"Am - am I...?" Paul dropped his guitar to feel his face again.
"Back to the egg," John whispered. Behind the granny glasses he was barely an adult. "Fuck, Paul, why didn't we notice?"
A head bobbed between them. Ringo threw his arms around Paul, body heaving as he struggled to get his breath back. "You're - I'm - glad - " he wheezed. "Can't - George - asshole - he won't - "
Paul ignored the embrace, stared at his soft, pink, impossible hands. Decades of guitar-player calluses had vanished. I'm a kid again, I'm a kid again.... The fingers blurred; Paul reeled, and if Ringo hadn't been holding him he would have fallen over.
Beside him, John growled, "I am not gonna let this get to me. Why shouldn't we be kids again? We're on another planet, for Christ's sake, anythin's possible. Right?" he snapped at the approaching George. "Right!" he answered himself. "Right! Left, right, left! Human rights! Right-handed...." His voice trailed off, leaving him with nothing but an empty, manic grin that slowly faded into a neutral mask.
Not seeming to hear any of this, George stopped with a jerk and stared at the ocean, his lips moving in silent Hare Krishnas. Then he lifted his head to look into the sky. Silhouetted against the bright blue, he intoned, "We've been sent here by God."
Paul snapped out of his trance. To his agnostic soul, the idea that God (in whatever incarnation) was responsible for their predicament was little short of terrifying.
Ringo let go of Paul and whirled around. "Oh, piss off!" His voice cracked, he was so angry and scared. "That's all you've said for the last ten years, I can't stand it any more!" He swept his arm around to take in sea, sand, meadow. "What's the point of all this? Why would God do this to us? Do this to us?"
"I told you why," George said, trying to sound calm and in control, but his voice shook a little all the same. "Lord Krishna has His reasons. We may not understand them, but they're there."
Meanwhile, Paul pulled John aside and murmured, "What d'ye think, then?"
"What, about God?" John shrugged. "God's as good as anythin' I've come up with. I thought of God too, actually. Not sure which god. Maybe it's Krishna. Maybe it's Jesus. Whichever one is a Beatles fan, I suppose."
"Oh. D'ye think we should... well... pray?" Paul pictured himself sheepishly saying "Er, hi," to a frowning, bearded God and getting blasted with lightning.
John's face grew dark. "I don't think anyone who's fucked with us like this deserves to get prayed to."
Not exactly reassured by this logic, Paul said loudly, "Well, it could be someone else, couldn't it? We aren't alone in the universe. Why shouldn't some alien hear our music and want to reunite us? Maybe some UFO came down and picked us up."
George gave Paul a poisonous look. "You mean someone wanted us reunited so badly they put us on another planet and didn't bother to drop by for a listen."
"Well, maybe they did. Maybe they're invisible or tiny" Paul glanced at the bottom of his shoe, but there wasnt a squashed leprechaun embedded in the sole "or those big plants or the sheep. They could be anything."
"Why not the grass or the water, then? That's all sci-fi rubbish, Paul."
"This isn't sci-fi?" Ringo demanded.
"Maybe lo-fi," John said, bending to pick up a scalloped pink shell.
"It's certainly not fiction," George said smugly. "And I dont see any science round here, do you?"
Paul held up his hands. "Look, I don't mean to knock God or anything. I just think there might be other explanations for this madness. We can't just dismiss everything else out of hand."
George sniffed. "Yes we can."
Butoh, never mind. Paul backed up a few steps so he could look at everyone at once. "Come on, we're doing no good here. We've got to keep moving, keep exploring. If we can find out where we are, maybe we can figure out why we're here and who sent us. It could be God," he said quickly, seeing George about to speak. "But we won't know for certain till we check things out, right?"
George grudgingly conceded the sense of this plan, and after a bit of discussion about the best direction to go, the four continued down the beach in the direction that John and Paul had been going, getting a good view of the meadow and (more important) minimizing the likelihood of being snuck up on or ambushed. Paul and Ringo walked together, while John and George trailed behind like two tails on a kite, their paths crossing and recrossing as John scampered back and forth collecting shells. The beach was strewn with them, pink and black and striped, clam and spiral and snail, and he was constantly stooping to snatch one, then straightening up and running after the others. Soon his pockets were crammed full, and he started dropping shells into his guitar. "Souvenirs," he said to anyone who looked at him quizzically.
Ringo talked nonstop, half to Paul, half to the air. "When I woke up, I thought I'd gone mad, I couldn't get me bearin's at all, George was moanin' to Krishna, and Christ, I thought it was a dream, he looked so bloody young, and when we saw the other moon, I nearly shit meself right there...." Ringo gestured broadly as he spoke, waving his tambourine around as if trying to swat a fly with it.
George drifted along, his "Hare Krishnas" audible now, eyes glazed over. When a bird dropped a clam shell at his feet, he didn't even flinch. His guitar dragged through the sand, bumping over shells and weeds.
Why are we here? Paul shouted the words in his head to tune out the others' noise. What possible reason could we have for being here? Is it a reunion? It has to be, there's no other reason for the four of us to be together. But why here? God, I hope we're not supposed to save this world with music or something.
A horrible thought came to Paul then, and he stopped short and blurted, "Oh, Jesus, this better not be Pepperland."
Ringo paused in mid-babble, having heard only the most important part. "Pepperland? We're in Pepperland?"
"No. No, we're not," Paul said forcefully, quickly walking again (and pulling Ringo with him) before the others could catch up and ask why he'd stopped. "It's not insane enough here, it's tooit's not cartoony enough, it's too dull. Sorry, silly idea. Forget I mentioned it."
They marched along, Ringo silent for a change, triggered into some thinking, while Paul determinedly worked up more reasons for their being anywhere but that place.
Then Ringo said, "Pepperland wouldn't be so bad, actually."
"Uh?" was all Paul could say to this astonishing statement.
"At least we'd know what to do and how to get home. Play a concert, unfreeze everyone, smash the Blue Meanies, and get taxied home in the Yellow Submarine."
Paul nearly replied that he hoped his purpose in being here was more important than participating in a live version of that wretched cartoon, thank you very much. Instead, his mind went sideways, following a notion.... and a realization burst upon him with such force that he stopped in his tracks again. "Yes! God, it's so simple! Why didn't I think of this before?"
"What?" asked Ringo, at once alarmed and hopeful.
Paul just laughed in delight, a strange sound after that morning of terror, and waved like mad for John and George to catch up. "We're such idiots!" Paul said when they had assembled. "It was right in front of our noses all along!"
"What, air?" said John.
"How to get home! We've got to play together, that's all!"
"How d'ye figure that, then?" asked Ringo.
"Well, what's the best reason for us to be together? A reunion! It's a queer place for one, but someone must have a good reason for itmaybe 'cause it's easier to get along under these conditions. So if the Beatles play together, that'll satisfy whoever or balance the universe or something and we'll get home!"
"I am not a Beatle any more!" George shouted, face reddening. "That's all over with!"
"Don't matter, son," John said lazily, "someone thinks bungin us together's gonna make us you-know-whats, even if we don't think so. I think it makes sense." He started shaking the shells out of his guitar.
Ringo threw doubtful glances at his tambourine and the guitars. "Think these'll be enough?"
"Sure, or we'd have more." Paul hoisted his guitar and tried a C chord, discovered that the instrument was woefully out of tune. "Come on lads, let's tune up."
He sat on the sand; John sat on the sand.
George remained standing.
Paul and George stared at each other.
"Coming down?" Paul said softly, warningly.
This isnt why were here. George turned his back on them, started to walk away.
Paul erupted from the sand, scattering John's pile of shells, and leaped on George, sending him sprawling across the sand and his guitar skidding away. "I don't care what you think you are or why you think we're here, you holier-than-thou son of a bitch!" Paul screamed in George's ear. "If you don't do this with us I'll kill you! Do you hear me? I'll fucking murder you!"
"Mmph mmph! All right!" George forced his head up and spit out sand. "All right! Leave off!"
There was a pained silence while Paul rolled off George and both got up, George spitting out sand and wiping off his body and face, Paul taking deep breaths and counting slowly to ten, forcing down the great, nauseating anger/fear that had propelled him so effectively. When he had it all under control, he mumbled, embarrassed, "Didn't know I had it in me."
We're all scared, man," said Ringo, putting his arm around Paul's shoulders. "You should've seen me earlier. Besides," he added sotto voce, "he deserved it."
"Um," said Paul, keeping his face neutral but very glad that Ringo was supporting him. He watched while George, looking martyred, picked up his guitar and, sullenly obedient, sat down next to John. Guess it's worth it if it worked, Paul thought, but I can't lose it like that againone of us has to see things clearly, or we'll just fall apart, and right now I'm the only one who can keep us going. With a quick grin of thanks to Ringo, he sat down with the others to tune his instrument. Taking a cue from John, he and George unlaced their sneakers and knotted their shoelaces together to create support straps for their guitars.
"What shall we play, then?" John asked when all guitars were ready to go and the three had stood up. "Magical Mystery Tour?"
By now Paul had recovered enough of his good humor to feign a punch at John and grin. "I thought If I Fell would be good. D'ye remember it?"
"Yeah, weve fallen down the rabbit hole," said John.
"I'll play whatever you want me to play," George said stonily.
Ringo shrugged. "I barely remember it, but Im not singin anyway, so it dont matter.
Gear, Paul said with a twinkle. The others gave him mildly incredulous looks, and he added defensively, We may as well get into Beatle Mode as much as possiblecant hurt.
Faaab, John drawled. George just rolled his eyes heavenward.
So they practiced a bit, reminding themselves of the way they used to play If I Fell on stage. They meshed wellalmost too well; their ten-year separation might as well have been a quick trip to the toilet between takes. Then, facing the sea, which sounded sort of like an audience, they positioned themselves as of old, John at stage left, Paul at stage right, George in the middle, Ringo sitting behind them on the rise (and feeling quite the fool with just the tambourine in his hand).
And they played.
They were lousy. Ringo was too nervous to keep the beat; John clowned around, throwing Faaab in wherever he could; George played carelessly, at times repeating the same note over and over; and Paul winced at each missed beat and muffed chord until he could barely sing.
They lumbered to a close and waited expectantly.
"I knew it," George said, unable to hide a superior smile. "This isn't why we're here."
John sucked his torn and bloody fingers. All the guitarists' hands were in bad shape, their young, virgin hands shredded by chording and picking. "Christ, I thought I was used to this when I was 24."
Torn between disgustat the others for collapsing, at himself for not being able to perform when it countedand a sick fear that his idea was utterly wrong, Paul forced a professional mien. "Right, that's Take One. We'll need a few more sessions before we pass the audition." Noticing that George looked rebellious again, he added sharply, "Well, if I were a Beatles fan waiting to hear us play, I bloody well wouldn't be satisfied with that rubbish. We'll have to do it well, or we won't fulfill the conditions. We may even need an audience."
"Ah," John breathed: a note of pure terror.
The others looked over.
Face pasty-white, he pointed up the beach. "I think we had one."
About a hundred feet away, a small, grayish, humanoid figure with a long sack in one hand crouched next to one of the large lettuces, watching the four. When it realized it had been seen, it emitted a sharp cry, dropped its bag, and fled.