Somewhere, a voice was screaming. A boy’s voice, from deep below him. Jack stood at the water’s edge, peering into the black, foamy waves. Lightning struck, illuminating menacing shapes that writhed below the surface. The waves parted, and beneath them the murk and silt whirled away to reveal a forest of trees swaying with the rhythm of the current. And there, in the branches, lay his brother. Hyde. The boy, Hyde. Freckle-faced and withering away from the leukemia.
His arm reached out, imploring. Jack leaned forward… But it was too far. Always too far. Another bolt of lightning, and everything was dark.
You could never save him, Jack. Not then. Not now.
Jack shot up in bed, shaking and half naked. His torso was covered in bandages. Two of the fingers on his left hand were wrapped in hardened gauze. Everything ached. He reached for a clean shirt folded on a chair at the edge of his bed and slipped into it. Slowly, he pushed off the covers and was out of bed and stumbling towards the door. He opened it slightly, peeking into the empty room beyond.
A cheese sandwich sat neatly on a plate atop a green wooden table. The table was one of a few drab pieces of furniture scattered around what appeared to be a small dining room. Adjacent to that was a kitchen, with an old black stovetop where a kettle of water was being brought to boil.
Jack lifted the sandwich and stuffed it voraciously into his mouth. He felt starved. How long had he been out? Hours? Days? And where was he now? The experience was almost identical to one he’d had just weeks ago…
There were differences, of course. He’d woken up then feeling strong and healthy, the scars and dents magically erased from his body, and he’d been given a new set of legs. He could breathe deep and fill his lungs with the serenity of the mountain breeze. But today he was riddled with pain. It hurt just to breathe and the slightest movements required enormous amounts of strength. Jack knew his insides were likely as bruised and battered as his outsides. He could feel it all.
The air in this place was damp and cold. This cabin was old. But he was glad to be alive.
Footsteps. Approaching quickly. A fleeting instinct told Jack to run back to the room, to hide and feign unconsciousness, to keep up his guard. But a stronger impulse quickly replaced it, one fueled by reason and courage. It told him to stand his ground, seek penance, and face any and all consequences. Finishing off the final scrap of cheese from his plate, Jack laced his hands together on the table and waited nervously.
The door creaked open, revealing a tall, shadowy figure. The figure, a man, sauntered in unhurriedly, walked straight past Jack, and pried open a cabinet on the other side of the kitchen. He removed a few items from cabinets and lifted the kettle just as it began to whistle.
“Coffee?” Asked the man.
“Yes, please,” Jack said, unsure of anything.
The man prepared the coffee slowly, grinding a handful of beans and setting the grounds into a small cloth bag, which he then placed in an old metal French press. He brought it over to the table where Jack sat, and placed himself quietly in the seat across the table.
Jack studied the man carefully. He wore a neutral expression. If there was contempt behind those dark eyes it wasn’t easy to spot. His clothes were simple, their palate dark and subdued. He was tall but not thin, handsome but not striking. In fact, the only thing remarkable about the man in the chair before him was his head of red hair.
The man sat in silence for a few minutes as the coffee steeped, releasing an intoxicating aroma into the air and instantly warming up the chilly wooden house. Jack closed his eyes and enjoyed the sensation. He was not sure what was coming, but he wanted to hold on to at least this moment.
The man pulled two tin cups from a drawer beneath the table and set them down. He poured the coffee and waited for Jack to sip. Jack let the liquid radiate warmth through his body.
“It’s good. Thanks,” he said simply. In truth, he wouldn’t have protested if the press had been filled with forest mud. It was strong and hot and it wasn’t stale water being sipped from a canteen. Jack was grateful. The man said nothing, only nodding once to confirm that Jack had been heard.
“Well, my name is Jack,” Jack said finally, reaching out his hand across the table. The man regarded it for a moment and shook it without smiling.
“Hi, Jack. I’m Kessic.”
“Interesting name. Do you live here?”
The man shook his head. “Let’s talk instead about what happened with your plane.”
Jack lowered his eyes. “Ok,” he said. “What do you want to know?”
“I want to know why you haven’t mentioned it since we’ve been sitting here.”
“I figured you already knew.”
“Is that the truth, Jack?”
Jack shifted uncomfortably in his chair and shrugged. “Yeah, it is. I don’t remember how I even got out. Did you–“
The man held up the palm of his hand suddenly. His fingers were long and spindly and perfectly straight. “Jack, you’ll find here that lies have a way of being uncovered quickly.”
“Here and everywhere else,” Jack said, forcing a chuckle.
“Perhaps. But then, this isn’t like any other place, wouldn’t you agree?”
“Let’s talk about your friends.”
“I want to know why you haven’t asked about the other two who were in the plane with you.”
Jack swallowed hard. “I–I’m not sure. Things are still a blur. I must’ve hit my head in there. It was crazy. Everything happened so fast. Are they ok? Are they here?”
The man looked hard at Jack but neither moved nor spoke. He appeared frozen in time, cut out of stone or marble and placed there to taunt Jack.
“Who was flying the plane?” Kessic asked.
“I was,” Jack said. “We were over the lake and I was looking for a place to land and then I heard something and looked back, and Hyde and Harold were fighting. Hyde had a knife and I figured I had to stop them. I left the controls to break it up, and when I turned back we were headed for the water…” Jack’s voice trailed off and he began rubbing his head.
“Why were they fighting?”
“They found out they were related. Father and son. Crazy. Just crazy.”
“Why do you say that?”
“It’s just… it’s all so weird. We ran into this kid in the forest and he ends up being related to both of us. It’s just like one coincidence after another after another, like we’re caught in some bizarre twilight zone. I don’t know what all is going on. People over here are telling me one thing and then Harold’s saying something else entirely. I just have no idea what’s happening. And then I wake up, yet again, in some strange house in the woods and I’m met by you, some mysterious guy I know nothing about. I just–I don’t know what any of it means. I mean, you know, I actually had the crazy thought just now that maybe I’m actually dead, and this is some kind of limbo to the afterlife, where I have to suffer for my sins before I can pass on. Is that what’s going on? Can anyone tell me?” Jack was breathing hard now, gripping the tin cup in his hand with knuckles as white as their bones within.
“Why did you listen to Harold?”
“It seemed, for awhile, that you were on separate paths. But then you went along with him. Why?”
“How… How would you even know that?”
“It doesn’t matter. Please answer the question.”
“I… I don’t know. I guess I was just scared. Maybe being cooped up in a cabin didn’t feel right to me, sort of like this one doesn’t feel right. Maybe running seemed like a better option, felt like I had more control.”
“Had the Lewis family done anything to drive you away?”
Jack avoided the man’s stare. He shook his head.
“Had they given you any reason to distrust them?”
“Then why run? And with a man who you’d fought with only days before?”
“I don’t know, I don’t know. Look, it was just a gut instinct. It felt right at the time, so I went for it.”
“And what is your gut telling you now?”
Jack thought this over carefully. Who was this man? Jack had the strong sense that this was an interrogation of some kind, but there had been no violence. No threats. No sack draped over his head while fists beat him and splashed water in his face. And yet the pressure felt so real, as if his next breathing moment depended on his every reply.
“It’s telling me I was wrong,” Jack said softly.
“It’s just really hard to believe, is all. That I died, years ago, and that someone brought me back to life. It just doesn’t seem real.”
The man gave the slightest of nods, then said, “Anything else? Regrets?”
“I’m sorry I stole that plane. And then crashed it.” Jack looked into Kessic’s face and thought for a moment that he had seen a grin. But it was gone an instant later.
The man stood, nodded once more to Jack, and said, “I’ll be leaving now. If you get hungry there’s more food in the pantry. I’m sure you can fend for yourself.”
“Wait,” Jack said. “That’s it? What about the others? What am I supposed to do here?”
“Jack, you broke three ribs and two fingers and you’re in no condition to do anything. Rest here. You’ll know more soon, when the time is right.”
Jack nodded slowly, barely understanding. Kessic headed back through the kitchen and threw the door open wide.
“Oh, and Jack, one more thing,” he said. “Try not to run away this time, hm?”
“Yes sir,” Jack said, and with that Kessic stepped off the porch and into the rain, where his figure faded quickly behind a curtain of dense fog.
When Harold came around the second time, the figure was still sitting at his side, clearer now, though he still couldn’t make out the face. He knew that voice, though. From somewhere long ago. Something warm was in his hand. He wriggled his fingers and felt the skin of another warm body. Someone’s hand was there, squeezing gently.
“There you are,” said a gentle voice as Harold struggled to shoo away the mental cobwebs. His eyes opened, and as they began to focus his heart leapt into his throat.
“John… John Clevitt?” Harold’s mind spun. It was his old friend and colleague from Cambridge, only much younger and trimmer than he’d been in decades.
The man nodded, eyes swelling with tears. “Good to see you, old chum. Been awhile, eh?” His voice was soft and distant.
“I’m dreaming,” Harold said.
“No, I’m afraid not. I assure you this is all quite real,” the man said, chuckling. That was John’s chuckle!
“But… How? How did I get here?”
“A good question indeed, and one I anticipated you might have the answer for. It was, after all, your plane that crashed into our lake. Quite a mess that was, really. All cleaned up now, of course.”
“Well, you were in it, in any case. Though the craft seems to belong to a certain Mr. Mack Gervis. Shame, really. Brand new solar plane and all, smashed to pieces in the lake. I don’t remember you having such sticky fingers back in the old days.”
Harold managed a weary smile but it vanished a moment later. “The others… Hyde. And Jack. Are they alright?”
“Jack’s fine,” John said. “Hyde survived but he’s still unconscious as far as I know. You were fortunate to land where you did. The wife and I saw you come down from our living room window and rushed out in our boat. Jack had pulled you and the boy from the wreckage but didn’t have the power to make it to shore. I jumped in and we got you all in the boat and onto land safely. It wasn’t until after I’d carried the boy in that I found he’d been cut pretty bad on his back. There must have been something rather sharp in that plane with you. He lost a lot of blood. Everyone seems to think he’ll pull through, though.”
Harold closed his eyes. The emotions washed over him. He was glad to be alive, and happier still that the boys had made it through.
“You live here? In these mountains?” Harold asked. He was struggling to understand.
“Yes, Majorie and I moved in not too long ago. The lake is beautiful, when people aren’t crashing planes into it.”
“Majorie? But… She…”
“Died of cancer, of course. That was years ago and you still remember. But I assure you, she is back now. Alive and well.”
Harold closed his eyes again, but he was frowning now.
“So tell me, John… Do you believe it? Everything they say about this place?” Harold’s eyes were still shut tight.
“What do you think, Harry?”
“But, John… God. Religion. Those were the very things we were sworn to conquer. Don’t you remember?”
John said nothing for a few moments as he held Harold’s hand tight. “You know, I once heard a lecture, back when I was still living in Cambridge, and there was a phrase in there that really stuck out to me: Don’t blame the architect for the termites. Curious little saying, don’t you think?”
Harold was silent. John continued.
“I realized, after hearing that speech, that I’d always confused the two in my mind. God to me was religion. You couldn’t have one without the other. But I learned later that it wasn’t true. A house in disrepair doesn’t negate the existence of its builder or its designer, does it? Yes, religion had wreaked havoc for centuries on nearly every continent, but could that alone disprove the existence of a Creator? After all, everywhere I looked, be it the cosmos or sub-atomic particles, I found order. Physics explained by simple mathematical equations comprehensible to a puny human brain. Remarkable. An open mind. That is the key to true science, Harold. As it always has been.”
“And so you just accept there is some invisible eternal being in the sky that controls everything?”
John chuckled. “Well, he doesn’t control everything. He certainly isn’t controlling you. But is the idea of an invisible spirit being really so difficult to grasp? Why, scientists long before our time were hypothesizing about dimensions beyond our own, dimensions that crossed beyond space and time, and some of those scientists wondered if life might exist on such a plane.”
“Well that’s not my field, John, and you know that. I was strictly focused on biology.”
“And should that give you a license to ignore the other sciences?”
“I wasn’t ignoring anything, I just never studied it. I stuck to my field, studied the facts, and made educated decisions.”
“They were guesses, Harry. Guesses no less wild than speculative theoretical physics. And certainly no less daring than the idea that all of this came about by purpose rather than chance. But guessing is ok. That’s what scientists do. We observe and we guess. Once in awhile we may even get something right. But there comes a point when any good scientist has to admit that his guesses are leading in the wrong direction.”
“And you hit that point?” Harold offered skeptically. John nodded.
“And you will too, Harold, if you stop fighting it. But no one’s going to force you either way.”
John released Harold’s hand and stood. “Now get some more rest. We’ll talk more when you’ve recuperated.” And with that, John slipped out of the room and shut the door. Harold sunk bank into the sheets and retreated into his thoughts.
Two days after Harold’s conversation with John, Hyde’s eyes finally eased open. He was impossibly weak and dehydrated, though the sight of a bag of clear fluids delivering a steady drip into his right arm afforded him a degree of relief. The room was familiar, and Hyde soon realized it was the same room he’d stayed in when he’d opened his eyes weeks prior. Trey and Margaret Dresden’s cabin.
Without having to look, Hyde knew he was in bad shape. A leg and an arm were wrapped in what felt like plaster casts, and his side throbbed with a dull ache. Something bruised, maybe broken. But he’d lived. Somehow, despite all that had happened with the plane and that awful crash, he’d managed to pull through. He was strong, after all, no matter what anyone else thought or said. Take that, James.
“He’s up! Trey!” Hyde heard a woman quietly whisper. She tiptoed across the room, disturbing a trail of creaky floorboards. She was a little fuzzy when she finally entered Hyde’s field of vision, but he could tell she had tears in her eyes. Her hands were clutched to her mouth and she held a tissue.
“You had us so worried, Hyde! But we’re so glad you’re back with us, safe and sound.”
“Well, more or less,” said a second voice, a man who entered in after Margaret and gently touched Hyde’s hair. “Good to see you, kiddo,” Trey said softly.
Hyde felt Margaret’s fingers gently stroke his forehead and brush away wild strands of hair.
“I survived,” Hyde whispered.
“You did. Despite everything,” Margaret said.
Trey leaned closer and pulled up two chairs for him and his wife. Hyde could see their faces clearly now. Their eyes were red but their smiles were clear and bright.
“You know,” Trey began, “we know all about the things you faced in your old life. We know how awful and unfair all of it was. We don’t blame you for running away.”
“You don’t?” Hyde’s voice trembled. His head shook slightly.
“Of course not,” Margaret said, tears leaking from her eyes. “We’re just happy you’re back.”
Hyde couldn’t control what came next. It was sudden and powerful and upon him instantly. His chest began to heave and his eyes swelled with moisture. The tears pooled fast and hot and streamed down the sides of his face and into the hair on his neck so that Trey and Margaret quickly wiped them away with warm fingers. Hyde’s throat was a ball of twisted muscle, straining not to gasp with the impossibly strong wave of emotion. He tensed, and his sides hurt, his arm and leg hurt, everything stung with pins and needles and the pain of years freshly remembered.
“It’s ok, Hyde, let it all out. You’re our family now. Never forget that. We will never do anything to hurt you,” Margaret said, her voice catching as she wiped the boy’s face with her tissues. Trey had his arm around his wife’s shoulder and was trembling and sniffling.
“I’m so sorry,” Hyde finally said between sobs. “I’ve just been through so much. I’m so glad to be here. Thank you. Thank you.”
“We know,” Trey said, and the three continued to cry.