Heavy rain slammed into the window and pounded the tattered roof. Strong winds howled like pained ghosts inhabiting the chimney. Clouds hung low, advertising their wrath. Yet none of this compared to the gloom inside Randall's cluttered house. Inside his cluttered mind.

He paced silently on the shag carpet of his living room, a path well worn from years of angst. And when he finally tired of pacing, he sat and joggled his leg. The worry from days past was still on his skin, his hair, his clothes.

He was haunted by recurring dreams. No matter how he longed to stay awake, sleep always caught up. And with it, his dreams. Provoking him, torturing him, driving him mad. He ran his fingers through his greasy hair then wrapped them tightly around the strands as he struggled to decipher the images. And why they recurred night after night.

He swallowed his coffee, determined to cheat sleep this night. Determined to overcome his broken heart. His feeling of loss.

His dreams must hold the answer, he surmised, but what was the question? An answer was nothing without a question. There was a woman. She was familiar, yet a stranger. His world would make sense if he could figure out who she was.

He rose to his feet again, ignoring the fatigue in his legs, and stood before a corkboard leaning against his wall. Upon it was an elaborate display of his family tree. Years of accumulated information. Years of research. Passion. Obsession.

Focusing on his lineage was the only comfort Randall had. This corkboard of diagrams, names, dates, places… was his family. Past, present, and future as far as Randall was concerned. That was why his dreams perplexed him so. He would have expected to dream about his family. His great-grandfather, more specifically. But not about an unknown woman.

Randall stared at the name upon the corkboard: Randall James Cooke. He was fascinated not only because they shared the same name, but because there was no information other than the birth certificate of his great-grandfather's son.

William Thomas Cooke, son of Mr. and Mrs. Randall James Cooke, born 1889, Tombstone, Arizona.

Not even a birth certificate of great-grandfather himself. Nor a death certificate for that matter. No, the board of information seemed to suggest his great-grandfather existed only to sire a son. And it was upon this impasse that the dreams began.

Now it was difficult to discern which took most of his thoughts. His lineage or his dreams. Surely, they were connected. But how?

"Tombstone…" he whispered, almost inaudibly.

Despite the rain, despite the hour, despite the ghostly winds warning him, Randall got in his car and drove through the storm, through the night, and into Tombstone.

He arrived with the morning sun and was warmed to see that downtown Tombstone was as he had envisioned. Wooden sidewalks, local saloon, a general store and even old-fashioned watering troughs. Randall's furrowed brow softened for the first time in years. His pursed lips curved ever so slightly in a smile. Even his stiff shoulders relaxed down from his ears.

He entered the saloon. The barkeep smiled pleasantly. "First customer of the day. What can I get you?"

"Whiskey would be great," Randall said, taking a seat on the stool. Anything to take the edge off.

"Whiskey it is," the barkeep cheerily responded as he placed a shot before Randall. "Three-fifty."

Randall slid a twenty across the bar, then swallowed his much appreciated morning brew, savoring the unforgiving burn against his dry throat.

"There you go." The barkeep placed a coin on the bar.

"There must be some mistake," Randall said as he stared at the change. "I gave you a twen…" his words trailed off as he picked up the coin. It was a shiny new silver dollar from 1888. Confused, he lifted his gaze, then stumbled back from the bar, startled.

The barkeep eyed him quizzically. "Is there a problem?"

Randall gaped at the barkeep in disbelief. Problem? Problem was an understatement. The barkeep now sported 1880's attire complemented with a well greased mustache.

Randall hurried from the saloon, certain the madness had finally caught up. He should've known better than to leave the safety of his cluttered house. His cluttered mind.

The sun shone brighter now, blinding him with its harshness. He crinkled his eyes and searched for his car. It was gone. The street was occupied by stagecoaches and horses; the sidewalk festooned with women in bonnets, and men donning gun-belts and spurred boots.

Randall's shoulders stiffened to their usual rigid formation. His brow furrowed. His lips pursed.

Until a woman approached. The most beautiful vision in the world. He knew her. But not her name. Familiar, yet a stranger. Yes, she was the woman in his dreams. The woman of his dreams. His heart melted at the sight of her.

"You look lost," she said with a sweet smile.

Lost? Where could he begin? He was lost all right. Lost in time. Lost in her eyes. Lost in his mind. But he didn't tell her any of that. Instead he admitted, "I arrived only today. I'm afraid I have no idea where to go from here."

Her name was Elizabeth Hadelane and she was charmed instantly by his candor. "Then you must allow me to show you around," she said. "I've lived her my entire life." And she took his arm. Randall suddenly relaxed. Her touch soothed him. His smile returned. And all was right with the world. His world.

The question, he thought. Of course. The question! Did fate exist? Yes. Fate brought him to Elizabeth. His quest was not about his great-grandfather at all, but about fate. He was not lost. He was finally where he should be.

Randall's passion for knowing his lineage was replaced by his passion for Elizabeth. They were inseparable from the moment they met. Their love erupted as though it had been contained for centuries, then blossomed as though it would continue for centuries more.

Time and bliss eventually stole all his thoughts of home. His Family Tree. His obsession. Time and bliss even allowed him to forget his great-grandfather, Randall James Cooke.

Then time and bliss created their child.

William Thomas Cooke, son of Mr. and Mrs. Randall James Cooke, born 1889, Tombstone, Arizona.

Randall stared at the birth certificate of his son. Frenetic thoughts flooded his mind then dissipated quickly. His brow furrowed in worry. With no sense of reason whatsoever, the birth certificate sparked an unyielding interest in his family. His lineage. Randall sensed there was an answer to be had, but didn't know the question.

So he collected information. Pinning records to a board against the wall. Soon, his shoulders never relaxed, no matter how gently Elizabeth caressed them. His lips never smiled, no matter how sweetly she kissed him. Yes, his heart was stolen.

By 1891, Randall James Cooke found himself alone. His obsession drove Elizabeth away. Holed up in his cluttered home, he was company only to his thoughts of two years past. And dreams. Recurring. Night after night. Torturing him.

And the woman… Familiar, yet a stranger.

Who was she? His dreams held the answer, he was certain, but what was the question? An answer was nothing without a question.

The wooden floors creaked beneath his weary strides, a path well worn from years of angst. The worry from days past was still on his skin, his hair, his clothes.

He stared at his board of gathered information. Names, dates, places. He managed to piece together his family tree back until the birth of his great-grandfather, Randall James Cooke, (with whom he shared a name) 1795, Oregon.

William Thomas Cooke, son of Mr. and Mrs. Randall James Cooke, born 1795, Oregon.

"Oregon…" his whispered almost inaudibly.

Determined, Randall saddled his horse and headed out to Oregon.

© Melt Magazine 2001