25 June 2007
We had informed John that we didn’t see any way forward in our search for Rick. He’d asked a few questions, if Jackie had checked with Hecate, if we were certain we’d tried everything, if Jackie’s vision of the future could have been wrong, that kind of thing. By the time we finished our dinner, he had to concede that he knew of nothing more we could try, either, beyond just wandering the metaphysical realm indefinitely. This was, Jackie explained, beyond our capacity. Even if we could survive there long term, time got weird in the Deeper Realms, and the Realms were unfathomably large, and spending too much time there risked the chance of changing whoever went into something that could never really return. “It’s a romantic thought,” Jackie had said, “risking my soul and humanity for the slim chance that I could maybe find him, and have him be something recognizable when I did, but it just isn’t realistic without at least some idea on where to start.”
That hit me in a way I’m still trying to process. I’ve been turning it over in my mind, on and off, ever since, and I just can’t shake something about it. Maybe it is a romantic thought, I’m not sure if I’m convinced of that; but it certainly isn’t something I would want someone to do for me. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I’d rather be found than lost forever, but I can’t reasonably ask anyone to go that far. It’s too much. But that made me wonder what I did expect. What was my baseline? What were my reasonable expectations in a world where things like this can happen? I realized that this was what I’d been trying to sort out ever since Rick threw himself into that portal. John had warned me about the dangers of the things he dealt with, and Roderick had affirmed those concerns, but when I had the danger right there in front of me, I balked. And I had to decide if that was the best reaction. John had been honest with me all along, and even when he tried to apologize for not telling me about his first encounter with Jeremiah, I had to admit that he really hadn’t had time to tell me before he did. Was I holding him accountable for what happened to Rick? He’d tried to keep Rick and me safe, and in the end, it was Rick’s choice to do what he did. What was I holding against John in this?
When I was able to let go of holding John accountable for something he hadn’t even done, something I’d known he hadn’t done all along, I was able to really, honestly, examine my feelings for him. And the fact is, I love him. I want to be with him. I want to face the life he lives, together. So I went to his house today, and I told him everything. I confessed what I’d been holding against him, I told him about my fears, I told him about the warnings I’d received from Roderick. I asked him if he could forgive me for being unreasonably angry at him for something that wasn’t his fault. If he thought there was still a future for us. And he did! He had been waiting, hoping that I’d come back, and he immediately told me he wasn’t going anywhere. We sorted some things out, we made love, and now he’s making dinner for us and Jackie and I’m thinking about what comes next. And, for the first time in nearly two months, I’m not afraid of whatever that may be.
Mandy and I had been with Jackie most of the day, and decided it would be best to get out of the room for a while. We hadn’t really spent much time together that wasn’t completely wrapped up in being at the hospital, and her condition wasn’t changing, so we slipped out when a small crowd was there after lunch. We had a nice day out, walking around New Castle while the day was warm and sunny, slipping into a couple shops here and there. We decided to check in with John after he got out of work and ask if he’d found anything yet, then maybe do dinner with him on our way back to the hospital.
What we actually found when I opened the door was John and another man actively fighting. The living room was completely torn apart, the recliner was knocked over, the television was broken, the couch cushions and almost every decoration in the room was knocked down or strewn about the place. I could only just barely see that the dining room hadn’t fared much better, but my sight in that direction was caught up with seeing the man get a hold of John by the neck and slam him against the wall. I called out, instinctively, and that drew the man’s attention. He threw John aside and came at Mandy and me, and I barely had time to process what was happening before he was just gone. I didn’t see what happened to him, he was there one moment, and then not there the next. John came limping toward us as a book appeared on the floor in front of me, and John insisted we needed to go immediately and asked me to bring the book.
“Is someone going to tell me what’s going on!?” Mandy demanded as she started the car to head back to the hospital.
“Jackie’s under a spell,” John said, trying to catch his breath. “It was put on her by Jeremiah to get my attention.”
“You said this was your grandpa? What the fuck is going on with your family?”
“That would take longer to answer than we have right now.”
“His grandfather Jeremiah is the son of a river god, he turned evil over some daddy issues, John’s dad couldn’t stop him, so he raised John as a weapon to use against Jeremiah, and apparently Jeremiah has now come for him,” I said.
“Uh…yeah, that’s the gist of it.”
“Okay so what are we doing at the hospital?” Mandy asked.
“Not we,” John answered, “Alice.”
“What can I do?” I turned to John and held up the book. “You know I can’t cast any of these!”
“You don’t need to cast anything. You just need to manipulate a spell that’s already there.”
“And how do I do that?”
“Does the book explain? Check the section it was open to?”
“Where’d the book come from!?” Mandy yelled as I started reading the pages.
“My library. There’s a Brownie at the house now doing research—”
“You have a Girl Scout at your house?!?”
“No, the spirit. A Brownie is a house spirit from Scotland. I don’t know why he’s here and right now I don’t care. He apparently found what we need to deal with the spell on Jackie.”
“Why don’t you just, you know,” Mandy asked, waving her hand in a circle, “just unmagic it away?”
“It’ll kill her.”
“The spell is a combination of different spells that are all connected and set up with a trap. The trap is that the whole thing will collapse and kill her if you don’t unravel the spell the right way.”
“No pressure or anything,” I muttered.
John placed his hand on my chin and turned my face to look into his eyes. “You can do this, Alice,” he said, softly. “I believe in you, and Jackie trusts you.”
“I don’t know how.”
“You just need some guidance. Read the book, think about what it’s telling you to do, and we can walk through it together when we get there. Okay?”
I nodded, slowly. He smiled, and I returned to the book.
“So we’re rushing to the hospital to fix this?” Mandy asked.
“To fix it before Jeremiah gets there,” John answered. “I threw him deep into the Deeper Realms, it’ll take him a while to make his way back and be a threat to her, but I don’t know how long.”
“I am literally incapable of navigating the Deeper Realms. It takes magic to go there.”
“Or whatever it is you do.”
“Or whatever it is I do to spirits, yeah. But the point is, it may take him twenty minutes or twenty years to make his way back, I really have no way of knowing. So we can’t take any chances.” He sat back in his seat and rubbed his side and Mandy turned her focus to the road. I thought about all the effort Jackie had put in trying to teach me magic, and threw everything I had at understanding what I was reading.
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.
Biology major on the edges of the 'burgh.