Chapter 16 — Matt
"You'll never guess what I—"
"Just spit it out already."
"Stokelson popped up at Westin's place of work."
"We picked up a security tape from the store at their request after a theft report. Fast forwarded through it and saw this. Looks like some kind of confrontation."
"From a dirt-cheap convenience store security cam?"
"Okay, fine. Still, between this and Carl being essentially on the run, I think we have enough to bring him in properly."
"So next time I see him-"
"We're authorized to detain him. With force, if you have to."
It was past midnight, and Jen still wasn’t home.
I couldn’t sit still. I was pacing the house anxiously. I had no idea where Carl might be either, and no idea where to start looking for either of them. I’d called Sara’s house, but no one picked up. Mom wasn’t home yet at least, so I didn’t have to explain that yet, but there wasn’t a chance I could even think about going to sleep, no matter how tired I already was.
There was constant hum to the real world. I’d noticed it the second I got back, but it seemed even more oppressive now. Whether it was the steady purr of the refrigerator, or the barely perceptible crackle of electricity in every direction, I felt surrounded by suppressed energy. It was like the world was ready to spring into action any second, a rubber band stretched taut and always on the verge of release. To my mind, that release could only spell disaster.
Shortly after Carl left the store, my closer showed up, and I got home without incident. Of course, without something even as mundane as work to keep me busy, I’d fallen right back into stewing through my own thoughts, re-examining every piece of our conversation in detail before it faded into memory.
Carl was crazy and desperate; that much was obvious. He’d gone over the line. He was going to do something, I had no doubt. I had to stop him, but what could I do?
The question was going to eat at me all night.
He mentioned a name. Daniel Whitman. I had to figured out who that was.
I went upstairs to my computer and booted it up. It hummed into life, adding yet another layer of sound pressing on my ears. Carl had built this computer for me; in fact, every single piece was a hand-me-down from his own machines. We’d never be able to afford a computer this nice. Now, I had to use his gift to stop him. The irony wasn’t lost on me.
It didn’t take too long to find a Daniel Whitman in the area. I might not be as good with computers or the internet as Carl, but it really wasn’t hard to search up a person’s name and location. Even so, Whitman didn’t have much info available publicly. I knew he was a real person, and he lived locally, but I couldn’t get anything else.
But Carl was obsessed with him. Either he had a lot more to go on than I did, or he was even more desperate than I’d thought.
Should I call the police? Whitman might not actually be in any immediate danger. Who was I even supposed to call? I didn’t think nine-one-one was appropriate. This probably wasn’t urgent. Maybe the police had some kind of non-emergency tipline. Something to rein Carl in, get him back home safely.
The two detectives on our doorstep felt like it had happened weeks ago, even though it was only yesterday. The police made me uncomfortable, though I wasn’t sure why. It wasn’t like I had anything to hide, or that I’d done anything wrong—in this world, at least. Yet whenever I saw a police cruiser on the road, or a uniformed officer on the street, I instinctively fell into the most non-threatening, innocent stance I could muster. I had never interacted with them once until yesterday.
If I called them, was I tossing Carl to the wolves?
Or was I doing the right thing, putting a potentially dangerous man into the spotlight for the authorities to handle?
What if I did nothing?
The last option seemed ludicrous. When it popped into my head, I laughed aloud. I couldn’t do nothing. That’s what had started this whole mess. I went back to weighing my original options, but the idea kept lurking in the background, like a patient hunting cat. As I kept pacing, my mind overburdened by pressure, it prowled back to the forefront again and again.
I could just do nothing.
It went against my gut, but the idea was incredibly appealing. Why should I be forced to take responsibility for Carl’s actions? He was to blame, not me. I hadn’t asked for any of this, and now that I’d finally escaped, I was still paying the cost for actions I’d taken under wildly different circumstances. It wouldn’t be totally unreasonable to just wash my hands of the whole thing, and let Carl determine his own fate without my involvement.
I stumbled on the staircase as I walked down it for the sixth or seventh time. I clutched at the railing in a sudden panic. Doubt flooded back in. I wasn’t that cold, was I? The fact I’d even considered it scared me. Carl was my friend—or, well, he had been. I couldn’t just abandon him. If I was actually considering returning to Cyraveil, I had to at least consider whether or not to bring Carl along.
I was getting nowhere. I’d been through all of this before. I’d felt such conviction after we’d run into each other at the store, but now I had doubts.
Leave it to Jen to crash into my thoughts and scatter everything once again.
Just as I reached the bottom of the staircase, the door swung wide, and there she was. My sister, bag and quiver over her shoulder, leading Sara in by the hand.
“It’s a bit late,” I remarked, falling back into my role as an escape from my own confusion. I regretted the flippant tone instantly, though, as Jen shot me a dark look.
Something had gone wrong. Sara’s face was a mess, and she refused to meet my eyes. Jen looked seriously amped up. She was breathing fast, and her eyes darted around like she was checking the room for threats.
I stood very still, waiting for her to make the first move.
“Is Mom here?” asked Jen. I shook my head. “Good. Sara, come on. Let’s get you to the couch, okay?” Her voice softened as she turned ot Sara. They walked into the living room. “Matt, could you go make something? Hot chocolate?”
“Sure.” I retreated into the kitchen gratefully, while Jen grabbed a blanket. She wrapped it around Sara’s shoulders and stayed close, still acting like a guardian for her friend.
I had no idea what was going on, but I could tell it was going to be an even longer night than I expected.
I took longer than I needed to make the hot chocolate. I could hear them murmuring in the next room, and I didn’t think it smart to intrude, as much as I wanted to. I wasn’t quite sure where I stood with Sara in this kind of situation. Yeah, I liked her, and we’d gone on one date, but that was hardly anything compared to this. I’d barely hung out with her even before we’d left—and since we’d got back, everything had been about Jen and Cyraveil, or Carl and my own fears. Maybe someday I’d be there for her like Jen, but definitely not tonight.
“What’s taking so long, Matt?” Jen called.
So maybe I’d misjudged it a bit. I quickly grabbed up the three mugs and brought them in, setting them on the coffee table. Sara and Jen were seated together on our small couch, so I took the chair opposite, trying to relax. Sara’s eyes were downcast and her face pale, but nobody seemed like they were in immediate danger. She sipped the drink gratefully while Jen and I shot each other significant looks.
I had no idea what Jen was trying to tell me silently. I don’t know if other siblings can do stuff like that, but Jen and I sure couldn’t. Especially not these days.
“Are you guys okay?” I asked. Before Jen could answer, her mouth already open and eyes narrowed, I raised my hand. “Sorry, that was a stupid question. What can I do?”
Jen shook her head. “Nothing right now. Sara’s probably spending the night though.”
I nodded. My mind immediately jumped to offering my bed up for her, but luckily I realized how that might get… misconstrued, before I brought it up. Jen saved me anyway by blowing away any other thoughts with her next sentence.
“More important though, Matt. I was out in the forest and I found a—well, a rock.”
I raised an eyebrow. “A rock?”
“Let me finish. It had Etoline carved into it. It showed me how we can go back.”
Like a rock through a window pane. My mind seemed to fall apart, twisting in painful, confused contortions. Even as I’d been agonizing over whether or not to tell her, Jen went and found out anyway. I wasn’t sure whether to be glad or worried about what came next.
“There’s a catch, though.”
“Only three people.”
I wished more than anything that Sara weren’t in the room. At the same time, I realized why Jen had started this topic in front of us both. “You want it to be us three,” I said slowly.
“Well, I dunno,” she went on, and my mind skipped another beat. “I thought, maybe you didn’t want to come back. Maybe you were happier here.”
“So just you two?”
Jen looked confused. “No, it has to be three. I meant us and Carl.”
“Right. Of course.” I actually hadn’t known about that rule. All I’d known was where to go if I needed to go back. Apparently, I wouldn’t have gotten far without Jen either way.
She looked a bit suspicious, but didn’t bring it up. Instead, as she brought her hand up to her face, brushing away some hair from her eyes, I saw red. An all-too-familiar red.
I lurched forward, reaching for her arm. “Jen, what happened?”
“La se masadalv.” Jen pulled away, dodging my hand. “It’s nothing.”
“Okay, yeah, it’s blood. I didn’t want to bring it up.”
“Look, can we not do this right now?” Something in her voice, the weight of emotion crackling just under the surface, set me back. I forced myself to relax in my seat, waiting patiently. I wanted desperately to know what happened, but since neither of them seemed injured, I doubted I was going to get past Jen anytime soon.
I folded my arms and looked her directly in the eye. “Do I need to know anything?” I asked, as calmly as I could.
“No, you really don’t,” she snapped.
It had the desired effect. Jen visibly calmed down a bit. I noticed that her right hand, the one I hadn’t been watching, was white-knuckled clutching Sara’s. Sara was still looking at the floor, and I had no idea what she might be feeling.
“Sara,” I started, and her head snapped upward. Even though I could tell she’d just been crying, her face was like a rock, utterly devoid of anything I could read.
“Hi, Matt,” she spoke, for the first time all night. “Sorry for crashing.” It was the weak, jovial tone of real despair, when you’re so depressed you have to treat everything like a bad joke so you don’t drag everyone else down with you.
“You’re always welcome here.”
“Thanks… but I guess we might not ever see it again?”
“You really want to go across?” I asked, surprised.
“Yes.” She said it so fiercely I was taken aback.
“Because it has to be better than here,” she said simply. She sounded so certain. All doubt in my mind flew away. She’d go, heedless of anything I might say. I wasn’t going to get anywhere convincing her otherwise, and I wasn’t sure I really wanted to either.
“Is this an interrogation?” Jen cut in. “We’re all adults here. Well, not Sara, but she’s close enough.”
“I’m older than you,” she pointed out.
Jen shook her head. “You aren’t, but the point is, she can make her own decisions.”
“But what about Carl?” I asked.
Jen faltered. Her eyes fell. “...Yeah.”
Silence stretched out for minutes. In that time, I decided, finally, to commit. I felt it like a lever in my head, a titanic switch that shifted my entire life from one track—where I’d live on in this house, with my mother and the real world I’d never paid much attention to—back onto the other rail. A life I had truly lived, with real purpose and meaning, with responsibilities I couldn’t abandon and people that actually relied on me. I was afraid, I was beyond afraid, but I knew I had to go back.
Not only that, but my sister had to go back too. If she was to return to the world that had uncovered her, this huntress of the forest who built bridges between whole races, it was only right that I’d go with her. I’d made a promise, to both my mother and myself, that I’d protect her. Okay, when I made that promise, I’d never expected just how far it’d take me, but it didn’t matter. I’d keep that promise, from the day I made it until my dying breath.
Jen doesn’t need my protection though, came the nagging doubt in the back of my head. Look at her. She’s more capable than you’ve ever been. If she goes back, she had magic, and the might of the elves, and a whole list of other things at her side. Why do you have to follow her across?
Because I promised, I answered myself, driving that doubt away. Because even when she doesn’t need my protection, even though she could probably protect me far better than I could ever do for her, she was still my sister, and I was afraid to live in a world without her.
There it was. I was afraid. I’d raised her when my mother couldn’t, and I couldn’t bear the thought of losing her. Even if I could be guaranteed she’d be safe on the other side, that wans’t enough. The six years I’d spent in Cyraveil, I’d never stopped looking for her. No matter what else I did, through all the fighting and wars and politics and adventures, my objective was always to find Jen. To make sure she was safe, and happy. We were a team, and we always had been. I wasn’t about to give that up.
“We’ll go back. Us three.”
Jen’s eyes widened. I saw joy flit across her face, and knew I’d made the right decision. Even so, it was quickly replaced with more doubt and worry. I knew what was coming next. “But, Carl—”
“I know. If I go, he can’t.”
Jen shook her head in dismay. “Why did it have to be three?”
“Hey, you’re the magical one here.”
“Oh, se develd. This sort of thing is way outside of what I learned.”
“But you understand it enough to do it, right?” I asked.
“Yeah, I guess it must be because three of us came back. Things being equal, that’s important sometimes. But then other times it doesn’t mean shit. I don’t know.”
“It’s magic. It’ll never make sense,” said Sara quietly.
“As the one who actually has to move us across dimensions,” grumbled Jen, “I’d sure like it to.”
“What else do we know about it?” I asked.
“Well,” said Jen, rubbing her hands together. “I can’t guarantee we’ll end up in the same place when we get there. But I think we’ll stick together this time at least. So long as we’re touching.”
“Well, that’s a relief.”
“No kidding.” Jen smiled.
Sara shifted uncomfortably next to her. Jen glanced over, brow furrowed. “Second thoughts?”
“No,” she said firmly. “I need to do this. But I feel like I’m robbing Carl of his own chance.”
“You deserve this,” said Jen. “More than the rest of us.”
“Says the one who’s guaranteed a spot.”
“And I want you with me,” she shot back.
“I think you’re avoiding the issue.” My heart sank. Sara was right, though I hadn’t wanted to come back around to it. “Carl’s seriously messed up, and I’m guessing it has to do with Blake, right?”
I nodded. “Blake was his best friend. We… lost him.”
Jen’s face fell. “And we can’t just ditch Carl like this.”
I cleared my throat. This was the moment. Everything was on the line now. I had to do it. “I think he’d understand.”
I took a deep breath. The reluctance and timing was critical. They had to believe me. “Carl’s smart. We all know that. He’d understand why you have to go back. As for me, he might not agree with what I stood for, or the side I fought for, but he knew how important it was. He knows I left so much undone. Plus, I’m not really going anywhere in this world. I don’t have anything. I’m just a nobody. Carl said it himself, how much better suited I am to Cyraveil.”
“Okay, so we’re both great. He was too,” Jen interrupted. “He had a whole city that worshipped him, Matt. Not sure where you’re going with this.”
“Was,” I said, nodding for emphasis. “Carl was broken by that world. You saw it yourself. He hasn’t been the same since he got back, not at all. Any time Cyraveil came up, he was totally broken. Both of his closest friends died there, and he blames himself for it. He couldn’t help them. Cyraveil was horrible for him.”
“So you think he’d be better off here?”
Jen still looked skeptical. “Shouldn’t we talk this over with Carl?”
“Think about what that would do to him,” I continued, still improvising as fast as I could. I couldn’t tell if Jen really believed me or not, but I had to give her enough to accept it. “Right now, Carl’s just finally getting over Blake’s death, and accepting that he can’t come back. He’s taking steps forward, returning to his old self, everything. He’s smart, and he has a family that can support him, and other friends. He’ll be successful in life here for sure, and the skills he picked up there apply pretty well over here too. Carl can recover.”
“What about you?”
“I don’t belong here anymore,” I sighed. It was true, though I did still regret it. “Mom was practically pushing me out the door already, even though I have no idea what to do with my life. I already did my whole life’s work in Cyraveil. Everything here would just feel like an afterthought. If I go back, I can continue that. I abandoned everyone, and now I got a second chance. I don’t want to let it slip by.”
Jen studied my face, and finally, she nodded very slowly. “...Okay.”
I didn’t say anything. I felt like I’d done all I could. Either I’d persuaded Jen, or I hadn’t. The rest was all up to her.
Sara, at least, looked convinced. I wasn’t sure if it was because she actually believed me, or if she just wanted to avoid conflict and get out of here faster. I couldn’t blame her if it was the latter. I decided to shift the conversation, before Jen dwelled too long on her decision.
“You don’t have to tell me what happened tonight—” I said, returning to my old voice. The voice of the leader of the companions, our group of four. It felt natural, and that only renwed my conviction. I was making the right call. “—but I do need to know if it’s something that’s going to draw attention to us.”
Sara looked uneasy. “It… might,” she said, glancing at Jen. My sister was staring straight ahead, unflinching.
“Okay,” I said. “Then we might want to leave as soon as possible. Does it matter what time?” I prompted Jen. She shook her head. “Can we bring anything?” Again, a shake of the head. I was disappointed, but I wasn’t surprised. When we’d last crossed, we kept our clothes, but absolutely nothing else. Flashlights, phones, the works—all gone.
“What about Mom?” Jen asked, glancing at the front door.
“She should be home in a few hours. We’ll see her then.”
We spent the next few minutes figuring out logistics—when to leave, what to take, what to wear, so on—before Sara finally gave up on suppressing a yawn. Jen was quick to hurry her upstairs, while I stayed behind to clean up the mugs. I was at the sink rinsing away when Jen suddenly appeared next to me. I jumped.
“You know, it’s really unsettling how quiet you are.”
“You jealous?” she asked, picking up a plate from the pile and starting to scrub it clean.
“If you ask nicely, maybe I could teach you a few tricks.”
“Could come in handy.” I set the mugs aside to dry and joined her in going through the rest of the dishes. We worked in silence for a few minutes, Jen washing while I rinsed and dried them one by one. It was nice. Simple, good work that let us do something together again.
“What will you do when we get there?” I asked.
Jen grinned. “Find Naef, introduce her to Sara, and then throw a really great party.”
“Don’t burn the forest down.”
“What about you?” she asked, nudging me in the side.
“I don’t know yet,” I replied honestly.
“I heard you were promised to what’s her name. Kristvina?”
I snorted. “Jen, I couldn’t stand to be in the same room as her for more than ten seconds. She was awful. That was all politics.”
“You were the best gossip in town, though!” Jen laughed. “Everybody was so shocked that the great and mighty leader of the rebellion could see through to her highness’ inner beauty!”
I set aside the next plate, trying not to laugh. “Trust me, nothing inside her was beautiful either. She was a moron.”
Jen frowned. “Well, that’s not very nice.”
“Okay, by moron, I mean the worst sort of conniving, backstabbing noble, but totally incompetent at that too.”
“Okay, that sounds about right.”
“All she had was an important family name. Nothing else.”
“Still, that could be useful,” Jen mused.
I paused to consider it. Jen wasn’t wrong. “You know, you’re right. And honestly, she might be way better if she wasn’t being pressed into marrying me either. She hated the idea. Probably why she kept trying to sabotage it.”
“Keldaphut, are you actually taking my advice for once?” Jen said, in mock-amazement.
Another few minutes passed by silently, as we continued to clean up the kitchen. It wasn’t awkward though; if anything, it was comfortable and peaceful. We’d come to an unspoken agreement that we wanted to make the house look perfect before we left. Leave it better than we found it, just like Mom always taught us.
As Jen put away a stack of plates, her shirt lifted up just enough for me to spot the knife sheathed at the small of her back. My mind jumped back to the blood stained on her hand when she’d arrived with Sara—the blood on her knife hand.
“...Jen, what happened tonight?”
“We had a brother-sister bonding moment,” she answered, still up on her toes to put the plates in order. “Don’t worry about it. I won’t take it too seriously.”
I leaned back against the refrigerator, watching her carefully. “Who did you stab?”
Jen nearly knocked the whole stack over as she whipped around. “I—”
“You said I didn’t need to know, but I’m worried about you. Both of you. Please.”
She righted the plates again, and dried off her hands with a towel. She didn’t speak for a full minute, while I waited patiently, working up to the words.
I wasn’t sure what answer I’d expected, but definitely not that. “What?”
Her eyes narrowed, and her voice got very quiet. “He was hurting her. Hurting them both. I stopped him.”
“He’ll be fine,” she said calmly. My panic ebbed away, but between her tone and the images in my head, I was still anxious beyond measure. “Sara couldn’t stay there, and after what I did…” Jen trailed off. She took a moment to compose herself again before she went on. “I thought I could do something for her, you know? Something nobody else could. I could offer her a real way out. She could have a life with me and my suunsyl, or any other life she wants. It’s a fresh start.”
“Did you tell her what Cyraveil can be like?” I pointed out. “It’s not like it’s easier to live there than here.”
“Harder, yeah, but it’s worth it. Or it will be. I’ll make sure it is,” Jen said fiercely. “She won’t ever have to be afraid again.”
I smiled. “Okay.”
“What about you two though?” Jen asked, winking at me. She was trying to change subjects as quickly as she could, and I wholeheartedly welcomed the sudden shift in tone. “You gonna keep going out with her after we go home?”
I shrugged. “Maybe once the dust settles and I figure out where we stand. I’ll have way too much going on in the next few weeks, and she’s gonna have a lot of adjusting to do. I dunno.”
“Careful,” said Jen. “Wait too long and she might fall for some handsome dusylf. Some of them are pretty sexy. I’ve been tempted, plenty of times.”
“I don’t need to hear this.” I busied myself with putting away dishes again.
Jen snickered. “And we’ve got magic on our side. You’re gonna have to work extra hard at keeping her happy,” she teased.
“Uh huh. Why don’t you go see how she’s doing? I think I can handle the rest here.”
“No fun at all,” she groaned, rolling her eyes. She vanished from the room the moment I turned away, again without a whisper of sound. Knowing just how much the stairs creaked in our house, I was astounded that I couldn’t even tell when she’d gone upstairs.
I might have just been joking around with her, but there was another reason I needed my sister to leave the room. There was something I had to do, something I was dreading, but knew I couldn’t avoid. Not after the story she’d just told me. Every terrible future in my head had to be avoided.
Carl couldn’t be allowed to just roam free without intervention. Somebody had to raise an alarm, give him attention. At the rate he was going, someone was bound to get hurt. I dreaded to think what Carl could do if he truly went mad. His parents, or his friends, or this Daniel Whitman he’d been talking to.
It couldn’t end well. Not unless I did something. I had to tell someone what was going on. Make sure he got help of some kind. My first thought was his parents, but I dismissed that quickly enough. Carl was already on the run from them; they couldn’t really help in any significant way anymore.
I could try to get in touch with some of his other friends, but I felt like I’d run into the same problem. Carl was still trying to return to Cyraveil, and he felt like he had to hide from the cops and his family both. He wouldn’t trust any of his friends. He’d be completely on his own if he could manage it. They might be able to get him a message at least, but it wouldn't be enough. I needed something more direct.
A business card flashed through my memory.
I dug it out of my pocket. I’d stuffed it into my wallet. Detective Clark West, with both the main police line and his personal cell number. I flipped it over idly in my hand, thinking. Considering.
Was this right? It seemed like it might be the best option for him, under the circumstances. They’d find him and pick him up. They’d take him back home safely. If they cops were involved, and they got in touch with his parents, plus whatever warning I could come up with… Maybe everything would work out. Carl would get counseling, they’d declare him sane, he’d return to society again. I doubted he’d ever actually return Cyraveil, but he’d be back to normal.
He’d never be able to explain our sudden disappearance, but that was something I couldn’t help. I had to hope he’d recognize what we’d done, and finally choose to live a normal life, with all other avenues closed off to him.
Was I betraying him, in the same way he’d betrayed Reynir? Did I even have a problem with that if I was? Did I want him to stay behind because I didn’t trust him, or because it was the easy way out?
I flipped that card over again and again. I had too many doubts. Maybe my first opinion, my gut feeling was right. If Carl never heard another thing from us, if we just suddenly vanished, that could be just as good as trying to intervene in his life. Maybe better, since he wouldn’t get even further onto the cops’ radar. He could really return to a normal life.
I didn’t have the answers. Everyone always assumed I could come up with them, but most of the time I was improvising. I was always hanging on by a thread. There was only so much information I could gather, only so much time I had to plan things out. I could feel the sand falling away in the hourglass, grain grain, and I knew I had to make a choice.
I flipped that card back and forth through my fingers for a very long time, watching the stars through the kitchen window. It was a quiet night. The calm before the storm, maybe? Or just the peace after a long battle? Maybe it was all just mental, because I was through with it all. I could just toss the card aside, let Carl be himself to whatever end.
I sat down and buried my face in my hands. I didn’t want this choice, with no right answers, but I knew it was the same type I’d be forced to make so many times over in the coming weeks and months. I had to decide, one way or the other. Even if I chose to remain idle, that was still a commitment. That was still conviction.
In that moment, with the pressure of two worlds bearing down on my shoulders, I finally stood up. I knew what I needed to do. I couldn’t let things just stay as they were, that wasn’t me. I made my choice, and I lived with the consequences, forever.