Chapter 8 — Matt
"It's been a whole day. The Stokelson kid's still not home?"
"The father promised he'd call."
"Well, I think we got our first suspect, Portman."
"That’s not news. The mother put us on to him already."
"Why didn't you mention him to the chief?"
"I don't want to ruin his life preemptively, if it turns out he's uninvolved. The chief's taking this one personally. Anyway, we shouldn't stay idle. I'll head to the school. You should go back to the mother, ask to look at Blake's computer for more leads."
"What am I looking for?"
"Recent online chats, search history from the last couple days. Anything to fill out our timeline."
Not having my own cell phone was getting to be a real problem.
I’d heard from a friend about an… incident, involving Jen in the halls between second and third period, but he didn’t know anything more than that. Without any way to get in touch with her, I had no way of knowing what was going on. Stress compounded in my head all day. I barely heard half of what my econ teacher was saying. My fears were growing by the hour, but there wasn’t anything I could do. I wasn’t likely to see Jen until late that night. We didn’t share a lunch time today, and she’d be gone when I got home. I wouldn’t see her until after I got back from work.
Work. A normal job, where I got paid to do something by someone else in charge. Part-time at a convenience store. I’d picked it up for some experience, plus the extra spending money. Mom trusted me with the money she brought in, but I never spent any of that on myself. Most of it was strictly for the family’s needs, and the rest went into a rainy day savings account. I only spent my own money on myself.
The job was painfully dull. Endless restocking, reorganizing, cleaning. No matter how many times I went through a section, it’d always be messed up again minutes after I walked away. Somehow, even when the store was empty. It felt like a ghost was deliberately screwing with me.
Not that I had to deal with ghosts anymore.
The store wasn’t particularly well trafficked, so I had a lot of downtime. In the past, that usually meant a lot of hanging out with whatever coworkers I had that afternoon. Screwing around, goofing off, making up games we could play that wouldn’t wreck the aisles. Whatever. Of course, whenever my coworker took a break, I’d lapse into boredom again. I used to be so terrible at being idle. I had to be doing something. Even if it wasn’t productive, even if it wasn’t enjoyable, so long as I was engaged I could feel at ease.
Calm, quiet moments were now precious gifts, every last one of them. It gave me time to think. Time to reflect. Time to plan. I’d learned quickly that if I didn’t slow down and consider everything, find the best approach I could, I’d end up with even more failures and regrets.
It was a hard lesson to learn. A lesson I learned in sweat and blood, in the heat of battle and the quiet, deadly halls of diplomacy and subterfuge. I’d found a new way. Careful, measured, patient. Taking control whenever possible.
I didn’t want control. That’s not me. I’d love for someone else to be in charge. I’d prefer that. I hate the pressure. I hate what I’d been forced to do. The decisions I’ve had to make, with lives in the balance, but nobody else was going to do it. By chance, or by fate, or by sheer stubborn resilience, I’d ended up in charge of the whole rebellion.
I had so many things still weighing on my mind. Tasks unfinished, problems unsolved. There were a dozen advisors, policymakers, and members of the court awaiting my decisions. Kings, princes, vassals, dukes, lords, and a myriad of other titles I barely understood, all wanting meetings, jostling for favor. They’d decided that since I was such a great leader, I was obviously the best person to take the keys to the whole damn kingdom.
But that wasn’t me anymore. I’d put that part of my life away. It was wrapped in heavy blankets, stuffed into a chest and shoved under the nearest bed. I wasn’t going to worry about it anymore—until the world, cruel and unrelenting, reared its ugly head and decided I wasn’t quite off the hook yet.
I was blissfully unaware for most of my shift. Yes, I’d heard that Jen had done something, but I convinced myself it was something minor. She’d probably just stammered out some long phrase in Etoline, or maybe she’d tried to cast some spells without thinking. It was so instinctive for her, I could see it slipping out by accident. It’d be a simple misunderstanding, something I could paper over, something we could work on.
So it was that my coworker and I were talking about totally normal things, as if another crisis wasn’t right around the corner.
“Yeah?” Kyle looked up from over by the soda machine, where he was refilling a cup of ice. He came back, chomping through a couple cubes, and leaned against the counter. “What’s up?”
“How are you and Kersey doing?”
Kyle looked surprised. I couldn’t blame him. I normally didn’t care much about relationships or any of that. I used to be totally apathetic about the whole concept. It wasn’t worth the effort to keep up. Cyraveil had changed my perspective completely. Keeping up a network of people, and knowing how they all intertwined, was essential. By now, it was habit.
“Good, I guess?” He shrugged. “We hang out a lot. It’s… going well. Why?”
“To be honest,” I said, “you’re kind of my only friend with any dating experience. Got any tips?”
“Wait.” Kyle looked genuinely shocked. “You’ve never asked a girl out?”
I laughed. “Not until yesterday.” Which wasn’t exactly true, but I drew a pretty solid line between dating a girl and courting a princess. Especially when the latter was all about diplomatic tensions, maintaining alliances, preventing wars and keeping our respective armies in line. There were so many lines of dominoes waiting to be knocked over, I had to tiptoe around every word, in public or in private.
“Oh man,” Kyle grinned. “Who’s the lucky girl?”
“You won’t spread it around, right?” I asked. Not that Sara was anyone to be embarrassed by, but for Jen’s sake, I felt like avoiding any attention right now could only be a good thing.
“Hey man, you never told anybody about me and Kersey. I wouldn’t do that to you either.”
“Bit different though, what with your parents.”
“I guess.” Kyle shrugged again. He was a frequent shrugger. I’d become a lot more attentive to body language and subtle cues. Reading people was a valuable skill, and way more universal than one might expect.
I tried to brush it away. I wasn’t trying to get some kind of advantage over Kyle. I just wanted his advice. I needed some dating ideas from this century.
“Anyway, what did you want to ask?”
“Just need some ideas. It’s either you or the internet.”
“The internet’s better than you think,” said Kyle. I raised my eyebrows, and his cheeks shifted to an interesting tomato hue. “Or so I’ve heard,” he mumbled.
“I trust you more than the internet.”
“You’re crazy, but whatever. So, who’s the girl?”
“Do you know Sara Monaghan?”
Kyle frowned. “The junior?”
“Not really, no. She’s in my comp sci, but that’s about it. Doesn’t really talk that much. Kind of a loner.”
That didn’t really fit with what I knew about her, but maybe she was just way different when she was around Jen. Or just that class. I couldn’t be sure.
“You asked her out?” Kyle continued.
“Yeah. We’re going out tomorrow.”
Kyle clapped a hand on my back. “Nice. Good for you. You really seemed like you could use a break, man.”
“I dunno. You’ve just been really quiet, dude. Scarin’ me. You okay?”
Our conversation was interrupted by the chime of the front door. A customer wandered in, and instantly I knew something was off. Something about the way he moved. His body language. I watched him carefully in the mirrors mounted up in the ceiling corners. He wandered to the back, out of sight of the register, and visibly relaxed as he seemingly passed out of our view.
The refrigerator door opened, and his hand flickered out. I saw the brief flash of a brown bottle. His hand retracted again into his heavy coat.
A second later, the door chimed again and he was gone, before either of us could react. He was sprinting headlong out the door, almost smashing into it as the automatic slider didn’t open fast enough for the speed he was moving at. I wasn’t sure what scared him off. Maybe he just felt like he already won.
Lucky for me, the security camera probably got a good shot of his face. I pulled out an asset loss sheet and dutifully recorded the time and date, a rough description, and what we’d lost.
“You’re actually filling that out?”
Kyle shrugged again, and I resisted the urge to wince. “You know they never actually bother with anything that cheap. Especially not on a homeless guy.”
“We still have to fill it out.” The pen went dry halfway down. I rattled it, but not a single drop of ink was left. “Got a pen?”
Kyle shook his head, amused, and tossed me a fresh one. “Man, even the universe is telling you not to bother.”
“The universe and I don’t get along anyway,” I grumbled aloud.
While I finished filling out the form, the door chimed again. Jacob, another friend of Kyle’s and a member of his D&D group, strolled in, glancing back over his shoulder. “Jesus, that guy was booking it. What did you two do to him?”
“Nothin’. He just stole some beer,” said Kyle, hopping up to sit on the counter.
Jacob started pouring himself a soda from the fountain. “Seriously? What an asshole.”
“Nah, he probably needs it more than we do.”
“Sure, whatever. Anyway, I had something else to tell you guys.”
Kyle and I both looked up. “You came here with some actual news? Stop the presses,” said Kyle, smirking. I rolled my eyes.
“Oh stuff it, grandma. You hear what happened during APUSH?”
My heart skipped a beat. I couldn’t quite remember what APUSH stood for, but Jacob had to be talking about school. Horrible images of anything Jen might have done flitted through my mind, accompanied by visions of white beds and padded cells.
I was paying very close attention to every single word Jacob said now. Every muscle tic in his face, every shift in tone. I wasn’t going to miss a thing.
“Uhh…” said Kyle, clearly as lost as I wished I were. He didn’t sound nearly as concerned as I felt. It irritated me. Completely irrational, but still, the idea that Kyle didn’t understand the weight of what Jacob might say next bothered me more than I’d like to admit.
“It was nuts. Carl went psycho in the middle of class, ranted to Mr. Edwards in some crazy speech about war.”
I don’t think I can really convey the emotion that washed through me when I heard Carl’s name. Panic, fear, and images of Jen drained away—but at the same time, frustration and a creeping dread slithered in, taking just as tight a hold.
“What did he do, exactly?” I asked, trying to stay casual. After all, Carl and I barely knew each other.
“Oh, he went on and on about how shitty war is. Got pretty dark. He shot down what Edwards was saying with some pretty good stuff, actually. It was super messed up and seriously psycho, but it was still smart, you know?”
My breath got easier. Carl was just letting off steam. Dangerous steam, but nothing was boiling over yet. This was manageable. Jacob kept talking about what Carl said in painfully familiar detail, but I was already thinking miles ahead. I had to consider what to say to Carl when I saw him ntext. He was getting worse, that much was clear, but I could handle that.
Of course, the next bomb was about to drop.
“So that’s why he ditched?” asked Kyle.
It was like he’d just thrown a dagger into the relief growing in my brain, pinning it dead to the wall.
“Yeah, probably. He just stood up and walked out in the middle of class. Straight out the door without a word.”
I shook my head in despair. Carl was going to be the end of us.
They started talking about some video game after that, something coming out soon. I might have been interested if I could actually remember the game in question, but video games were long erased from my memory. I’d filled up all that space with too much information about a world I’d never see again—if I had anything to say about it.
I didn’t mind that the conversation left me behind though. It let me get back to what needed to be done. My thoughts were preoccupied with fears of what Carl might do next, of worrying what had happened to Jen that morning, and what my next move was. There was always a next move to take, a new plan to make. I’d prayed so many times I’d never have to decide someone else’s fate again, but it always fell back to me, one way or another.
The rest of my shift passed in no time at all, as Jacob went home and we were replaced by the overnight duo. I drove home with the radio blasting at the highest it could go. The tinny, weak speaker was actually comforting now, a taste of familiarity and stability. It never changed, as awful as it sounded. I appreciated that.
That golden path I’d seen just two days ago seemed so far away now. I’d wanted desperately for nothing to change, for my world to go back to the way it had been, but fate seemed determined to deny me any respite. Even as I’d thought we could just settle in and return to our old lives, Jen seemed haunted and withdrawn. She wasn’t adapting yet, and that scared me.
On the surface, she was totally fine. She lapsed here and there, but we all had. That was normal. To be expected. I knew her better than that though, and I knew how good of an actress she could be. Jen could hold in problems as long as she needed, and she was so much quieter than before. She seemed reluctant to engage with the world now, always hiding something.
She just needed time. She’d spent the better part of six years in a virtually alien culture, speaking a different language, adopting their customs. She’d grown accustomed to using magic, a concept completely at odds with reality. The elves’ magic let them avoid so many of life’s usual hassles. How could she possibly adjust in such a short time from that lifestyle to the mundane grindstone of the real world?
Her old life would reassert itself. I was confident of that—I had to be—and I’d do whatever I could to help her adjust. I was really worried about the other member of our group.
Not only was Carl clearly just as dramatically changed as Jen, he was in a position I couldn’t really support. Much as I wracked my brain for solutions, I came up empty. Carl and I had too much animosity in our past, even with bombshells yet undropped. We’d been on opposite sides of a vicious war, in surprisingly influential positions for two twenty-somethings from the suburbs in Oregon.
Our forces had been circling each other for some time. I’d known from the modern tactics and total disregard for feudal practices of honor and duty that it had to be him commanding the other side. I’d been using the same, since I was running a rebellion anyway. We were trying to overthrow the whole government; who were we going to bow to and swear fealty? It was ludicrous. I wasn’t a lord. My generals were gutter trash and I was a nobody—and yet we defeated legions of Cellman forces with ease until Carl took command.
In all honesty, I think we both probably would have ended up dead, but for my sister. Carl’s men were fanatically loyal to him. They would have fought to the death, even once we started to outnumber them. Between that and Carl’s personal abilities—and penchant for assassinating officers—my neck felt particularly soft and vulnerable for weeks on end.
If Carl hadn’t found Jen in that dungeon. If he hadn’t betrayed Reynir.
If, if, if.
I shuddered. I truly believe Carl would have sent a man for me. My head would probably be mounted on top of the walls outside Candir along with all the rest, a macabre warning to strike fear in the hearts of the next would-be revolutionaries.
I feared him.
At the same time, though, I did respect him. He took a situation where anybody else would probably have just died, and he carved out a life for himself. He was strong, he treated his subjects well. It sounds bizarre to refer to Carl as having ‘subjects’, but he did. There was a reason he commanded such a steadfast, unwavering army.
Most important of all, Carl was intelligent. Certainly smarter than me. I admit that freely. Carl seemed to know more about everything, down to the minutiae of any subject, than I could ever hope to learn. Not only that, but he could actually apply that knowledge—which he did, with terrifying efficiency. As the receiving end of his military strategy, I could attest to that personally.
So, given all that, what was Carl’s play now? I turned it over and over in my head, like roasting meat over a fire that stubbornly refused to finish cooking. By now, I assumed he must have visited Blake’s house. He’d be certain Blake was dead now, something I’d already come to accept. Where to next for a man who’d lost almost everything he valued, who’d been forced back to a life he believed long dead?
A man whose entire world had literally been taken away.
I didn’t have an answer. I couldn’t empathize with Carl. I was eternally grateful for the elf witch, the one who’d given me the way out. I hated Cyraveil, hated what it had done to me. What it had done to Jen.
I’d sent one of my friends to die. Knowingly, deliberately, he’d gone to his grave, on my orders. That odd smile he always seemed to wear was forever fixed in my mind. He looked so confident, so self-assured when I laid out the plan, fully aware what it meant. It could have been him, after all. A foreigner, an outsider like the rest of us. Jen and I were too well-known, but Blake could get inside unhindered, thanks to Carl’s betrayal.
Carl could never be allowed to learn that his own actions inadvertently led to Blake’s death. He’d never recover. As I pulled into the garage, that single thought became firm and clear in my mind. No matter what, I would protect Carl from that revelation.
My mom was already home, which meant I was definitely running late. I hurried inside. I’d wanted to help prepare dinner, since I hadn’t been able to spend much time with her since the night we came back, and last night was so full of worry about Jen and what came next. I wasn’t going to waste any more valuable time.
“Mom, I’m home,” I called out down the hallway as I kicked off my shoes into the closet. I sniffed the air. Garlic. “What’re you making?”
“Tortellini soup,” she said, waving a spoon at me. “You’re late, bucko.”
“Bucko?” I teased, washing my hands.
“Showing my age?” she asked sarcastically, before she handed me a towel to dry off. “Start choppin’.”
“So, school’s good?”
“Good.” She smiled, pushing aside her bowl for a moment and leaning on her hands. “Since Jen’s gone, I figured it was a good time to have this talk.”
Jen was out at Sara’s house, which was a regular Thursday thing. I wondered what she was doing there. I still hadn’t gotten any details of what she’d told Sara. I trusted Jen, but I needed all the details if I was going to come up with a plan. I was feeling a bit claustrophobic without it.
Not unlike the feeling my mother had just sprung on me. “Uhh, what talk?”
“About your future.”
I breathed an inward sigh of relief. Mom was referring about how I always hated talking about my life around anyone else. I appreciated that she never brought it up again, even around Jen, since I’d mentioned it.
“What about it?” I asked, taking a sip of the tomato soup.
“Well, have you made any plans for after you graduate?”
I scoured my brain. Had I made any plans yet? It was so long ago. I had no idea. “Not really, no.” It was the most honest reply I could think of.
“Well, you need to start. I know it can really suck, but now’s the time. College will sneak up on you sooner than you think.”
College. I’d forgotten all about it. I mean, not that it existed—I’d actually briefly attended a university of sorts, out in Dekinport. Not for education, though. I wasn’t there for the lectures, I was there for the cache of gold and magical weaponry a few floors and couple dozen feet of solid rock below my desk.
While I hesitated, my mother started going into detail about options, applications, acceptance, funding. “A state school’s probably the best option for you, I think,” she added, in between mouthfuls.
A sudden realization struck me, and interrupted my unbidden memory of the desperate chase and fight with the Dekinport city guard. There weren’t any state universities nearby our home. Not close enough to commute, anyway. “You sure you’d be okay without me around?”
“You gotta leave the nest sometime, Matt.” She said it so nonchalantly, I was taken aback. I knew I’d leave eventually, but I assumed it’d be way later in life. I helped out with all the household chores, and I helped take care of Jen, and anything else Mom asked of me. It was my job—or so I assumed.
“What about—” I started, but Mom cut me off.
“Look, I’ve saved up a bit over the years, and I know you’ve been saving too. You’ve got enough to cover four years of college if you apply for financial aid, and you won’t even end up with any loans. I’ll be quitting my job at the mall after this year, thank God. Between my savings and the raise I just got, it’s going to be a lot more relaxed around here.” She smiled. “Your sister and I will be fine. You’ve got a whole life ahead of you. No need to spend it hanging around here.”
“I don’t mind.”
Mom laughed. “You’re a good man, Matt.” She stood up and started clearing the table. There was only a little more time left before she had to head off to the mall, so she was rushing it already. I should have gotten up to help, but I was still sitting, considering everything she’d said.
As she talked, my life plans had come back to me—how I’d seen myself taking care of her and the house for decades to come. I fully expected Jen to leave and make her own way, but I just assumed I’d be there forever. Now, my mother was not only giving me permission to leave, she was practically pushing me out the door—not in a bad way, but it was the impression I got.
She thought she was letting me off the hook. She’d probably been thinking I felt pressured into being the man of the house. It wasn’t like that though. I’d just wanted to help. I wanted to be productive and useful, part of the team.
Was it time for me to move on?
It didn’t take long for me to reject the idea. It was laughable, in a cold, cynical way. My mother was correct two days ago, but seven years had passed her by in the meantime.
Would she still call me a good man, if she knew what I’d done? I’ve killed, Mom. I killed a man with my bare hands, gruesomely, the same hands that helped her make dinner tonight. I hated what I’d done, and I wish desperately I could have found another way, but in the same situation I’d probably do it again. I’ve fought and bled and killed many times. The blood of hundreds, of thousands was on my hands. Maybe not personally, but they were forever fixed in my mind, lives snuffed out before their time, at my command.
There was no way I could even think about leaving right now. I had a potentially ticking time bomb in Carl, and in the long term, I had a sister who I still wasn’t entirely sure how to help, but it was clear she needed it.
I still don’t know what happened to Jen. I wanted to ask her, but at the same time, I was afraid to. The details were scarce, but I knew that most of the people involved were dead, if not all of them. I couldn’t possibly confirm it, but I had reason to believe Carl put them to death personally. Certainly, the discovery had been enough to shift his allegiance, at great personal cost. All I ever got out of him was that he’d found Jen in a dungeon, in the heart of cruel Vennenport.
For what purpose, I’d never found out. In fact, I knew far too little about anything she’d gone through. Even after Carl had rescued her, I’d only been able to spend a week with her before we had to send her away. We needed the elves’ support before we were crushed by the advancing Cellman forces using Carl’s strategy, and Jen was the only one they trusted. When we’d first lost her, they’d broken away immediately. They’d never stab us in the back, but without Jen to interpret and negotiate, cooperation was virtually impossible.
In that one week, I’d seen how paranoid and violent she could get at the slightest twitch. I was the only one she’d trust anywhere near her for over half the week. I’d sleep just outside her room, with a few trusted guards patrolling the outer chambers. She’d nearly killed a poor, hapless servant who’d had the misfortune of slipping inside to trim the lamps when I accidentally fell asleep. The boy never set foot inside that building again.
She was my little sister though. I’d promised Mom I’d look after her and protect her, and I’d keep that promise no matter what universe we ended up in.
The front door opened quietly, brushing my thoughts away. My mom was on the couch reading a book. We both glanced up expectantly, but Jen didn’t emerge from the hallway. I assumed it was Jen, anyway.
“Jen?” I called, suddenly worried.
“Yeah,” she answered, to my relief. Her voice seemed strangely muffled.
“How was Sara’s?”
Something seemed off. I expected some teasing, a jab about the two of us again. I glanced at Mom, but she didn’t seem concerned, returning to her book. I went out to the front door, but Jen was nowhere to be found. I glanced around, and saw her disappear around the corner upstairs. She was utterly silent at climbing the staircase.
I followed (making a great deal more noise despite my own efforts), and got to her door a moment before she slid it shut. I stuck my foot in, blocking it. Jen’s eye appeared at the crack between the door and the frame, meeting my own.
Her eye was puffy and red.
“Jen?” I murmured. Fear and concern were threatening to overwhelm me.
“Nothing happened,” she mumbled. “Vei torl.” Her foot pushed mine away, and the door closed with the softest click possible.
I stood there for a long time, staring at the wooden door, with the cheerful ‘Jennifer’ banner across the top, and tacked up pictures of Jen and her friends plastered in a haphazard collage. My little sister, the cheerful bubbly teenager, whose biggest regret in life was picking the wrong cell phone and losing all her pictures. Who loved to go to the mall, or take a day trip to the beach, or just sit out in the sun reading a good book or talk for hours on the phone.
Not for the first time, I wondered if that girl had died in a cold stone cell, in a dungeon on another world.
Not for the last time, I wondered if she might be better off in that world.