The first thing he smelled was manure.
Waking up in an unknown place, sounds and smells hitting him like a brick wall, hair and clothes plastered to his body with sweat, was nothing new for Matty: his main concern now was if it happened to be the weekend, and if not, whether he still had a job. He didn’t think it was spring or, God forbid, summer vacation – if it was, then this bender was a new record.
Matty struggled to sit up, his eyes squinted against the daytime glare. He could hear the noises of a city – people talking, and what sounded like livestock being moved – but he didn’t have the vaguest idea where he was. The hard, sandy ground beneath him didn’t feel like his neighborhood, and the air didn’t smell like Hanover. It smelled like manure.
As Matty opened his eyes by degrees, he felt something hard behind his back and leaned on it: a wall of some sort. Big, uneven stone bricks. Not a building. His first thought was that he’d somehow made it to Mexico and been stopped on his way in – it seemed like a valid theory, till he remembered that the legendary border wall had yet to be built.
He took the plunge and looked up, sunlight and dust burning his eyes. But all the scenery did was confirm that he had no idea where he was: somewhere wildly different from New Hampshire, apparently, based on how little he recognized.
From his place leaning against the wall, Matty could see a crowd of people moving this way and that, some holding baskets, others driving cattle, some occasionally coming in or out of the simple buildings across from him. They were dressed in a style he’d never heard of in the first world: simple, loose, like the kind of clothes you would wear after losing everything. But these weren’t rough potato sacks or Hefty bags with arm and neck holes cut out: their clothes were bright, clean, almost expensive looking, by the assumed standards of their environment.
The buildings too, he realized, were not familiar: angular, uniform, made of what looked like white plaster. He couldn’t make out their ground floors through the crowd of people, but he could see the upper part: a second story topped in a slanted roof of red tile.
Matty realized he’d been holding his breath and let it out, leaning his head back against the wall and closing his eyes. The rough stone dug into his scalp. “Where the hell am I,” he muttered to himself.
It was a third world country, he was pretty sure of that. There was no city in the United States, or its immediate neighbors, that looked like this. He was pretty sure of that. But the sandy alleyway didn’t look like any pictures he’d ever seen of South America, Africa, definitely not Asia. Not Australia either – Matty wasn’t convinced Australia really existed, but he knew if it did, it didn’t look like this.
How much longer, Matty thought to himself, was he going to sit here and contemplate before he actually got up and figured out what was going on?
Well, he did have some idea what was going on. A dense ball of pain was growing in his frontal skull: the kind that came from too much drinking, not too much thinking. It was a sensation he knew well. But what kind of drunken night of debauchery could land him stuck in a third world country, presumably thousands of miles from home? Well, the kind of night that led to another of its kind, then another, and another, until the drunken stupor lasted long enough to be classified as a bender. Was that what this was? the end result of a week or two of overindulgence? If so, had he been drinking for celebratory reasons, or depressive ones?
His mind flitted back to Dani. Was this about her? Had something happened between them that led to him drinking himself across the border, either with pride or misery? His stomach twisted as he imagined what could have occurred – what could he have done to end their relationship, if that was what happened?
But that was ridiculous, he told himself. He didn’t even know where he was, and he was wondering what might have happened between him and Dani?
Before he could think of a reason not to, Matty opened his eyes and pulled himself up, his fingers finding shallow holds in the wall. “Okay,” he grunted. “I’m up.”
He looked around. The scene wasn’t much different from six feet up: he stood by a tall stone barrier, probably twenty feet high, which bordered a sandy street of flat cobblestones. Across the street was a row of the plaster buildings, and on the street, always in flux, was the crowd of people wearing bedsheets.
As he watched them, Matty realized they were watching back: a lot of them were staring at him without breaking stride, absently whipping their cows or clutching their baskets while their eyes focused on the dark-haired man in the strange clothes. Matty was wearing jeans, a black button-down, and a gray sports coat: his usual attire for a day in the classroom, but apparently an unusual sight in this foreign land.
“What,” he said aloud to no one in particular. He realized that his throat was dry, his mouth sour: clear signs of late night drinking. He tried again: “Habla Español?” He didn’t speak three words of Spanish, but Spain was the country that came to mind when he saw those smooth white buildings and those smooth white people in their smooth white clothes. Spain, or maybe Greece – he’d seen enough dream vacation photos to have a general idea –
He frowned. No, he realized – it wasn’t Greece he was reminded of. It was Rome. Ancient Rome, to be exact, though to someone who didn’t care there wasn’t much difference. Except even Matty could tell their clothes were wrong: Italy wasn’t a third world country and he was pretty sure they’d discovered pants by now.
The country that had given birth to pizza and the mafia didn’t subsist on driving cattle.
Matty wandered into the crowd, bracing himself against the push of people and animals. He had been to New York, he knew how to make his way through big groups on the street – but this was a little different. These people weren’t on their way to catch the subway or hit the Jewish deli before their lunch break ended – they didn’t seem quite so rushed. Their movements were calm, less paranoid-feeling than you would see in an American metropolis. This, if nothing else, told Matty he was in a third world country: the people he saw on the street didn’t seem angry or threatening – he didn’t even get the feeling that one of them might stab him.
“Excuse me,” he said to the woman walking next to him. He was following the bulk of the crowd, moving down the dirt road and past the whitewashed apartments. “Where is this?”
He had to raise his voice over the lowing of cattle and the conversations held in a foreign languages. He might have been able to recognize the dialect, if the peasants weren’t all talking over each other.
The woman didn’t respond, though she’d obviously heard him. She was around his age, he thought, with dark hair piled on top of her head in a style he wasn’t used to seeing on white women. She wore a loose white gown cinched at the waist with a cord. Yeah, he thought – just like whatever disparate images of ancient Roman women he’d seen. Weird. Maybe it was a reenactment.
“I just woke up here,” he continued. The woman didn’t even dignify him with a glance. “This isn’t America, right.” Still, nothing. She obviously didn’t speak English, so Matty didn’t know what he hoped to accomplish. But language was his profession: he literally made a living teaching students how to better utilize the English language. He wouldn’t be caught dead playing into the trope of uneducated Americans yelling monosyllables at foreigners in a desperate attempt to suddenly turn them bilingual.
So, he followed the crowd, keeping pace with the dark-haired woman. She eventually entered one of the sides streets and they left the border wall, the sandy road giving way to flat and even cobblestones. This, at least, reminded him of New England, if the buildings on either side were still completely foreign.
The alleyway, if that’s what this stone path was, led under a massive arch of brick, so long that it was more like a tunnel: more grand than an overpass, and apparently holding up a tall building dotted with windows. If this was a third world country, Matty thought, it was one that used to be wealthy enough to build this impressive city – or else these swarthy people in their white clothes had moved in after the original builders were wiped out.
As the blue sky disappeared behind the tall arched underpass, Matty swallowed back the notion that had been forming in his hungover mind. It was stupid, he thought, and not even worth thinking about; maybe this strange city did look more like a wealthy country in the Ancient World than a poor country in the twenty-first century – but unless Jack Daniels had recently added an ingredient that could cause temporal warping while intoxicated, that wasn’t worth thinking about. The more important question – the only real question – was how he had gotten here, and which was the quickest way to New Hampshire.
Matty followed the woman out the other side of the tunnel and found himself in an open area, a loose courtyard enclosed by tall buildings of stone and brick. They were surrounded by vendors: small booths and tents manned by people hawking their livestock, produce, and clothing. The air was full of sounds and smells: yelling, clucking, and, still, manure.
Matty felt his stomach twist. He might have to revisit the reenactment theory, he thought, because, god damn, it looked for all the world like he was in Ancient Rome.
With a start he realized the woman had almost disappeared into the crowd of shoppers. He hurried after her, keeping close but hanging back. Whoever she was, she was his anchor to reality, and he didn’t need her running away.
But then, he froze, the woman leaving his mind even as she left him to commence her shopping. More than the architecture, more than the clothing, more than the sounds and smells, he had caught sight of something that implied the very slightest inkling of understanding. He didn’t know the how, but he knew the what: the what was Ancient Rome, though, conversely, this in no way proved the when or the where. The where couldn’t be Rome, not really, not unless he’d flown across the world on a bender. And the when…well, ancient wasn’t the answer, ancient couldn’t be there answer, not until the days of cell phones and fast food had descended into antiquity.
Through the bustling crowd of market-goers, across the cobblestone square, two men stood by, watching the peasants go back and forth, pretending not to notice the women with their bare arms and thin tops. They were straight out of a textbook, or one of the thousand life of Christ movies that silently held back the film industry. Coppery chestplates molded to look like a muscular torso; red leather shoulder pads and skirts; short swords in scabbards clasped to the belt. But what settled the issue, what told Matty that he was, without any doubt, seeing a pair of Roman soldiers, was their helmets: bronze and leather, missing the cartoony red plumes but including those iconic cheek guards that anyone in the modern world would know on sight.
“Well…shit,” Matty said, panic rising in his chest. Reenactment, he reminded himself: the only logical explanation. If he could accept that he’d somehow ended up in Europe, he could believe this was some kind of event for the anniversary of something or something else. Maybe it was Christmas. Or Saturnalia.
Someone bumped into him from behind and shot Matty a weird look – probably the clothes – before moving on.
When Matty looked back at the Roman soldiers – looking for all the world like the nameless redshirts in a movie called Son of God or Savior of the World or something predictable like that – they were looking right at him.
He froze. The woman from before, the one he’d followed into this market, was standing with the soldiers, pointing through the crowd and directly at Matty. She had ignored him, but had she actually been scared by this newcomer? Or was it because of his clothes? Maybe it was a faux pas to break the reenactment. Maybe they Italians were really into historical roleplaying.
The soldiers started towards him, and every muscle in Matty’s body tensed up. Should he run? What would happen if these make-believe authority figures caught him? He knew what the back of a squad car felt like, but somehow he didn’t think they had one of those.
The men in fake muscles wove their way through the crowd, dodging women holding baskets and men holding chickens. Matty’s pulse quickened. Run, or not? They were thirty feet away. Then twenty.
“God dammit,” he hissed, turning and plunging into the crowd. In his experience, no matter what the situation, or the time period, cops storming towards you never spelled anything good for the near future.
Behind him, the soldiers cried out and he could hear them start to run. Matty pushed through the crowd, shoving women in shawls side, not taking the time to apologize or to marvel at the thoroughness of their reproduction. If he wasn’t smart, if he wasn’t logical, if he wasn’t a professor for God’s sake, her might have been tempted to think that this level of historical reproduction was hardly less unbelievable than traveling back in time.
Matty escaped the marketplace through an alley, trying to move fast without bumping into pedestrians or tripping on the cobblestones. A quick glance behind him revealed the men in helmets careening out of the market, being a lot more aggressive with the bystanders than he was. Matty moved ahead, leaving the alley and taking to the street.
Matty didn’t admire the scenery as he ran, and he didn’t think about his situation. He couldn’t let himself wonder, or theorize, or he would lose his resolve and get caught. All that went through his mind was the pain growing in his side, and the headache threatening to split his skull. Behind him, he could hear the shouts and footsteps of the soldiers.
Even as focused as he was, Matty could see the city changing around him. The stones became flatter, smoother under his feet; the buildings grew father apart, and more grandiose, red brick giving way to smooth white plaster. There were fewer people here too: just a few couples in period garb walking arm in arm and gaping at the man who apparently hadn’t gotten the memo.
Matty’s lungs were burning, but he still heard the men behind him. They were trained soldiers, he thought, of course they would have better stamina than him – or, he corrected himself, whoever was in charge of this whole façade had chosen decently athletic men to portray the soldiers. Maybe outside the playacting, they were actual police.
On his right was a long, low building, with no signs of an alley or alcove he could use to hide. The wall to his left opened up to reveal a courtyard beyond, but Matty knew the soldiers would follow him in and he’d be cornered.
Up ahead, the street seemed to open into some kind of square. He could make out a big wall beyond, presumably part of some important building – and maybe heralding a place to hide. He pushed on, his legs and skull protesting the effort, lying to himself, telling him if he could make it to the square, he could disappear and find freedom to assess the situation.
Matty did make it to the square, and he did stop running; but the building that stood before him, that zionic wall he’d put all his hopes into, made his stomach drop. All thoughts of his hangover, the soldiers, and the imaginary reenactment vanished from his mind as he looked up at a building he would know anywhere, anyone would know anywhere – but not exactly as he was seeing if now.
The Coliseum stood tall, titanic in its massive structure, its limestone bricks clean and unblemished. The legendary amphitheater, known more for its missing pieces than the parts that had remained, was now fully-formed, four massive stories of white stone facing the small man who stood before them, its windows like judgmental eyes daring Matty to claim it shouldn’t exist in this form.
Matty could vaguely feel a crack of pain as his knees hit the cobblestone ground. This wasn’t possible. It couldn’t be.
Footsteps came to a stop behind him, and one of the soldiers barked a command at Matty. He said it again, and again, until Matty’s muddied brain finally recognized the language: Latin.
Matty obliged, slowly, tearing his eyes away from the impossible building and looking over his shoulder to see the two men he now realized weren’t reenactors, weren’t from an Italy of mozzarella and organized crime. These men were sworn soldiers of the Roman Empire.
“What the hell’s going on,” Matty said, as one of the soldiers stepped up to him and raised his sword.
When in Rome, chapter one of The Broken Clock Saga, debuts Feb 2, 2022.