Chapter 5 — Matt
"So who’s up first?”
“The parents of the reported missing.”
“Any tips from the academy’s finest Officer Portman on this interview?"
"Keep it clean."
"No shit. But what about talking points?"
"Same as anything else for now. We need to establish a timeline, suspects, motives. Most importantly, if was this an abduction or a runaway."
"I dunno, kid sure seems clean from the basics we've got. You think he rabbited?"
"You never know with some. Doesn't matter how nice or smart someone looks. Everyone's got an animal instinct inside, you just never know how deep it might be buried."
"I thought we were talking about runaways, not murderers."
"Fight or flight. Runaways usually start with some kind of fight, with parents or guardians."
"Don't get cute. Pay attention to the road."
Carl stormed off, and all I could think about was how much I wanted to do the same.
Not seeing Blake was a hammer blow to my chest, even with what I already knew. I guess some small part of me had hoped—same as Carl—that Blake would just be there this morning. I’d run into him on the way to school as he got off the bus, or in class since we had all the same classes on Wednesday. After first period, doubt crept in.
After second period, it crushed my hopes into dust.
Blake was really, completely gone. I’d expected it, but I hadn’t wanted it. Of course I hadn’t. Blake and I were good friends. We should have been playing basketball together tonight. It was a regular thing, basketball in the park on Wednesdays. Blake was never going to play basketball again.
Carl… I felt so awful for him. He wasn’t going to have an easy time. If Blake and I were good friends, he and Carl were closer than brothers. When we’d gotten split up at Skyldr, Blake got me to keep searching for Carl for weeks. So much wasted time, but Blake couldn’t ever give up—just like Carl couldn’t give up on him now.
As he snaked through the cafeteria tables, it was clear just how little he cared. He nearly knocked off some poor freshman on his way out the doors. I couldn’t blame him for wanting to leave. I’d leave too, if I could. I was the leader though. I had responsibilities. I don’t know why it fell to me. Maybe it was just my bad luck, to be the only guy with a car that night.
Whatever it was, I ended up in charge. Decisions were dropped in my lap. No matter how huge or life-altering, they trusted them to a kid from the suburbs in Oregon. Everybody in that whole country was insane. Every last one of them. They trusted me to make the hard choices.
Like now. If Carl didn’t accept Blake’s death soon, I was going to have to make another hard choice.
My sister’s voice brought me out of my daze. She was still gazing at the spot Carl had vacated, her face etched with worry.
“What do we do?”
I sighed. I’d really hoped I’d never hear that question again. “He needs to vent. Blake was his best friend. One day. We can handle that. One day won’t hurt him.”
“What if it hurts someone else?”
I shook my head. “Carl’s not stupid. He’s not going to start attacking random people. He just needs to work through his grief.”
Jen frowned. “Matt, he’s not sad. He’s angry. And he thinks there’s still a chance.”
“Well there is, isn’t there?”
“Tol deka danedek so vei, Matt!” Her voice was as harsh as a whisper could get. I was taken aback. What was this about? I didn’t know how to answer. I didn’t even know what she’d said. Jen’s eyes narrowed, her expression suddenly fierce. “I know, okay?”
A battering ram against the walls of denial in my mind. “...Know what?” I replied, hoping desperately she was referring to something else—anything else. But I knew exactly what she’d say next
“I was there. In the antechamber. I know why Blake died,” she said, her voice cracking. I froze up, doing everything in my power not to react. I didn’t answer. My eyes were fixed on the wall far over Jen’s shoulder, though I couldn’t make out anything I was seeing. I was trying to block out everything, everyone.
Jen had been there. She’d seen what Blake had done. What I’d done.
After a few moments without a reply, Jen continued. “I get it, okay? I’m not blaming you. You did what you had to do. Blake and I both understood that. The son of a bitch needed to die. He deserved to die. But Carl doesn’t know what happened.”
“Explaining it won’t do anything for him,” I said quietly.
“Maybe,” she said, leaning forward on her elbows. “There’s no chance Blake’s alive, though.”
“And Carl will keep trying until he finds that out for himself.”
“Probably,” I said, glancing away. The cafeteria continued to bustle around us, as if everything were perfectly normal. As if we weren’t discussing events so brutal that I was still having nightmares a week later.
“Isn’t it easier to just tell him?”
“I don’t think he’d believe me,” I replied honestly. Carl and I weren’t on teh best of terms, even before we left. He only attached himself to me because Blake and I hung out so much. I’d mostly ignored him, except when he got in the way.
“Well, what if we both—”
“No,” I interrupted firmly.
“No?” Jen asked. She lifted her head a little, surprised.
“You shouldn’t get involved.”
“Matt—” she started, but I stopped her again.
“You’ve got your own life to get back to. A happy, normal, safe life,” I said. Where nothing ever happened to you and you’re just an ordinary teenage girl, I added in my head.
“It’s not like I can just go back, Matt,” she said, her expression dark.
“Well, for one, vei suselenas wenda daned Etoline valenas envil. Or did you forget?”
“No,” I replied quietly. “Of course not. That’s on me.”
“It was my fault, Jen,” I said, still determinedly refusing to meet her eyes. I couldn’t bear to see her face right now, even if it was the little sister I’d grown up with, and not the scarred Sylvandar warrior I’d come to know. “All of it. You wouldn’t have been there if I hadn’t let you—”
“Stop. Right now.” Her hand grabbed mine. I looked at her finally, at her face that had reemerged from my past, and felt such despair that it could have consumed me—except that her expression wasn’t sad or dark anymore. She looked determined. “You are not to blame. How the hell could you have known?”
“But even after we got there—”
“We got split up. All of us. And you are not responsible for what happened to me.” A few people were walking close by, giving Jen pause. My eyes were watering up with tears. I brought up my sleeve and brushed them away before she could notice. I couldn’t afford to show weakness. I was the strong one, the center of the group. The fearless leader. I had a role to fulfill.
By the time the kids moved on, my eyes were clear, my expression controlled.
“It’s okay, Matt. I’m okay. You’re okay. We’re home,” she continued in a low voice. “I’m back to normal. Ish.” She smiled. “So what if I’ll be a bit kapar-litashavec for a while? No big deal.”
“Oh, screw you.” Jen tossed another grape at me. “Uhh… scatterbrained. Kinda. It’s not really a direct translation.”
I shook my head, amused. I’d never learned the language. I knew a few words, enough to understand some of Jen’s lapses, and I knew some short phrases we’d practiced. They were useful for quick directions in combat. In a rebellion, the ability to communicate on the field without being understood was invaluable. I’d also learned how to answer a few insults, like the one Jen used the night before. I’d heard it far too many times from random elves, so I’d had Jen explain it to me. It was… pretty racist. Elves and humans don’t get along very well.
Carl went on and on about the language being beautiful and special, but I honestly didn’t really see what he was talking about. Etoline sounded pretty much like any other tongue to me. I mean, I couldn’t understand what was being said most of the time, but it was no different than listening to something like French or Spanish or Japanese. All gibberish, even if it might not be human gibberish like the rest of them.
The language held a profound importance to Jen though. That much I got. Living with the elves had changed her in so many ways. Deep in my mind, I feared she’d never be able to return to normal. But damned if I wasn’t going to try to get her there.
“Are we good?” Jen asked. That phrase I understood in both, but I could tell she was trying to make an effort. I appreciated it.
“Yeah,” I nodded. “We’re good.” I returned to eating, as did Jen. We’d both gotten distracted—for obvious reasons—and the lunch hour was running down fast. I dug into the lunch I’d thrown together that morning. It wasn’t my best work, but for the first meal back, it wasn’t bad.
I always put together our lunches. Mom used to, a long time ago, but all that changed when our father up and left. Jen was too young at the time to remember him well, but I remembered him. We were better off without him. Still, that left our mother picking up a second job, suddenly never able to spend much time with us except on the weekends. During the weekdays, unless we stayed up late, we were lucky to see her at all beyond the wake-up call I grudgingly gave her at breakfast.
But she kept the money flowing, and somehow kept the rest of the house clean and tidy on top of that. (Our bedrooms were another matter entirely). On weekends, after she got home in the evening, we’d always eat dinner together and do something as a family. Watch a movie or some TV, or play a board game. When we were younger, we’d go down to the park a lot. Early on, it was mostly just Jen, me, and the other neighborhood kids on the swings and playground. When I got older though, I spent more time just sitting on a bench with Mom, watching.
We’d talk about anything and everything. Mom was always there to listen to me complain. She’d listen to how school was going, or anything else that came to mind, no matter what it was. Once, I started ranting about some problem I was having in a video game for over thirty minutes straight. Something about how I was having trouble figuring out how the enemies did a particular move, and how I couldn’t beat them. I can’t remember the specifics at all anymore, but Mom just sat there calmly and listened. When I was done, she asked if I had figured out the problem in the end, which I still hadn’t.
She smiled, and told me, “Sometimes solutions can show up where you least expect them. Never forget that everybody in a fight has a reason they’re fighting. Everyone wants to think they’re the good guy in the end.”
It didn’t apply to the videogame in the slightest. I don’t know if she missed what I was talking about and assumed it was a book or something. Her advice was completely useless at the time. But, in Cyraveil, that simple piece of advice saved my life more than once, and helped me build an army. It saved the entire kingdom more than once.
I wished I could somehow express that to my mother someday. But I never would. It’d be far better if my mother never had to learn about that place.
“Mmmph?” Jen mumbled through a mouthful of pretzels.
“We should do something for Mom.”
She swallowed them down before answering, thankfully. “Anala?” I started to remind her, but she caught herself first. “Sorry, sorry. Like what?”
“I don’t know yet.”
“We could bake her a cake,” she added, her mouth slowly widening to a grin.
“...You just want cake.”
“That wasn’t a no,” she shot back.
I sighed. “Fine. We’ll pick something up.”
“Do se nara sevensyl, Matt.”
“You’re not even trying anymore.”
“Masal,” she said, giggling.
“You never change,” I grumbled. “Speaking of which, where’d your partner in crime run off to?”
“Oh.” She frowned. “She had some stuff to take care of during lunch.”
“Ah,” I said noncommittally. I was actually a little disappointed. When I’d walked up, Sara had been sitting next to her, and the moment she’d turned to look at me, I’d remembered exactly why I’d always wanted to ask her out.
We’d been chatting and talking for the last week or two, all the way up til last night, when Blake had called and everything went wrong. She’d been Jen’s best friend for years and years, but somehow we’d never crossed paths much. Jen never seemed to invite her over; they always just hung out at Sara’s or somewhere else. But lately, I’d started noticing her more. She was intelligent and confident, and good-looking on top of that. I’d wanted to ask her out, but I’d always been held back by something. Caution, maybe, or fear of rejection.
Now that just seemed silly. Sara was worth the risk. Better yet, she was normal. Ordinary.
“Why, what’s up?” Jen asked.
“Nothing,” I answered quickly. She seemed suspicious, but I was saved by the bell. Lunch was over. Jen glanced up, disappointed, and started to gather the remainder of her lunch back into her bag. “You should probably finish that. It’s still going to be a long day.”
“You’ve still got the headache too?” she asked, zipping up her bag.
I nodded. “Leftovers, but it’s there.”
“Bunch of keldaphut.” Jen stood up, pulling on her bag.
“Seriously, Jen. English,” I warned, but she only grinned and wandered away.
The last thing I needed was Jen spouting off curse words in a language that didn’t belong in this universe. I doubted anyone would take it as anything other than gibberish, but the more she lapsed, the more she’d probably continue to lapse, and the more attention would fall on us. It was already bad enough that Blake was missing. I still didn’t know how to handle that.
I watched Jen leave, joining Sara at the opposite end of the cafeteria and vanishing down the hall. My only plan at this point was just to pretend we knew nothing. What else was I supposed to do? No one could prove anything about Blake’s disappearance. All the evidence was safely tucked away in an alternate dimension—or whatever the hell Cyraveil was. Without any leads, and with us resuming normal lives as if nothing had happened, any investigation would just fall flat.
With that comforting thought, I finished my lunch and headed out for my next class.
My other classes went by without anything else going wrong. After the mess at lunch, I barely even noticed the rest of the day drift by. I was too busy worrying about what Carl might be up to. I wasn’t lying when I told Jen he‘d probably be fine for a day, but he’d lost more than I had. Could I really understand what he was going through?
I pushed it out of my mind as I arrived home. Mom was still out, although not at work for once. She had the day off today, a special occasion, and she’d only have to work tonight. She’d promised to be home for dinner though. I wondered what she was up to as I tossed my bag in my room and grabbed the keys off my desk, before heading down to the garage. I flicked on the light, and there sat my father’s legacy.
It was intact, and it ran better than you might expect, but it sure looked like a hulk of scrap. The paint was chipped everywhere, the driver-side door was scratched up heavily, and the door to the bed had been stuck closed for fifteen years. Still, it was mine. After Dad had disappeared, Mom found all the papers signed over to her in the glove compartment. She had her own car, but once I’d gotten old enough, she’d taught me how to drive the truck.
Why had I been so ashamed of it? It was such a useful tool. I shuddered to think how much I’d avoided using it, out of a mixture of resentment of my father and a fear of judgment over its appearance. Why did I care so much? I was such an idiot back then. I’d walk an extra thirty minutes to get to basketball and home again rather than let anyone see my beat up old truck. I’d only even driven it to get groceries with Jen, or other small errands. Plus the one journey out to Cyraveil Park.
Now, it looked more like a trusted old workhorse than anything. It might not be winning any contests, but it didn’t deserve hate. I put a hand on the hood, feeling the solid metal under my fingertips.
For a moment, my memory flashed back, and my hand was upon not cold steel, but the warm mane of Haldammar, as he snorted loudly and pawed at the bloodied grass, while the stench of decay filled my nostrils and the sounds of the battlefield filled my ears with groans and the slick sounds of swords plunging into necks and between seams of armor.
Then I was back, and my finger jutted up against a slight chip in the paint on the side of the hood. I got in and opened the garage door. Through the rearview mirror, I spotted Jen hurrying inside, carrying her backpack close to her chest under the rain. She ran in through the front door, then came out to the garage a few minutes later, hopping in next to me.
“You remember how to drive this thing, right?”
In response, I turned on the engine and reverse out onto the street, as smoothly as if it had been yesterday. Jen raised her eyebrows. “Oookay, then.” She leaned away over the side of her seat, while I drove out onto the main road. Suddenly, she disappeared from the corner of my eye. “Daphut!”
“Yeah,” she muttered. “Just forgot how twitchy that was.” Jen came back into my peripheral view, inching her seat back up to a reclined position. Her eyes slid closed. “I’m gonna take a reeeeal quick nap, selnou? Wake me up when we’re there.”
“It’s only a fifteen minute drive…”
“Plenty of time.”
I shrugged. When I glanced over, she did look tired. From what I remembered, music had always helped her fall asleep. I leaned forward and fiddled with the radio, trying to remember how to work it while I pulled in neatly between a minivan and a delivery truck at a red light. I got static, then after some experimenting with the dials, I got some pop music to start flowing. I would have switched it immediately, but I vaguely remembered this being one of Jen’s favorite songs.
As the beat grated through my worthless speakers, I rolled onto the highway and sped up. The truck groaned as it edged above fifty-five. I had one hand on the wheel and the other resting comfortably on the open window, letting the breeze waft over my arm. Periodic breaks in the clouds sent shafts of sunlight through the rain, and as I looked around I could see patches of a rainbow in the distance.
Without warning, the music shut off. I assumed it was the truck’s stereo taking a particularly bad bump, but then I saw Jen’s retracting hand a second later when I looked back to the road.
Jen just shook her head, closing her eyes again.
“I thought you loved that song.”
“I dunno,” she replied, eyes still shut. “Just not feeling it anymore, I guess.”
We drove the rest of the way in relative silence, only filled by the bucking of the truck and the engine noise as it bounced along down the poorly maintained patches of the highway.
“...dasa dou vofas anala e kepar ta las shaval atel doues uveles, Naef.” She was talking in her sleep. The only word I recognized was Naef, short for her friend Naeflin. I poked her in the shoulder, light as I could. She snapped awake, one hand flying down with lightning speed to grasp my wrist. Within a second, she’d let go, blinking furiously. “To suuna dona? Oh, wait. Sorry. Dumb question.” She glanced around. After a few moments to adjust, she reached to unhook the seat belt, before noticing she’d never put it on. “...Whoops. Why didn’t you remind me?”
I glanced down and realized I hadn’t worn my either. Jen giggled. After a few seconds, I started laughing. We sat there, engine off in the parking lot of the grocery store, laughing uproariously for over a minute. It was such a small, silly thing, but for whatever reason it set us both off. Maybe it was just fatigue. Whatever the case, it lightened the mood significantly as we got out and walked into the store. I finally felt calm again, but I did wonder what Jen had been muttering in her sleep before I woke her.
She’d always talked in her sleep, as far back as I could remember. That part wasn’t new. It had always been in English though. It bothered me more than a little that she seemed to have traded it wholesale for Etoline. I could logically reason with myself that it was to be expected, but it put her just one more step removed from reality.
I didn’t want to just take it away from her. I could tell how important it was to her identity. Sometimes, it felt like she’d become an adopted foreigner, with an entirely different culture and upbringing than me, even though we’d spent sixteen years together here on Earth. I’d never understand what she’d gone through, and how she’d become the huntress I’d finally reunited with on opposite sides of a negotiating table in the secret cellar of a bordertown tavern.
As I walked behind her though, she seemed like a perfectly ordinary high school girl. More importantly, she looked like the girl whom I’d grown up with, spent every Christmas with, bought presents for, watched TV with, and cooked dinner for nearly every night. She was my sister.
I started down the aisles, following my normal cycle, picking up the usuals. Jen was in another aisle, presumably grabbing whatever she’d decided we were having for dinner. I’d promised, after all. There was no way she’d forget that.
To my surprise though, I’d picked up everything before she returned. I wandered aimlessly until I spotted her, staring intently at the shelves of bread.
“Did you find something you wanted?” I called out, walking up to join her. Jen didn’t answer. Her head moved slowly to the next loaf of bread in the aisle. “Uhh, Jen?”
“Se develd. I’m learning over here.”
Curious, I leaned in, basket under my arm. “What are you doing?”
She looked round, face growing pink. “Learning. Or… relearning, I guess.”
I examined the bread. It didn’t seem remarkable in the slightest—until I noticed they were all turned upside down, where Jen could read off the ingredients. “Names?”
“Forgot the word for bread, for one. Or cinnamon. Wheat, nuts, raisins, peanut butter.” Jen sighed. “Don’t make fun of me?”
“Could I ever honestly promise that?”
She snorted. “Okay, you got a point. Anyway, do you mind if I keep going for a bit? You’d be surprised how helpful this is.”
I shrugged. “It’s fine. Just remember we’ve gotta be back in time to cook before Mom gets home.”
“Yeah, yeah.” Jen waved me off.
I suddenly remembered what Jen had requested at lunch. I couldn’t deny I had a huge craving for cake as well. This store had a bakery attached, didn’t it? After a moment’s attempt at remembering where it might be, I gave up and began wandering the outer edge. I figured I’d run into it eventually.
Instead, I found something else. Someone else.
I almost ran into her coming around the corner of the aisle. It was bizarrely comical as I nearly knocked her over, too distracted by the sight of the deli and the thought of fresh ham for dinner. Cyraveil didn’t have pigs. I scrambled to help her back up to her feet, and realized with a shock it was Sara once again.
“Oh, hi,” I said awkwardly. “Uhh… sorry.”
She shook her head. “Totally my fault. I wasn’t looking where I was going.”
“Well, I wasn’t really either. We’ll call it a draw?”
“Sure,” she laughed. Her face was the kind that lit up completely when she did, wide smiles and sparkling eyes. It rekindled every spark of the crush I’d had from a smoldering ember into the flame it had once been, doused over the years as my mind got distracted by endless other concerns. This time around, I was determined to fan it into a true fire.
“Well anyway. If it’s all right with you, I’d like to run into you again sometime.”
“Oh?” Her eyes flashed with curiosity, even as she suppressed a smile at my bad line. So I was never the best at this sort of thing, on either side. I didn’t care anymore though. I just knew I wanted to spend more time with her.
“Are you busy Friday?” I asked, the plan already forming in my head.
“No. I don’t think so. Yeah, nope. I’m free.”
“Want to go out somewhere?”
Sara smiled, giving me a tiny nod. “Sure, Matt.”
“Cool. I’ll pick you up then.”
“Uhh,” Sara started, glancing around. That wasn’t part of the script in my head. A little pool of anxiety began forming in my mind.
“Oh! Nothing. Just, I’ll be walking home with Jen anyway. I might as well meet you at your place?” she said quickly. Was she embarrassed about something? Her eyes were darting around a lot. Avoiding something. I wasn’t sure what to read into it.
“All right.” I smiled, trying to convey it wasn’t a big deal. She returned it, and all the world seemed to get a bit lighter.
“So, you’re making dinner?” she asked casually.
“Jen told you?”
“Seemed super excited. Like, hyperbolically excited. Are you some kind of mega-chef?”
I shrugged. “I dabble.”
“Ah, playing it cool. Wise choice.” Sara grinned. “Maybe i’ll have to come over and try one of your meals sometime.”
“I dunno if I can handle the pressure of cooking for someone as good looking as you.”
Sara’s eyes glazed over momentarily. Her face flushed. “Save something for Friday,” she murmured.
I grinned. “Don’t worry. I’ve gotta head home now anyway.” I turned to leave, but Sara caught me by the hand. Despite her sudden urgency and shift in tone, it still sent a spark up through my skin, feeling that touch.
“Wait.” Her voice had changed. It was the tone I’d come to dread, concerned and serious and wrought with fear and confusion. It bespoke upcoming panic and horror, where terrible things were bound to happen. “Look, Jen told me not to say anything, but I’m worried about her.”
My fears were realized. Someone outside our group had learned what they shouldn’t. I tried to dial back my panic. Jen wasn’t an idiot. Smarter than me more often than not. She’d have had some reason to bring Sara into the fold, something we’d talk about as soon as we got home. On top of that, I didn’t know what Jen had told her exactly. I had to play this carefully.
“Worried how?” I asked, not too casually. The concerned older brother, that’s all I was.
“Have you noticed anything lately? Today in particular?”
Sara frowned. “Oh come on, don’t give me that. You two are super close. Thick as thieves.”
“Occasionally with actual thieving.”
“Nothing.” That wasn’t a story I could share with Sara, although it was a pretty good highlight. Carl’s armory guards never saw us coming. “I mean, yeah, she’s been a bit different lately. But people change. Nothing can stay the same forever.”
“If you say so,” she sighed.
“Talking about me behind my back? For shame,” intoned Jen from somewhere nearby. Sara and I both jerked around, startled, but we didn’t see her anywhere.
“...Jen?” I asked to thin air, unsure where she was.
“Present,” she replied, poking her head over the top of the shelves from the next aisle.
I frowned. “Are you standing on the shelves?”
“Don’t worry about it.” Jen grinned. “You two are so cute, by the way. Finally going on a date after years of crushing on each other.”
My cheeks might as well have caught on fire. I’m sure I looked exactly as red as Sara became the next instant.
“Jen,” we corrected her automatically.
Sara shook her head in disbelief. “All of you are insane.”
“Also intelligent, insightful, and insyladanal,” added Jen. “Also, Matt, don’t we need to get going?”
I nodded, grateful for the excuse to leave. “DId you figure out what we’re eating tonight?”
In response, Jen held up a plastic bottle. It caught the light of the lamps above just right, lighting up the semi-transparent amber liquid inside. She tossed it over and I caught it. A bottle of maple syrup.
“Pancakes it is.”