Chapter 18 — Jen
"Look, what harm could it do? The kid’s a mess."
"You saw what he did to Whitman."
"He's desperate, and things will go a lot smoother if we can get him to start talking. Anything we can get on record."
"I'll get him to-"
"Let him call his friend."
"A friendly face might do him some good."
"This is starting to sound like a broken record."
"Who's in charge again?"
"Yes, sir. Right away, sir."
"I saw that."
Matt and I had to leave. We’re not running away from home, so don’t worry about that. You didn’t do anything wrong. You’re the best. But… something’s come up and we have to go. We might not ever come back.
I wish I could tell you it’s nothing dangerous, but it might be. Just trust me, okay? This is something really, really important. I want to tell you, but I
“Masasak nara volavus sel nara kelendil,” I cursed under my breath. I wanted to comfort her, not send her into a blind panic.
“What’s up?” asked Sara, leaning over my shoulder. I tried to crumple up the letter, but she laid out a hand to stop me. “Jeez, your handwriting has gotten awful.”
In response, I flipped the sheet over and wrote out a long, elegant string of Etoline—something very rude I’m not gonna repeat here.
“I’m just going to assume that’s an insult.” She frowned. “What are you trying to write?”
“...A goodbye,” I said quietly.
Sara hesitated, glancing over her shoulder at the stairs. Mom still wasn’t home, and wouldn’t be for a few hours at least. “Aren’t you going to talk to her in person?”
I sighed and leaned back in my chair. “I don’t know.”
I glanced at the clock, which put us well past midnight. Mom still wouldn’t be home though. Last call for drinks wasn’t until 2:30 in the morning, and she had to stay after a bit to close up. I used to try and stay up late waiting for her to come home, but I rarely made it that far. I’d wake up the next morning with my alarm ringing in my ear, or sometimes with the sunrise, having magically transported back into my bed, nice and snug. On the very few occasions I’d actually seen her, she always greeted me with a warm hug—and then grounded me for staying up so late.
“I have a feeling I’m never gonna see her again.”
“Because of what Matt said?” she asked. “About us needing to leave soon?”
I shook my head. “I think we’re gonna get rushed out of here. That phone call was super weird.”
Sara nodded, just as puzzled as I was. Matt had gotten a phone call about half an hour earlier. They called the house, he picked up, and five minutes later he was in his truck. He’d promised to be home soon and asked us to start packing. I had no idea why he’d said that. It wasn’t like we could take anything with us. Probably just instinctive.
I shivered as the pieces clicked together in my mind, one by one, slowly uncovering the puzzle. There was another reason that I felt like I wouldn’t see my mother ever again, one I didn’t want to think about, and I was afraid to speak it aloud. But this was Sara. I needed to say something before it was too late. “That’s not everything, though.”
“Are you afraid to talk to her?”
“...Seka nara vack are you so smart all the time?” I asked incredulously.
“Jen, it’s okay,” she said, obviously trying to be comforting. I only felt worse, like I was hiding from my problems again.
“I feel like I’m running away,” I said, echoing myself. “Like maybe I’m just giving up too easily. I’m afraid she’ll talk me out of going. Does that make sense? Am I making sense?”
“Yes, it makes sense.” Sara shivered too, and it made me feel infinitely better about myself, that she wasn’t exactly comfortable with this either. “I feel exactly the same.”
“I just ran away from home,” she added, wincing. “I’m going to disappear from the whole world just to get away from my problems. I still think it’s the right idea, but I’ll be worried about it right up until we step across.”
“Well, it’s not really a step—”
She coughed. “Not the point, Jen.”
I glanced over at her. She was sitting cross-legged on my bed, my stupid frilly bed with a mismatched dinosaur blanket on top, picked more for warmth than because I liked the design. At least it was comfortable. More on topic, Sara’s eyes were fierce, her expression set and determined.
“I’m never going to know if this is the right thing to do,” she went on.” All I know is that something has to change. I’ve got an opportunity no one’s ever had, and I get to share it with my best friend in the whole world. It’s not an adventure. I just get to start over. All the good and the bad, but I’m gonna take it.” As she spoke, the confidence in her voice grew word by word. By the end, I was convinced.
“I’m glad you’re coming with me,” I said, and her face lit up like the sun had suddenly popped into my room.
“You’ll have to teach me more Etoline,” she added with a small smile. “I can’t wait to meet Naeflin.”
“You two are gonna get along great,” I said, feeling so much more cheerful and at ease than a few moments earlier. “Oh, there’s so much I can’t wait to show you. And my suunsyl. It’s so gorgeous there.”
Sara just smiled as I began to describe it in excessive detail. It really is a pretty amazing place, but I won’t bore you with the details. Honestly, it’s actually not all that different from most other forests—though the trees are older and much larger, and then there’s the homes we build into the upper levels below the canopy, and the magically lit fields for crops to provide food when hunting is scarce. Okay, so it’s pretty different, but none of that mattered compared to seeing my best friend’s reactions to it. She was just so excited and optimistic, and she took in every detail like water to a parched woman in the desert.
Meanwhile, I just felt accepted. Unlike the first time I’d told her about all this, where our conversation was always teetering right on the edge of regret and loss and pain, I could actually speak openly. Passionately. I wasn’t just telling her memories and dancing around the issues; instead, I gave her visions of things to come. New experiences she’d get to share in. I was giving her hope, and in return, filling myself up with the same. The world felt just a little bit brighter with every single thing I remembered.
We could have talked for hours, I’m sure, but responsibility came back around and knocked me upside the head. I’d been telling her about how we sent letters between different suunsyls (carefully bred and magically trained flying squirrels, no joke) and the crumpled note behind me on my desk popped back into my mind. I trailed off as I slowly spun around, picking it back up.
“...Do you still want to write her a letter?” Sara asked.
“I have to,” I said quietly. “She’s my mom. I can’t just disappear. Even if I say goodbye in person, she deserves more of an explanation than that.”
“What will you say?”
I shook my head. “I still don’t know.”
She sighed. “Sorry I can’t be more help.”
“It’s okay.” I leaned over and pulled out a new sheet of paper from the drawer, and set my pen to it once again. Behind me, I heard Sara attempt to stifle a yawn. I don’t know why—maybe it was exhaustion, or just the image in my head of a ridiculously oversized yawn swallowing up her face—but I giggled. I couldn’t help it, and it quickly turned into a full-on laugh.
“What?” she asked, indignant.
“Nothing,” I choked out. I forced myself to calm down. “Sorry. You should take a nap.”
“I promise I won’t leave without you,” I said, smirking. “Besides, someone should probably get some sleep. Matt and I definitely won’t.”
“Okay,” she said, just as another yawn overtook her. “You don’t mind if I use—”
“How many times have I slept in your bed?” I glanced over my shoulder with an exaggerated eyebrow raise, as high as I could get it.
“Fair point.” She grinned, and pulled up the nearest blanket. “Wake me up if anything happens?”
Within minutes, I heard her breathing steady, and I knew she was already falling deep into some crazy dream. Sara was a really heavy sleeper. I could never get her to wake up with just sound, no matter how loud it got. She’d only wake up if I shook the bed, or tapped her on the face or something.
I took out my phone and turned on some music. Anything to help me concentrate a bit more. Once again, I set pen to paper and tried to write. Something more reassuring this time, I hoped. Also, something Mom could actually read.
You’re probably wondering why we’ve been acting so weird the last couple days. I’m sorry I didn’t get a chance to explain. Both of us really wanted to, but we just couldn’t. We’re not in any danger, we haven’t broken any laws or anything. But we’ve gotta go now, and we probably aren’t coming back. I wish you could come with us, but it’s just not possible.
We were always gonna move out though, right? And Matt’s coming with me, so there’s nothing to worry about. We’ll be okay. You taught us to take care of ourselves, so we’ve got that covered. We’re going somewhere far away though, and we might not ever be able to talk again. I swear though, if there’s ever a way to, you’ll be the first person I call.
There’s a lot I want to say, and I wish I had said it in person, but I just didn’t know—
Way too sappy. It didn’t feel like me. I crumpled it up and tossed it into the bin next to my desk, along with the first one. There was a slight amber lining to the curtains on my window, cast by the street light outside, and I watched as the shadow of a bug flitted across it like a gigantic monster. I’d seen something like that before, in the mountain crossing to Laodrannen—except this was actually a tiny beetle, not a real monster. I tried to compare the idea to my current situation, but I came up empty. Not everything ends up making for a cool symbolic comparison.
I leaned back once more, almost tipping over in my chair as I rubbed at my eyes. I was still really behind on sleep, though I’d been adjusting to it little by little. So long as I didn’t need to do anything super physical, I could deal with it. I was sure, somehow, that once I found my way home to my suunsyl, I’d sleep more peacefully than I ever had.
Speaking of sleeping peacefully, Sara was out like a light. I smiled at the sight of her wrapped up in my cheap dinosaur blanket, totally calm. After the events of the day, I was just glad she could actually get some sleep—that she felt safe and comfortable enough to let her guard down with me there. It said more about our friendship than any words ever could, and for someone as insecure and uncertain as me? That meant a lot.
The promise we’d made sprung back into my head. I let the chair slam on the floor as I leaned back in, grabbing another sheet of paper. It was the same thing as before, the same as agonizing over Sara. Why couldn’t I just say what I really meant? Why did I feel like I had to lie? Mom deserved to know. I wasn’t ever coming back. I’d tell her everything I could.
So, here’s the thing. This is gonna sound crazy, but I swear to you it’s the absolute truth. No jokes.
Matt and I went to another world. Through magic. Also, magic is real. Funny story, I can actually use it, too. Cool, right?
But seriously. It’s not all fun and games. People got hurt. People died. We fought in battles and almost died ourselves, plenty of times. I’m telling you this because you should know what we went through, and what we’re going back to.
Yeah, we went back. I’m sorry, but we had to. We were gone for over seven years, but because of magic time stuff, we came back exactly the same. Only… we weren’t the same. I don’t even know who I was anymore back here on Earth. Seven years is a really long time. Especially when you spent it with people who weren’t exactly human.
I’m not sure I’m exactly human anymore either. I’m probably gonna live way longer than you or anybody else, and I’m still kinda freaked out by that. I mean, I’m not gonna be alone, and it also means I never have to worry about getting sick or anything like that, but it’s still insane and hard to wrap my mind around. Kind of cool though, I guess. I dunno. Still figuring it out.
Look, you’re probably wondering what you did wrong. Or maybe you aren’t, hell if I know. I’ve never been a mom and I’m not sure I ever will be. But you didn’t do anything wrong. Trust me. You raised us better than you could know. Matt turned out to be amazing, seriously. You’d be proud of what he’s accomplished. He’s saved thousands of lives. Hundreds of thousands, actually. And now he’s going back, to make sure they stay saved. He’s a great guy, and a good brother. So, that’s one out of two, right?
Ha, ha, yeah, I know. Bad jokes.
Mom, Matt and I both agreed this was for the best. I hope you can understand that. Most important though, you can’t ever tell anyone where we went. Best case, people would think you were crazy. Worst case? They’d actually believe you. Do you know what people would do to get access to magic? Because I do. I’ve seen it first hand, and it can turn anyone into a monster. I lost friends that way.
I’m sorry to do this, but I also have to ask you to help me out with something. See, Matt and I aren’t going alone. Sara’s coming with us.
She asked me not to tell anyone about why, and I promised I wouldn’t. Just believe me, she’s better off getting the hell away from this world. Her disappearing isn’t gonna be so easy to hide like me and Matt though. It’s gonna be hard, but you need to protect her just like you did for us. Sara really needs this.
This is stupid and horrible and selfish and I’m sorry. I’m asking you for this when I’m running away without even saying goodbye. Well, this letter is a goodbye I guess, but you know what I mean. I’m so sorry, Mom.
I’ll miss you, and I’ll remember you forever, even if I end up living to be nine hundred and seven. If I ever find a way to send a message back, you’ll be the very first person I talk to. I promise.
I love you, Mom.
I’d started to cry towards the end of the letter, but I’d already decided it was what I needed to write. I had to take a break a few times to make sure I was spelling things correctly, and painstakingly made sure the handwriting was good enough. I didn’t want it to look terrible, if this was the last thing I could ever tell her. I’d made up my mind halfway through that I couldn’t face her. Maybe that was cowardly, but I knew in my heart that I couldn’t say goodbye in person. Hate me for it if you want.
At the bottom, I signed my name twice. Once in Etoline, once in English, as close as I could get to the original pronunciation.
Jennifer velae nara ralaev sel demovi.
Jennifer from the dale of silver.
It was the full name that had only ever been spoken twice; once by Tethevallen when I’d asked him about names, and once by Valen Syldarei in the ceremony to adopt me into the suunval. It was super literal and awkward, and way too long, but I treasured it like nothing else. It was a part of me as much as anything else. It was the proof I’d found a place I belonged and people I belonged with.
I began to roll up the paper, then I remembered I didn’t actually need to tie it to a squirrel’s leg this time. I dug through my desk to find an envelope instead. I found a few, but they were either too glitzy and covered in sparkles, or just rumpled up and messy. Stupid. I glanced over at Sara, still fast asleep, and grinned. She’d laugh at me for this, insisting I find the perfect envelope for my running-away-from-home letter.
I took the letter downstairs to hunt for an envelope—or anything, really, that I could seal it in. I wasn’t that picky. I just needed to know it’d be safe, it’d be noticed, and she’d read it in the morning. Long after we’d left.
How the hell could Sara be snoozing right now, anyway? Even if I didn’t have so much trouble getting to sleep lately, the anticipation in my stomach was overwhelming. Maybe it was because I was the one who actually had to move us across the planes, but I couldn’t keep still for the life of me. I felt like something momentous was about to happen, and I still wasn’t sure if it was a good thing or a bad thing—only that it couldn’t get any worse than staying here.
It was just as soon as I sealed the letter in a plain white envelope, with Mom scrawled on the front, that I heard my cell phone ring. To call the impression I got as ‘fateful’ was a huge understatement. My cell phone ringing at two in the morning, on this night? It had to be something earth-shattering.
I picked it up. I didn’t recognize the number. Who the hell would be calling me right now? Did I usually have late night chats with friends? I couldn’t remember, but I doubted it. If there was anyone I could see myself talking to way past midnight, it was the best friend fast sleep in my bed upstairs.
I flipped open the phone and raised it to my ear.
“Jen?” His voice shook and trembled.
“Carl? What the—”
“I need your help.”
I shook Sara awake, and gave her the briefest explanation I could about where I was going and how long it would take. She gave me a sleepy nod and fell right back into bed. I left her a note on my desk, just in case, but I planned to be back before she woke up again.
I grabbed my bike and bolted into the night, pedaling desperately through the rain toward the police station. Carl’s words were still ringing in my ears. They planned to take him away? Shut him up in some insane psych ward or something?
What the hell was going on?
Was this where Matt ran off to? Maybe he was there already. Yeah, that had to be it. Matt was there, trying to figure out a way to get Carl free. I just had to show up too. Lend my support, vouch for him or something. I had no idea what I could do, but with the way Carl sounded on the phone, I couldn’t just stay home.
I was pretty unsteady on the bike at first, but it came back quickly enough. The streets were utterly deserted, and I booked my way through intersections ignoring the lights entirely. Street lamps flashed above me in a hazy blur of rain as I practically flew over the asphalt. I felt like I was going a million miles an hour—and it still wasn’t fast enough.
I didn’t see a single car the whole way there. It was so quiet out, just the faint trickle of rain. Even the world seemed to be anticipating what came next. I didn’t know what to expect when I got there. Carl hadn’t been specific. All he asked was that I came, quickly, before they took him away.
And that he was afraid.
To hear Carl—Carl, of all people, admit he was afraid sent real shivers down my spine, my back, my arms and legs. Whatever part of me, pick it, I was terrified. Carl was too stubborn to ever voice fear aloud, yet I’d heard it, even through the hiss and crackle of my own crappy cell phone. He was really scared, and he was desperate. I had no choice but to rush down there.
Ever been to a police station at night? There’s a really weird feeling to them when the sun’s gone. I mean, I’d never really visited one before, but I’d seen enough TV to have a vague idea what to expect. I didn’t trust the cop shows to be accurate or anything, but I figured they had to have some bits of truth, right?
Well, here’s the thing: at night time, you’re now dealing with the cops who really don’t want to be bothered with, even more than usual. Especially if they don’t usually take that shift. Everything about the place just seemed hostile. I noticed it the moment I set my bike in the rack outside, as an officer heading out gave me a glare like I’d just kicked his dog or something. I tried to look as innocent and unthreatening as I could, and I walked in the door.
And promptly ran right into Matt.
Well, that explained for sure where he’d run off to earlier. If he’d hurried out to talk to Carl, he’d probably been in the same panicky rush I’d just blitzed through. Not that Matt looked panicked in the slightest, but still.
Wait… what the hell am I thinking? If Matt’s here, and he’s leaving, then why would Carl call m—
Oh stars, no.
“Jen?" he asked, sounding perfectly calm.
It was all so wrong.
He held a finger to his mouth, and beckoned me into a small waiting area outside the main office of the station. I saw groups of abandoned desks inside, under dimmed hanging lamps, and a single bright room spilling light out from the opposite end of the building. As my eyes adjusted, I could see the door cracked open just slightly, leading into what was unmistakably an interrogation room.
I followed Matt into our little corner, under the lazy watch of the officer on duty at the front desk. He returned to his newspaper a few moments later, without much interest, which gave us enough privacy to talk. As soon as we sat down in the uncomfortable chairs in the very corner, Matt finally took the finger away from his mouth.
I was all too eager to break the silence. “What the hell is going on?” I whispered.
“I was going to ask you the same question,” he said, raising an eyebrow. “Why are you here?”
“Carl called me. To come help.”
Matt shook his head. “He really shouldn’t have done that.”
“Why the fuck not, Matt?” I struggled to keep my voice low. “He’s our friend, isn’t he?”
“Look where we are!” he hissed. “Carl’s way over the line. He attacked someone.”
Carl did what now? “...Who?”
“I don’t know. Some guy. Daniel Whitman. I have no idea who he is. What about you?”
I shook my head. “I’ve never heard of him.”
“Apparently, Carl beat him half to death. The guy’s in the hospital. They’re talking about sending Carl away.”
I shuddered. The idea of getting locked up in a padded white cell sprung to mind. I knew Carl would hate that just as much as me.
“Look, I know how that sounds—” Matt started.
I shook my head to cut him off. I definitely didn’t need any more images in my head. I needed to take action. “What are we going to do?”
Matt sighed, and I saw a look in his eyes I hadn’t seen in a long while. A soul-crushing burden, lurking in the darkness of his gaze, my brother carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders once again. He was making a terrible decision right before my eyes, where he felt like he had no good options, only better or worse.
He was about to choose wrong. I knew, before he said it, what he’d decided. I hated him already, for words that hadn’t even crossed his lips.
“Vack dou,” I snarled. I almost stood up right then, but his hand clamped down on my shoulder. He forced me back down, to sit still and listen. I struggled for a moment, before I remembered that starting a scene wouldn’t help Carl any more. I let him talk, though my head pounded and my blood boiled with fury.
“We can’t help him, Jen. No matter what we could say, Carl almost killed the guy, with his bare hands. He knew what to aim for to cause the most pain and damage. He’s done this before, we’ve both seen it. We have to deny everything. We barely even knew him as friends, and we never knew about anything like this.”
Matt’s calm, assured voice overrode any chance I had to speak up. “They’re going to take him away, and maybe that’s for the best. He’ll get some real help. He’s not going to prison, he’s going to a care facility where they’ll actually try to help him.”
Oh, stars, Matt, do you even believe what you’re saying? Is any of this shit coming out of your mouth the truth? Or do you want to abandon Carl just to save yourself?
Matt, are you ditching him so you can go back?
I felt my stomach churn. If I wasn’t actively forcing it back as I’d learned, I would have thrown up all over his shirt. There wasn’t much that could really make me vomit anymore, but this? This was disgusting. Horrible. Awful.
And I was going to let him get away with it.
I saw it coming. I was letting this happen. I heard Matt ask for some kind of confirmation, and I nodded. My face and hands went numb. I felt my mind contract in on itself, like I was retreating from the world again. I knew this feeling. I’d feared it ever returning. It was a survival instinct, a way to hide myself from my own actions.
Matt stood up, and offered his hand. I took it, though I couldn’t feel anything. My brother may as well have been made of ice for all his hand did to help me. I followed him back into the main room, where I waited silently as the door across the room opened.
I no longer had to ask. I understood why Matt was choosing to do this. I understood why I had to support him.
I still hated every single moment of it. Hated myself, hated him, hated everything.
Carl was a mess. His eyes were puffy and red from the tears, his hands bandaged and bloody. I could see a bruise sprouting on his face. He was handcuffed, with a personal guard that pushed him forward. Behind Carl, I saw the two detectives that had come to our house, and saw recognition flit across one of their faces as they spotted me.
Damn you to the ends of every earth, Matt.
Carl made his way across the room. The guard stepped away, as did Matt, allowing Carl and I a bit of privacy. Between the hum of fans and machinery, I was relatively certain we wouldn’t be overheard, but still, I wouldn’t dare risk anything.
“Hi, Jen,” he mumbled. I could barely hear his words.
“Sorry you have to see me like this.” He gave me a weak smile.
“Could be worse,” I said. Was joking appropriate? How the hell should I know? What do you say to a friend you’re probably seeing for the last time, when you’re lying to him and about to throw him to the wolves while you run for your own life?
“Jen, you’ve gotta tell them.”
“Tell them what?”
“Everything. What we went through. Who we are. It’s the only way to explain… what I did.”
“Oh, Carl…” I whispered.
“I know. I have to go away. But I’m not crazy. We’re not crazy. You gotta explain that.”
I shook my head, and I knew it was a blow right to his heart. His knees buckled, his eyes widened.
“Jen, please. I can’t be taken away. I’d never see you again.” Carl’s voice rose in pitch, breaking out when we’d been barely above a whisper until now.
“Carl, I’m sorry.” My voice threatened to crack, but I held it steady. I had to hold it in. I couldn’t let any vulnerability out. I had to be strong.
One crack, and I’d shatter into a million pieces.
“No, please. Don’t say you’re sorry. Tell them.”
Oh stars. Please. If there were ever a time to grant me a blessing of some kind. Anything at all. This is the moment. Give me resolve, give me bravery, give me something.
The stars didn’t answer. They’d probably never answer me again. I don’t think they took too kindly to traitors.
Carl’s eyes got even wider with my continued silence. He raised his hands, still cuffed and chained. I saw the stains on the bandages up close, and I deliberately recoiled. I had to act like I was scared, or disgusted, or whatever I needed to do. I couldn’t follow my instincts, to try and comfort him and heal him. I couldn’t go anywhere near him.
He took a step forward. Instantly, the guard was at his side, pulling him back.
“Jen, please! Talk to them!” Carl blurted out. There was no pretense of secrecy anymore. “Tell them about Cyraveil! About the world! You’re a Sylf, for god’s sake! Matt took over an empire! Explain it! Matt?” Carl’s head swivelled around for a new ally, since his closest had just abandoned him without a word. I looked over too, watching Matt’s reaction.
“...Carl, none of that is real. I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Matt responded so calmly, so naturally. I believed every word he spoke. Everyone in the room would have believed him. He just looked like a concerned bystander.
Carl struggled against his restraints. The guard was pulling him back out of the room, and he began to shout for help, for anything to save him.
Which, of course, meant it was my turn. The world fell into that slow motion state, when you know something terrible is about to happen, and you can see it coming from miles away, but you’re helpless to do a single thing about it.
Except, I wasn’t helpless—because that terrible thing about to happen was me.
Carl got the guard to stop pulling him away. His eyes locked with mine from across the room. I felt my heart harden to ice in my chest, preparing for the worst. My hands flew up to my mouth, as if I could prevent was was next. Like anything could have stopped what was coming next.
“Jen, you were there. You know. The Sylves, Jen. Everything. We were together, Jen. You and me. I rescued you, remember?” Carl was raving now, struggling to keep composure.
I shook my head again. Tears tried to spill from my eyes, but I wouldn’t let them. I refused to let myself cry. Strength, I told myself. I had to get through this. I stared straight at Carl, with the rest of the world still frozen in place, and I opened my mouth.
“I’m sorry, Carl. I don’t have a clue what you’re talking about.” His face fell, and my heart with it. But I made it through, right? Carl would be taken away, and I would be free once again—for all the good it did me. This night would be seared into my brain forever. I knew that already. I’d never forget what we’d done.
Then, I heard his voice once more from across the room, calling out in perfect cadence, perfect pronunciation. As if he’d memorized it just for me.
“Vei illum dou, velae envil ‘svil tosilandar, ta nal erreth ala venand slasev.”
My heart shattered. I was almost overwhelmed. Almost completely overcome. I had to fight through a surging wave of emotions swallowing up every sense in my body to force out four simple words.
Four words that would finally condemn him.
“Carl, you need help.”
His eyes, which only a moment before had filled with hope and love and promises of a life together, hollowed out to nothing. There was a despair so total, so utterly void of feeling that there wasn’t a person inside anymore. He slumped in the guard’s arms, and was slowly dragged back into the interrogation room. The two detectives gave us another curious glance before they followed him back in, and the door snapped shut.
I felt Matt’s hand drop onto my shoulder once again. It was like he’d flipped open a tap. Tears erupted from my eyes as I turned and fled the building. With every step, I ran further away from a man I’d just sent to his worst nightmare, all to save myself.
It was raining once more, harder than ever, and I welcomed it gladly. I fumbled my way back onto the bike and started pedaling. Maybe it could wash away the guilt and the pain now consuming me, but I doubted it. Surely, I was damned forever.
By the time I got home, Matt and Sara were already waiting for me in the garage. Matt was holding the envelope I’d left on the kitchen table. I pulled up silently, and carefully placed my bike back on the rack where it belonged. Sara watched with worried eyebrows, but Matt wore an unreadable mask. Had he always seemed so distant and terrifying to me? Was this a new side of him, or the side I’d always pretended wasn’t there?
I’d finished crying. I knew there was nothing more to be done. Instead, I had a new choice to make—one just as important to our future.
Sara was the first to speak, cautious and hesitant. “Everything okay?”
Matt hadn’t told her, of course. I didn’t answer her right away. I turned to my brother, staring him down with all the determination I could muster. I had to know, right there, what sort of person he was. Who the man I was taking back into my world really was under the surface.
“Matt, did we do everything we could for him?”
Matt opened his mouth to answer, and I held up my hand. I knew what he would say, and I couldn’t ever let him voice it. I could already tell what the answer was, and it sickened me to my core. But I’d made my choice. If I confronted him, if I disowned him for what he’d done tonight, our lives would fall apart completely. There was only one way forward, and it was united. I needed him, and he needed me. If we were going back to Cyraveil, there was no way we’d survive unless we were on the same side again—no matter how much it disgusted me.
Without another word, I walked forward and took Sara’s hand. I lead her around the other side of the truck and got in, deliberately placing myself in the center between Matt and my best friend. As she got in, I closed the door behind her. I watched as Matt carefully placed the letter on the door to the garage, wedged into the handle, and turned the lights out one by one.
He got into the truck, turned the key, and backed out down the driveway. The garage door slid shut in front of us, closing off my old house for the last time.
My fingers tightened around Sara’s as I kept my eyes fixed straight ahead on the road. As we took the first exit, I turned around to look back out the rear of the cabin, up into the stars barely visible through a gap in the rain clouds, and I prayed.
Maybe I was doomed to regret this forever. Maybe I should have told Carl long before I ever talked to Matt. Maybe I shouldn’t have volunteered in the war. Maybe I shouldn’t’ve ever left the comfort of my little place up in the trees. Maybe I shouldn’t have begged Matt to take me along that night to whatever Blake had found.
Maybe, maybe, maybe. My life was always full of maybes. I hated it. I was done with it. I was getting the hell off this planet.
And I was travelling back to my own, where I’d live with the knowledge and guilt for the rest of my considerably long life. Where I’d probably never be able to trust my brother completely again, even as I lived side-by-side with him for the years and decades to come, a smile on my face and laughter on my lips, pretending we were a team.
You probably hate me a little, don’t you? Or maybe you’re sympathetic. Fuck that. I don’t deserve it. Save it for Sara, or Carl, or anyone else. I’m just one nervous wreck in a large collection of nervous wrecks hanging around, but I put myself up here. I did this to myself. It’s up to me to dig my way back out.
The headlights flickered as we bumped off the main road, and the sign for Cyraveil Park flashed up in front of us. I felt my own hand squeezed in return, and finally, I allowed myself just a little bit of hope. I still had Sara, and I still had myself.
There was still some magic in the world—damned if I wasn’t going to use it.
Time to go home.