By Alexander Brown
A dog was barking. How long it had been going on for, he couldn’t tell. But as John Ryan lay wide awake in the tiny twin bed in the rundown, barnacle-clade houseboat he called home, he fantasized about kicking that dog into the Pacific Ocean and making it swim for China.
When he finally rose, the barking had stopped, and was now replaced by a symphony of hammers and saws. The carnival had come to town, there to signal the end of summer. By five o’clock the boardwalk that hugged the marina would be full of life—the neon light piercing the sky well into night. Come tomorrow it would give way to the changing of the seasons and eventually to those pleasant Washington winters.
It was morning in Westport, a small marina community southwest of Seattle, and an hour drive from the more affluent oceanfront towns to both the North and South. Upon returning from three tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, John had moved west. He had aged out of the system long before enlisting and had no real home to go back to. He spent a few years in Seattle as a police officer before one night changed his life. After that, he was on the move. He read a story by Raymond Chandler once that described a little town at the farthest end of Mainland America, as far west as you could go. That town was Westport, the place he now called home.
He flipped on the forty-inch flat screen he kept at the foot of his bed below deck and cranked up the volume before heading up for air. Before him lay the ocean, clear and calm. Behind him two newscasters were still arguing about the goal-line interception that doomed the Seahawks in last year’s Super Bowl.
“It’s been six months, guys,” he muttered.
He found his jeans and slipped on a button-up shirt—the cheap, lumberjack-looking kind you found at the dollar store, the type now so popular with the hipsters back in Seattle. He was careful as he worked his left arm into the sleeve, his collarbone permanently disfigured, warped and jagged. He had regained most of the motion but the pain had remained. The scar resembled that of a mortar round. It had only been a single bullet.
He reached into his mess kit and pulled out three bottles of pills. He took two Vicodin, two Valium, and two ten-milligram tablets of a generic brand SSRI known as Citalopram. With nothing to wash them down, he swallowed them dry, gagging as the taste of chalk was coating his throat. As he tucked the bottles back away, he noticed the Vicodin bottle was now empty. He had come here to get better, but he was unsure if he had. Every day since had been met with the same fog, the same visual snow, like someone had put a lens between his eyes and his brain. Where the bullet had pierced, he still felt a hole inside, one that plunged deep and dark. He would often find himself running his right hand down from the top of his head to where the neck met the body, just to make sure they were still connected.
He didn’t carry a gun anymore but he did keep an old Louisville Slugger on hand for security. He found it to be particularly useful when it came to disposing of empty pill bottles. He stepped to the stern of the ship, bat and bottle in hand, and with a light toss of his aching left arm the bottle hung in the sea air like a bird flying into the wind, before he golfed it out toward the horizon.
“Eat your heart out, Edgar Martinez,” he said to no one but himself.
Dev’s Bait & Tackle Shop sat in the middle of the boardwalk, and the owner, the eponymous Dev, was the closest John had to a friend. He too was in his late-thirties and handsome in an ordinary way. But where as John had grown quiet and reserved, Dev was the outgoing type.
Before the bell had even chimed above the door, John was already met with fresh ground coffee and a slap on the shoulder, the good one.
“Morning, John!” He bellowed, with a verve at once both alienating and welcoming.
“Morning,” John replied with a crack of a smile aimed at the man’s feet.
To see John Ryan was to forget John Ryan.
Despite possessing a surface of pure mirth Dev was smarter than he let on, and John knew that well. They had spent countless mornings going over the daily paper, and over time John learned more about the man than he imagined. Dev downshifted a few gears and let John sit quietly on his usual stool at the counter, tucked away from all the worms.
John scanned the headlines, seeing nothing out of the ordinary. There was the regular doom and gloom about the economy—with a particular bend towards the lack of decent jobs for recent grads—and a sensationalized front-page op-ed on the long-overdue earthquake that would end it all. He put the paper down and his eyes found a boy walking past the window holding a bright red balloon.
“Got one early,” Dev said, who had been stocking a shelf behind the counter, waiting for the right moment to engage. “Cute kids sure have it easy, don’t they?”
Dev had been a copywriter in Vancouver, originally by way of Calgary, before he took his life savings and his passion for people and the sea air further south. Westport had been the quiet little place he’d always yearned for. He could open his own business, something simple and local. He convinced himself he could finish his novel too. It had all gone relatively to plan. He had even met a nice girl, younger than him, but not too much. She helped run a diner on the outskirts of town by the highway. She moved in with him a few short months before.
Dev was happy now, content. But he had known the other side as well. He left Calgary for a myriad reasons. His time in Vancouver had been better, but not without its problems. The I-5 highway running south had solved that. He was one the lucky ones, he knew that, and with that knowledge he tried to be as generous with his time as possible.
John’s eyes were still fixated where the boy had been, the space now more of a blur, when he remembered he should respond.
“Sorry, I must not be myself this morning,” he said. “Yeah, cute kid.”
John strained eye contact to try and ground himself back in reality as best he could.
“No trouble at all,” Dev smiled, now finished with the shelves. “You know I’m always here to chat if something’s on your mind.”
“I’m fine, really.”
Dev knew otherwise, but he wouldn’t press him on it. He did have something to tell him though. There was a part of Dev that knew John was likely the only one qualified enough to help. So when his friend got up to go, leaving a ten-dollar bill behind—far too much for coffee and the dying newspaper—he just had to ask.
“Say, did you hear about the two kids this morning? The brother and sister? Twins, I think.”
John stopped as he opened the door, the chime seeming to signal an old familiar feeling, one he worked so hard to ignore.
“I haven’t, no.”
“I thought not. Well I figured, with your line of work and all, and knowing the level of competence our sheriff’s department holds, that I should let you know.”
“Let me know what?”
“Apparently they went missing last night. One second, they were home with their parents. The next minute, they were gone. Vanished into thin air, they’re saying.”
“They’re kids. They’re supposed to disappear.”
“That’s just the thing, though. We’re not talking about them ducking out for cigarettes and beers with friends. From the sounds of it, this was more like some sort of act of God.”
John was growing impatient.
“I don’t follow,” he said.
“The parents, they said they saw it happen, the disappearing and all. When I said vanished into thin air I wasn’t using a turn of phrase. We’re talking poof.”
John nodded, unable to find a response, as his feet found the boardwalk. He thought of Seattle and the night he was shot.
“Vanished,” the man had said, babbling. “I didn’t hurt them!”
The alleyway was cold and dark. It was raining.
“I didn’t put them anywhere, I didn’t touch them. You don’t understand what I just saw.”
He wept, his mind long lost to drugs and alcohol.
“Put the gun down, sir. It’s okay. Just tell me where they are.”
“They’re g-g-gone,” he spat out, choking on his words and his tears, his face camouflaged in dirt.
Further down the alley, a stray dog had been barking.
“I told you to leave me alone!”
There was a flash, and in an instant there had been only darkness.
Maybe they’re not crazy, John wondered back in the open air. Maybe they’re not.
The boy lost his balloon.
John had watched it happen from the helm of his boat as he fumbled around on the centre console for his vibrating cell phone.
He answered the phone hastily as he watched through the glass door. The boy’s eyes welled up with tears as the balloon broke through the ozone layer. He had been trying to feed the seagulls in the harbour when it slipped from his grasp.
Don’t feed the damn seagulls, kid, he thought. There’s enough of them already.
“Leonard, I’ll call you back,” John said into the phone. “Five minutes.”
“Okay, did you hear about the—”
“I did. Text me the address. I’ll call you when I’m on the road.”
He found himself back on the boardwalk, crouched in front of the child, trying to calm the maelstrom before him. In spite of the early hour, the boy’s shirt already wore a fresh ice cream stain of mint chocolate chip.
“Hey, I’ll get you a new balloon,” John said. “Just stop crying, okay?”
John was trying his best. Kids had never come naturally to him. They often scared him. There was something about the world being full of tiny little elves that only spoke the truth. If he hadn’t seen the things he had, or cut the six-foot, 200-pound figure that he did, he might have been the kind of person that crossed the street to avoid them.
“You will?” The child said, starting to come back to life and sniffling.
“I will. Besides, that red balloon?” He said, pointing, as it continued to leave Earth’s atmosphere. “It’s just going home. Balloons live in the sky, that’s why they float. They want to go home.”
The child stared at him blankly.
“Right,” John sighed. “Stay right here.”
Balloons live in the sky?
He was kicking that around in his head when he found what seemed to be the only stand that sold them. The man inside had his back turned to John as he set up that always-ethical ring toss game. There was a dog tied up out back, a shepherd, and a strange choice for a carnival dog. Shepherds, this one clearly the German kind, were athletes meant to run through vast fields, or serve in a K-9 unit. The dog had hints of grey in its coat, and watched diligently as a crew of three men in what looked like biker jackets tested out the Ferris wheel.
John startled back to life.
“Sorry, just looking at your dog,” he said. “That wouldn’t happen to be a service…”
The man nodded. A smile creased his face, revealing his age.
“Six tours. She’s my baby.”
“No kidding,” John replied.
“Did you serve?”
John paused; he wasn’t always much for sharing.
“No,” he said.
“Why do I doubt that?”
The man smiled again and adjusted a worn out, logo-less baseball cap before extending his hand.
“Still setting up here, but what can I do you for, John?”
“Umm, a balloon. Red one. Kid on the boardwalk just lost his, threw a fit. Figured I’d make up for it.”
“I’m not sure you can make up for it.”
“I’m all out of red ones.”
“I’ll take green then.”
“Green it is!” Russ found his smile again, before handing one over. “I’m sure I’ll be seeing you around tonight?”
“Yeah, wouldn’t miss it.”
And as John turned to walk away, he thought about the dog. Again, something was gnawing at him.
“Say, this morning, seven o’clock. Was that yours barking?”
“Couldn’t have been. Not normally the barking type. Besides, didn’t get here ‘til seven-thirty.”
The fog in his head was growing, that lens that slid so delicately between his eyes and his brain continued to blur his vision. He blinked a few times, using his eyelids as windshield wipers, clearing his mind just enough to spot the boy sitting impatiently on a bench overlooking the water.
The boy saw him coming, triumphantly jumping down onto the boardwalk below.
How did the ice cream stain grow bigger? John wondered, before seeing the disappointment fall over the boy’s face.
“It’s not red.”
“I know it’s not red. They didn’t have anymore red. But green is just as good!”
He feigned enthusiasm; using muscles in his face he didn’t know he had.
The boy took the balloon, his expression now blank.
“I just want my red one back.”
“Well, you know, hang on to this one. Maybe it will come back! They could uh… be friends.”
Jesus, talking to kids is hard, he thought.
“I know it’s not coming back. I just wish it would.”
John didn’t know what to say, so the boy spoke for him.
“It’s gone. For good.”
And that gnawing feeling continued to grow.
John was texting while driving. He knew it was wrong, but as he worked his way down one-lane side roads toward the more-affluent suburb of Old Westport he found himself needing to talk.
“Close Reddit and 4chan and call me, Leonard. NOW.”
His phone promptly buzzed on his dashboard as he took a hard turn in his ’88 Mustang. When he first came to Westport he had taken the bus, so only weeks later he found himself at a police auction and bought her for thirty-cents on the dollar. There was still some cosmetic work to be done. He’d cleaned up the bloodstains on the dash, and the passenger side window was still shot to hell, but she ran just fine.
“Hi John Ryan. I’m at your service.”
Leonard was a local delusional who monitored the police scanners by day, and spent his time on the deep-Web by night. John had first met him at a bar a year back and had mistaken him for a high schooler. Once Leonard started talking—and he was a talker—John realized they had shared interests. Every PI needed a snoop.
“I told you to stop calling me by my full name,” John said. “I’m not a character in a James Cameron movie.”
“No you’re certainly not,” he said. “But you are the punter for the Seattle Seahawks.”
John did have the dubious fortune of holding a common name, one now shared by a local football player. John had heard this a thousand times by now. As he found the country line south he thought about kicking Leonard into the bay, and forcing him to swim to China.
“Our first names are spelled different, jackass,” John said. “Mine has an ‘h.’”
“I know. The punter, though… Couldn’t have been a quarterback, John?”
China’s awful far, kid. And it’s getting dark. Better get swimming.
By the time Leonard caught him up, John was running his engine idly across the street from where he needed to be. The house sat high on a hill and was the kind of home you might see a Vancouver couple tour on “House Hunters.” Lots of stained wood and glass walls. John liked the Home and Garden network and chose to keep that to himself. He had yet to see an episode on derelict houseboats.
The family name was James: the missing twins Sarah and Scott, the parents Steven and Susan. He nearly choked on the alliteration when Leonard told him.
The twins had been due at the University of Oregon a week earlier for freshman orientation, but had asked their parents if they could just move in when classes started. Both had been standouts in the classroom and in sports while attending a prep school further down the highway. They came from money but were known to be kind. The parents went to church every Sunday and gave generously to charities. No known enemies. No leads. That suited John just fine. He welcomed a challenge, even if he was feeling even less like himself than usual.
“So who might have done something like this?” Leonard had asked him, before John hung up and returned to his thoughts and the silence of his humming car. He didn’t have an answer to give.
The fog had reached levels he’d never felt before. His senses were fading. He felt around the base of his neck to assure himself his head was still connected, before his hand seemed to drift down to his scar. He felt the hardened scar tissue and traced over his misshapen collarbone.
“Right before their eyes,” Leonard had said. “They were sitting with their parents in the living room, then poof. Clothes and all.”
John felt that gnawing feeling again. He thought of that cold, rainy night in Seattle and the moments before it all went black.
A dog was barking, the man, nothing more than a local itinerant, hadn’t been making any sense. He was now serving life in prison.
“You don’t understand what I just saw.”
They never found the missing party: a professor from Evergreen State College—a liberal arts school tucked away amongst a forest in Olympia—and one of his students. The boy was known to police for minor drug offences. Possession and the like. The professor was recently divorced from his husband of ten years. The two had been at a bar downtown. The investigators honed in on the potential for an inappropriate relationship between them, but they found nothing. No incriminating email chains, no texts or photos. Just teacher and student, lost into thin air.
Back in the car, John found himself reaching for the spare bottle of Valium he kept in his glove compartment. Out of the corner of his eye he caught something in his rear-view mirror. A balloon, or at least it looked like one. Red, perhaps. He turned to look and it was gone. He found the Valium and swallowed three. His hands were shaking. All around him was haze.
He closed his eyes and started counting to five, hoping it would pass.
By the time he had reached three he could tell the exercise wasn’t going to work. But something changed before he hit five. His mind had started to drift toward how he really wasn’t okay. How he wasn’t the same. When it felt almost like a switch flipped in the darkest depths of his brains.
He opened his eyes, and in his head the fog was receding back to a more tolerable level.
The world around him felt different. In what way, he couldn’t be sure. He switched off the engine, fumbled for the door handle, and made his way toward the house. A clear morning had given way to rain. He stood by the front door looking through the house of glass. Inside the parents mourned uncomfortably on clean white couches and investigators shuffled about. It struck him that modern furniture wasn’t cut out for the grieving process.
His clothes were soaked by the time he entered the home. He knocked, but no one had answered. Inside, their backs all remained turned.
“Ryan,” he shouted. “Got a tip, I’m just going to look around.”
No one seemed to notice.
He stood in the foyer, the world seeming to swirl around him. The world around him wasn’t just different. It was very different. And, from the recesses of his mind.
Now, you’re gone too.
You’re fine, he told himself.
The room spun, his eyes squinted through sweat, and his medium-length, unremarkable brown hair had thinned from the rain.
His heart was racing.
“I, uh, I’m going to check upstairs,” he said out loud.
The world continued to rotate without him. He pulled himself up the frosted glass stairwell leaving puddles in his wake.
You’re fine. You just went a little crazy. You’re fine.
At the top of the stairs was what seemed to be a guest bathroom. To his right, a hallway of bedrooms. He hunched over the vanity and guzzled water from a tap that cost more than his boat, before half-a-litre went down the wrong pipe. He choked, coughed, and fell back toward the tub, taking the towel rack with him.
John lay exasperated on the floor, his heart still racing, waiting for someone to come investigate the running tap, the broken towel rack, even the strange, wet adult curled up on the guest bathroom floor, but no one came.
He slid across the marble floor before hoisting himself back up onto the vanity. He stood for a moment, maybe minutes, studying his reflection in the mirror. He had trouble recognizing himself at first, but there he was, same as ever. Only he felt almost further away.
“You’re fine. This will pass.”
His reflection seemed less convinced. And behind him in the mirror the towel rack was back in place. Like nothing had happened.
“What in the hell…” he whispered.
Just, look around. Find a lead. Then you go back downstairs with a clear head, they’ll all notice you. This will pass.
He felt for the base of his neck again.
Still attached. That’s a start.
The father’s study offered little in the ways of clues. It was immaculate, with dark oak finishes that stood in direct contrast to the rest of the house. Circumstances aside, John had practically slipped into a great episode of “House Hunters.”
Before he was left grieving uncomfortably in the living room below, Steven James had clearly been the kind of father John had always wanted as a child. The walls were lined with photos of the family, but mostly of his children. They were all blondes. In the photos of Scott, the boy seemed to have stumbled out of a J. Crew catalogue. Tall and handsome, long hair swept across his face, lots of jeans and warm sweaters or vests. All that was missing was a golden retriever at his feet.
Sarah appeared to be more reserved. She smiled in photos but rarely with an open mouth. It was a face John knew well. When Seattle PD would go drinking at the end of their shifts—they called it choir practice, a term their sergeant supposedly borrowed from a colleague of his in Minnesota—the camera phones would eventually come out. John would hang around the edge of the frame like a ghost, mouth in an upturned smile, eyes somewhere else.
He saw that in her. He also saw her beauty, and the way she seemed to wear those looks like a curse. She was that special kind of girl that made you lonely just by looking at her. He had never been cursed with constant attention. He was always finding ways to leak out of rooms, and he could pass strangers on the street without eliciting a glance.
“The invisible-fucking-man,” a girlfriend had called him once.
Even he could chuckle at that now. Albeit nervously.
Back in the hallway he ran his fingers through his hair as he found the first bedroom, Scott’s. It had all the usual calling cards of an eighteen-year-old boy, save for an excellent reading selection. On his bedside table was a pile of Stephen King. The Stand, Doctor Sleep, some Dark Tower.
Great taste, kid, he thought.
Emily Mandel’s Station Eleven.
Really great taste.
John found himself thinking about the kind of books he read as a boy when he heard a noise down the hall. Elmore Leonard was a favourite of his. He wasn’t much of a talker but there was just something about Leonard’s dialogue that made him smile. It was warm, inviting, fluid. Seemingly impossible. There was a poetry to it. He’d read most of the greats—you have a lot of time to read in boys’ homes—but none of them could match that dialogue. Always seemed like the hardest part of the story to him.
“Hello?” He called down the hallway.
Right, still crazy. Still the invisible-fucking-man.
There it was again, a noise. A shower was running. He entered the next room over.
He was in Sarah’s room. It didn’t take a low-rent PI to figure that out. He worked his way over to the en-suite bathroom, the door left ajar.
What kind of sicko takes a shower in a missing girl’s bedroom, he thought, as he pulled the curtain open, revealing a beautiful blonde, naked as the day she came.
“Jesus, sorry,” he said, stumbling for the door, his head trailing his exploding heart, when he felt a warm, wet hand slide around his wrist.
Sarah James was staring at him, her eyes disbelieving, her smile baring teeth. She was even prettier in person.
“Jesus Christ,” she said. “You can see me?”
The mid-day sun had returned, bouncing off the Pacific, turning the trees to a faded green, as if they too were squinting. The James’s backyard sloped down towards the sea, and in the distance John could see the Ferris wheel and the carnival below. He sat on stone steps overlooking a pool. Sarah was sitting next to him, her hair still damp from her shower. Scott was pacing.
“You walked in on her showering?” He asked.
“Not intentionally,” John replied, fumbling his words. “Can’t say I expected you two to still be at home.”
“Where else would we go?” Scott asked.
“I don’t know,” John said.
“None of this makes any sense,” Scott huffed.
“You’re telling me.”
The three of them sat with that for a moment before Sarah chimed in.
“Maybe it does,” she said. “Make sense, I mean.”
“Sis, how in the world does this make sense?”
She sat up, and walked over to the pool, letting her face hang out over the chlorine choked water. She was studying her reflection.
“Say we were already gone. Maybe all we needed was a little push.”
She turned to John, who had seen and felt enough strange things today to last a lifetime. His guard was slowly coming down. He was too tired to fight it. He let his mind go, wondering where it would take him. He saw a road lined with trees, then the alleyway at night, the dog was barking. Only now he could see at what. There they were, the two of them. Out there in the rain, watching him before the lights went out.
“John, are you still with us?” They both asked him.
“Huh? Yeah, sorry.”
He could never shake off the cobwebs completely, but he could often manage to more effectively. His mind, wherever it was now, was trying to tell him something. Or perhaps he was just finally broken enough to listen.
“I think I know someone we should talk to.”
“But we can’t talk to anyone?” Scott asked. “We’re invisible!”
“I’m not so sure that’s true,” Sarah said, pointing at John. “We can speak to him,”
She was right, there had to be others. It couldn’t just be three against the world.
“This person. They’re gone too?” Sarah asked. “They’re like us?”
Scott and Sarah were arguing in the back seat as the ’88 Mustang hugged the corners of the winding road leading through an ocean of trees.
Kids, if you don’t behave yourselves, I’ll turn this car around, he thought.
They were halfway to Olympia when the three started speaking again.
“Can we change the radio station? In how many different ways can you complain about sports?” Sarah asked.
“You’d be surprised,” John said.
John fingered the dial and settled on the first real music he heard. There would be no Justin Bieber in his car.
A man has to have a code, he thought, quoting one of his favourite television shows. Something he had enjoyed before he lost his mind.
He found something upbeat, with actual guitar. It sounded like it may have been The Pixies, but he wasn’t totally sure.
“Thanks,” Sarah said.
He nodded into the rear view mirror, the girl making stronger eye contact than he had anticipated. Sarah was making him uncomfortable. Not because of her age or her looks, but because she was forcing him to be human, and forcing him to be present. She was studying him.
Scott was growing impatient.
“How much further?” He asked. “And why are we obeying the rules of the road? They can’t see us. What’s the point?”
John wasn’t sure there was a point, but he wasn’t going test that out. Not today, anyway. There were more important things to do than to test the basic laws of physics.
“Before all this, whatever this is, I was a cop,” he said. “In the city.”
“Really?” Scott asked.
“So I’ll have order in this car or I swear to God,” he said, feigning authority.
Scott sank slightly into his seat. Sarah giggled. John cracked a smile for the first time in ages.
They were close now. In the distance he could see the campus. A postcard-worthy building nestled in the trees.
“And you think this guy will be there?” Sarah asked.
“Hope so. Have a feeling, anyway.”
“Weirder things have happened,” she replied.
“They sure have.”
They were pulling up at the registrar’s office when Scott pulled on a thread John had left hanging.
“So why did you quit?” He asked. “The force, or whatever.”
“I didn’t quit. I got shot,” John said.
He thought about reassuring the boy more, but he was distracted by Sarah tapping lightly on his shoulder. She pointed to their left. There was a man sitting on a bench under a tree, a newspaper resting on his lap. He looked familiar. In John’s head a dog was barking, a shot rang out.
The professor was staring back at them through thick, horn-rimmed glasses. His eyes were curious, his head tilting off its axis.
“Can he see us?” Scott asked, waving frantically.
The man raised a hand back.
“He can see us,” Sarah smiled.
The man was looking only at John now, appearing to see something familiar in him too.
“Is that him?” Scott asked.
“Yeah,” John said. “That’s him.”
Lecture Hall C was undergoing the kind of revival normally reserved for white-tented churches that dotted the countryside of the southern United States. The reverend was a thin man with a mop of wavy brown hair and an amateur attempt at a goatee that took away from an otherwise pleasant, if slightly over-tanned face.
He fiddled with the cufflinks on his tweed jacket, and smiled to the crowd rising up before him.
“Afternoon, class. Nice to see some old faces, and new ones as well!”
John Ryan sat quietly in the back corner of the hall, his new companion by his side, Sarah and Scott looking on in bewilderment from the row in front of him.
“This is Film 2100.”
And a hearty whoop went up from the heart of the auditorium seating.
Sarah turned around nervously to John and asked,
“We’re not sitting on anyone, are we?”
He could only shrug his shoulders before Daniel Reed spoke up.
“We’re not, young lady,” he said. “But keep an eye out for latecomers. We can be sat on. Or, sat through.”
He smiled, reassuringly; leaving Sarah to stare off into the middle distance as she processed what she hoped was a joke.
Daniel had been here for years. Wherever here was. And like every other human being on planet earth, he had a story to tell. Only his was slightly different.
“John, let’s talk outside,” Daniel whispered.
“Why are you whispering? They can’t hear us.”
“Not them, your kids.”
“They’re not my kids,” he shot back curtly.
“Well, the two of them. I don’t want them to hear this. Not yet, anyway. Besides, he’s about to show them Robert Shaw’s USS Indianapolis monologue from ‘Jaws.’ He always does on the first day. They won’t want to miss that.”
“First, tell me what this is about.”
Daniel paused, thinking of the right words, the simplest way to broach the possibility of the impossible.
“I think I know why we’re here.”
“That’s crazy,” John said.
“I know,” Daniel said.
John was pacing in circles outside Hall C. Daniel knew to stand there quietly, disarmingly. When he was younger he may have been more impulsive, argumentative. But the years had passed him by, and then further still. After he disappeared he found his hair had turned grey. And the light from his blue eyes had appeared to fade ever so slightly.
“But I was there, John. I was there when it happened to you. Call it coincidence, or whatever you’d like. I saw it happen. I saw you die.”
“I didn’t die.”
“I know that. A metaphorical death, so to speak. But what if, what if a part of you did? Die, I mean.”
John was reminded of the fog that hung over him, the hole in his chest, and the lens behind his eyes. None of it made sense.
“That night, I was looking for you, you were with someone.”
“Ben. My student. A good kid.”
“What happened to you two?”
“We were honest with each other.”
“What we’d lost, John. How it doesn’t come back, or at least how it’s never the same. That why we’re here. Or, at least, I think that’s why we’re all here.”
“Where is here?”
“You know what I mean! How is this possible?”
“The why, I can potentially grasp. As for the how, that’s anyone’s guess. State of mind, perhaps. We all have our theories.”
“We? So there are even more like us?”
“Of course, thousands, maybe millions. All you have to do is look closely.”
John found himself thinking of the drive out of town. Hang around a community as small as Westport for long enough and you get to know just about everyone from a distance. The town had been fuller, somehow, the streets busier.
“The boy you were with, that night. Where is he now?”
“Wish I could tell you. He left about a year’s back.”
“Where did he go?”
“Had to see about a girl,” Daniel smiled, hoping John would catch the “Good Will Hunting” reference.
“And he hasn’t come back?” John asked.
“Hasn’t come back.”
“Is there any chance he, you know, crossed back over?”
“We’re not ghosts, John. But I’m holding out hope.”
“Has anyone ever made it back from here?”
“Can’t be sure. Haven’t seen it firsthand. But there are rumours.”
Daniel found himself temporarily lost in his own thoughts. An inappropriate relationship, they had told him. In truth, it might have been the most appropriate relationship he had ever had. The night that he and Ben slid off one plane of reality and into the next, they had been drinking away their sorrows, when they both came to the conclusion that they were no longer the same without their partners.
“There are always rumours,” Daniel mumbled.
“And do you believe them?”
“I have to.”
And that’s when John clued into why they were standing outside Lecture Hall C, and to why Daniel chose to spend all his waking hours haunting these halls.
“And you come here—”
And Daniel, temporary oracle, found himself fighting off tears for the first time in nearly a year.
“You could only fight it for so long.”
These were the last words the professor had left with him as they got into the car.
That car ride home was quiet, John keeping his now tired eyes fixed permanently on the road ahead. Daniel had helped him with some answers, but left him with more questions than he had to begin with.
With his focus preoccupied Sarah slid her way over the centre console and into the front passenger seat. John hadn’t noticed until she started to speak.
“Did you get what you were looking for?”
He came back again to reality, or as close as he could. He felt like he was in a fishbowl, a feeling not foreign to him. There were hundreds of ways to describe his condition. None were ever perfect.
“I don’t think so, no.”
The road, just focus on the road. Get them home, get some sleep, and this will all be over. It’s a dream, it’s just a bad dream.
But try as he might, he know it wasn’t a dream at all.
She turned the radio back on. He reached for the dial when he recognized the same song from earlier. Or, at least he thought he did. It instantly melted away, leaving a radio ad at five times the volume for the Westport carnival. Out of the corner of his eye he noticed Sarah lean forward towards the radio. Her body hunched in anticipation.
“John, can we at least—”
“Go to the carnival?”
“Yeah,” she said, a touch of embarrassment resting on the tip of her tongue.
In the back seat, Scott stirred in a restless dream.
John thought of the boy’s balloon disappearing up into to ether, like an Apollo mission destined for the Moon.
“I know it’s not coming back, I just wish it would,” the boy had said.
They were at a stop light on the edge of town when John said,
“You and your brother hadn’t left for school because you were never going to.”
And she looked at him in a way she had never looked at anymore before. Like someone was truly seeing her for the very first time, and all she could do was nod.
“That part of your life was gone,” he continued. “You knew it was no longer going to be the same.”
She nodded again, before scrunching her fists into balls and exploding her fingertips outwards.
He found himself wanting to talk, and wanting to ease her burden. They weren’t his kids. But he was still learning to care.
“When I got shot, I kept waiting to get better. The wound healed, my strength returned, but I wasn’t better. It’s like the hole was still there, and parts of whatever I was, or was going to be, went with it. And every day, I’ve waited for them to come back. I think today was the day I finally realized that I’m not just going to wake up tomorrow morning and feel better.”
He paused, the light turning from red to green.
“But to answer your question, yes, we can go to the carnival.”
Magic hour was ending on the pier—giving way to a dark, unknowing sky—when the Mustang pulled up amidst the crowd.
“At least we won’t have to pay,” Scott said, now awake and smirking.
The three slid easily—too easily, John thought—through the crowd. There were familiar faces all around, but the trio went unnoticed. Sarah and Scott were holding hands behind him. He could tell they were looking for their parents, but they too were nowhere to be seen.
Carnival barkers barked and children screamed. Through the mass of humanity he could see his home, floating quietly out at the end of the world. He thought of all the mornings waking up alone and the pills he would hit out into the ocean.
He wondered about state of mind, or if they had just slipped through a hole in the world. A hole perhaps no bigger than a bullet wound.
He grabbed Scott and Sarah and made a beeline for the Ferris wheel, the two of them startled and smiled.
He waited for the right moment and an empty car and shoved them on, before sliding in after them and pulling down the safety bar. The operator was somewhere in his own middle distance, and didn’t bat an eyelash.
As the car rolled forward into the darkness of the ocean and the night sky, the twins smiled, finally appearing to look their age.
And for the first time since it happened, John wasn’t thinking about how he felt, or what he didn’t feel. He wasn’t thinking about all the mornings to come and if he would ever feel the same. He was only admiring the view.
The cool ocean breeze had slid up his nose and worked its way behind his eyes, making the glass clearer.
She was holding his hand now, looking at him in a way no one had ever looked at him before. Like she really saw him.
“Do you think we’re going to be okay here?”
“I think so,” he said, giving her hand a squeeze. “For now, anyway.”
Down below, a dog was barking.
Alexander Brown is a writer living in Toronto, Canada. He was the previous editor of Tracer, a short story publication. His work has appeared in publications such as Writer's Bone, Across the Margin, and Feathertale. Also read his short story, “Toronto, October.”
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