Although written some time following the original story, this is considered a Prequel to By Way of Introduction, which can be found HERE and takes place in late May of the year 2000 – the month which saw the release of the movie, Gladiator.
Gym bag thrown over one shoulder, the Alaskan made his way out of the garage, into the warmth of the temperate May afternoon, and down a path which would eventually lead him to the Tavern. He promised himself that he would find Maximus at some point and apologize for disappearing as he had, but he felt as if the former general would understand. John just felt slightly guilty, as he had been a sort of guide for the Spaniard since his arrival at the CrowesNest only a few weeks before.
As Colin had mentioned, the transition from the world they had once believed their own reality – what was later learned to be a movie – to where they would spend the remainder of their existence was challenging enough for someone from the twentieth century. Cort the preacher and former gunfighter found problems, and only a hundred or so years separated him and the current world, but for Maximus Decimus Meridias, stepping out of the final decades of ancient Rome’s glory, the shock was even more profound. Each of them arrived with newly placed memories of who they were; the identity of the man they often referred to as “the Creator,” and for someone such as Maximus or Cort, a knowledge of things such as automobiles and televisions so they did not fear them.
Still, even with these specifics, it was a hard conversion, and most of them attempted – in a small way – to assist the newest arrival in making the adjustments. When John came to the Nest on the first of October in 1999, the first to greet him had been Officer Wendell White of ‘LA Confidential‘, closely followed by the Aussie he soon learned was Colin. The cop had spent hours with him, attempting to acclimate him to the Nest and its’ existence, so the two men had become close friends.
Despite John’s friendliness with nearly all his brothers – even he had to admit that the skinhead Hando was still a puzzlement; Kim was a snooty bastard, and the cyber-being known as Sid 6.7, well, he was still attempting to figure him out – he was now feeling closest to the general turned gladiator.
John could still remember the second they knew Maximus was arriving. They had already been prepared by watching an advanced copy of the movie — which had been provided to them by Peaches — so they knew what to expect. All of them had literally been amazed by not only the Creator’s performance, but the stunning achievement of the movie itself, and Biebe felt certain that when Oscar time rolled around again, a certain Australian would receive another Best Actor nod.
He should have won for Jeffrey’s movie, the sheriff considered as he picked his way along the path adjacent the hotel. He sure deserved it. And Bud…didn’t even get nominated for playing Bud — and he should have. Hell…I could even have seen him getting nominated for Hando. Donna and I used to discuss that all the time. Who the hell picks these winners?
And then there was ‘Mystery Alaska‘. John sighed deeply, slowing his quick pace as he shifted the suddenly heavy gym bag from one shoulder to another. He kicked at a pebble, much as he used to kick at the snow, watching as it skipped a few inches before landing underneath a hedge. There was no way he could even begin to compare his film to an epic like ‘Gladiator‘ or a critic’s favorite like ‘LA Confidential‘.
Obviously, the Creator had found something enticing about the script, and truth be told, it wasn’t a bad movie. No, it wasn’t a great movie. We’re not talking ‘Citizen Kane’ or ‘Gone with the Wind’ here. It had been a nice, small film with a lead character the Creator must have felt very deeply about.
Is that what his life had boiled down to, John thought, pushing a stray hair behind his ear. If he didn’t seek all levels of this, it could very easily make a person feel terribly one-dimensional. Arthur, Jack, Dominic — he often heard them say that their true growth had started on arriving at the Nest; they no longer felt restricted. Kim and The Man — for their own reasons — did not speak of their previous existences. Not that they did in the lives they’d known in their motion pictures. That was only due to the fact that they had a fine actor portraying them. But the Nest permitted them to seek out something more beyond a screenwriter, director or even an actor’s vision.
He chuckled, although a tear was threatening to spill from one eye. Shit…He didn’t even know how to fucking skate when he played…when he played me. John had spent a lot of time doing research on the movie, and one of the regulars had even managed to get hold of a press kit on Ebay, and on his birthday, had presented it to him as a gift. Analyzing nearly every line of the material, the Alaskan had been amazed at how much attention the actor had paid to developing the role, as usual, making Biebe very alive.
“Like I am,” he said out loud, smiling.
He vigorously ran a finger underneath his nose as a scent tickled it. That normally happened each time he returned to the Nest after a visit to Mystery. It wasn’t allergies; it just took him a little to acclimate himself to the warmer climate and — okay, it sounded very ‘Star Trek‘ but it was true — the dimensional shift.
Looking around, he realized he had wandered through a gateway into what was called the English gardens, named that because nearly each of the plants in the approximate five acres were indigenous to Great Britain, whether it was the full-bodied musk of some of the roses, or the refreshing scents emanating from the sprigs of lavender or the numerous decorative herbs. John often came there, only because he simply enjoyed finding a quiet spot underneath a tree so as to read or even relax and take a nap. Admittedly, he was not used to gardens, although he recalled his mother and later Donna keeping little window boxes with kitchen herbs such as rosemary and basil. Now he had gardens in abundance, as well as his rink and his beloved pond of black ice. If he desired, he could even go camping up in the mountains or beside the lakes so similar to the ones near the still primitive Denali National Park.
But he enjoyed the peace of the English gardens, only because very few visitors or regulars had discovered it yet. John almost hoped it remained that way. He moved to leave, then rubbed his nose again. Funny…that didn’t smell like any of the nearby roses. Concentrating, he tried to distinguish what struck him as being varying scents all combining to create something….
“Oriental? Persian? Oriental,” he whispered, as it reminded him of incense or perhaps an aromatherapy candle Donna might have used on a romantic evening.What else, John? Uh…Uh…peonies…Hmm…vanilla?…Definitely musk…What…What is that? Mom used to like ’em sometimes…Lilies! That’s it — lilies! Dad used to pay extra to have them shipped in for Easter. Oriental; peonies; vanilla; lilies; musk.
Nothing around him which should have exuded something so…different. None of it was unpleasant; in fact he found it quite lovely and at once realized — slapping himself on the forehead — that it was obviously a perfume. Well, he supposed it should have been — if anyone else had been around at the moment.
Voices drew his attention and he glanced upwards, eyes focusing towards one of the hotel’s empty rooms. A maid had walked out onto what would be the living room balcony, and was speaking to someone still inside the suite. The woman was straightening some of the outdoor furnishings and John grinned. He couldn’t remember the room number off-hand, but he knew none of the guests had ever stayed there. Now it seemed that housekeeping was busy getting it in order, which made him realize that perhaps a new person was due to arrive. Good — he enjoyed the Nest when people were there; kept it from becoming too boring. And perhaps the wind had caught the maid’s fragrance and carried it down to where he stood.
Okay, that seemed logical, and would explain the mystery scents.
Where are you going?
John pointed over his shoulder. “I was just heading…” he said without thinking, then realized no one was there. Ah shit, John. Now you’re hearing things? He could have sworn someone had asked him a question, although on second thought, he wondered why the woman — for it was a woman’s voice — had sounded almost testy.
Taking a step, he caught the fragrance again and he turned his head, certain he heard a reply on a breeze:
I…I just thought…I’m going to head up towards Cincinnati for the day. I’ll be back tomorrow. I just need a break. I’ve had twelve hours of OT this week. I just wanted to get away….
Biebe moved enough to ease his belongings to the ground, nearly afraid any movement would cause the voice to dissipate. That one was different, slightly younger but with an air of maturity; but she did sound exhausted, empty, the words trembling as though she had been caught.
You rent a car for the weekend and don’t tell anybody, when you know I need groceries in the house, and here you are taking off again. It was the first woman again.
When do I take off?
You were in England a month ago, remember? I don’t know why you can’t ever think of someone else. If Sam hadn’t looked out the window and seen you getting out of the car we wouldn’t have even known you’d rented it. And you know he needs groceries too. And I’ve been after you forever to rent a car so you could take me on some errands.
Well, I didn’t even know I was renting one until just a while ago. I was off today and just did it on a whim…./And it’s amazing how Sam is supposed to be partially blind but sees what he wants to…I rent cars almost every time I’m off, and all I do is run errands for everybody but me…No wonder I can’t wait to get back to work. I never get any rest when I’m off// John shook his head. The last remarks, he sensed, had been said in the younger woman’s mind — not out loud.
Well just whim yourself over here. I’ll go ahead and get my grocery lists together, and there’s a few more places I need you to go. I’ve got ads for Kroger, Meijer’s…I need some things from Walgreens and I think Revco had a few things too.
I had plans….
John sighed but now, he wanted to hear more. He didn’t recognize either of the voices. Looking back at the suite, he saw the maid had moved back inside so it was not her…and he knew in his heart that the younger woman was beginning to vacillate. He could hear her sigh…somehow felt a tug at his heart as he sensed — was it tears?
I’m on my way came the resigned words, and John felt himself shiver for he heard a quiet sob.
“Don’t cry, darlin’,” he whispered, forgetting momentarily that the voice’s owner was not there with him. He felt a sudden breeze, and the weeping as well as the fragrance vanished as quickly as it had come. If this had happened in Mystery, he would have been seeking out a psychiatrist in Fairbanks or Anchorage. But on considering his own situation, he knew that something extraordinary had just happened. He just was not certain what it meant. Shaking his head again, John picked up his things, and after another glance around, slowly walked out from the gardens, still unable to forget what he’d heard. He was still amazed at his quick reaction to something which was likely a remnant of some type of delirium from the time shifting, but then again….
“Let it go, Biebe, let it go.” He needed to rest. Returning always drained him, and it was still fairly early in the day he thought as he looked at his wristwatch, noting the digital display of 1:17. He could attempt to relax, then take the rest of the day however he wished.
There were no other incidents as he made his way inside the entrance to the Tavern.
The main facility was quiet, but at that hour, it normally was. Liz was behind the bar, organizing a new shipment with one of the newer bartenders, AJ, and both of them waved at him as he passed. Dominic and Andy were straightening the tables and chairs, making certain all was in order for the evening, and for some odd reason, Sid 6.7 was pretending to supervise them as he gave joking orders. Neither of the young men paid him any mind; young Johnny — who was doing some basic cleaning — definitely wasn’t listening for he was wearing a pair of headsets attached to a Sony Walkman, and having a great time singing along to ‘The Legend of Barry Kable‘. The thought that no one was paying him attention seemed to annoy Sid even more, and the second he saw Biebe, a sly grin lit up his face.
“John!” he called out, although the sheriff kept moving towards the staircase.
“John! We’ve missed you.” John’s only acknowledgment was a faint salute without pausing a second. “You’re not going to speak? I’m hurt — wounded. You at least usually say something to me, even if it’s only a mere hello or good evening.”
John stopped, hand resting on the banister, and he shook his head as he sighed. He figured he would regret this, but this was the cyber-psycho’s way. “Hello Sid,” he replied.
“Hello John. I didn’t realize you’d been away, but the place…well, it felt empty without you here.”
Biebe’s eyes narrowed as he read behind Sid’s honeyed words. Son-of-a-bitch — what the hell was in that psychotic mind of his? “Really?” he said tightly.
“Really. I do miss you when you’re not around, John. You’re one of the few that attempts to be civil with me. So you had a nice little trip then?”
“Yeah…Now if you’ll excuse me.” The sheriff started up the stairs, but had barely gone two steps when Sid quietly said:
“I swear John — you’ve grown wider since you were here only a couple of days ago. Must be all that home cooking.” Sid gave a ‘tsk, tsk, tsk’ sound. “It’s no wonder you have to go home to the little woman. I don’t think anyone else would take a second glance at you…Tubby.”
John was not certain what turned his stomach more: Sid’s comments or Sid’s annoying cackle, but he rolled his eyes the way he used to around Chuckie-Boy. The retort “Fuck you” caught in his throat and without speaking, Biebe continued the ascent, deciding if he did say something to Sid, it would likely be followed by a kick to the groin as well.
“I don’t know how you manage to ignore him, my friend,” another voice said as he reached the top of the stairs. “His manner tends to grate on my nerves the way Commodus tended to when he was attempting niceties.”
John slowed, grinning as he noticed someone step from the shadows, immediately recognizing the strong figure of his most recent brother. “Maximus!”
“Ave John,” the general greeted, reaching out to pat the Alaskan’s shoulder. “You’re just returning?”
“Yeah, a few minutes ago. I’m sorry I didn’t tell you exactly where I was going, or how long I’d be gone, but….”
“John, John…no explanation is necessary. You told me more than enough in your letter; Peaches told me later that you had gone back.” John nodded. “You had a good visit then?” Maximus could see the far off gaze in the sheriff’s blue-green eyes, realizing the man was remembering his experience.
“A real good visit.” He laughed softly. “I swear…I think Mike’s grown a little and for them it’s only been a couple of days.”
“They grow much too fast for we parents.”
“What?” The gladiator was raising an eyebrow.
“That’s what I told Mike. That parents try to keep their kids little forever…Hey, walk with me, Max. I need to get my gear stowed, then I’m going to relax a bit.”
The two began to walk slowly along the hallway. “So…your other sons…your wife….”
“They’re all well, thanks.”
“Glad to hear it. Did you have an opportunity to play in your Saturday game this time?”
“No, that’ll be for my next visit. I know it sounds confusing, but it won’t be Saturday until tomorrow. Tomorrow when I go back I mean. Shit — that doesn’t make sense does it?”
“Well to be truthful, none of this makes sense, John…but you’ve definitely gone a long way in making this old cavalry officer feel at home.”
Biebe shrugged. “Wish I could do more.”
“You’ve been more helpful than you can imagine. I’ve been particularly grateful for your friendship, John, perhaps more than you could ever realize. It was…well, what I experienced in…well, what I experienced was difficult enough, but then to arrive at this place…” Maximus paused, seeking out the right words to say and John patiently watched him. He and Colin had been right in that aspect: at least they came from the same time frame, but to be thrust into such circumstances as the general had, especially after the events of ‘Gladiator‘ — no wonder the man felt confused. “To say I felt…disconcerted is to understate the matter.”
“Tell me about it. Well, whatever I can do to make you feel better, Max. I know how hard all of this is for you.”
“I am certain the adjustment has been difficult for you as well, John.” They were now outside the sheriff’s apartment, and as Biebe reached in his pocket to locate the keys, Max continued. “But at least, when you return to your…movie…your old world…it can be a pleasant experience…unlike mine.”
John’s eyes immediately grew sympathetic as he heard the pain in his brother’s voice. “Max….”
“It’s all right, John — really it is. I keep thinking…hoping…perhaps one day…I’ll find a way to return before the events in my movie.” He smiled sadly. “I would very much love to see Trujillo again.”
And your wife and son, John thought, knowing nothing would thrill Max more than to return and find himself back in Spain, on his farm, enjoying some time with his beautiful wife and child. “From the way you described it, well, it sounds like a marvelous place.”
“As does your Alaska. You’ve never told me…what does that mean?”
“Alaska? The natives named it that…Alyeska — it means ‘Great Land’.”
“Well after seeing the photographs you’ve shown me, I can see why. It looks remarkable.”
The door to his apartment opened, and John threw the gym bag and other belongings just inside the threshold. “I’ll tell you what, Max. When you’re feeling a little more settled in here at the Nest, I’d love to take you camping with me.”
He saw a gleam on the gladiator’s face as he contemplated such an offer. “Here?”
“Yeah sure. Up in the areas like Alaska — there are plenty of preserves; we could do a bit of mountain climbing if you feel up to it.”
“I’d love the challenge,” Max said, the smile nearly breaking his face.
“My father taught my brothers, sister and me how to hunt, but we only did it for food, not sport, but if we stay up there for a week or two we could live off the land if we needed to.”
“You’d be willing to stay that long?”
“Sure. Like you said, I’d love the challenge. You hang around this place too long, you could start to get soft and lazy.”
“You definitely can, and that is one thing I couldn’t take in myself. That’s why I’m glad Peaches let me set up a place to exercise outside. You should try it sometime.”
John started chuckling. “You mean…gladiatorial exercises?”
“Or the ones I did in the military,” Max teased as his brother’s laughter increased. “Think you could keep up?”
“Only if you let me teach you hockey,” John playfully retorted, wiggling his eyebrows.
“Point well taken. All right, but I will hold you to your promise of taking me camping with you. I’d like that a lot.”
“Great…we’ll work out a time then.”
“And with that, I’ll let you settle in for a while. I’ve kept you long enough.”
John smiled, shaking his head. “You know I don’t mind, Max. I’m glad I ran into you. Hey…are you…what do you have planned for dinner this evening?”
“Dinner? I hadn’t really thought about it yet. I’ve spent the past couple of evenings in my rooms — didn’t really feel much like going out.”
“Well, we’ll get out tonight then if you like. Just go down to the Tavern; have a bite to eat; a few drinks. See what everyone else is up to. And I always like to see if we get any new guests.”
“Yes well…Bud was saying that it seems like we’re seeing more arrivals now, particularly since my movie was released. I suppose that’s a good thing.”
“That’s a great thing, Max, believe me.” He was not even certain if he could explain how lonely it got with just the incarnations and the few women who were regulars. A few came and went; some never came back as they moved onto other interests, but he secretly hoped that with ‘Gladiator‘ it all might change. A lot of the older Nest inhabitants admitted they had not seen so much activity since ‘LA Confidential‘, and it was definitely improving. “Okay…we’ll hook up…I don’t know…eight? Nine?”
“Nine thereabouts is fine, John. Get yourself some rest. You look tired.” Actually Maximus was thinking Biebe looked more drained than anything else, but considering he had just returned from an emotional situation, he was surprised John was able to control himself this well.
The men spoke very briefly afterwards, and then John slipped inside the protection of his apartment, allowing himself one last look at Maximus as the latter went towards his own rooms.
Pushing the door shut, Biebe locked it, then sighing, walked through the living room and into his bedroom, feeling in his jean pockets to remove the contents, a habit he’d had for years. He stepped in front of an antique chest of drawers, and began dropping keys, change, wallet and other small belongings into a crystal dish on top of the furnishing. The entire time, his eyes were focused on a set of photographs he had beside the bowl: one of Donna alone; a second of his boys; a third of his little family back at Christmastime. A quarter struck bottom, startling him and John trembled, feeling the tears once more. He let a thumb trace the edge of the wood frame protecting the picture of Donna and the kids, then sighing, he bent forward and gave the glass a gentle kiss.
“Love you guys,” he whispered. “Miss ya too.”