The hospital room had a steady stream of visitors that started within an hour of my arrival, and around lunch it got a bit crowded so I slipped out to find the cafeteria. I was picking at my food, alone at a table in the corner, when Mandy slipped into the seat opposite me.
“You don’t look like you’re enjoying that sandwich,” she offered, pulling a bag of chips open.
“It’s…not quite what I was hoping.”
“Like, in terms of quality, or your emotional state?”
“I don’t know. Probably both.” I set the sandwich down and tested a french fry.
“You know, as long as I’ve known you, I don’t think I can recall ever seeing you eat something that wasn’t made by a chef.”
“I’ve gone to restaurants with line cooks, thank you very much.” I offered a smile, but it didn’t last. “But yeah, I don’t think I’d ever had fast food until John hit a drive thru with me in the car.”
“What’s going on with the two of you, anyway?”
“I don’t know. I haven’t decided.”
“Does he get a vote in this?”
“He said it was my decision, but if I wanted to work out what was going on with us, he was up for it.”
“And do you?”
I slid the tray aside and rested my elbows on the table and my head in my hands. “Yes. And no. Am I overreacting?”
“That depends. You’re gonna have to give me more to work with here.”
“I don’t think any of this is his fault, you know.”
“But this world he lives in, it’s dangerous.”
“You live in it, too.”
“Not like they do.”
“No, I mean, exactly like he does. You don’t think these things only happen to people who get involved in it, do you?”
“I mean, doesn’t it?”
“Were you poking around with ghosts before your house got haunted?”
“Listen. If even half the stuff they believe in is real, it’s real for all of us. We’re all stuck with it, we all have the chance of running into some terrible monster or alien or something.”
“Is this meant to be comforting?”
“It’s meant to be realistic.” She set her food aside and leaned in. “The only difference between people like us and people like them is that they know what they’re dealing with when it shows up. Or,” she leaned back and crossed her arms, “they’re just crazy and it’s all made up and not relevant to our lives with or without them.”
“They’re not crazy.”
“Then they’re prepared.”
“Fat lot of good that’s done them! Go upstairs and look at Jackie and tell me how that’s helped her!”
“She’s still here.”
I buried my face in my hands and felt the weight of her words. “I’m sorry, Mandy, I didn’t mean—”
“You told me what happened to Rick. About this cult. He knew what he was up against, and he made a decision based on that information.” She leaned forward and jammed her finger into the tabletop. “Can you tell me he was wrong? Can you tell me it wasn’t the right call, in that moment?”
“No. I don’t suppose I can.”
“And if he hadn’t known? If he hadn’t thought they were bad enough to take that risk? What would’ve happened?”
“I…I don’t know.”
“Would it have been better, Alice?”
“No. I don’t think it would have.”
“Look. Maybe people who look into this stuff, like you and Jackie, find him, and maybe you don’t. And maybe no one else ever really knows the truth. But you’re alive, and Jackie’s alive, and Matteson’s alive, and God knows how many other people can go about their day with no idea about this cult, because he knew. And he acted. And I respect that.”
I lifted my face enough to look into her eyes. “Okay. I guess you’re right, but…I’m not sure how this is part of the same conversation.”
“I don’t think either of us can really run away from this stuff. Not anymore. If you don’t want to be with Matteson, that’s fine, it happens. But don’t make the mistake of thinking you don’t belong to the same world as he does, that you’re somehow separate from all of it. Don’t think you can just turn it off when you don’t want to deal with it. We’re all surrounded by the same ghosts—he just can’t pretend he isn’t. And maybe we shouldn’t, either.” She picked her chips up again and slumped into her seat. “Lord knows I won’t. I can’t”
I thought about that for a little while as we ate. “I’m sorry, Mandy. And you’re probably right. I hadn’t really thought about it like that.”
“It’s okay. Those of us without magic have to learn to think of it that way, I guess.”
“Or discover we do have magic.”
“I…can I tell you later?”
“Yeah, sure. We should get back upstairs, anyway.” We gathered what food we had left to bring upstairs, cleaned up the rest, and headed to the room.
18 June 2007
I found John this morning passed out in his library among a pile of opened books and scattered notes. He’d definitely been drinking, there were a couple plates and cups and some empty snack packaging, and on the pile of snuffed Newport butts was the remains of a cigarette that had burned down to ash, which I recognized as signs he’d been up studying until he passed out, likely around dawn. I left him to sleep while I cleaned up the mess and started a pot of coffee, which I enjoyed in quiet while I walked around the house to take it all in. It occurred to me that I’d never really taken the time to just walk around, look at how John and Jackie kept their home, what it said about both of them. I’d usually been busy while here, or focused entirely on one person or another, and never just considering where I was.
There was a lot of evidence of John’s drinking and smoking, and a few signs there’d been weed smoked recently. Admittedly, he likely engaged in all of them more than usual while he was laying around recovering, but still. It was a concerning amount, and if we were ever getting back together—and I wasn’t yet sure if I was ready to entertain the idea—I would need some kind of assurance that he would cut back on all the substances.
I sat on the edge of his bed and looked around, picking out the things of Henry’s he still hadn’t touched since moving into the master bedroom. I looked through pictures of us that were still out on the dresser and nightstand, and picked up a scarf still hanging on one of the hooks outside the closet, buried under hats but still visible. He’d told me about it, once, when we were laying in the bed and I asked after noticing it. He’d confessed it belonged to Lori, she’d left it here the last time she’d been by before Alethea made herself known. He’d told me she’d left it hanging there by accident, and he meant to return it after everything happened, but she came when he wasn’t around and then vanished. I was pretty sure he’d hung it up himself after he couldn’t return it, or wouldn’t return it, or whatever happened. He was sentimental, in his way. Little pieces of everything left laying around, keeping trinkets as a quiet backdrop to whatever life he was living. There was a toy from a childhood friend, a little bauble his grandmother had carried when she was alive, the necklace of sand he never took off except to shower. I found it tolerable when it came to Lori, if only just, and it was cute otherwise. But it was a quiet backdrop; he didn’t talk about any of these people, not really, unless he was pressed. I felt a pang in my heart when I considered the possibility of being just another trinket, another set of stories, another name that would live on in his mind but rarely grace his lips.
I poured myself a second cup of coffee, prepared a tea for him, and went down to the basement to wake him. We each drank our mugs in silence while he picked up the books and papers, and when he finally sat down we discussed how today was going to go. I expected we were going to the hospital and doing what we could for Jackie, but he’d identified the spot she would have been when she was found. It turns out she’d been trying to reach through the Hedge to find Rick, and John was convinced something magical had happened to her there that caused her current condition. He was hoping to visit Jackie for a bit in the morning, and then go investigating the site to see if there was any sign of what happened to her. God, I almost forgot how much I loved watching him work through something like this, explaining and jumping from one piece of evidence to another, with no care for how crazy it all must sound to someone who didn’t know the spiritual reality like he did. He invited me to come along, if I wanted. I declined, told him to take me with him to the hospital and I would just stay there with her until he was done and came back. Thankfully, Mandy was there by the time he left, so I had her to talk to while we stood vigil over Jackie.
“So, how do you like being back in the states?” she asked, after we’d sat in silence for a while.
“It’s alright. It was a good idea to come back, thanks.”
“Of course. Have you figured anything out yet?”
I sighed. “No, not really.”
“Listen, I know some of her friends from work and the theater are coming by later, so I better ask this now before they get here.” She turned and took my hands in hers and looked me in the eye. “Is this thing happening to her magical? Is that why Matteson rushed out of here?”
“He…” I looked around, then leaned in and whispered, “he thinks so, yeah.”
“Then why didn’t he just break it?”
“I don’t know. I didn’t even think to ask!”
“Why does he think it’s magic?”
“She was looking for Rick.”
She squeezed my hands briefly and took a deep breath. “I see.” She let go and turned back in her chair to face Jackie. “I take it she didn’t find anything.”
“I don’t think we’ll know until she’s awake,” I answered, turning to face the bed as well. “But if there’s anything still at the site, I bet John will find it.”
Hey everyone, today is my anniversary! My wife has been my best friend and biggest supporter for the last 11 years, and not only would this story not exist without her encouragement, but I would be a far worse person without her than I am today. If you enjoy my work, whether it's this story or my twitch channel or really any of my projects, please take this opportunity to show her some love for the incredible impact she's had on making all of this happen. She's in the Discord server if you use that.
Carol, my love, my partner, my inspiration, and one of the most clever people I know, I just want to say thank you; I'm so excited to see where the road takes us in this second decade of our marriage.
17 June 2007
On the flight to Pittsburgh, Mandy asked what was going on between John and me. She said she’d been by to see him a couple times, and he didn’t seem willing to talk about it. So I told her the truth, which is simply that I don’t know. And now that I’m back home, I’ve had to seriously confront that question. People here make a point to ask about him, after they’ve asked me about my trip and how I’m holding up, and I can only dodge that question for so long. I just haven’t been sure what I want the answer to be.
Don’t get me wrong. I love him, and I want us to work this out. On the one hand, though, the life he leads is dangerous, and I don’t know how much more I’m really willing to risk…or lose. I fear that one of these days the real weight of that danger is going to catch up to him, or me, and I’m not sure I can ever be comfortable with that thought. But it isn’t his fault, not really. He didn’t choose to be an Anchor, and he’s trying to forge a new path instead of just being the weapon his dad tried to make him, and he did warn me. Right from the beginning, he told me the risks, and so did Roderick. Can I really hold it against him that things are exactly how he said they may be?
I need to figure this out. I need to know if I can look at him and not just see what happened to Rick, if I can be by his side without wondering when it will happen to me. I’m going over there today. We’re just going to talk, nothing more, but. I need to see how I handle it, and make a decision about whether or not we have a future.
10 June 2007
Results had been disappointing so far. It wasn’t particularly difficult to find spells to do what she wanted, but they didn’t seem to get me anywhere. Michael had even managed to open a portal into the Deeper Realms, and the two of us spent a week there with tracking spells and a relic that all just led us in circles. Roderick believed that Rick had either been unmade or was being actively hidden from us; I refused to believe the former, and Michael believed we could muster up enough power between us to punch through whatever was doing the latter. There was little evidence to date to suggest he was right.
Melinda was concerned. A few days after we returned from the Deeper Realms, she took me out for a spa day and refused to let me talk about Rick or magic while we were out. I didn’t realize until I was halfway through a massage how obsessed I’d been recently over the matter. Not that it didn’t warrant dedication, but maybe Melinda was right when she insisted I couldn’t let this become my whole life. So I started taking more breaks, and seeing my other cousins, and putting the work aside to get some sleep with more frequency. And the less time I spent obsessing over a solution, the more time I found myself mourning him as if he was never coming back. I needed to find some distractions. I started browsing the library more, and found there was a considerable fiction collection I hadn’t even thought to explore when I was last here. I was on my fourth period romance before I realized that I had narrowed onto a specific subject, but I really didn’t have time to think about why that would be right now.
“A visitor for you, ma’am,” Hendricks said.
I blinked in surprise and turned my attention to him. I hadn’t even heard him enter the parlor, and now wondered how long he’d been standing there. “For me?”
“Yes, ma’am. An Amanda Stow. Shall I send her in?”
“Mandy’s here!?” I set Jane Eyre down and stood, straightening out my skirt. “Yes, yes, definitely send her in!”
He nodded and slipped out of the room, and after a few moments he returned to hold the door open as Mandy walked in. I ran over and gave her a hug, thanked Hendricks, and then showed her to the chairs.
“This place is so much nicer than I was expecting!” she said, softly, as if it was a secret. I chuckled.
“Yes, well. That’s what being a lord will get you.”
“Well. If that cousin of yours is single…” We both laughed as Hendricks returned and set a platter with two cups of tea and a small plate of cookies on the table between us. We both thanked him again, and he was gone.
“Why did you come all the way to England? Why didn’t you tell me you were coming?”
She sighed and picked up a cookie, looking at it absently. “I’m worried about you.”
“That could have been a text, Mandy.” I added a bit of sugar to one of the teas and laid back in my chair while I stirred. “Why are you here?”
“To bring you back.” She took a bite from her cookie and relaxed into the chair. “And maybe some of these cookies, too.”
“I can’t go back right now. There’s so much work to do on this.”
“Hm, yeah,” she said, leaning forward and picking up the book and turning it over in her hand, “looks very important.”
“Everyone needs a break sometimes.”
“Yes, but that’s my point, Alice.” She leaned forward and rested her elbows on her knees. “You have shut yourself off from friends and family who care about you to go chasing after some solution to Rick’s disappearance. Which is fine, for a little while, but there needs to be a point where you come home and let people be there for you.”
“It’s not so simple—”
“Of course it isn’t. Nothing ever is. He’s my cousin, I promise, I understand.”
“No, there’s so much more than that to it.”
“Is it magic?”
She leaned back in her chair and we were silent for a minute. “The official report is that he was taken by a cult. How accurate is that?”
“He…threw himself and their leader into a portal to stop them summoning something terrible.”
“And have you made any progress on finding him?”
“No. I haven’t.”
“Then come home.”
“Look. I get why you guys didn’t say all that to the police. I get why you didn’t tell me right away. But if this is really a magic problem, and a month of magic research hasn’t yielded any results, then maybe it’s time to do something else. And you’re going to need a support network to get through that.”
“I can’t. I can’t just…” I paused and set my tea down.
“You can’t just accept that he’s gone.” A tear ran down her cheek.
“There has to be a way.”
“And maybe there is. I hope there is. But if there aren’t answers here, then why stay, except to isolate yourself?”
I nodded, and wiped a tear away. Mandy got up from the chair and walked over, offering me her hand. I accepted and stood, and we held each other for a long while as we both started to cry. “I saw it,” I choked out, eventually. “I saw him go and couldn’t do anything to help him.”
“That’s not your fault.”
“I brought them there. I ran when we were confronted by the cult. I—”
“It’s not your fault, Alice.”
My legs went out from under me, and we ended up on the floor, crying into each other’s shoulders. I had tried so hard for the last month to bury these feelings, and now nothing was able to stop them coming out. I don’t know how long we stayed there, but we managed to get calmed down and cleaned up in time for dinner. We went into town that evening, and she spent the night in one of the rooms in the wing where I was staying, and in the morning, Melinda saw us both to the airport to fly back to the States.
Biology major on the edges of the 'burgh.