring their kids, including patient zero.”
“I guess you could call it that.” Gerry paused a beat to gather his thoughts. The moment for decision was closing in on them, and he had time for one final argument to sway Angela. “I considered killing her, too, but I realized we can save the girl and the world at the same time. Her parents won’t let her anywhere near the park. Would your parents have taken you? Mine wouldn’t have, not until months had passed after this bizarre cult ritual.”
“That’s not good enough. Psychology isn’t certain, not the way a bullet to the brain is. With a billion souls at stake, there’s no room for error.”
“She doesn’t have to die.”
“She does,” Angela said. “She will.”
Gerry exhaled a sigh of resignation. “Then we do this together. I only wish we could share the same prison cell afterward.”
“We’re old, Gerry. We may be apart in different prisons, but we’ll be together in eternity soon.”
"I'm glad you're here." He took Angela’s hand, and they walked together, arms swinging, an elderly couple out for a stroll under the stars on a mission to save the world.
Thirty miles away in downtown Cincinnati, at 6:15 a.m. on December 21, 2021, the same day Gerry Nevis and Angela Biglow killed Alicia Windom, patient zero, Officer Patricia Kline responded to a barking dog complaint.
As Patricia approached the tan and white corgi, the dog raised its ears, tilted its head, and wagged its tail.
This isn’t a bad way to end a shift, she thought. Cute doggie. When she bent down in front of the open picket fence, she noticed the dog bleeding around the neck. Poor thing.
To the corgi’s side lay a dead bat.
Patricia surmised that the bat must have bitten the dog, who then killed it in self defense.
She leaned over to pet the dog, who, without warning, bit Patricia’s hand. “Ouch!” She pressed her other hand against the bleeding wound. I hope this doesn’t get infected.
If you enjoyed The Billboard, you might also like my story, A Second Chance.
Fiction by Bill Adler is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.