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Chapter 14 — Matt

"If Carl's completely off the grid now, what’s next?"

"We turn back to who we can lean on. I got more details about Westin and his sister. She didn't show up in the school records we grabbed because they don't share a last name."

"Adopted?"

"No. Looks like a pretty messy divorce. The father failed to get custody, mother wanted nothing more to do with him. Changed her name and her daughter's and ran out here."

"But why not change Matt's name?"

"Do I look like a psychiatrist?"

"And here I thought you knew everything."

"Not as much as I'd like."



  My sister and I used to fight. A lot. We’d argue over anything—whose turn it was to watch TV, who got the front seat in the car, what we’d be eating for dinner, so on. When we were really young, it was who got to sit next to Mom whenever we went out. Jen usually won that one, mostly by being smaller and more willing to burst into tears. I’d give in just to get her to shut up and quit embarrassing us in public.

  I’m not proud of it, but there were times when I wished she weren’t my sister, that it was just me and Mom in the house. She was always getting in the way, even if just by accident. It wasn’t that she always got her way, of course. Mom tried to be fair to both of us when she could manage it. I was a kid though; to my mind, Jen was always getting the better treatment. It was unfair. I was the older child, I helped out around the house more. I took better care of myself, I cleaned up after myself, I did my chores without complaint every time. I deserved more, didn’t I?

  One single afternoon changed my mind completely. Jen was ten, and I had just turned thirteen the week before. We were at the mall, just off the bus, looking around at stores and just generally wandering. I hadn’t realized why Jen didn’t go with her friends at the time; I only found out about her clothes cycling routine a couple years later. Mom bribed me to watch my sister there with the promise of taking me to a movie that weekend. I just needed to keep an eye on Jen for a few hours, make sure she didn’t get lost or in trouble, and bring her home on the bus again. I wasn’t about to turn that down, so I shepherded Jen around to store after store, impatiently pacing around and trying to ignore the awful mall radio with their terrible choice of music, made even worse by the commercials and announcements that kept pausing the songs.

  The mall was three stories, with escalators dotted all around, easy to get lost in. Jen was an expert though, and she knew how to avoid the crowds by taking the plain old staircases around the edges of the building. We stayed out on the border, which also happened to be where most of Jen’s favorite stores tended to be.

  So it was that we ended up on the third story, browsing through yet another clothing store, when I finally noticed a clock. It was getting late. Not time to go yet, but there was a show I wanted to watch when we got back, and I was determined not to miss it. If we left now, we could catch an earlier bus.

  I began hustling Jen, telling her it was time to go, pressuring her to hurry up. She took her sweet time, prancing up to the register and asking the salesperson question after question. Finally, as the minutes dragged on, I stepped in and forked over the cash, practically dragging Jen away by the hand.

  The nearest escalator was packed, so I hurried to the nearest staircase. Jen’s shoe had come untied at some point, but neither of us noticed. I was too busy dragging her toward the exit—any exit. I was done with the mall, and all I could think about was that show I wanted to watch. I can’t even remember what show it was anymore, but I know I was fixated on it. Another memory took its place, something that haunted my mind forever.

  I stopped near the top of the stairs. I got distracted by an entertainer. Someone doing street magic, with the big theatrical voice. I wasn’t really interested, but he distracted me long enough. Just for a second.

  A single moment of distraction, and a sickening crack and thud.

  I whipped around. Jen was on the landing where the stairs turned back around between floors. She was laid out on her side, with limbs splayed out, but all I could see was her arm, twisted in a direction it should never go. I saw her expression, as if in slow motion, twist in pain. Her eyes creased together, her mouth began to open wide. Her entire face seemed to compress in on itself.

  I was already bounding down the stairs toward her when something else happened that stopped me dead.

  Jen stood back up.

  There wasn’t a single word from her mouth. Barely even a sound. She just stood up, and limped over to me. Jen was clearly dealing with overwhelming pain, but she hadn’t made a noise at all until she reached the stairs. Her eyes were sparkling as she looked up at me, a few steps above her.

  “Matt, I think my arm’s broken.” Her voice was pinched and scared, but still she didn’t cry. Her words finally broke my trance. I was instantly at her side. I had her sit down, while someone nearby dialed nine-one-one.

  The rest of the story is pretty straightforward. Jen ended up in the hospital for a bit, my mother was called in, and everything turned out okay in the end. Honestly, in the larger scheme of things, except for the stress it put on Mom from the medical bills, it really wasn’t that notable. I wondered if Jen even thought about it much.

  For me, it completely changed the way I saw my sister.

  She didn’t cry once through the whole ordeal. There was a bravery in her I felt like I could never muster. I’d thought of her as just something to watch over, a chore to take care of before I got back to my life again, but Jen was so much more than that. Even as young as she was, with the amount of pain clearly wracking her body, Jen acted stronger than I’d ever felt in my life. In either of my lives.

  The guilt lingered in my head for a long, long time. I’d been the one to rush her, I’d missed her untied shoe, I’d gotten distracted at the last second. My mother tried—and failed—to convince me otherwise. I’d been entrusted with protecting her, and I’d failed. My sister had gotten hurt, when I should have been more careful. I’d sworn to myself I’d never let that happen again. I’d be there for her, no matter what.

  As I watched Jen leave the house, bow over her shoulder like a huntress from legend, I felt that guilt again. I felt like I’d failed her a third time. I didn’t want to believe it, but I felt like there was some sort of secret tug of war over Jen’s soul now, with me on one side, and Cyraveil on the other, pulling as hard as it could.

  Her words struck me to the core, though she hadn’t probably meant it like that. She’d inadvertently compared me to our father, a man she’d never really met. I remembered him though, partly from my own memories, but mostly from conversations I’d had with Mom. He’d never seemed like a bad person, but in his own way, he scared me as much as any man I’d ever met. A cold, manipulative nature, devoid of emotion. My mother had described him as “a controlling, selfish, heartless bastard,” though never to my face.

  I didn’t think I was like that—but the calculating, manipulative part? I could feel that sometimes. When Jen told me to back off, I’d realized how I’d been pushing her in a direction without meaning to, a part of me lurking away just under the surface until Jen shined a spotlight on it. I’d started stepping over the line, reducing her to being just someone to protect, forgetting who she was.

  Jen was right. She could more than take care of herself. I’d let those years slip by once again. My sister was an adult, even if she didn’t look the part yet. I had to step back and let her make her own decisions. I was her equal, not her protector.

  And yet…

  She needed my help. Didn’t she?

  My mind was conflicted. I wasn’t sure what I could do to help her. Would it be better to try and forget Cyraveil entirely? To force the real world into place and try to persuade her to never mention it again? There was no evidence, after all, like I’d said. For all intents and purposes, we’d never disappeared. Our mind might tell us otherwise, but by the real world’s standards, we were totally normal.

  I’d tried to stick to that path, but it wasn’t going well so far. Carl was on the run from the police and his family, and getting increasingly unstable. Jen was an emotional wreck from what I could tell, although I definitely didn’t have the whole story from either of them. Something had to change, clearly.

  Should I take the other approach? Try to indulge the lives we’d lead? I could bring it to the surface, keep the memories alive. It definitely seemed to calm Jen down in a crisis, bringing her some measure of peace and balance. She could revel in the happier memories, tell her stories to Sara and me, do right by the people she’d left behind. She’d never forget, and the more painful memories might never get the closure they really needed, but at least she could pull through.

  Of course, she’d already tried that with Sara, and apparently broken down completely during their family dinner only an hour later. Meanwhile, that approach could only spell doom for Carl. Every mention of Cyraveil, of the world he longed to return to, and the betrayals and sacrifices we’d made without following through on the consequences, would only bring him more anguish.

  There was the third choice, always lingering the deepest recesses of my brain. To return. To jump back as if no time had passed on the other side. To fling ourselves away from this world permanently, vanishing into thin air and resuming our lives in Cyraveil.

  I’d rejected it out of hand after hearing it the first time, and again every time it had floated back up in my thoughts—but as our lives continued to spiral into chaos in Earth, it kept swirling around my brain as a final option. It was an escape valve, through which I still kept some measure of control.

  “I’m home!” came a shout from the garage. I struggled to my feet; one of my legs had fallen asleep from the awkward angle I’d sunk into. I was still sitting out back, long after Jen had left, and missed the garage door opening. I hurried out to help her with the groceries I knew she’d have brought home. Sure enough, she was carrying two bags on her arm as I walked past, and I grabbed up the third she’d set down to open the door.

  “Oh, thanks Matt. You’re my favorite son, you know that?”

  “I’m glad I beat out the competition.”

  Mom set down the bags on the counter and ruffled my hair. I flinched away instinctively, and she laughed. I’d never liked people touching my hair, which of course meant she did it at every possible opportunity.

  “How long until you head out again?”

  Her eyes flashed. She smirked. “Oh, you want me to leave? Need the house to yourself?”

  “I have work too, Mom.” I rolled my eyes.

  “Oh, so it’s not for a pretty girl then.”

  “Did she tell you?” I asked, surprised.

  “So there is a girl?” Mom looked equally surprised. “And she would have told me? Ooh, this is getting juicy.” She opened the fridge and started putting away the milk. “Do tell.”

  “There isn’t,” I sighed. “Or, I’m not sure if there is. We went on a date, but it was sort… interrupted.”

  “She didn’t like your hair?” Mom reached out and plucked at it.

  I brushed her away irritably. “No. There were just other things to talk about. Big things.” I shrugged. “I don’t think you could really call it a date in the end.”

  “If you say so,” she replied absently. She was digging through the cupboard, trying to find something she could eat quickly before she had to head out again. I think something in my voice got to her though, as she suddenly stopped and turned around to face me, very serious. “Is something wrong?”

  I didn’t want to lie to my own mother, not more than was absolutely necessary. I let my exhaustion show, all the stress built up in my head seeping out into my face in one smooth wave. “I have to make a choice about something, and I’m having a hard time figuring out what’s best.”

  She looked confused, but it didn’t deter her. “What sort of choice?”

  “Between two important people, and which one I believe is right. Or if neither of them are. I don’t know.” I shrugged again. “Whichever I decide, there’s no going back. No do-overs. It’ll be final.”

  “Do I know either of these people?”

  “...Yes.”

  Mom’s eyes narrowed. “Is one of them Jenny?”

  I almost corrected her on the name, but managed to stop myself in time. “Yeah.”

  She shook her head, still puzzled. “Well, I won’t pretend to have a clue what’s going on, and your sister definitely isn’t right all the time, so I’m not going to tell you to take her side. Just remember, Jenny’s your sister. No matter what you might think, you two need to stick together. So she can protect you and you can protect her too.” Mom smiled at me. “So take her side if she’s right, and if she’s wrong, make sure she doesn’t get left behind. That she understands why you chose what you did, and that you’re still on her side no matter what. Family always comes first.”

  Once again, Mom’s advice didn’t really help much. It didn’t make my choice any easier, and it only did a little to comfort me. I appreciated the effort though.

  “That didn’t really help much, did it?” Mom added nonchalantly, echoing my thoughts. She turned back toward the cupboard. “Sorry. Let me say this, then. I trust you, no matter what you decide. I know you think things through, and you always follow through on your decisions, and I know you care about your sister. You’ll choose right, I’m sure. You’re a good man, Matt.”

  Suddenly, I felt tears spring to my eyes.I still didn’t necessarily agree with her, but I needed it more than a drowning man needed air. I wanted her reassurances. I wanted to commit everything she said to memory, because I had felt my mind tick over, ever so slightly, to the other side. Without warning, without fanfare, I’d begun actually considering taking the third option. Going back to Cyraveil.

  I pushed it away. I had a real life here. Friends and family. I had school and work, and a relationship I actually wanted to pursue with Sara, even if we’d gotten off to a rocky start. I liked the calm and the quiet, a life far away from the danger and madness. What could possibly drive me to return?

  My mother had pointed it out. I did always strive to follow through on decisions. Yet, as I’d told Sara myself, I’d run away. From Cyraveil, from the choices I’d made there. When the battle was won, the new alliances formed, when they’d asked for a leader to help them move forward and maintain order in the new kingdom, what had I done? I hadn’t worked with them to establish a new state, overturn the terrible laws that had lead to the rebellion in the first place.

  No, I’d fled. I’d taken an out no one could have seen coming, a portal to another world none of them had ever heard of (or believed in, if they were the few generals I had taken into my confidence). I’d retreated to a place no one could follow.

  I had abandoned them, and worse, I’d dragged away two people that might not have wanted to follow. I’d told Sara I’d forced Jen home, but that wasn’t exactly true. Jen had known of our ability to return, but I’d not told her that it was entirely up to me—that I could trigger it at any time. Jen and I had discussed it, but we’d never actually made a decision.

  I’d finally given in, at a moment when I’d finally been truly overwhelmed. Blake was dead, Reynir was dead, Carl was nowhere to be found. The people were literally at my doorstep clamoring for leadership, and I didn’t know what to do. I had no idea how to lead now that we’d won. All I wanted was to run away—and then I’d remembered, I actually had that option.

  In my chambers, with people banging on the door begging for an audience, I’d disappeared. I felt like I owed them an apology. An explanation for why I’d abandoned them in their time of need.

  I forced my mind back to the present. Those people were far away, impossibly far away. There was nothing I could do for them now. Instead, I had a sister to protect and a friend to…

  To what? To confront? To debate? To comfort?

  I still wasn’t sure.

  
  

***

  
  

  I was actually grateful I had work that night. I’d take anything to give me a reprieve from my thoughts, even if it meant mindlessly dealing with customers. As long as I was occupied, I wouldn’t be stewing through my own head. When I wasn’t helping customers, I was talking about anything I could with my coworker, no doubt annoying him to death.

  Unfortunately for my sanity, though, I was about to have the entire store to myself. My late night partner had called in sick, so I was going to have the slowest part of the shift all to myself, until someone else came in to cover. I’d tried to mentally prepare myself, rifling through the magazine racks for anything that looked even remotely interesting to read, but nothing caught my eye. I was about to give up on finding anything to do when our store phone rang.

  Now, the store phone almost never rang, and it never meant anything good. I picked it up with a bit of fear—only to hear a voice I’d never expected, but one I very happily welcomed in that moment.

  “Hi. Is this Matt?” It was a bit crackly, as our store phone wasn’t exactly the greatest, but she was still perfectly audible, and a great relief to the endless hum of the machines and beep from the front door.

  “Sara?” I asked incredulously.

  “Yeah. Jen told me where you worked.”

  “...Hi. How are you?”

  “I’m good, but that’s not why I called.”

  I took a breath. Whatever she said next, I knew it wasn’t going to end well. “What’s going on?”

  “It’s Carl.

  My heart sank. This really wasn’t going to end well. “What did he do?”

  “That’s the thing. I think he’s going to do something.” Sara’s voice picked up in urgency as she went on. “He just called me. Talked about the police and about Blake. He seemed scared. He refused to talk about anything in particular, and he just hung up out of nowhere. I don’t think he’s all there, you know?”

  I tried to rationalize it, if only for my own sake. “Well, he isn’t aware that you know. That might be why he didn’t talk about much.”

  “You guys didn’t tell him?” she asked, surprised.

  “We haven’t actually talked in a while,” I replied, a little embarrassed. “I don’t know where he is.”

  “Matt, that’s really, really bad, isn’t it? Jen didn’t say much about him, but he was a pretty big deal over there, right?”

  “Yes. He was a general, kind of. A lord.”

  “So he’s already feeling a loss of power, and now he’s missing out on his friends, and losing control all over. He’s going to try and get that back somehow.”

  “I don’t know what to do about that,” I admitted. Something about her made me want to be honest, or maybe I just really wanted advice from someone who knew what was going on, since my mother hadn’t been much help.

  “...I don’t either,” Sara replied, to my dismay. “But we can’t just leave him to wander alone out on the streets. He needs help.”

  The door bell chimed. I looked up, and a shabby-looking man was there, looking at me expectantly. “I’m sorry, Sara. I have to go. I’ll keep that in mind.”

  “Okay. Good luck,” she added as I hung up.

  The man just wanted a pack of cigarettes. While I checked his ID, the door chimed again. I didn’t bother to look up until the new voice addressed me directly.

  “Matt, we need to talk.” His tone chilled my blood to ice. It was a voice I hadn’t heard in a long time. Not Carl, but the voice of the Lord of Candir, whom I’d never trusted for a second. The man who’d betrayed Reynir Cellman, to his ultimate death.

  “Hi, Carl,” I said, trying to keep things calm. The customer was struggling with his wallet, his hands unsteady. I prayed he’d get out of here soon, before Carl started talking—but as usual, fate and I were still at odds.

  “I’m going to find a way back, and you’re going to help,” said Carl. There was no anger in his voice, only determination and confidence. Even so, it worried me. I didn’t have control of this situation. I was adrift, and danger lurked in every corner, waiting to strike.

  “Not sure what you’re talking about,” I said mildly. The customer finally got his wallet out of his pocket, and began to count out change coin by coin.

  “I found a guy. Daniel Whitman. He knows about Cyraveil. He’ll know how to get there. He even lives in town, Matt! We can go back. All of us.” Carl sounded almost deranged. His voice rose as he went on. I had no idea what he was talking about. It seemed illogical. The thoughts didn’t flow together right.

  “How are you sure?”

  “I know he will, Matt. Trust me.”

  I could never trust you Carl. “That’s kind of hard to believe.”

  “Okay, look,” he said impatiently. He turned to the customer, still counting out nickels. “Hey, get lost?”

  “Jus’ be a secon’,” the man muttered. Carl’s eyes narrowed.

  “Carl, it’s fine,” I cut in, but Carl was already closing on him. He grabbed the man’s hands, and started tossing his money on the counter.

  “Hey now!”

  “Just shut up. Here.” Carl shoved the pack at him. “Get going.”

  I hopped the counter, landing behind Carl. I grabbed his arm and his shoulder, twisting him around and pinning him to the glass display of lottery tickets next to us. He was too surprised to react in time. “Carl, calm down.”

  “Matt, what the fuck?” He struggled, but he was too weak to do much to me on Earth. I had no trouble holding him steady.

  “Calm. Down.” I turned to the customer. “Please excuse my friend. I’m sorry about this.”

  “Don’ worry ‘bou’ it,” the guy mumbled. He took his smokes and the change, and left in a hurry. Once I was sure he was gone, I let Carl free.

  He came back swinging, but it was too obvious. The punch was too telegraphed. I dodged it easily. I stepped back and waited calmly for Carl’s next move. He was heaving breaths, but he seemed to recognize finally that attacking me wasn’t going to accomplish anything.

  “Are you good?” I asked.

  “...Yes,” he replied. It was more calm than I expected. I entertained the faint hope that he actually was under control.

  “You wanted to talk?”

  “Yeah.”

  “...So?”

  “Don’t you want to go back?” Carl asked, exasperated.

  “No,” I said firmly—but if I was being honest, I’d never been more on the fence about it.

  “But—”

  “It was one part of my life, and it’s over now. I’m trying to move on, Carl.”

  “You were a general. A leader. A revolutionary,” Carl said breathlessly. “You started a movement. You toppled an empire. You were important and powerful. They would have given you anything. Why wouldn’t you want to have all that?”

  “Did you rehearse that?” I asked, raising an eyebrow.

  “Take this seriously, goddammit,” he snapped. “That was you, wasn’t it? You’re a natural leader. Those speeches, man. You said you were just improvising, but you inspired people to fight. To die. ‘Eternal glory’, wasn’t that it? How they’d be remembered, even if they died in the struggle, breaking chains? You’d fight for the silent and something-something.”

  I shrugged. “I got that from a song.”

  Carl paused. I saw him twitch a bit, before a laugh of all things erupted through im. “Fucking song lyrics. Your’e kidding.”

  “Nope.” I shook my head. “Straight from the song. I barely even changed them.”

  Carl laughed harder. I grinned nervously. Maybe he was getting back to normal.

  “See, this is why you have to come back, Matt!” My hopes were dashed as quickly as they’d grown. “Help me find this guy. We can all go back. You belong there, I belong there, Jen definitely belongs there. We’ll all go back, all of us, and everything will be okay.”

  Carl wasn’t stable, that much was obvious. He didn’t know what he was doing. He’d completely jumped off the deep end. At the same time though, I did consider his words.

  Maybe we did belong there. I felt like I had unfinished business now. Between Carl’s reminders and Jen’s recollections, I was brought back to those moments just before I’d decided to bring us home. The people there were depending on me for a solution, to lead them through crises. I was insane to think it would just all work itself out. We’d just overthrown a generations-old dynastic government; chaos was bound to follow no matter how well we handled the transition. We’d only just begun our work there.

  Responsible. Everybody called me the responsible one. I don’t know how much I agreed with them, but I couldn’t deny I felt an obligation to these people. I had a duty to them, after having asked them for so much. Those speeches I gave, the oaths I made. I would betray the spirit of my people’s sacrifices if I didn’t come back to follow through on what I’d promised.

  Not just the people I’d lead, but there was another, more personal sacrifice I had to honor. An agreement made in the dead of night, around a low burning fire in the command tend on the outskirts of the city. A promise I’d made to a dear friend, far braver than any of us, who knew he was going to die but charged forward without regrets. Blake had loved that world, and the people within. He’d made me swear to make it a better place, whatever it took.

  As my past words echoed through my head, I looked back at Carl with a cold eye. Even if I felt like I might need to return, I knew Carl shouldn’t. He was a far better person before we’d left. Kinder and warmer, if a bit annoying. He’d become so cold and distant now. I hesitated to admit it, but I felt like Cyraveil had created a monster in him—one that never should have been woken.

  Carl couldn’t return with us. I’d seen him betray a best friend first hand, turn his back and let him die at the hands of a ravenous horde of revolutionaries. I would never, ever trust him again.

  “Go home, Carl,” I said softly.

  His face fell. “That’s it? That’s all you’ve got to say?” His voice was as quiet as my own.

  “Cyraveil doesn’t exist,” I said firmly, consciously echoing my words from the night we’d come back.

  Carl shook his head. “You’ll change your mind. Eventually.” He turned and left the store, and I felt like the room instantly became lighter. I found it easier to breathe, as if the weight of Carl’s presence had settled right on my lungs. The release seemed to affirm my decision to shut him out. I leaned back against the counter, once again lost in thought.

  Now I had two paths in front of me. One of them grew increasingly dimmer each day, which I’d tried to walk down but had lost my way. Beside me, another path began, where my sister and a world I thought I’d sworn off loomed like ancient towering statues, silently judging my every move.

  I felt my mind turn, and with reluctance and fear in my heart, I stared down that second path.

  

  

  

  

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Etzoli

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Bio: Sysadmin, wordsmith, TV obsessive, pretzel addict.
Many keyboards have perished in my pursuit of wordcounts.

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