Stephen Wylder: THE CHEST OF HOPE AND DREAD

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THE CHEST OF HOPE AND DREAD

By Stephen Wylder

Monday, May 11, 1970

Parklawn Married Student Apartments, Iowa City

“Thomas, stay in bed with me. I know you have had one of your dreams.”

“Helena,” I lied, “it wasn’t a dream. I have an eight-thirty class.”

“There will be no need to go to class,” she said. “President Boyd said you may simply take the grade you had before the troubles. Do not go to Chicago.”

She was right about the class. When riots had virtually shut down the university after four students were shot to death at Kent State University in Ohio, there had been a boycott of classes. University president Willard Boyd had officially refused to close the university, but he had allowed students several options if they did not wish to stay for finals. The protests had begun nationwide when President Richard Nixon had announced an invasion of neutral Cambodia. But when the Ohio National Guard had fired live ammunition into a crowd, killing four students, the Iowa campus erupted in violence. For all intents and purposes, the campus was shut down.

And, she was right about the dream. She and I were both apprentices in the Metaphysicians’ Guild, an organization that goes back to the time when philosophers and sorcerers were one and the same. I’m what the Guild calls a receiver—someone who can receive messages through the spirit world, but can’t “do” magic, as Helena can. This message had been from Gregory Alverdy, an instructor at Northeastern Illinois State College in Chicago, but also a master metaphysician. I must have said something in my sleep about going to Chicago. I hoped I hadn’t said that I had to go alone.

I had met Helena MacKechnie nearly two years before when I was a youth reporter for the Indianapolis Post, and she was running from a former lover. And while her father was a Scottish-American diplomat with no magical abilities to my knowledge, her mother had been a Zoroastrian from Lahore, British India, and a descendant of Persian Magi. We fell in love amid the chaos of the Yippies’ “Festival of Life” during the 1968 Democratic National Convention. Gregory had been best man at our wedding, and his wife, Linnea Thorvaldsen, was matron of honor. Linnea, who was also a master in the Metaphysicians’ Guild, was usually the one to send me dreams. Why had this dream come from Gregory? And was it really from him? There were masters who could fool even other masters with their disguises.

I sat up on the edge of the bed. “Thomas,” she said, “please stay with me. There is evil abroad.“

She hadn’t acted this way since I first met her when there was evil abroad. I turned, looking into her mahogany-brown eyes, when a loud bang in the hallway startled us both. It sounded like someone had dropped something right outside our door. I put on a robe and walked to the metal door, keeping the chain bolt on until I could see what if anything was outside. It was an old-fashioned wooden chest, though it didn’t appear to be old. It was unpainted and looked to be of pine.

Helena, who had put a robe over her black nightgown, stood behind me and gasped. “It is the Chest of Hope and Dread,” she said.

I looked at her, dumbfounded.

“What is inside will offer something we dearly hope for, but it will require great personal cost to achieve. And it could be a false promise, even when one has made the sacrifice. The chest itself is not evil. You may bring it inside.”

After I determined that I could lift the chest, I carried it into the living room and set it in front of the sofa. After a brief pause, I unlatched the hasp and opened it. I was looking at a photocopy of a Des Moines Register article by Clark Mollenhoff. The headline was a shock: “VANCE, LE DUC THO SIGN PEACE PACT.” The subhead read “Coalition Government to rule until September Elections.”

But there was another shock in the first paragraph: “PARIS, France—Special Envoy Cyrus Vance announced today that South Vietnamese envoy Tran Van Lam, North Vietnamese negotiator Le Duc Tho and Viet Cong representative Nguyen Chi Thanh had reached an agreement to form a coalition government until a general election, supervised by the United Nations, in September. President Hubert H. Humphrey declared it “a great achievement for world peace.” It was dated April 10, 1968.

“It is another stream of history, Thomas,” she said, “or a clever forgery. In that stream, if it is true, Humphrey has become president and has put an end to this terrible war. But there will be a dilemma.”

Underneath the first photocopy was another, with the headline, “JOHNSON DEAD IN FREAK ACCIDENT. HUMPHREY SWORN IN.” It was datelined ELKHART, Ind., Apr. 14 AP—President Lyndon B. Johnson, while surveying the damage to this northern Indiana city from Sunday’s deadly tornadoes, died when he fell while walking over a pile of debris. The president was attempting to reach an American flag hanging from a propped-up pole in the ruins of a house, when he slipped and fell, his chest hitting the corner of a concrete block. Johnson, who has had heart problems since 1955, suffered a massive heart attack as a result of the impact…”

“Johnson came to Elkhart after the Palm Sunday Tornadoes in 1965,” I said, “but of course he didn’t die.”

“If peace negotiations ended the war, in April 1968,” she said, “there would have been no Festival of Life in Chicago. You would never have met me.”

I saw a tear fall down her cheek.

“Sometimes,” she said, “we must sacrifice true love for a greater good. Even though this involves the premature death of President Johnson, such a peace would save thousands of American and Vietnamese lives. Unless we can prove this is a forgery, you must take the train to Chicago and see Gregory.

“Did you see President Johnson when he visited Elkhart?”

“Yes,” I said. “I skipped school and rode my bike down to Dunlap—that’s the name of the area the tornado hit—so I could see the president.”

“So, Gregory would send your soul back there to meld with your younger soul. And then with some kind of enhancement, you would relive the event and somehow change what happened. That seems very unlikely, Thomas. If this is the true Chest, every change from today’s reality will be explained. We shall have to do some research today. But first, let us have breakfast and bless each other.”

After our breakfast of tea and English muffins, we returned to the bedroom and made love, perhaps for the last time. And then we dressed and set off in her white Volkswagen Beetle to the university library, where we parked not far from the burnt-out ruins of the Old Armory Temporary, a barracks-like building that had been “temporary” for over twenty years. Nobody knew whether it had been torched by protestors or had just succumbed to faulty wiring.

We walked up the steps to the library and began searching the card catalogs and encyclopedias. Around noon we broke for lunch to have a sandwich in the Gold Feather Room of the student union, just two blocks away. Then it was back to research. At three o’clock we left the library and drove to the Rock Island Lines station.

The railroad was trying to get rid of its last trains through Iowa City. The ominous “Notice of Proposed Discontinuance of Service” was posted on the doors of the red-brick depot. I bought a one-way ticket to Chicago after learning that Train No. 10 was half an hour late. Helena kissed me and said she needed to return to the library.

“There was something blocking us back at the library—something so powerful that I could feel it,” she said. ”Whatever it was, and it must have come from a third-degree master, the block on my mind is gone. Our adversary now believes he has won. I have at least forty-five minutes before the train arrives. I do not believe the story is a real stream of history, but I must be sure.”

After thirty minutes, I became worried. She seemed to have known what she was looking for. As No. 10’s maroon engines rumbled across Clinton Street, I stood on the platform, looking down the street for the sight of Helena’s car. After the train stopped and the conductor opened the vestibule door for detraining passengers, I heard a faint voice calling my name. I turned, and there was Helena, running toward me, a block away, her long jet-black hair in disarray.

“All aboard,” said the conductor. I stepped aside and let the other passengers board. Helena was still running. “This train won’t wait,” said the conductor.

“It’s a fake!” yelled Helena as the conductor was trying to get me to board. It was one of the few times I’d heard her use a contraction. The conductor closed up the coach door as the engineer gave two short blasts on the horn. I ran toward her. Helena, out of breath and drenched in sweat, threw herself into my arms just as the train was leaving. After her breathing had returned to normal, she said, “Nguyen Chi Thanh died in 1967. And there was nothing in the articles to explain why he was the Viet Cong representative.”

“What happened to your car?” I asked.

“Vandalized. Whoever delivered that chest was desperate to send your soul back into the past. He did not count on my running the eight blocks to the station. I should not be at all surprised if you were to meet with a hit-and-run accident back in 1965.”

We walked back to the library, where Helena used a payphone to call police, the insurance company, and the towing service. As soon as the car was on its way to You Smash ‘Em, I Fix ‘Em, we took the Manville Heights bus to our apartment. The chest, no longer one of hope and dread, was still there in the living room.

“You need a place to put your train timetables,” she said. “But first, let us celebrate that we are still together.”

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