“It was a lovely service,” Lilian says quietly, her gaze downcast. She holds the guestbook against her chest, her arms crossed over it, as if she expects someone to try to grab it away from her. Her dark blue dress shimmers in the bright sunlight with a slight metallic sheen. It hadn’t been noticeable inside the funeral home, but out here she fairly glows.
“It was. I think your father would have approved,” I reply.
Lilian glances over her shoulder at her husband, shaking hands and thanking the attendees for coming. He’s a big man, tall and wide with the manner of a salesman, though truly I have no idea what he does for a living. Lilian, in contrast, is short, plump and dark, and isn’t comfortable around other people.
Just like her father was.
George Horn hadn’t had any really close friends. Just a number of acquaintances, of which I was one. We worked for the same company, George one of the engineers in R&D, me an accountant in the Finance department. Back then, we would sometimes sit and eat lunch together, talking about books, mostly. Both of us were avid readers, though our taste in books rarely overlapped.
When George retired five years ago, I didn’t expect to hear from him again, but George kept in touch at least once every couple of months, usually with a short telephone call. Two years later, I joined him in retirement, and once again we found ourselves having lunch together a few times a year.
It had been only a few weeks after our last lunch when George’s lawyer called me to say that George had died. Heart attack, he said. I was shocked—that last time I saw him, George had looked rather healthy for a man in his late sixties. But you can’t judge a book by its cover, people said, and in this case it was true. The lawyer said George had carried around a bad ticker for many years.
The second shock was came a moment later when the lawyer told me that George had named me as the Executor of his estate.
“But . . . shouldn’t a member of his family to that?” I had asked him.
“Mr. Stoddard, the Will specifically names you as Executor. I take it George didn’t ask you if you wanted this responsibility?”
“No, he didn’t.”
“Well, you can, of course, decline to perform these duties. In this case, as he didn’t name any alternates, the duties would fall to me. However, back when George named you as Executor, he specifically said he needed someone who would handle his books properly. He didn’t feel his family would deal with his book collection with enough attention to detail.”
At the time I had been unsure. I had gone to meet George’s lawyer to discuss the matter, and it hadn’t reassured me. The lawyer, a small, pear-shaped, bald man named Henry Olmstead tried to convince me that it was my duty as George’s closest friend. But his constant stare with bulging eyes behind round spectacles didn’t reassure me. I didn’t like him and his damp, cloying office, and had been ready to decline.
But Olmstead showed me George’s will, and—despite my initial reaction to the whole idea—I found myself accepting the job. I didn’t really know why I decided to do it. Maybe I just wanted to feel useful again—Sherisse and I hadn’t had any children, and with her gone almost ten years now and me no longer working, I was often lonely.
Back in the present, Lilian says something else, and I realize I’ve been lost in memories again. My thoughts try to catch up as I focus on her face. I look at her and open my mouth, but truly I have no idea what she just said.
“I’m sorry,” I mumble, trying to cover my embarrassment. “Can you repeat that?”
“How long do you think it will take, cataloguing my father’s possessions?”
She’s referring to his book collection. The will specified the collection had to be broken up and sold off, making sure that no more than a half-dozen books went to the same buyer. There was no explanation for the strange demand, and I knew George had been right about his family not caring about such a condition on the liquidation of his book collection.
“I just received the keys to the house yesterday,” I tell her. “I’m going to go tomorrow and take a look, but I don’t know yet.”
I almost admit I have never been to George’s house before, but that would hardly reassure her. Lilian isn’t happy about someone who is “practically a stranger” managing her dead father’s belongings. The last thing I need is for her to start causing difficulties.
“Tell you what,” I say to her in my most reasonable tone. “Give me a day or two to make an estimate of what’s required, and I’ll call you and let you know. He was your father, and I’ll make sure you know everything that’s going on.”
She nods once, but still doesn’t meet my eyes.
“What about your brother? Should I call him, too?”
Lilian’s mouth twists. “Don’t bother. Brandon’s too busy to even come to his father’s service. If he wants to know anything, he can call or fly in or do whatever he needs to do.”
I nod and make no comment.
Lilian’s husband has gathered their two daughters and is waiting beside their SUV, which to my eyes resembles nothing so much as a big, black beetle sitting on the grey asphalt of the parking lot. Lilian unclasps one hand from the guestbook and holds it out to me to shake. The knuckles of her other hand whiten as she tightens her grip on the leather-clad book.
I take her hand gently and give it a small shake.
“Take care,” I say to her.
“Thank you,” she replies with noticeable formality, and joins her family. I watch them drive away before getting into my own car and heading for home.
The following morning I get up early and drive to George’s house, a decent-sized, two-story affair tucked into one corner of a subdivision just off the highway on the outskirts of the city. Dark, heavy clouds blanket the sky, and I hear myself sigh heavily at the prospect of the imminent downpour. On days like these I much prefer to stay home with a good book, but I promised Lilian I would get started today, and so I force myself out of the house.
I step up onto the small porch and look in the mailbox. It’s empty, of course, so I unlock the door and push it open.
A small foyer greets me, a coat closet on one side, the other opening into a large living room. As I step further into the house, I see that the walls of the living room are lined with bookcases, tall cabinets that reach to the ceiling, holding hundreds of books of all sizes. I take a deep breath and fight the urge to retreat and tell Olmstead that I don’t want this responsibility after all. Instead, I close the door behind me and decide to check out the rest of the house before getting started.
Stepping into the dining room, I’m greeted by more books, some in glass-walled cabinets behind doors with tiny locks on them. If George had once owned a dining room table, it has been removed some time ago to make space for more books.
The kitchen is thankfully free of further reading materials, and a small table with only two chairs sits in one corner. I can’t help imagining George sitting here, alone, eating his meals while simultaneously devouring another written work. The mental image is uncomfortably similar to my own life these days.
Pushing those thoughts away, I climb the stairs to the second floor, my knees protesting by the time I’m halfway up. But I force myself on, and find three bedrooms and a bathroom. The smallest bedroom holds a single bed and a dresser. The other two bedrooms have been converted into more storage space for books. Bookcases cover every wall, the spine of each volume different from the ones on either side.
In what would normally be the master bedroom, I take a closer look at one shelf and see a science fiction novel by Poul Anderson beside a high school chemistry textbook, which nestles up against a leather-bound tome with no writing and only the symbol of a dagger with a wavy blade imprinted in gold. I skim the shelf, noting that no two books are alike, as if George had meticulously avoided collecting any kind of series or sequel.
I figure about half of the books on this shelf are fiction of one kind or another, and of the remaining volumes, not all have titles in English. That’s going to add some effort to my work.
“This is going to take months,” I say out loud, and my own voice startles me. Until now, I hadn’t been consciously aware of the silence in this house, but now that I’m actively listening, I note the complete absence of any other sound. The quiet hum of electronic devices, the sound of air blowing through the vents, even the noise of cars passing on the street outside are all missing. It’s as if the world has completely stopped.
I turn and look out the window at a small but tidy backyard—thankfully free from more books—bounded by a high, wooden fence. Beyond, there is only a rough field leading out to a ravine, a line of trees on the far side hiding anything further. It’s time to go back downstairs and make some notes, but as I step toward the bedroom door I see a figure standing at the other end of the upstairs hallway, just inside George’s room.
I let out an involuntary yell and stumble back away from the bedroom door. My heart lurches in my chest, hammering against my ribs, and my nerves tingle as adrenalin rushes through my system. I reach out a hand to steady myself and my fingers brush the rough surface of a book bound in what appears to be alligator skin.
Gasping for breath I shake my head, trying to get control of myself. At my age, I can’t really afford these kinds of shocks to my body. My first thought, burglar, doesn’t make any sense, and then I realize the person in the other room must be Lilian’s brother, Brandon. Still trying to calm myself down, I step back to the bedroom door and looked down the hall, but whoever it was I saw, they’re no longer visible.
“Hey,” I say, trying to keep my voice from trembling, and failing miserably. “Who’s there?”
No one answers.
“Come on, show yourself. You gave me a shock, the least you can do is apologize.”
But still nothing. The rain clouds cut off the sunlight outside, and George’s room is dim and shadowy. I can feel my hands shaking from the effects of the adrenaline dump, and sweat rolls down the back of my neck. Maybe my first instinct was right. Maybe someone has broken in here to see what they could steal.
“I . . . I’ve got a gun,” I say, and I know I don’t sound convincing. I silently curse myself for saying something like that—it’s a stupid, panicky thing to do.
But the house is completely still, no sound or movement coming from George’s room. It doesn’t feel like someone is in there, waiting for me. I ball up my fists and approach the door to George’s room. As I get closer, I can see more of the room, and by the time I reach the end of the hallway, I know I am alone.
I’ve passed the door to the bathroom, which is now behind me, and if someone had been waiting to jump me, they would have had time to duck into that space while I was quaking in fear in the master bedroom. I spin, my fists raised, my heart pounding again.
Something is moving in the bathroom and I let out another yell and then throw out a fist and then the other. But it’s nothing, just my own reflection in the bathroom mirror. I flick on the light and see the bathroom is empty.
Had it been a trick of the light? Maybe my own shadow, cast by the window behind me as I stood in the master bedroom? Had I imagined it?
I’m far too upset to remain in the house. Carefully, holding onto the bannister as if I need a cane to walk, I return to the ground floor and, looking around, make my way to the front door. Glancing into the living room as I pass, I notice a small side table beside a comfortable-looking easy chair that I had missed before. A thick hardcover book sits on the table, a blue silk bookmark hanging out about one-third from the top.
I raise my eyes to a bookshelf and immediately see the gap, as if I know exactly where that particular book was kept. Had the book been on the table when I first came in here? It must have been, there’s no one else in the house.
Only I can’t quite convince myself of that, even though my attention is no longer what it once was. I grab the handle of the front door and yank it open, and the world starts moving again.
A car drives past on the street as thunder sounds overhead. Rain has begun to fall in the last couple of minutes since I looked out the window upstairs. A slight breeze rustles the leaves of the young trees that line the road. Those trees are the last things to go in when a new subdivision is built. You can tell how long a neighborhood has been there from the size of the trees on the sides of the road.
I pull the door shut behind me and lock it, and then get into my car. I have to sit there for some time, waiting for my hands to stop trembling and my heart to slow down. Truly, I’m being a silly old man and I know it. But there’s no way I’m going back inside that house today.
Eventually, I’m able to start the car and drive myself home.
“It’s not the story in one book,” George says. “It’s the greater story in all the books.”
We’re sitting in some little diner somewhere, all Formica tabletops and chrome edges, like something out of the 1970’s. I look down at my grilled cheese sandwich and fries, two slices of dill pickle leaking juice onto the plate and soaking the crust of my bread. George doesn’t have any food in front of him.
On the far side of the diner, the window shows the bustle of the city, a blur of movement that remains out of focus no matter how hard I try to see it. On our side is a vista of a beach leading out to choppy, grey waves. Mist floats above the water, obscuring what seems like a vast island in the far distance.
I look around, but faceless customers sit in booths around us, and I can’t remember our server, or ever being in this restaurant before.
“You never know where you’ll find it,” George continues. “But it’s out there, in bits and pieces. Once you know what you’re looking for, though, one segment points toward the next.”
George reaches over and takes a slice of pickle off my plate and holds it up to the window. The light from outside shines through, highlighting the green flesh and little seeds.
“You’ve got to read them in order. Otherwise, it doesn’t make any sense.”
I open my eyes and look at the clock. It’s already after ten, three hours later than I usually sleep. I wipe my eyes and sit up, still groggy. This isn’t normal—I rarely wake up feeling thick-headed, unless I’m coming down with something.
I stayed up later than normal last night, reading a spy novel to take my mind off what happened at George’s house. I was nervous and jumpy all evening, and even had to pour myself a shot of whiskey to calm me down.
You’ve got to read them in order.
George’s words come back to me, words George never said in real life. I play back my dream in my mind, but I can’t make any sense of it. I worry about how being in George’s house might start affecting how I sleep.
Outside the window it’s a bright, sunny day. As much as I want to avoid it, I know I have to return to the house today.
Why am I doing it?
It’s not much of a question. As much as I was terrified yesterday, I was never in any actual danger. And doing this for George at least gives me some productive way to spend my time. George and I were similar in a lot of ways. I don’t have any close friends either anymore.
It was different when Sherisse was alive. We’d get invited to dinner parties, and would sometimes go golfing with friends on weekends. But after the cancer took her away from me, I found it difficult to maintain those relationships. So the invitations became fewer and fewer, and eventually stopped altogether.
Truly, George was the last person who had continued to put in the effort to see me even occasionally.
I make it back to the house by noon. I go inside and look to open some windows on the ground floor to not only let in some fresh air, but more importantly to feel like I’m not cut off from the rest of the world. I’m surprised, and a little dismayed, to find the windows don’t open.
They haven’t been painted over or anything like that. No, the windows in this house are all solid panes of glass that don’t pivot, slide or otherwise move in any way.
I swear loudly and move to the kitchen, planning to open the back door at least, but when I step into the room I see there’s no door leading out to the yard at the rear of the house. That can’t be right. I check the entire ground floor again, but can’t find any entrance other than the front door.
I consider leaving the front door open, but that feels wrong somehow. I hate having to deal with insects—I assumed there’d be a screen door at the back of the house. But there isn’t one on the front, and so I abandon that idea.
I return to the living room and sit down in the easy chair. My laptop computer comes out of the bag and I start it up, wishing for some desk or other workspace, but the only appropriate surface is the small table in the kitchen.
The only problem with working in there is that I’ll have to continually walk back and forth as I inventory the books on the shelves. Still, that might be easier than having to put my computer on the floor every time I need to get up and grab another stack of books.
My eyes seek out the missing space on the shelf I had noticed yesterday, but I can’t find it at first. And then I realize the thick book with its blue silk bookmark is sitting in its proper place on the shelf, and my blood turns to ice. The book on the side table is now a dog-eared, paperback romance novel, a plain yellow cardboard bookmark sticking out just over halfway through.
My heart is pounding again and force myself to my feet. Someone was in the house yesterday. I didn’t imagine the person in George’s bedroom—though I have no idea where that person had hidden when I looked around the second floor.
Once again, I consider leaving the house. And yet, I still have a job to do here. The sunlight streams through the window, and though the house still feels cut off from the world outside, in the bright light of the afternoon I just don’t feel threatened in here today.
I argue with myself about my obligation to George and my desire to return to my normal routine. But I have to ask myself, what’s so special about my routine, anyway? Truly, I don’t really owe George anything. I’m not doing this out of some sense of duty, though. I’m doing it because I need to do something. I need to feel useful again.
I put my laptop on the easy chair and stand before one wall of bookcases. There’s no rhyme or reason to how the books are placed on the shelves, which is going to make my job all that much harder. Just compiling a list of all the books is surely going to take me a week or two. Then there’s the house itself, and all of its other contents.
Well, if I’m going to do it, I might as well get started. I pick up the romance from the side table and immediately see where it belongs on the shelf. On the cover of the book, a bare-chested man clasps a beautiful woman to him, her head thrown back, his face leaning down toward her exposed neck. George had never admitted to me he read trashy romance novels, and I wonder what he saw in them.
Curiosity gets the better of me, and I open the book to the marked page. George has gone over this page with a yellow highlighter, marking a handful of scattered sentences. My eyes follow the brightened lines, reading only those words he indicated.
They don’t make any sense. The scene is about a misunderstanding between a man and woman—she thinks he has cheated on her and he’s angry about something else that must have happened earlier in the book. But the highlighted passages seem almost random. I flip through the novel, looking for other yellow marks, but that’s all I can find.
I put the book back on the shelf in its spot beside what appears to be a scholarly anthropology text. A yellow Post-It Note sticks up from the pages, and I pull the book out and open it to the marked page. Again, non-sequential sentences and passages are highlighted. This time, George has used both yellow and green markers.
I read the yellow sections first, then the green. This doesn’t make any more sense than the romance novel. I put it back and grab the next, a “For Dummies” book on gardening. The bookmark is a folded piece of white paper, and the highlighted passages are yellow and orange. For some reason, I feel I should read the orange first, and then the yellow.
The random sentences are still gibberish to me, but I have a feeling, a tickle in the back of my mind, that there’s something there, some thread connecting these passages. It’s like looking at the pieces of a puzzle when you don’t know what the whole picture is supposed to be. But that’s ridiculous.
Only I move on to the next book, and the next. At some point, I finish one shelf and start another. Eventually, I realize I’m squinting at the words and flick on a light so I can continue reading. My stomach is growling, but I ate just before coming here and I force myself to ignore it. My back is sore from bending over to grab books from the lower shelves, so I sit on the floor in front of the bookcase. It’s not really any more comfortable, but at least I’m not in pain.
As I place the last book back in its place on the bottom shelf, I blink and look around me as if I’ve been half-asleep. Outside, the sky is dark. This confuses me—how long have I been reading? I try to stand, but one of my legs is numb and I can’t get it to work. I sit there and massage my muscles, trying to get some feeling back into it.
I’m sore all over, and starving. I lean over and pull my laptop to me. It has turned itself off, so I hit the power button and wait for it to boot up again. When the desktop appears, I’m confused by the numbers in the clock at the bottom right corner of the screen.
That can’t be right. The needles are tingling through my leg and have to wait another couple of minutes for them to disappear before I’m able to move. Standing, I walk unsteadily into the kitchen. The clock on the stove says 1:40. I press my face to the window. Outside, the field is nearly black as clouds have covered the sky once again.
A plate sits on the counter, and I grab it and bring it back into the living room. Sitting down in the easy chair, I pick up one half of the grilled cheese sandwich and take a big bite. My stomach lurches as I force myself to chew and swallow. After consuming one-half of the sandwich, I pick up one of the pickle slices, which drips and leaves a spot of pickle juice on my shirt.
When the sandwich is gone, I put the plate on the small table beside me. I should go home, but it’s so late that I’m worried about driving. I’m exhausted, and I pull the handle on the side of the chair to recline it.
“What is Heaven, really?” George asks me.
We sit on a park bench overlooking what should be a pond. Instead, the grey water stretches out to disappear in the mist. The island is only a vague shape in the blankness, though I think I can see what seems to be structures out there. Somewhere out beyond the trees around us the city moves. I don’t bother looking for it.
“Is it really a paradise, where you’re reunited with your loved ones? Where there’s no pain, or worry, or anything other than peace?
He picks up a bag of popcorn and tosses a handful toward the gulls that wander across the beach. They don’t seem to notice.
“It’s not out there,” he says, waving a hand at the sky. “It’s in here.”
He picks up a paperback book, and I see he’s holding the romance novel I picked up . . . at some point. I can’t seem to remember precisely when. I look at the book, confused.
“Well, not in here, exactly. I mean, in here,” and he runs a thumb over the edge of the book, flipping pages rapidly. “Between the pages. It all happens between the pages. Between all pages.”
Grease from the popcorn has soaked through the bottom of the paper bag, brown splotches on the red and white stripes.
“Follow the story, my friend. You won’t believe the surprise ending.”
Off to my left I think I hear the low growl of a large dog. I turn to look and there’s a shadow among the trees, big and dark. I turn back to George, but I’m alone on the bench. A breeze makes swirls and eddies in the mist, and I almost get a glimpse of the island…
I open my eyes and focus on the ceiling above me. Rolling over, I realize the room is completely unfamiliar to me. I sit up, my heart pounding again. I’m wearing a set of men’s pajamas, though they’re at least a size too large for me.
As I push myself out of bed, my eye catches a small gold key on the night table. I glance out the window and realize that I’m still in George’s house. I remember falling asleep in the chair down in the living room. Could I have gotten up at some point and come upstairs to sleep? It’s possible, I suppose, but I can’t imagine why I would have put on a set of George’s pajamas.
My clothes are draped over the small chair in one corner of the room. After getting dressed, I make my way downstairs. A plate of eggs and toast is waiting for me at the small table, with a hot cup of coffee. A very thin paperback book, barely more than a pamphlet, lies open on the table. The bookmark is nothing more than short length of string.
I’m nearly finished breakfast when I hear a dog bark outside, deep and throaty. In a rush, I’m suddenly aware of everything that’s been happening. I didn’t make this food, nor the sandwich last night. I stagger to my feet, knocking the chair backward to hit the wall with a crack.
Who’s been in here with me? Who brought me upstairs last night? How did I lose an entire day yesterday? I feel like I should know something about what I’ve been reading, as if it’s on the tip of my brain, but I can’t quite grasp it.
I need to get out of this house. There’s something terribly wrong here.
A phone rings and I shout as the noise startles me. My eyes find the phone, sitting at one end of the countertop. It’s a regular telephone, with a short cable connecting it to a small box on the wall near the floor. I try to remember if it’s been there all this time.
The telephone continues to ring and I hesitate, not wanting to answer it. I want to leave, but I’m not sure if my legs will work. The noise is getting to me, and I reach out and grab the receiver. I raise it to my ear, and heavy silence oozes from the tiny holes.
“Yes?” I ask, and I’m acutely aware of the waver in my voice.
“Good morning, Mr. Stoddard. This is Henry Olmstead, George’s lawyer.”
I nearly gasp in relief.
“Is everything all right, Mr. Stoddard?”
I shake my head, but of course he can’t see it. I want to tell him that everything is most definitely not all right. I want to tell him that I’m done here. He can find someone else to handle this responsibility. I can’t do it.
My mouth is open, but I can’t make the sounds come out. I lower my head and squeeze my eyes shut for a moment. When I open them, I can see the book on the kitchen table. A single sentence is highlighted in a deep red. Without meaning to, I read the words.
“Mr. Stoddard, is there anything I can help you with?”
“No,” I hear myself say. “Everything is fine. I’ll be finished soon.”
“That’s good to hear,” he replies. “Please do contact me if you need anything.”
“I will,” I say and hang up the phone. My eyes are still locked on those words, the letters seeming to swim in a sea of blood.
I know what I need to do. I’ve almost reached the end.
I walk into the dining room and stand in front of the locked cabinets. The little gold key from the night table is already in my hand, so I unlock the first case. I can smell the ocean when I open the doors, as if the pages themselves are giving off the scent of the sea.
A moment later, I’m sitting in the chair with a stack of books from the cabinet. One by one, I pick up a book and find the bookmark. Like the books themselves, no two bookmarks are alike. I start reading and the puzzle pieces in my mind begin to come together.
I don’t know what I’m solving yet, but in my mind I get glimpses of the island I saw in my dreams of George. Great structures rise from the uneven ground, complex and difficult to comprehend. The smell of the ocean is nearly overwhelming, and the ground is muddy with scattered patches of weeds. It seems to me that the island has been underwater, very recently. Perhaps high tide submerges the island, though the structures are surely too large to go completely under.
And then I read another passage and I’m no longer sitting in the chair.
“It’s almost time,” George says.
We’re standing at the edge of a long wooden pier. I can see the island in the distance, and now that I have a sense of the scale of the place I realize how far away it must be.
“Am I in the story now?” I ask him. He smiles at me, but it is a sad smile, full of regret.
“Almost,” he replies. “There’s just one more thing that needs to be done.”
I feel the growl through the boards of the pier before I hear it. It’s joined by a second, and a third. When I turn to look back the shoreline, I feel no fear, only a sense of inevitability.
The mist has gathered and bunched into at least a dozen shapes. Hounds by the look of them, huge beasts with their shoulders coming up past my waist. Their eyes are dark pits, and they shift and flow past and through each other as the mist swirls about.
I feel adrenaline rush through my body as I finally, fully understand. I turn back to look at George.
“Everything I told you is true, though I may have left something out,” he admits.
“Those dogs are after you,” I tell him, and he nods.
“They were. They get called when someone tries to…do what I’m doing.”
“And what exactly is that?” I ask, looking back at the hounds as they climb up on the pier.
“I’m trying to live forever,” he says with a chuckle.
“George, you’re already dead.”
“Just my body. But I don’t need that where I’m going.”
I turn back to him and raise my eyebrows.
“I already told you, my friend,” he says. “There are whole worlds between the pages. Infinite worlds.”
He waves his arm out at the island in the mists.
“Some you need to avoid at all costs. Others are everything you could ever wish for.”
I turn back to face the hounds, which are halfway along the pier. They aren’t running. No, they are approaching slowly, heads lowered, teeth bared, growls issuing from deep within their throats. They’re building up to the moment when they will strike, unleashing a surge of violence that will tear us apart.
“How are you going to escape them?” I ask George.
“I’m not,” he replies. “They have my scent. They’ll follow it until they kill me. That’s what I needed you for.”
I’m the decoy, and I know it. The hounds will kill me and George will escape, no longer a hunted man.
“It’s that easy?” I ask, and this time there is no waver in my voice. For some reason, I’m not afraid anymore. “I’ve only slept in your house once. I can hardly smell like you already.”
“It’s more than just a scent. You’ve read the books, you’ve come through to here. And the last piece, the ritual I stole from Olmstead, only takes a single night to complete.”
Olmstead. Of course, that repulsive little man is more than just a lawyer.
“Yes,” says George, as if reading my mind. “He’s been trying to find me for some time. His family’s punishments might even be worse than the hounds.”
For a moment I want to believe this is all a bad dream. That I’ll wake up in my own bed and remember that I turned down the responsibility as Executor. That none of this will have happened.
But it doesn’t work and I’m still here.
I look down at the water, and George whistles through his teeth.
“I wouldn’t do that, my friend. You don’t want to swim in that water. The current will take you out there, to the island. That’s far, far worse than the hounds.”
My pursuers are now only a few dozen paces away. They’ve stopped and I can see them getting ready to charge at me.
“Goodbye, my friend,” he says to me. “I really do appreciate the sacrifice you’re making for me here.”
And with that, I’m suddenly alone at the end of the pier. And before the hounds can bring me down, I turn and leap into the water.
I was always a strong swimmer.
George was right. The current pushes me out from shore and I move inexorably toward the island. The hounds snarl at me from the pier, but they don’t follow into the water. They dissolve back into the mist as I’m swept out to sea.
I’m shocked by how warm the water feels against my skin. I was expecting it to be near-freezing, but it’s just cool enough to prevent me from getting overheated from my exertions.
I look back over my shoulder at the island, and I’m able to make out the coastline, all mud and slimy rocks. As I drift ever closer I realize that the rocks are, in fact, broken pieces of ancient buildings, similar in style to those immense structures further back from the shore.
Giving up trying to fight the current, I save my strength and let myself float closer to the island, eventually feeling the muddy, week-choked bottom under my feet. I stagger ashore and drop to my knees.
I have no intention of going any further inland. I avert my gaze from the buildings that loom over the island, and take a moment to rest.
I’ve taken a great gamble in assuming that the tide will eventually change. I might be wrong—the tide might flow ever inward, as if this island was a black hole sucking everything endlessly toward it. I’m not in the world I know anymore. This is an alien place, and the laws of physics may work differently here.
For the moment, however, I’m safe from the hounds. I stand and turn my back to the vast and ancient buildings, and look back out at the sea.
One way or another, I’m going to make it back. Henry Olmstead and I are going to have another meeting. And, whether he likes it not, he’s going to help me get the hounds off my trail.
And then I’m going to help him find my friend George.
© 2016 Andrew J. Luther