Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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Issue 22
Stories
Love, Cayce
by Marie Brennan
Exodus Tides
by Aliette de Bodard
Exiles of Eden
by Brad R. Torgersen
The Long Way Home
by G. Norman Lippert
Tales for the Young and Unafraid
The Bus Stop
by David Lubar
InterGalactic Medicine Show Interviews

The Long Way Home
    by G. Norman Lippert

3rd Place - Best Interior Art - 2011

The Long Way Home
Artwork by Nick Greenwood

Henry Spalding walked along the bumpy sidewalk of Beech Avenue thinking that it was amazing just how fast ten years could go by. Jake, his son, had been a baby when Henry's ex-wife, Stephanie, had moved them to the rusty little town of Buena Vista, Virginia, and Henry had followed, abandoning his manager's job at Blake Construction and taking what he'd expected to be a temporary shift as an assembly operator at the local Dana plant. Now, a decade later, Henry was still working the same shift, and Jake was nearly eleven years old. The wildly impetuous kid that had once trotted along hand in hand with his father had grown into an increasingly sulky young man. Henry tried not to think about it. He had learned as a child how not to think about things: it was how he got through life.

The evening sun painted long tree shapes across the road as he turned onto Twenty-Third Street. The houses here were small and weathered, with dormers crowding their sagging roofs and tree roots pushing humps up beneath the sidewalk, reminding Henry of his childhood home of Clyde, Ohio. Of course, Clyde had been neater, with its immaculate old Town Hall and busy Main Street. By comparison, Buena Vista's half-empty downtown was a grungy ghost town. There wasn't even a decent bar, like the old Eagles Lodge back home on Main Street, or its lesser counterpart, the Clyde Piper. Henry didn't mind that. Lately, he preferred to do his drinking alone. He approached the house, his work shoes clumping on the wooden front steps.

"Jake," Stephanie's voice hollered from inside. "Your father's here. Don't forget to put Sig on his leash."

She met him at the screen door just as he reached for the handle.

"He'll be around in a minute," she said through the screen. "He's out back with some friends." Henry saw the boxes behind her, stacked in the front room with handwritten notations on them: KITCHEN, J's BEDROOM, DEN.

"You need a hand with any of those, Steph?" Henry asked quietly, nodding toward the boxes.

"No. Greg's done a great job helping us get everything together. He's here now, finishing the upstairs bedrooms."

No wonder Steph wasn't inviting him in. "You sure? I can carry some boxes to the truck."

"We're not carrying them," Steph sighed impatiently. "The movers are coming on Monday. All we have to do is have it all packed, and we're almost done. Thanks."

Henry hated talking to her through the screen door. "Are you sure? I could at least bring down the head boards and dressers --"

"Henry, stop," Stephanie interrupted curtly. "I know this is how you show you care, by doing little jobs, but really, Greg and I have it handled. Just take your walk with Jake and Sig and try to get back before the mosquitoes get too bad."

Greg and I. Henry hated the way she said it. There had been other men in her life since him, of course, but Greg was the one that made it all real. In less than a week they'd be gone, moved out of Buena Vista, and taking Jake with them. They were going to California, where Greg had gotten some big computer job. Henry tried to be glad for them. He was glad that Steph would finally have the security she'd always wanted, even if it wasn't him who'd be providing it. What he was really unhappy about was that, this time, he couldn't follow them. He had moved to Buena Vista to be near his son, and now they were leaving him here, like an unwanted dog.

There were footsteps on the sidewalk behind Henry. He turned and saw Jake standing there, not looking at him. Sig's leash dangled from his hand. The dog grinned up at him and panted in the evening sun.

"Hey, Jake," Henry said, clomping down the steps to join him.

Jake mumbled something, but still didn't make eye contact. Henry took the leash from him. Sig, their old German Shepherd, immediately trotted ahead, leading them back out toward Beech Avenue. Henry and Jake followed.

Henry no longer reached down for his son's hand. They simply walked together in silence.

Cars and pickup trucks passed them on Beech. A sudden breeze shushed in the bushes and carried trash along the gutter.

Henry finally asked, "So, you know anything about your new school?"

Jake sighed harshly and pushed his hair out of his face. "Same crap, different city."

A flare of dull anger lit Henry's thoughts but he pushed it back. Soon enough Jake wouldn't be using the word crap. Adulthood loomed over his son like a bomb. Henry pushed on. "You'll make new friends if you remember what I taught you. I bet they'll even have one of those half-pipes and stuff."

"I haven't skated in like two years."

The anger surged again, and this time Henry couldn't restrain it. "Why would you lie to me about something so stupid, Jake? I just saw you and those juvie buddies of yours skateboarding on the street not two days ago. You think I'm blind or something?"

Jake blinked aside at his father, his brow darkening. "That's skateboarding. I was talking about roller-blading. I wasn't trying to --"

"Call it what you want, it amounts to the same thing and you know it. You need to stop wasting your time on stuff like that and find something useful to do. Nobody ever got anywhere in life skateboarding in the street or mooning around on the computer all night and blowing off their homework."

Henry saw the folded sheet of school work poking from his son's back pocket. He snatched it up and unfolded it before Jake realized what he was doing.

"Hey! Give that back!"

Henry shook his head as he peered down at the creased sheet of paper. It was a spelling test with a big apple printed on the upper right corner. Across the top, in red handwriting, was a teacher's note: 16 of 20 -- Not bad! The words were accompanied by a smiley face. The nape of Henry's neck bristled at the sight of it. He flipped the page over and stared at the back. It was covered with a large pencil doodle.

"What's this?"

"It's nothing!" Jake said, his face reddening. "Give it here!" He jabbed his hand toward the paper.

Henry stared down at it. The drawing showed a ridiculously muscular man wearing armor, a horned helmet, and enormous fur-fringed boots. He was holding a bloody sword in one-hand and a severed dragon's head in the other. It was very good.

Henry's first, irrational instinct was to crumple the drawing in his fists.

"I know I shouldn't be wasting time in class, all right?" Jake admitted grudgingly. "You don't have to say it."

Henry studied the drawing a moment longer. Finally, wordlessly, he handed it back to his son. Jake took it, folded it again, and stuffed it back into his pocket. They walked on.

Henry fumed to himself. He didn't want to yell at Jake. All it ever accomplished was to turn the boy sullen for the rest of their walk. If only Jake weren't so damned moody. So goddamned odd all of a sudden.

But of course, soon enough, none of that would be Henry's problem anymore. Other than the occasional phone call and summer visit. He shook his head bitterly.

Sig turned the corner onto Alpine, following the familiar route they had taken so many times before. Henry had originally named the dog Siegfried. That had been before the divorce, when the world had seemed just the sort of whimsical place for dogs with quaintly absurd fairy-tale names. As a child, Jake hadn't been able to say the word Siegfried, of course, thus Sig had stuck, and what a cute story that once had seemed. The dog angled sharply to the side and lifted a leg beneath the street sign.

"I was thinking we'd stop at Kenney's on the way back for a . . ." Henry began, but his voice drifted away as he looked up, toward the street sign that Sig was peeing on. The street sign was different. He frowned distractedly at it. The colors of the sign were different, but that wasn't the really odd thing. It was the street name.

"George?" Henry read aloud, still frowning.

"Huh?" Jake glanced back over his shoulder.

Henry looked aside at his son, and then up at the sign again. He pointed at it. "It says George Street. Not Alpine. What's that all about?"

Jake didn't answer. He didn't seem to care. A moment later, Sig tugged at the leash, finished with his business. They walked on.

It was nothing, of course. Maybe someone from the Public Works department had just screwed up and installed the wrong sign on the wrong corner. Dumber things had happened. But still. Was there even a George Street in Buena Vista? Lots of small towns had a George Street. Clyde had had a George Street. Henry had delivered The Sandusky Register along it when he'd been a kid. But he'd never heard of a George Street here. It nagged at him.

And then he saw the Dumpster. It was in the same place as always, up on the corner of Twenty-Sixth and Park, behind the now defunct Seventh Inning sports bar. Henry stared at it as they made their way slowly toward it, their feet crunching in the uneven gravel along the side of the road. There were words stenciled onto the Dumpster's side, words that Henry was pretty sure had not been there before. He read them with a strange mixture of disbelief and bemusement:

CLYDE PIPER BAR REFUSE ONLY- 13 BRUSH ST.

NO PERSENAL TRASH!!

"Jake," he said, pointing with his left hand, "you see that sign? Up there on the Dumpster?"

Jake looked at the Dumpster, and then up at his father, squinting. "Yeah. What about it?"

"Has it always been there?"

Jake frowned and shook his head. "I dunno. Probably. What's with you and signs today, Hank?"

Henry nearly stumbled on the gravel. "What did you just call me?"

"What? Nothing. Jeez."

"What did you just say?"

"I said what's with you and signs today? You all hooked on phonics or something?"

Henry smiled, and then shook his head. The smile turned into a bemused laugh. "I could've sworn you . . ."

He didn't go on. Nobody called him Hank anymore. Especially not his son. It had been nearly thirty years since he'd last heard that name."

As they passed the Dumpster, Henry turned to look back at it. He couldn't see the stenciled letters anymore. The Dumpster was huddled against the cinder blocks of the old bar, growing dim in the shadows as the sun dipped below the town's roofs. Sig turned into the narrow alley next to the bar. As he did, the streetlamps began to flicker on, pulsing alight along the entire length of the business district.

Henry stopped in his tracks, his breath turning solid in his chest. His eyes went wide.

"Jeez, Hank, what's with you?" Jake asked, stopping a few feet away and glancing back. Sig tugged at the end of the leash. Henry barely felt it.

The business district of Buena Vista, Virginia, was gone. In its place, as solid and undeniable as the moon in the sky, was Main Street, Clyde, Ohio.

The imposing but nonthreatening brick of the Town Hall dominated the far end of the road. The clock on its tower glowed like one benevolent eye. Next to the Town Hall was the red painted façade of the Five and Dime store, the natty glass doors of Wilson's Men's Shop, and the twirling red white and blue of Rusty's barber pole. It was all there, buzzing faintly in the orange glow of the street lights. The slant parking spaces were mostly empty, but the cars that were visible were strictly pre-Reagan models. There was a GTO, a Corvair, and even a rusty old Maverick. The neon light of the Clyde Piper Bar sign reflected on its hood.

"Come on," Jake said, reaching to grab his companion's hand. "It's getting dark. If I don't get home, my mom's gonna have kittens. You act like you ain't never seen a flippin' rust-bucket Maverick before."

He pulled Henry forward, and Henry came, jerkily, his eyes still fixed on the inexplicable sight before him.

"I swear, Hank, you get any weirder, your old man's gonna nail you in a crate and send you to military school. Come on. You can borrow my Boba Fett card for the night if you want, but don't bend it all up, all right?"

"Okay," Henry said, not really listening. They crossed Main Street, keeping between the glow of the streetlights, and ducking across the parking lot of the Clyde Twist-E-Freeze. A minute later, they angled down a residential alley. Neat, postage stamp backyards and gardens lined the way, all separated by chain-link fences and gates. Henry watched, speechless, as they tramped toward home.

Soon enough, however, the yards changed. They grew darker and weedier. The cars parked on the gravel driveways were minivans and Toyotas, rather than old Fords and AMCs. Televisions flickered behind curtained windows, and Henry heard the sound of ESPN SportsCenter wafting from an open window. He looked up as they turned a corner, Sig still in the lead, panting at the end of his leash. They were back on Twenty-Third Street, heading toward Steph's house. Lights glowed from inside, strangely bright on the blank walls.

Jake reached up and took the leash from his father's fingers. Without a word, he ran ahead, clumped up the front porch steps, and slammed the screen door on his way inside.

Henry simply stood there in the twilight, his head swimming, rocking slightly on his heels. He was back in Buena Vista again. Not that he'd ever really left. It was crazy. It was completely nutso bonkers, as they'd all used to say back in grade school. He simply could not have seen what he thought he'd seen -- or heard what he thought he'd heard.

I swear, Hank, you get any weirder, your old man's gonna nail you in a crate and send you to military school . . .

But he had. And Henry was just too simple of a guy to deny it.

The next day was Saturday. Henry had the weekend ahead of him. Steph, Greg and Jake would be leaving on Monday morning, and then it would be all over. They'd be gone.

Henry moved around his little house that day like a ghost, fixing the odd cupboard drawer and oiling the hinges on a couple of squeaky doors. There was no point, really. The house wasn't going to sell, not in this market. The realtor's sign had been out front for almost three weeks, but there hadn't been a single call. This was why he couldn't follow his son to California, even if he could afford to live there, which he couldn't. Of course, Henry could have fought the move if he'd wanted to. The number for his family attorney was still posted on the fridge. But he had never seriously considered calling it. Deep down, he knew that Jake would be better off in California, even without him.

But there was more to it than that. They didn't really want Henry to go with them this time. That was the fact of it. Not even Jake.

Every time Henry thought of this, his mind switched gears, almost in self-defense.

He'd gone to Clyde, Ohio, last night. He'd walked there with his own two feet, right through time and space. And Jake had gone there with him. Henry remembered it, but he couldn't properly think about it. There was no sense to be made from such a thing. Unless, of course, he was crazy. But Henry didn't feel crazy. And it really had been . . . sort of nice.

And Jake had been different. He had spoken to Henry. Not reluctantly and sullenly, but openly, even happily. He hadn't made any sense, which was worrying, but it had still been a welcome change. Maybe, Henry thought fleetingly, just maybe it would happen again. Part of him hoped it didn't. After all, nice or not, it had been extremely strange and unsettling. But another part of him hoped very much that it would, even if it meant he was crazy. The world had been better back then, back in the Clyde, Ohio, of his youth. Not only because things had been simpler and less frustrating, but because of . . .

Adam.

Henry stopped and leaned in the doorway of his tiny kitchen. He hadn't thought of Adam Blankenship in decades. How could that be possible? Adam had been his best friend back in those days. They'd walked to school together, shared each other's paper routes, traded Star Wars cards, had endless sleepovers, drawn countless crayon doodles on torn up paper bags on Adam's back porch. Adam had been the best friend that Henry had ever had. By comparison, every other person he'd ever known -- even Steph -- had been a mere acquaintance. How could he possibly have forgotten about Adam?

Adam was the only person who had ever called him Hank.

Jake had called him Hank last night. More than once, in fact.

Henry thought about this, frowning and staring unseeingly into the depths of his kitchen. It still didn't make any sense. If anything, it was even more worrying. And still, he hoped it would all happen again.

He forced himself to wait until seven-thirty. Then, he stepped out of his front door, turned right, and walked resolutely toward Beech Avenue.

The street sign on the corner of Alpine and Beech had not changed by the time Henry, Jake and Sig got to it, but nearly everything else had. The backs of the buildings along the right side of the road were closer, crowding right up to the gravel. Narrow windows were propped open with old rulers and bricks, emitting the sounds of small town Ohio summer: Indians baseball on CKLW, the sizzle and clank of the grill in Camie's Diner, the squeak of barstools on the wooden floor of the Clyde Piper.

Henry walked along this with Jake at his side. Jake was kicking a Coors can down the road. Neither of them were holding Sig's leash, and with a glance, Henry understood why. Sig had changed as well. The German Shepherd had become smaller and whiter, with brown and black dabs on his back and neck. He'd become Willy, Adam Blankenship's mongrel pup. He sniffed at the Dumpster behind the Clyde Piper, circling it methodically.

"Did you get a tongue lashing last night when you got home?" Jake asked, stopping at the corner and fishing a cigarette from his pocket.

"Nah," Henry answered without thinking. "My Old Man was still down here at the Piper with his work buddies."

He remembered. His father had never been an alcoholic, but he did spend almost all of his evenings down at the Piper, watching the Indians or the Browns, depending on the season. He'd never get stupid drunk, but he would come home late most nights, and sleep more often than not on the downstairs sofa. He'd expect Henry to be home in his bed, having fed and bathed himself. His mom had died years earlier and Henry barely remembered her.

"He making you go to that stupid camp again this year?" Jake asked, lighting the cigarette with an Ohio Blue Tip match.

Henry sighed. He remembered that as well. Camp Covenant Pines was a religious camp near Lake Erie. Lots of hikes to the chapel each night for sermons about how they were all going to hell if they listened to rock music or danced or went to see movies in the theater. There were no girls at Covenant Pines, and no arts and crafts, either. There was sports by day, God by night, and no sneaking out for pranks or midnight shenanigans once the lights went out, because the camp counselors prowled the cabins with flashlights, on the lookout for just such behavior.

"I have to go in a couple weeks," Henry heard himself say. "I'll be gone seven days. Better than last year, at least."

"What a freakin' gyp," Jake declared. "Maybe you could hitch-hike your way back home and stay at my place instead. I could hide you out in the attic over the garage!"

Henry grinned at the prospect. "What about when camp's over and the bus shows up back here without me on it?"

Jake's eyes widened with inspiration. "You could just come wandering out of the woods over by the park and tell everybody you loved camping so much that you bushwhacked your way home! Busses are for wussies!"

Henry liked the idea, but he knew neither of them really meant it. At ten years old, the grown-ups ran everything. Such brazen free will was a pleasant myth.

He sighed. "The Old Man says going to camp builds character."

"He thinks everything that's stupid builds character," Jake said, taking a pull on the cigarette and offering it to Henry.

Henry didn't take it. He simply looked at the other boy's face, studying him. He hadn't talked this freely, this easily, with anyone in decades. There was simply no adult replacement for the simple, sweet friendships forged in youth. A shudder of loss shook Henry to his heels.

"I've missed you," he said. The words were almost like a prayer.

The other boy blinked at him. When he did, the world of Clyde, Ohio wavered, rippled silently like something seen through a rainy window. Jake, Henry's son, stood before him, his brow furrowed slightly.

"I'm right here," he said, a shade of confusion in his voice.

Henry nodded speechlessly. He had interrupted the magic somehow. Jake was with him, but he wasn't experiencing the same things Henry was. For him, maybe the magic didn't exist at all.

But then Henry reached forward. As he did, the world solidified again, settling back into place like a disturbed curtain. He took the stub of cigarette from the other boy's hand, raised it, and drew a deep drag. The smoke stung his eyes and curled into his nose.

"Come on," Jake said with Adam's voice, turning away. "Let's go over to Mason's place and see if he'll show us his brother's Hustlers again."

"Nah," Henry answered, allowing himself to fall into the moment, "they're gross. Mason's brother is a sicko. Just being in his bedroom makes me feel like I need a twelve-hour bath."

Jake laughed happily in agreement as he took the cigarette back from Henry. They walked on down the alley. Willy the mutt followed.

Henry noticed, with no real surprise, that Jake was as tall as he was now. Or more accurately, he, Henry, was as short as Jake. Of course he was. In the Ohio of this time he was only ten years old himself. He could barely remember that he'd ever been anything else.

But he was remembering a lot of other stuff. Stuff he had long since buried. His father, for instance. Earl Spalding had not been a happy man. He had rarely physically hurt Henry, apart from the typical spankings, but he had verbally lashed out at him, trying to make him into the man a guy like Earl thought he should be. The Old Man didn't understand his own son, this odd boy who liked to draw and write stories and who had no interest in sports like normal red-blooded American kids. As a result, he belittled young Henry. He threw away his drawings. He forced him to try out for his school's football and baseball teams. And when Henry failed to make first string, the Old Man would take him out onto the field and force him to run drills, to catch and hit, to practice endlessly during long, hot weekends.

Worst of all, Henry's father didn't like Adam Blankenship, not one bit. Adam's parents were soft, he declared, allowing their boy to grow up soft as well. A good father trained his boy right, to work hard, to put away childish things. Adam brought out the absolute worst in Henry's father, thus the boys never went to Henry's house, even when the Old Man was at work. Besides, Adam's place was nicer. There were books there, and plenty of crayons and markers, and cut up paper bags to draw on. Adam's dad was a bookkeeper at the same factory that Henry's dad worked at, but the two could not have been more different.

And Adam's mother was nice. She was pretty, and wore perfume, and made them peanut butter and honey sandwiches sometimes while they drew Star Wars characters on the back porch. Henry secretly had a crush on her.

"Let's go back to your place," Henry said, dragging the last toke from the cigarette and dropping it to the alley. "Let's see if there's anything good on TV."

Jake, who was also somehow Adam, shrugged and nodded. They turned and cut through an open gate, crossing a neighbor's back yard. Willy ran ahead. It was getting dark and the crickets stitched a musical cacophony in the purple air.

From somewhere beyond the houses, a car horn honked. It was a brief blat in the cooling evening air, but the sound of it made Henry look up suddenly. His heart pounded. The other boy walked on as Henry stopped.

Something was wrong. It wasn't just that this was all crazy, that Henry couldn't possibly be here, in this place and this time, couldn't possibly be ten years old again. It wasn't even that Jake, his son, and Adam Blankenship, his childhood best friend, had somehow fused fleetingly into the same person.

It was in the sound of that car horn. Or not that car horn, specifically, but another one in his memory -- a longer one, much closer, and accompanied by the noise of squealing tires, the acrid stench of burning rubber, the sound of a dull, final thump.

As an adult, Henry had simply refused to ever think about it. Now, in this magical representation of his youth, the memory struck him with perfect, sudden clarity. But here, of course, it wasn't a memory. It was a premonition. It hadn't happened yet. But it would very soon, as inevitably as day follows night.

Because in the world of Buena Vista, 2010 -- in the world of grown-up, divorced, angry Henry Spalding--Adam Blankenship was dead. He had been dead for a long, long time. Henry remembered watching it. He remembered seeing the car swerve as Adam ran out into the street, chasing Willy. He remembered the way the car's headlights painted Adam's legs in the twilight, illuminating them as if the road were a stage. And he remembered that awful thump, the twist of Adam's body, the sound of the breaking bone, the crack of his head on the pavement. He'd stood there and watched his best friend die. It had happened in an instant.

He wished he could forget it, but he couldn't. Not here, and not now. In the mysterious Clyde, Ohio, of his youth, that memory -- that premonition -- was perfectly fresh. It was as fresh as the apple pie down at Camie's Diner.

Heat lightning flickered against the dome of the evening sky. Henry stood still in the late day heat and shuddered.

He slept in very late the next day. It was unusual. As a guy who'd worked in a factory for the last ten years, getting up at five in the morning had become as unavoidable as bowel movements. His head ached on the pillow. Feeling like he weighed a hundred pounds more than he had last night, he shoved himself upright and stumped to the bathroom, one hand pressed to his forehead.

There had been nightmares, but he could barely remember them. What he could remember was going to bed very late, but not getting to sleep for a long time. He'd been thinking too hard. Henry wasn't used to thinking so hard, so intensely, but suddenly his brain seemed like something he couldn't control. Memories were flooding back, breaking loose in his mind like luggage in a storm-tossed ship, banging around and damaging things. It was all wrapped up in Adam Blankenship, the squeal of tires, and the thump of his young body. It was in the smell of the Goodyear radials that had screeched long black lines on the pavement of Main Street, as if drawing arrows toward the bloody dead boy.

The driver had been a guy named Prentiss. He was a teacher at the high school, fussy in his horn-rimmed glasses and white short-sleeved shirt, stretched over a gut so round and hard that it looked like a medicine ball. He had leaped from the car, a Plymouth Cutlass, and dashed toward Adam while Henry had watched, transfixed and still as a statue, soaking in every tiny detail. He remembered the way Prentiss' shirt rode up his back as he bent over Adam's body, remembered the dull smacking sound as the man patted the dead boy's cheek, calling, "Oh God! Oh God! Are you all right!? Come on, kid! You okay?" all while the Cutlass grinned down at them, its bumper sparkling meanly in the streetlights.

It had been Henry's fault. They'd been walking along the sidewalk on Main Street, just like any other late summer evening, except on that night they'd been bouncing a worn old basketball that they'd found in the weeds at East Side Park. Henry had bounced it to Adam, but it had hit a crack and spanged off toward the road. Willy the dog had immediately jumped to chase it, scrambling out into the yellow glow of an approaching car.

Adam hadn't even called his dog's name. He had merely lunged after him, reaching to scoop him up and out of the way. He'd stumbled on the low curb, fallen forward just as the car squealed and swerved to avoid the dog. The Cutlass' front right corner had caught Adam in the hip, breaking him in mid-air and throwing him into the street. Henry had merely watched, frozen in mid-step, just as if they'd been playing Red Light-Green Light with Adam's mother.

Prentiss had refused to believe that Adam was dead. He'd knelt over him, attempted to scoop the pathetic form into his arms, and then glanced back at Adam [Henry?], his eyes hectic behind his glasses.

"Kid! Run to the fire department! Have them send an ambulance! Go!"

But Henry hadn't. He couldn't move. It had been his fault. Across the street, the old basketball was still rolling and bumping down the gutter. Willy was still chasing it, his claws clittering on the pavement.

Henry shook his head harshly as he entered the bathroom and yanked back the moldy shower curtain. Old memories had plagued him into the wee hours. When he had finally slept, they had plagued him still, but as nightmares they'd been hazy and disjointed. It was the waking memory, freshly revived, that was hauntingly, crystal clear.

Henry showered, saw that it was ten o'clock in the morning, and decided he couldn't mope around his dingy little house all day. Church bells rang out from the Calvary Baptist church a few blocks away. It was a singularly depressing sound. Henry jammed on his work shoes and stalked out the front door, not even bothering to lock it. He'd walk to Kenney's for coffee. It would help just to be around people. When he got to Kenney's, however, he didn't go in. He kept walking. It was better, he realized, to keep moving.

His footsteps wouldn't take him back in time, of course, not now. Somehow he knew that the magic, if that was what it was, only happened in the evening, in that mystical hour between day and night. Now, the walking was just a mechanism, a distraction. It calmed his thoughts, forced them into a semblance of order.

Henry walked. And slowly, like box cars shunting into place on a railway yard, his thoughts aligned.

He knew what he had to do.

That Sunday was the longest day of Henry's life. Several times, he walked the part of Beech Avenue that intersected Twenty-Third, glancing down the short road toward Steph's house. Of course, it wouldn't be her house much longer. A huge Bekins truck had been parked in front of the place for much of the day and men in gray coveralls tramped up and down the ramp that led into the back of the truck, pushing dollies of boxes and carrying furniture. By six, the truck was gone and the place appeared horribly quiet. It looked like a corpse displayed in a coffin, with all the blood sucked out of it and replaced with chemicals.

Still Henry waited. He was horribly impatient, so nervous that his fingers jiggled at his sides as he walked, but there was nothing he could do. The magic only happened at dusk. This was his last chance. Tomorrow, Jake would be gone, and then it would all be too late. After all, the magic seemed to rely on Jake. Henry couldn't know this for sure, but it made sense to him. After all, Jake was Adam.

He went back home, tried to watch television, eventually turning the set off and simply staring into its blank gray eye. The clock ticked in the hall. Finally, seven-thirty came.

Henry left.

As it turned out, however, Jake wasn't even home. The house not only looked empty, it was empty. There was a Post-it note on the front door, scribbled with Steph's back-slanted handwriting: Went to Lexington with Jake. Will eat out, call us for where. Mwa.

The note wasn't even for him. It was for Greg. Henry could tell by the last word: Mwa. It was a kissy sound, Steph's funny way of saying XOXO, hugs and kisses. He remembered the days when she used to say it to him as they hung up the phone: see you tonight, hon. Mwa. Those days were long gone, but they still felt like yesterday.

Jake was gone. He was out with his mother, doing last-minute errands before leaving for California tomorrow. Henry considered calling Steph himself, but what would be the point? They hadn't forgotten about their last evening stroll together, he and his son. It just hadn't been important enough to be a priority.

His heart sank as he stared at the little yellow Post-it note. His arms hung limply at his sides. Finally, aimlessly, he turned around and walked down the porch steps. He angled to the side and passed between the house and the garage next door. The back gate was unlocked. Sig met him there, throwing his paws up onto the gate. Henry patted the big dog on the head, jingling his collar. The leash was hung over the low fence. Henry took it, opened the gate, and clasped the leash onto Sig's collar.

A moment later, Henry and Sig began their last walk together. Henry had thought it would also be his last evening stroll with his son, but apparently that had already happened.

Grinning at the end of his leash, Sig led Henry out onto Beech Avenue.

Somehow, the magic happened anyway.

This time, even part of Beech Avenue had transformed. For a hundred feet in each direction, it was State Street, Clyde, Ohio. The Western Auto stood on the corner, white as snow, its round red sign swinging faintly in the breeze. The lights were on inside, even though the closed sign was hung in the window. As Henry passed, he glanced through the glass door and saw old white-haired Mr. Davies behind the cash register, counting out his daily take.

He turned onto George Street and felt the change. He didn't shrink, exactly. It simply felt as if he'd walked through a sudden hot gust. His clothes buffeted around him subtly, and when he stepped forward again, he was closer to the ground, walking with a much shorter, ten-year-old's gait. The leash was gone from his hand. Willy the mutt ran ahead, his tail flapping behind him.

Henry walked briskly along the backs of the buildings, approaching the alley next to the Piper. Maybe he could still do what he had planned, even without Jake. He didn't know how, but there had to be a reason why the magic was still working, why he had still been able to come here, on this important, final night. It wasn't just that Jake was moving away tomorrow morning. It was that this was the night when it had all happened. Henry knew it with absolute certainty.

Thinking that, he broke into a run. His Keds scraped on the gravel as he rounded the corner of the Clyde Piper, heading toward Main Street. As he angled onto the sidewalk, he saw that most of the stores were closed. The sidewalks were nearly empty, as were the slant parking spaces that lined both sides of the street. The clock tower over the Town Hall read seven-forty and the sky was turning a deep lavender color over the trees and rooftops.

Henry stopped on the sidewalk in front of Wilson's Men's Shop. He looked around helplessly, unsure what to do. Willy stopped by his feet and plopped down for a good scratch.

It had made sense when he'd thought he would have Jake with him, wearing the guise of Adam. All he had to do was keep the other boy from bolting out into the street. He could change it all with one quick, decisive action, just as he should have done thirty years ago, when it happened for the first time. But how could he do that if Adam wasn't here?

Henry shook his head in frustration.

He started to walk again. Willy followed, his tongue hanging out happily in the late-day heat.

Without thinking about it, Henry walked to the end of the block and turned left onto Park Street. He was retracing the steps that he and Adam had taken on that horrible night. Perhaps he'd meet Adam on the way, somehow. Was it possible? Was any of this possible?

East Side Park stood at the end of Park Street. It was a flat, square field with a packed-dirt playground on one corner and a ball-field and basketball court on the other. The middle was dotted with huge old walnut trees, picnic tables and black iron barbecue grills.

Henry turned and paced along the edge of the park. Evening shadows crowded the place, filling it with blue gloom.

There was no one in sight.

Willy darted off into the grass and chased a squirrel up one of the trees. He barked at it ecstatically.

As Henry reached the weeds along the edge of the basketball court, a small round shape caught his attention. He turned toward it, approached it slowly, and kicked it. The worn old basketball bumped out of the grass and rolled across the court.

"Hey, cool," a voice said from behind him.

Henry looked back over his shoulder. Adam was approaching from the ball field with Willy trotting along next to him. This time it wasn't Jake using the persona of Adam. It was good old Adam Miles Blankenship, expert crayon artist, gonzo story teller, the boy who dreamed about growing up to be a secret agent, or a starship captain, or both. Adam watched the old basketball as it bumped along the court.

"Grab it. I bet the big kids left it here when it thunder-stormed the other day, the buncha babies. They'll never miss it."

Henry simply stared at his friend. His heart hurt physically in his chest, as if all those years of willing forgetfulness were pushing down on him, crushing him with the weight of their guilt.

"Go on, bonehead," Adam said, scowling. "Grab it before anyone else sees it. You chicken?"

"I may be chicken but you're chicken shit," Henry replied automatically. He turned and trotted toward the basketball, scooping it up into his hands. He passed it back to Adam, who caught it against his chest.

"Come on," Adam said, angling across the court. "Let's go back to my place. We can bounce this off the school walls on the way."

Henry fell into step next to his friend. "No," he said. "Let's take a different route."

Adam glanced aside with a frown. "What for?"

"I dunno. Just to be different, I guess."

"You're different enough for both of us, spaz," Adam replied, bouncing the ball to Henry. "Just ask your Old Man."

"I'm serious. Let's follow the creek back. We can play Lewis and Clarke."

"Too buggy down there this time of night. Besides, it's getting too dark to see. Come home with me for dinner. Mom's making Chef Boyardee pizzas."

Henry wanted to protest further, but he couldn't think of anything else to say. There seemed to be a sort of inertia in the air, an invisible force pushing events forward, unwinding the past according to its own unforgiving plan. The two boys skirted around the park and followed an alley back to the Town Hall. Adam talked as they went, bouncing the ball back and forth, and it was both horrible and wonderful. Henry had forgotten how good it could be with a really excellent friend. And yet the knowledge of what was about to happen grew heavier and surer with every passing minute.

They turned back onto Main Street, and Henry lagged back, holding onto the basketball.

"What the heck is wrong with you, Hank?" Adam turned back and flapped his hands for the ball. "Come on, already!"

"I -- I don't want to," Henry replied. He stubbornly stood his ground in the shadow of the Town Hall. "I can't. Please, Adam. Let's take the long way home."

Adam stared at his friend. Finally, he lowered his arms to his sides, but he didn't move from where he stood.

"Come on, Henry," he said calmly. "Just walk with me. Bounce the ball with me. Let's talk. All right?"

Henry. Adam had called him Henry, not Hank. The change was subtle, but important. Henry tried not to obey, but his ten year old body took over. He walked forward, and bounced the ball to his friend.

Adam caught it and nodded. "Come on," he said, and turned. They began to walk along Main Street again, more slowly now.

"What do you think of the new art teacher?" Adam asked. "You think she's a fox?"

"Adam," Henry began, but his voice was suddenly dry. It came out as a hoarse rasp. Adam didn't seem to notice.

"I was planning to marry her someday," he said thoughtfully, holding the basketball to his chest and looking up at the lowering night sky. "I knew it was silly even then. I mean, I was just a kid. She was, what, twenty-five? But dang, she was such a fox. And not in a slutty way or anything. She was pretty. I wanted to climb mountains for her, cross oceans for her. I thought I could win her, if she'd just wait for me to get a little older and bigger." He laughed, not at all bitterly.

"Adam," Henry said again. "Let's turn here. We can cut through the alley next to the Five and Dime."

Adam bounced the ball to Henry, who caught it.

"I never did get any older and bigger though, Henry," he said solemnly. "You and I both know that. This was as far as I got. That's okay, though. What I had was pretty dang good, you know? It's better for life to end when it's good than for life to keep on going and going way after it stops being worth living. Don't you think?"

Henry stopped again, clutching the old basketball. "Adam, stop. I can't . . . It's . . . we can do it different this time."

"What time, Henry?" Adam asked, stopping and looking back at his friend. "This isn't another chance. It's not take two or anything, you spaz. This is just a replay. You can't change it."

Henry shook his head speechlessly. He could change it. He had to. That was why all this was happening, wasn't it?

Adam spoke again. "Do you remember what happened after I died?"

Henry shook his head again, more adamantly this time. He didn't remember. He didn't want to.

"I do," Adam said softly. "Being dead lets somebody see lots and lots of stuff. I saw how totally bummed out you were. And I saw what your dad did about it."

Henry clutched the basketball so hard that his fingers ached. He hadn't just been bummed out. He'd been completely devastated. His best friend, his refuge and soul mate, had been killed right in front of him, and it had been his fault. He had been in shock for days, and the shock had turned into nearly infantile bouts of weeping. Henry's father had been dismayed at first, and then, helplessly, his dismay had turned to anger. He simply did not know what to do with this sobbing, blubbering boy.

So he tried to whip him into shape. He forced the boy to stop crying, demanded that he pick himself up, clean himself off, get a grip, and move on with his life. He'd been harsh about it, harsher than he'd ever been before, and Henry had been too cowed, too miserable and emptied, to resist. He had gone along with his father's demands. Forcing himself to stop thinking about his dead best friend. He threw himself into sports, realizing that his Old Man was all he had left, and sports was a way to earn the Old Man's respect.

But even then, the respect had never come. As soon as he could, Henry went to work at the same place as his father. They walked to work together each morning and back each night. Henry even accompanied his father to the Clyde Piper sometimes. Still, the best Henry had ever received was a sort of grudging tolerance, a grunting indifference.

But by then Henry himself barely noticed it. Even then, Henry was turning into his father himself. It was unavoidable, and he didn't even realize it enough to hate himself for it.

"He crushed it out of you," Adam said, stepping back toward Henry, his face grave. "You used to be different. You had imagination, and heart, and dreams. But all the best of you, he smashed. Your Old Man stomped it all down until it was dead." He moved another step closer and looked into Henry's eyes. "But you let him do it, Henry. He couldn't have done it without your permission."

"I didn't want it to happen, Adam," Henry said thickly. "He was all I had left."

Adam shook his head impatiently. "That's a lie. You still had you. You could've hung onto that. It was easier when I was around, because you were like me. We sort of held each other up. Without me, I know it was harder. But you could've done it. I wish you had. Instead, you gave up you and became him. You turned into what you hated. That's why you got divorced, isn't it?"

Henry turned away. He didn't want to hear this. He had come here to save his best friend, and now his best friend was turning on him, forcing him to look at things he had tried so hard to bury.

But Adam was right. Steph hadn't left Henry because she had stopped loving him. She had left him because he had begun to abuse her with his words. It was just as Adam said: Henry had become his father. It was so much easier before he had known this.

"Why are you doing this?" Henry exclaimed, throwing the basketball at Adam. "Why is any of this happening at all? What's the point?"

Adam caught the ball again.

"Because you're still alive," he answered. "You can still do stuff. Not like this, here, because this is the past. The past is dead, just like me. But in the now, where stuff really matters, you can change things."

"What?" Henry demanded. "What can I do? I'm completely stuck! I'm just an old bum with a dead end job, an ex-wife who's better off without me, and a son who's so damned moody, so silent and sensitive that I . . . I . . ."

He stopped as the realization struck him like an ocean breaker crashing against a cliff. His son was just like he was when he was ten years old: sensitive, artistic, imaginative. He didn't understand it because he wasn't like that anymore. For the first time Henry realized that he was no longer Jake's father.

He was his Old Man.

"Fathers are like vampires, Henry," Adam said with a small, crooked smile. "They almost always end up passing on their fangs. Don't be too hard on yourself, though. It's the curse. But you can stop it, if you want to. You don't have to pass the curse on to Jake."

Henry shook his head, still refusing to meet his friend's eyes. "I don't know how. I don't know what to do. And they're leaving, anyway. What am I supposed to do?"

Adam heaved the ball back at Henry, so fiercely that it bounced off his shoulder and knocked him off balance.

"You can remember, you dumb spaz!" Adam declared, and there was real anger in his voice. "Remember who you used to be! It's all still there! It's been dead for decades, but you can bring it back! At least a little! Or are you afraid to try? Are you just a big baby, Henry? Are you chicken?"

"I may be chicken," Henry muttered, watching the basketball bounce back toward his friend, "but you're chicken shit."

Adam squatted down and collected the basketball again. When he stood up, his eyes had softened.

"Try to do it, Henry," he said. "Remember how we used to be. It isn't too late yet. Not for you and not for Jake. You have to at least try."

Henry nodded miserably. He didn't even know what Adam meant, and yet he sensed the truth of it.

"What about you, Adam?"

Adam shrugged. "My story's done. I'm kaput. I'm not even here. But you are. Go on. Go home, Hank."

He bounced the ball to him again. Henry caught it and looked at his friend.

"All right," he said. He sighed deeply and it turned into a shudder. "See ya 'round, Adam."

"Not if I see you first," Adam grinned. He held out his hands once more, motioning for the ball.

Henry bounced it to him. Adam caught it easily, winked at Henry, and then turned. As he walked away, he began bouncing the ball on the sidewalk. Willy followed, not looking back.

Henry watched for a minute. The streetlights buzzed faintly along the length of Main Street. Finally, Henry turned away. He couldn't watch. Not again.

He walked back the way they had come, wandering into the warren of streets behind Town Hall.

Try to remember, Adam had told him. But how? How does anyone find that deep core of who they were back when they were still new? When the grime of life hadn't collected in so many layers that you forgot there had ever been anything but grime?

Soon enough, the quiet backyards of Clyde gave way to the crowded residential streets of Buena Vista. Henry walked on. It was full dark now. The moon was a high sickle at the crown of the sky. Henry stared at it. It was the same moon he had watched when he was a kid, when he and Adam had dreamed of becoming starship captains and exploring new galaxies.

Eventually, Henry made his way back to Twenty-Third Street. The lights were off in the old house. Sig was lying on the porch with his muzzle on his paws. His leash still trailed from his neck. Apparently he had found his own way home. Tomorrow, even the dog would be gone.

Henry plopped down on the edge of the porch next to the big dog. Sig raised his head and rested it on Henry's thigh. Henry petted him absently.

After a long moment, Henry's lips trembled. He hadn't cried in years, maybe decades, but there were tears in his eyes, blurring his vision. He let them come. He didn't care anymore. He lowered his chin to his chest, closed his eyes, and let the tears drip from his nose. They dotted his old tee shirt. His shoulders hitched.

A minute later, the door opened behind him. Someone was home after all. Henry didn't look up; he was too ashamed to show his tears. He leaned forward and cradled his face in his hands.

Light footsteps creaked on the porch floor behind him. There was a pause, and then someone sat down on his right side. Henry could tell by the way the person moved that it was Jake.

Henry swiped uselessly at his eyes with the heel of one hand. He tried to compose his voice. "I . . . thought you'd already gone," he said quietly.

Jake just sat for a moment, listening to the chirr of the crickets and the whisper of the wind in the trees.

And then, not at all awkwardly, he put his arm around his weeping father.

"Daddy," he said.


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