Chapter 6 — Carl
"Assuming Blake was a runaway then, where do we start?"
"Closest friends. Whoever he might confide in."
"Don't you mean whomever?"
"Grammar? From you?"
"I woke up in school once or twice, fuck you very much."
For some reason beyond my understanding, I’d ended up in class again after the disastrous conversation with Matt in the cafeteria. I guess my feet took me there on muscle memory alone, because I had no idea what class it actually was. I assumed it was right though, and the corkboard at the front had a little green index card pinned to it with “Carl Stokelson” written on it, showing where I was supposed to sit—right near the back and by the window, exactly where I’d prefer. Somewhere I could avoid attention and zone out watching the street, ignoring class entirely.
Which, of course, is what I ended up doing right away. The rest of the room became a bland, unfocused blur and dull hum. I couldn’t get the conversation with Matt out of my mind. It began with rage, waves of heat and frustration rolling through my face like someone were pressing hot pans to my cheeks. How could Matt be such an idiot about this? Blake was fine, and we were just wasting time when we should be out looking for him.
And Jen backed him up! Matt wasn’t always right. I was right as often as he was. After everything I’d done for Jen, you’d think she’d be more supportive. I’d rescued her, dammit all. Matt didn’t do shit for her while we were separated. If I hadn’t found her… If I hadn’t been in a position to get her released…
I shuddered. No one deserved to go through that hell.
The bell rang, and more students filed into the room in groups, talking and laughing. I glanced around, trying to pick up clues on what class this actually was. I saw maps on the wall, of Europe and the Americas and drilling down to specific countries. History, I guessed? I tried to dredge up everything I could remember of their history, but I couldn’t be sure which names and details were of Earth and which were of Cyraveil.
Were the Ostrogans the leaders of the revolt that overthrew the Western Roman Empire, plunging Italy into chaos? Did the Visigoths assassinate the last God-Kings of Laodrannen, paving the way for the enslavement of the Saenvalands and the economic miracle that brought the rough country back to the forefront of civilization? Was it the Cellman or the Medici family that first discovered—and were subsequently captured and tortured by—elves in the forests of the Sylvandar?
I sighed audibly. I’d figure it out on the fly. I didn’t really have any better options, and improvising under pressure had brought me a lot of success in the past.
Our teacher, who was barely older than I should have been, began lecturing in an upbeat, cheerful voice completely at odds with the subject matter. He seemed under the impression that speaking exuberantly might keep the attention of the students—as if he could compel their interest with just his voice. Such an amateur. I would have preferred a normal drone, so I could tune him out easier and ignore the class.
My eyes remained fixed on the street outside, but I wasn’t really looking at anything in particular anymore. My vision glazed over as I set myself adrift in memories. Anything that could take me away from this hell on earth—on the wrong Earth. I couldn’t properly vanish from the room or the lesson, but I found myself using it as a springboard to escape nonetheless. As the teacher began explaining something or other about the American Civil War, I remembered my own war.
No stories of battle, even from the most vivid storyteller, can prepare you for the real thing. The heat, sweat and grime as you stand on a battlefield for days and sometimes weeks, with blood cascading down limbs from arrowheads embedded in flesh, while swords and armor clash all around you. Sword fights aren’t anything like what you might expect either. No choreography or fancy, tricky footwork to be found on the battlefield. A real sword fight between two guys in full plate mail is like two mountains hurling themselves at each other. Slashing is useless, since it just bounces right off the plate. Your best bet is to try and get the point through a seam between the pieces, where it can slip through a weak point and into their flesh.
More often, though, I’d just see the stronger man bash the weaker into submission with a shield, or the flat of his blade, as many times as it took. Once someone went down, then you got to the messy business of actually killing them.
Full proper armor like that was rare though, reserved for the truly exceptional or exceedingly rich. More often, you’d just see groups torn down by hails of arrows while charging, or speared by men on horseback. Once you really got into the thick of it, you were just another face in a crowd of lightly armored men with pointy objects, doing their absolute best not to get stuck with anything.
None of this applied to the Americans’ Civil War, obviously. That was a war with guns, something yet to be invented in Cyraveil. I’d toyed with the idea of introducing weapons like them, but to be honest, I didn’t really have much idea how to make a revolver or even something like a musket—if it were even possible in Cyraveil. Besides, the few turncoat elves we’d recruited were more than enough long-range firepower to substitute as artillery. They didn’t get ruined by the rain or run out of bullets and powder, either. Exhausted from overuse, but given a day and a good meal, they’d recover pretty much completely.
I could have done without the constant complaints about the manavus sel setavus or whatever, though. Elves got really whiny sometimes. I’d never dare mention it to Jen, but they seemed weirdly immature as a race. Haughty, sure, in that way you’d expect, but despite their obvious abilities and overwhelming protectiveness of their home forests, the elves seemed totally caught off guard when we attacked. It was absurd. A capital-E Empire expands to completely surround your homes, and has a clear need for resources to sustain itself—and you don’t expect them to want access to a few vast forests that grow unnaturally fast, without any apparent need for water or nutrients? Anyone would leap at such an abundant garden.
They were so naïve, almost to a man. I was relieved when I found a few willing to switch sides and join us. It humanized them, for lack of a better word. I even made friends with one of them, although he was old enough to be my great-grandfather. He understood how the world worked, and how to stay near the top.
Yeah, we both might have chosen the wrong side in the end, but come on. At the time, it was the right call.
I resurfaced momentarily, feeling like I’d been swimming through an ocean of memories. The teacher was talking about the reasons the Union had won the war. “...and they did have the moral high ground, but it was more than that. The North just had more cash-ola. General Lee addressed this himself in his surrender in 1865. War comes down to resources. It’s always been in the rules. The winners are who’s got more, and who can move it around more quickly. Leadership helps, but if you’ve got more men, bullets and food, and you’ve got the factories to keep churning them out, you’re gonna have a good time.”
I snorted. I didn’t mean to; attention was definitely not something I needed right now. But his conclusion just didn’t match up with what I knew. It was a horrible habit, but I could never resist correcting someone when they were wrong.
To my dismay, I found a sea of faces turning to await my response. I tried to ignore them, staring intently out the window, trying to avoid catching anyone’s eye. The teacher smiled at me in a condescending friendly grin that demanded to be knocked off his smug face.
“Well, we’ve got a volunteer. All right Carl, what’s on your mind?” he asked brightly. How could he be so cheerful about a topic like this? It bothered me even more than his smile. I threw caution out the window to the cars racing by on the main road; I was determined to demolish that sunny disposition.
“Morale, eh?” He looked surprised. “Well, that’s a fair point. Plenty of the South didn’t actually believe in slavery, or the Confederacy per se. Lee himself freed his slaves, and it’s believed that part of the reason he seemed to lose his edge on leaving Virginia was that he only believed in the cause of defending his home, not the country at large. Like I said, the North had the moral high ground. That helped the troops keep morale up.” He looked about to continue onto another lecture point, but I jumped back in. I’d studied this war, like I’d studied so many others before. I’d always been fascinated with history and war in particular, and that hadn’t changed one bit.
“Screw their morals. The North was in it for the money, same as everyone else.” I took a deep breath before continuing, emphasizing my point and giving my audience time to digest. I knew how to dominate a crowd when I had to. “Wars are won by whichever side is more willing to be ruthless. There aren’t any rules. The Union troops burned crops and towns. They killed civilians. They demolished infrastructure wherever they could to cripple the South’s resources. They pillaged and raped.” I saw a few in the room wince at the word. Oversensitive bookworms. “Scorched earth, that was Sherman’s play. It worked wonders.”
I should know, it worked pretty well for me too. Thanks, General Sherman. Studying all the successful American generals paid off, in a very unexpected way, and definitely not how my teacher probably expected. He’d faltered at my response, holding a whiteboard marker limp between his fingers. I was really getting into the discussion at this point.
“It’s pretty common. The Soviets in Germany after World War II, or the Japanese in Nanjing. There’s plenty of examples, all the way back to the Romans and the Greeks. When you’re invading a hostile nation with a different culture than your own, the most effective way to pacify them is to utterly destroy their way of life. You leave them nothing they can recognize as their own nation anymore. Dismantle their society. If they can’t unite under any sort of common ground, they can never hope to mount a resistance against you.”
I was actually enjoying this, being able to speak from experience to a crowd of attentive listeners. One kid decided to speak up. Someone I couldn’t remember, if I’d even known him in the first place.
“But plenty of wars were fought over moral or religious grounds. You can’t say it wasn’t a big factor in them winning or losing.” He sounded so naïve, I was practically salivating at the chance to correct him. The teacher made no move to interrupt, leaning against the whiteboard and watching the debate unfold. He seemed unwilling to step in, which suited me just fine. Every head in the room swivelled between me and the other student as we traded blows.
“Once you’re in the middle of a battlefield, morals mean shit. There’s just you and the other guy, and the other guy is gonna kill you unless you kill him first. Religion’s just a reminder that there’s something better waiting for you if he gets you first.”
“Okay, but that’s low-level. What about the high-level stuff?” he countered. I realized I hadn’t actually answered his question. Whoops.
“It’s the same thing. Yeah, morals and shit might help you with recruitment and retainment, but you’d better hope the guys actually planning your strategy aren’t hamstrung by daphut like that.” Crap. I’d meant to say crap. Jen’s colorful collection of curses had inserted themselves into my vocabulary after all those months we spent together in hiding.
“By what?” he asked, confused, but I was already steamrolling ahead to cover it up.
“It doesn’t matter what time period, what era, or if you’re in an alternate fucking dimension. War’s always been the same. History’s just written by the winners, and everybody wants to look like a hero in the end.” It’s different once you’re actually out there.
I turned back to my window, watching the cars roll by again. My face was still hot from the attention and the debate. I forced myself to calm down, focusing on tapping my fingers on the side of the desk to the rhythm of my legion’s marching song in my head. One-two, one-two, one-two-three-four, one-two. After a few stressful seconds, I felt the anxiety lift away like a blanket sliding off. The cool air drifting through the open window was wonderfully refreshing. My mind was clear.
Which meant, of course, that the real pressures I was facing came back with a vengeance.
“Well, that’s… one way to put it, I guess,” the teacher finally spoke up. I briefly wondered what his name was—then remembered, I didn’t care. A few kids were giving me weird looks. The teacher started to segue back into his lecture, but I couldn’t stand to hear another second of the crap.
I stood up, and the room fell to silence again. Nice. I can still do that. I calmly picked up my bag and strode out of the room, not looking at a single person. I couldn’t bear to be there anymore. Too many feelings were starting to tumble through my head, as fresh anxieties and relapsed dread made their return known. I began to jog as I reached the hallway, passing a concerned-looking staff member at the front desk. She called out to me by name, but I ignored it. I didn’t stop for anything. I was out the doors and back into the warm sunlight, smelling the trees and the petrichor after the deluge of rain that passed through earlier. It was the first welcome sensation I’d had since seeing Jen before lunch. I needed that.
I needed to get out of this world, and back where I belonged.
Easier said than done is a well-worn cliché, but it became one for a reason. My first instinct was to head back to the Cyraveil Forest where this all started, but the park was too far away. We’d gotten Matt to drive us that night, meeting Blake at the spot he’d called from. Today, I just ended up wandering the streets of suburbia for a while. I couldn’t go home, for more reasons than one.
The endless sets of near-identical houses were taking a toll on my brain. It bothered me that they were so uniform and perfect. I could consciously tell myself this was more efficient, that economically it served a greater purpose, but I longed for the villages in the hills and valleys, or the huge port cities and the capital. They built around nature, instead of terraforming it to their whims. Sure, it was more out of necessity and lack of ability, but it gave them so much more charm and character. I had to get back there.
Ten minutes later, I was on a bus headed across town. I got a few offhand looks from the other passengers, probably wondering why I wasn’t in school, but I was mostly left alone. I was hoping they just assumed I was in college. I needed time to think, to strategize.
Since he wasn’t at school, Blake had to be home. There simply wasn’t another option at this point. Adela would be home by now, but she’d probably be asleep. The overnight shift at the hospital was a killer, and she usually took something to help her sleep before retiring to a blacked-out room, where it was nighttime twenty four hours a day. I didn’t expect to run into her. I’d go in, find Blake and we’d figure out what to do next.
I wish he’d just call, or send some message. Anything at all. He knew my cell number, or he could just hit me up on the chatroom, or send an IM, or even a damn email. Anything. But it was just like him to be completely incommunicado. He was probably super distracted by something and forgot to check in.
As the bus approached the stop closest to Blake’s, I reached up and pulled the yellow cord draped along the ceiling. The light up front flashed on, and the bus glided to a halt. I hopped off, thanking the driver. He gave me a noncommittal nod in return, but I didn’t mind. Politeness was something to be valued, but it didn’t need to be returned. It was all about the offer, not the receipt. Sooner or later, people who didn’t default to being polite would run into someone that did take offense, and they’d find out just what their lack of effort meant.
A few blocks away and I found Blake’s home. His neighborhood was vastly different from my own. The houses were older, and spaced out wider with much larger yards. More trees lined the sidewalks, and even dotted the center of the streets, where the road wound around them rather than through them. Despite how important it loomed in my mind, Blake’s house really didn’t stand out much. I’d built it up so much over the last few hours that I half-expected it to be glowing and surrounded by clouds, but it was a quiet afternoon. One neighbor I vaguely remembered was walking her dog on the opposite side of the street, and someone else was mowing their lawn, but that was it.
I stopped stalling and walked straight up to the door. I didn’t bother to knock. The door was unlocked, and I’d long since stopped waiting to enter. I opened it quietly, peering inside.
The hallway stretched out before me, with a carpeted staircase immediately in front that lead up to the bedrooms. There was a short table with the house phone sitting right in the middle of the hallway, a red light blinking away with the message I’d left this morning. The empty kitchen sat at the end of the hallway, tall windows showing an empty yard beyond. As I glanced to the right, the living room was equally devoid of human presence. Thanks to the open, spacious layout, it was quickly obvious just how dead the house seemed.
Dread seeped into my bones, like I were a ship beginning to sink beneath the waves. My heart pounded up into my throat, even as I climbed step over step up the staircase. I was completely silent. I knew these stairs better than my own home. Blake and I used to have a game, seeing who could sneak up the stairs and surprise his mother. You had to know exactly where to step, since each stair had a spot or two that would creak even at the slightest touch. I knew the sequence perfectly, even seven years later. It should have felt like I was coming home—but without my best friend, this wasn’t a home anymore.
No. Stop thinking like that. He’d be waiting for me in his room. Probably just asleep. After getting back, he’d been so energized that he stayed up all night, and then slept through the day. Maybe he stayed up to see his mom when she got home from the graveyard shift. That was understandable. That made sense.
As I reached the second floor landing, two doors were ajar. One was the door to his parents bedroom, which wasn’t a good sign for me. When Adela went to sleep, she blacked out the room with heavy curtains and made sure the door was sealed tight, to help her keep a regular schedule. If the door was open, she either wasn’t home yet, or…
I couldn’t wait any longer. I pushed through the other open door, into my best friend’s room, where I’d spent so much time playing games, watching movies, reading, or just hanging out through lazy afternoons. Where he would be sitting, right now, feet up on his desk, staring at his monitor. Except he wasn’t. I turned, expecting Blake to be lounging on his bed reading a book.
My heart plummeted. The voice was too feminine. Motherly. It wasn’t him.
Adela was standing half-inside Blake’s closet, putting away clothes. She was tall, like Blake, with long light blonde hair and an athletic frame, like his whole family. Her face tilted around, stamped with confusion and surprise. She dropped the clothes, jumping in shock a little as she saw me.
“You scared me to death,” she said breathlessly.
She shook her head, bending to pick up the clothes and hang them properly. “It’s fine. Are you okay?”
“Huh?” I asked, before connecting the dots myself. Of course she’d ask that. I wasn’t at school, like I was supposed to be. “Oh. Yeah, I guess. I just…”
“Needed a day off?” She winked. “Don’t worry. I won’t tell your parents. Your grades can take it, right?”
“Probably.” I shrugged. I assumed so, but hell if I knew what my grades were like right now. “I assumed you’d be asleep.”
“Thought you’d have the place to yourself, huh? I decided to get a few things done first. Don’t worry, I’ll be out of your hair soon.” Adela continued to put up clothes while she talked, working through the basket fast.
“No, it’s fine.” I sat down on the edge of Blake’s bed, looking around. I deliberately bumped the keyboard tray under his desk, lighting up the screen. The conversation we’d had the day before we’d left was still on screen. Blake, telling me what he’d seen. Asking me to come out there. Asking Matt. Getting the whole group together to go out into the woods.
He’d have closed that by now. I could feel the truth sliding into view, but I kept shoving it away. I was begging, pleading with the universe to make it stop. In my head, I was screaming. Let it not be true. Let Blake just be out back or something.
“My son didn’t skip, did he?” Adela asked casually, reaching up high to place something on the rack above the clothes hangers. My mind crashed to a halt at her words. She didn’t know Blake was missing. Adela would have gotten home after Blake should have left. I moved my foot back slightly, feeling it bump against his backpack underneath his bed, covered by the bedskirt. She had no idea he’d never made it to school today.
That he’d never make it to school again.
That Blake was—
Oh, gods. No.
I felt it cascade through me, like a waterfall bursting through a dam after so many tiny leaks. Acceptance took hold and bashed me across the head. I felt the tears beginning to form, but the realization of what Matt had been trying to get across finally broke through that same mental wall.
If we were going to survive long enough to go back, we had to play this exactly right. And Blake’s mother finding out her son was gone wasn’t part of the plan yet.
Even as my chest felt like it was collapsing, like my heart was threatening to burst inside my throat and tear my lungs to shreds, I had to keep it all silent.
It felt like an eternity had just passed in that single second. I finally pulled together an answer.
“‘Course not. He had a test today.”
Adela turned around. She looked suspicious. I squirmed mentally, which felt so strange for me. I’d interrogated the scum of the kingdom, but she still had power over me. Had I hesitated too long in responding? Did she know?
“Carl, is something wrong?”
“What would be wrong?” I answered as innocently as I could muster. Guilt wormed its way inside my body, alongside the raging whirlpool of grief and anxiety. I was lying outright to a woman who I considered a second mother—who’d been there for me time and again—about the fate of her own son. I felt awful, sick to the core.
She walked over and sat down beside me. There was no way I could lie to her again, could I? Not like this.
“Did you get in a fight with your father again?” she asked quietly.
A bit of relief. Some calm to the storm. She’d picked up on something entirely different, something familiar. Most importantly for my present state of mind, it wasn’t untrue.
“Sort of,” I replied honestly, glancing up at her. Her eyes were so kind and wise. I swore to myself right then, I’d tell her the truth. Not today, but I would. She deserved to know that her son had been a hero. That he’d saved countless lives. That I’d immortalize him in the annals of the Scriveners, and make sure everyone heard his name.
She put an arm around my shoulders, giving me a brief hug. “Carl, I know he can be a bit harsh sometimes, but he does love you.”
“Uh huh,” I grunted sarcastically.
“Believe it or not, all parents make mistakes too.”
“You’ve given this speech before,” I pointed out glumly.
“It’s still true,” she said. She ruffled my hair, which I’d always pretended bothered me, but was honestly really comforting. “He wants you to be successful, and he’s doing what he thinks is best to make that happen.”
“I’m already successful though,” I muttered.
“As a student, maybe, but there’s a lot more to life than being a student.” Which I knew, of course. I’d stopped being just a student a long time ago. Hard to argue with results like mine, building a guild from almost nothing, becoming the closest advisor and friend to the emperor. Power and success were things I was accustomed to. Here, I was just so… helpless.
I couldn’t change anything. I couldn’t do anything. My best friend was—
The emotions roared back into life, and this time I was powerless to stop the oncoming flood. I felt droplets falling to my lap, warm trickles down my cheeks.
Adela looked alarmed. “Carl, what’s wrong?”
“I’m sorry,” I choked out. I couldn’t bring myself to say anything else.
“What for? Talk to me. Tell me what happened.”
“I can’t.” I stood up, a little too quickly. The rush of blood from my weak old body sent my head spinning. I stumbled a bit, but I brought it under control. I forced it back under control. I started for the door. “I need to go.”
“Carl, wait,” Adela started, but I was already out of the room. I took the stairs, two at a time. I needed air. Anything besides the cramped confines of this suburban nightmare. I reached the street, and the sight of trees was enough to subside my panic, if only for a moment. But as the fear dissipated, it was replaced once again by creeping, overwhelming dread and the utter despair of loss.
Blake was dead.
The word finally crashed through my skull. I’d been dancing around it for so long, ducking away, trying to avoid its sting.
My best friend was dead.
I started running. I didn’t know where to. I didn’t care where to. Anywhere was better, but I couldn’t get to anywhere.
Blake was dead.
And I couldn’t do a thing about it.