Excerpt

The Jeremy Shuttle Adventures Trilogy

 

what ifWhat If? Excerpt

 

 

what nextWhat Next? Excerpt* (caution: spoilers!)

 

 

what nowWhat Now? (caution: spoilers!)

What IF? Excerpt

 

Copyright © 2010 Jeffrey M. Daniels

ISBN 978-1-60910-499-3

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, recording or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the author.

Printed in the United States of America.

The characters and events in this book are fictitious. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is coincidental and not intended by the author.

 

Chapter 1

 

“Watch out!”

 

“Whoa there, little guy, watch out where you’re going!”

Two teenage girls looked up, startled, in the direction of the warning. They giggled as they spied the curly-haired boy standing in the middle of the sidewalk on the bright spring afternoon. Dressed in a light blue shirt with jeans and sneakers that showed old grass and dirt stains, Jeremy Shuttle turned his head marginally in the direction of the giggles and the girls looked away and left. Jeremy shook his head ruefully. That’s not going to help my reputation, he thought.

A brisk breeze made the papers on top of the books in Jeremy’s arms flap noisily. He was slight of size, bordering on skinny, and stood an inch or two shorter than most boys were his age. His face seemed too young for even his twelve years: regular features on a slender face, green eyes sitting easily above a smallish nose and soft, round cheeks. His mass of tightly curled brown hair was little bothered by the wind.

He returned his attention to the cracked and aged sidewalk, worn down by thousands of students’ feet over many years.

“You’re lucky I saw you there or I could have stepped right on you!” he exclaimed, refocusing on the single ant crawling across the pavement. “I guess calling you ‘little guy’ isn’t really nice, since you’re a pretty big ant, and I know my ants.”

He paused to consider. “Well, technically, I don’t know any ants or even much about you, but I’ve watched a bunch of you and you’re one of the bigger ones I’ve seen.”  Satisfied with the clarification, he continued.

“Speaking of bigger ones, these big things you see stomping all around you are feet,” he said patiently, lifting a foot and wagging it in the air above the ant. “I’m not sure you even see them. Maybe you only see a big shadow just before it squishes you.”  He considered this thought as well.

“Most of us humans don’t spend a lot of time looking at what we step into, let alone what — or whom in this case — we step on. You’re just going to have to be more careful.”

Jeremy stood motionless, watching the ant for some sign of acknowledgement. Not that he expected any. “Hey, no reason you should be any different than my classmates,” he called out, half-serious. “At least you’re hanging around longer than those two girls.”

He didn’t actually expect the ant to understand him or even know he was talking to it, but he always fancied that you could project good or bad intentions. Like the old line about animals sensing fear, he thought they could also tell if you meant them harm or not. And in Jeremy’s mind, he figured that would extend to bugs, too. He tried to be careful when he was playing or walking, or even sitting, to make sure he wasn’t going to smush any bugs by accident.

He watched the ant move first in one direction, then another, seemingly random. It moved a few inches toward him, then to the side, then back and finally headed to the nearby grass, presumably to its home. Jeremy wondered again if ants actually could think (something he wondered about some of his classmates, too). “What if I could talk with ants for real,” he thought.  “I wonder what they would say?”

“Of course, I may not be the best conversation partner for an ant. It’s not like I’m winning any popularity contests in school. What if I’m too boring? What if I’m too young? How old do ants get, anyway? How would I start the conversation? ‘Good afternoon Mr. Ant?’ Like they call themselves ants. Duh. Do they even know what ‘afternoon’ is?”

He stood there, pondering various ant scenarios, until a sharp blow to the back of his head caused him to stumble and fall to his hands and knees. He was rewarded with another sharp pain as one knee banged the hard sidewalk. His books and papers spilled onto the pavement, pages flapping noisily in the wind. He let out a startled cry, a mixture of pain and surprise, and grabbed the back of his head, turning it slowly from side to side. He could feel the warmth that signaled an upcoming welt from whatever hit him.

A football bouncing to a stop on the grass beside him told him the what. The mocking laughter behind him let him know the who. Rubbing his neck gingerly, he grimaced as much from the ache as he did from the annoyance.

“You ought to watch where you’re standing, shrimp!” called out one of the boys. He had a round face of reddish complexion, as if he had permanent sunburn. His body was the shape of an eggplant, thick and bulbous; a dark purple and black shirt hanging loosely over baggy gray pants enhanced the image. He had thin lips and small eyes that seemed too closely set, as if someone had rushed to finish the job and stuck them on quickly at the very end. Jeremy saw the two companions that flanked him and nodded inwardly. Of course, he thought, Eddie sucks at football. No way could he hit me in the head from way over there. Maybe from six feet. Maybe.

Both boys with Eddie towered over him by more than a head. The two were a matching set in size, though there the resemblance ended. The boy on the left had flowing blond hair and a strong jaw, looks that already had girls in higher grades eyeing him thoughtfully. He had flashing blue eyes and a somewhat crooked nose. Muscular arms and shoulders protruded out of his sleeveless red shirt, purposefully a size too small to emphasize his build. He wore athletic pants that were similarly tight, advertising his well-developed legs. His friend, of similar build, had chocolate colored skin and short-cropped black hair. His grin showed a set of bright white teeth and he wore a similar red shirt, though this one was of a better fit, and instead of athletic pants, sported a pair of tight blue jeans. Jeremy groaned in resignation. Oh, joy. My archenemy, Eddie Vane, and his two cronies, Ryan Wilson and Bobby Means.

Jeremy got back to his feet and picked up the football. He paused, looking at the three boys. Jeremy considered the repercussions of kicking the ball into the street where it might be flattened by an oncoming car or, at the very least, forcing the boys to chase it. Eddie, perhaps sensing some of Jeremy’s thoughts, laughed again and yelled, “You might just want to walk that back over here; wouldn’t want you to hurt yourself.” The other two boys laughed again, with an attempt to sound menacing that was so obvious, it was comical.

Though he couldn’t say that about the prospect of facing them, he thought wearily. He had bruises that had bruises from all the times they “picked on” him. Yeesh. I’m only 12 and already I’m longing for my youth when I only had to deal with name-calling. Despite the impending threat of physical damage, Jeremy still couldn’t keep the grin from his lips as he listened to Eddie and his “enforcers” try to sound threatening.

Still smiling, he simply dropped the ball back on the ground and began to pick up his books. Fortunately, none of his papers had blown away, sandwiched between his notebook and textbooks. He gave silent thanks to the wind gods and reached for his sketchbook and pencils. As he bent down, he saw the tips of an expensive pair of athletic shoes and knew his three tormentors had arrived. With a resigned sigh, he straightened up and faced the round boy directly.

“Thanks for thinking of me,” Jeremy said quickly, before Eddie could speak, “Gosh but you’re absolutely right. Without warming up, I might have really hurt myself throwing the ball back to you. Why I could have pulled a muscle in my rib cage. Man, that would have hurt all week, right Ryan? But I should have known you had my well-being at heart, Eddie. Even from across the school yard, I can always count on you guys to do something to keep my head on straight.”

Ryan chuckled at the double meaning and Bobby flashed white teeth in his seemingly eternal grin, but Eddie was not amused. He was not going to let this little creep get out of this with dignity, not when he had just seconds ago gotten Ryan to knock him on his face. He grinned humorlessly, made a sweeping gesture with his hand as if to dismiss Jeremy’s comments.

“Funny man, aren’t you?” he asked with a derisive sneer. “Yeah, you always seem to have some smart comment to make, especially in class where you can hide behind your desk. One of these days that wiseass mouth of yours is going to talk you into the nurse’s office.”

“Wow!” Jeremy said in pretend delight. “That’s a whole lot better than the principal’s office where it usually gets me. Thanks again Eddie! You’ve gotta stop being so nice to me. People will talk. Well, if I let them get a word in, that is.”

Ryan and Bobby laughed again and Eddie swung his round head back quickly to glare at them. Bobby threw up his hands and said “C’mon man, the guy’s funny.” Eddie flashed a look at Ryan, who managed to wipe the grin off his face just before Eddie turned and said, “Aw, let’s just move on, Eddie, the shrimp just isn’t as much fun to pick on as he used to be.”

Eddie blinked, first in disbelief and then dismay, as he realized neither of his two “enforcers” was interested in carrying out any more abuse on Jeremy. He hissed his breath in through the thin slits of his lips and his tiny eyes contracted with frustration. How? How does this smartass always escape just before getting trashed? He looked at his two friends with blaming eyes. “I’m beginning to wonder about you two,” he grumbled.

Eddie began the slow process of swinging his round body back towards the football field. Sparing one last glance for Jeremy, he gurgled, “Another day, shrimp,” and wobbled away.

Jeremy wisely bit back any reply, even going so far as to not smirk, recognizing that he had avoided yet another opportunity to get his brains beat in for no other reason than that Eddie and his buddies could do it if they wanted. Well, Ryan and Bobby could, Jeremy thought, so they must not want to right now. He caught Bobby looking back and giving Jeremy a wink. That was the last straw and a goofy grin surfaced on Jeremy’s face. Thankfully, Eddie chose not to turn his head around again.

Not for the first time, Jeremy wondered why those two hung out with a creep like Eddie. Both Ryan and Bobby would get full scholarship offers from multiple colleges if they kept playing football so well. True, Eddie’s Dad was pretty wealthy (ok, really wealthy), but Eddie was such a loser that Jeremy thought the advantages to being Eddie’s friend couldn’t possibly make up for actually having to spend time with him. Most kids thought Eddie was a creep, they just didn’t want to tell him because it seemed like his Dad had some say in almost everything that went on in town and sooner or later it would come back to bite them.

 

Jeremy thought back to another time, after he had not been as lucky as he was today and arrived home with a ripped sketchbook and bruises. He asked his Mom, between antiseptic and band-aids, why someone like Eddie could get away with acting like that. His Mom, who had more than one fruitless conversation with school officials about the Vane boy, stopped ministering Jeremy for a moment and told him quietly that fairness wasn’t always easy to find in the world.

“That’s why you need to try and be fair to everyone, to even out for people like Eddie, who contribute nothing.”

“But that’s not fair!” Jeremy complained.

”Exactly,” she said simply, nodding her head in agreement.

Jeremy stared at her for a few moments and they both smiled.

“Okay, I get it,” he said.

She looked at him a moment, then stood up to put the medicines back in the cabinet.

“I know you do, dear, that’s just one of the reasons I’m so proud of you.” The way she smiled at him made him feel better than any of the medicines she had applied.

 

But Eddie sure doesn’t make it easy, Jeremy thought, returning to the present. With his current life-threatening crisis averted, Jeremy headed for the big fichus tree just inside the main entrance. It was the singular biggest tree on the school grounds and it seemed to reflect that in its stoic guarding of the entranceway. Massive limbs crowded together to form a canopy of dark green over the ground. Only the outermost leaves moved in the wind; the densely packed undersides of the branches were unbothered by even a strong gust. It was Jeremy’s favorite location to hang out after classes ended.

Around the school, bustling students signaled the end of another school day. To the rear of the school were playing fields and already some kids had dropped their books and were throwing balls around. Considered the crown jewel of the school, they benefited from a large amount of private money from a local businessman who had once attended, as his son did now. It was rare when a non-private school received money like this and the school officials were overly deferential to the donor, which ultimately caused great grief for Jeremy, since the man’s son was none other than archenemy Eddie.

Jeremy sighed as he sat down against the trunk of the tree, carefully checking first to make sure there were no bugs to potentially smush. He pulled out his sketchbook and pencil and flipped to the first blank page. For a moment, he sat still, listening to the leaves rustling in the wind and watching the branches sway, a brown and green arm stretching across the brilliant blue background of the sky. As he looked back to his sketchbook, he noted there were only a few pages left. Time to head to the store and pick up some new supplies, he thought. He knew he would have to head home first, to get some cash from his room and leave a note for his Mom, but right now, he just wanted to work off some aggravation by sitting and drawing.

There would only be an hour or so with which he would be able to draw comfortably under the tree. While the sun would still be out for a few more hours, the tree was so thick and outstretched, it often was too shady late in the day for him to get enough light to draw. Especially as he moved from rough sketch to finished art. For that, he needed clean, unbroken light. Still, he loved sitting underneath the great tree if only to feel the potency of the earth around it and the strength of its dark green canopy. He reached for his pencil and opened the book to a blank page after glancing at some of the drawings he had filled the book with previously for inspiration.

Jeremy showed an uncanny ability to draw things at a very early age. Or so his Mom always told him. He wondered if she exaggerated a little, as Moms tend to do, especially since he was her only child. Whenever his talent actually did show up, there was no denying his gift for drawing, an ability to blend real life and fantasy as he saw it in his mind. His Mom encouraged his love of art by taking him to various museums and shows and buying him books of artists’ works. Jeremy ate it all up and enjoyed all types of art, but for himself he preferred working strictly with pencils on paper. He liked the way he could angle the pencil to draw different line widths, or shade lighter or darker depending on how much pressure he exerted and whether he used the tip or the side of the pencil. For him, it was this amazing versatility that so pleased him about penciling.

As he began placing a few random sweeps across the page, with no real idea in mind at the start, he heard the rustle of leaves again, this time from the ones strewn around the base of the tree. He smiled as he looked up, knowing who would be coming up to see him, as she always did around this time.

 

 

Chapter 2

 “Whatcha doing?”

 

“Hey Jeremy,” the girl said. “I see you had another almost adventure with the three amigos.”

“Hey Nat,” Jeremy replied. “Yeah, I was a few moments away from playing Eddie’s curly haired piñata again.”

Natalie sat down next to him at the base of the tree, halting suddenly as he shot her a glance. Raising her eyebrows and sighing, she lifted her left hand over her eyes and made an exaggerated gesture of squinting, first one way and then the other, to make sure there were no bugs around. Still squinting, she stared at Jeremy next and finally sat down. “You and your bugs,” she mumbled, trying to sound mad. Her lips quivered, however, and the smile broke through. “I don’t know why I put up with you.”

“Because I’m amazingly talented and interesting?” Jeremy offered.

“More likely you’re my charity case and I’m trying to build up my karma,” she replied sarcastically.

Jeremy grinned back and thought once again how strange and wonderful that he and Natalie had become friends. He let his mind drift back to last summer when he was in his customary seat beneath the tree and drawing a picture of fish, wearing the school letters and getting on a bus. It was a typically hot and sticky day, and the huge tree offered cool comfort beneath the protection of its dense leafy cover. Little sunlight could make it through to the ground below. Between of the lack of sun and the high roots, most of the ground beneath the tree was sandy, but cool.

On that particular day, his sketchbook was dirty and bent, the results of yet another “accident” with Eddie and his cronies. This time Eddie was going to destroy his sketchbook, wanting to tear up the “sissy drawings” but Bobby had convinced him to let it go. Jeremy thought then that there was a good kid somewhere in Bobby, if he ever stopped hanging around jerks like Eddie. Always fearful of going too far with his friends lest he lose them, Eddie settled for shaking the book as if to see if the pages would fall out and then hurling it across the lawn to settle awkwardly in a heap.

Jeremy burned red with humiliation as he went to go pick up the book in front of several dozen students. He saw amusement in some faces, the inherent meanness that all kids have, but in many others he saw sympathy mixed with relief; thankful Jeremy was the subject of the abuse and not them. He attempted to walk with as much dignity as he could muster over to the sketchbook and pick it up. Darned if he would give Eddie the satisfaction of betraying just how hurt and powerless he felt.

Looking up as he straightened, he caught the eye of one of the students, steadied his voice and said, “Show’s over. But don’t worry; I’m sure there will be a return engagement soon.” This evoked a nervous chuckle from the student, before he quickly shuffled away. Gathering the rest of his things, he headed over to the tree to sketch away some frustration.

He was definitely not in the mood to talk to anyone when he heard a female voice call out.

“Hey, whatcha doing? Drawing? Can I have a look?”

He looked up and saw a short, overweight girl, with dark black hair framing a fleshy face. Despite the weight, her features were surprisingly delicate. A small mouth under a button nose that turned slightly up at the end. She had dark eyes, brown or black, he could not tell. She wore a short-sleeve top of dark gray and loose fitting black slacks. He didn’t think she qualified as fat, but she definitely could lose some pounds. She looked at him with an uncertain, but friendly smile as she waited for his answer.

“So you can laugh at the ‘sissy boy’ drawings, too?” Jeremy said, acid dripping from his tongue. “Yeah, that’s what I need. Pile on. Someone send you over to rub it in? Who cares? No, you can’t have a look. No one gets a look. Okay?”

The smile fell instantly from her face as a look, first of surprise, and then disappointment crossed her features. She hesitated, then dropped her head and began to shuffle away.

He heard her mumble under her breath, “I’m surprised you two aren’t friends, you’re both such big jerks.”

Jeremy felt an instant flush of shame. He realized his harsh reaction had been leftover from his latest encounter and he shouldn’t have taken it out on whoever this girl was. Worse yet, thinking of his Mom’s comments, the girl’s right. I’m no better than Eddie and his cronies, acting like that.

Jeremy jumped up and called out, “Hey, sorry, I didn’t mean to snap at you. I’m just mad from something else that happened.”

The girl turned around and he caught a glimpse of the hurt he had caused her. He figured she would tell him off and go her way and that thought made him acutely aware of just how alone he was.

It was the first of many times he would underestimate her. The smile tentatively crept back on her face. Jeremy felt another flush this time, a good feeling at seeing the smile and thinking that it made her face seem very pretty. He stuck his hand out. “Hi. I’m Jeremy Shuttle.”

She reached out a plump hand and shook his. “I’m Natalie Carroll. I didn’t mean to bother you or anything.”

“Nah, it wasn’t you, it was these three jerks that think it’s a riot to pick on me,” Jeremy responded.

“Yeah, being the victim of Eddie Vane doesn’t make for happy times,” she said. After seeing Jeremy’s surprised reaction, she laughed. “They don’t always pick on boys you know. They also think it’s funny to insult fat girls too.”

“I don’t think you’re fat!” Jeremy blurted out, and then looked away quickly, wondering if he was going to put seasoning on his shoe before he put it in his mouth.

Natalie laughed again, as much at his embarrassment as his earnestness. “It’s okay,” she said, her voice taking on a stronger tone. “I know I’m overweight. I’m just not overly interested in going all crazy on a diet or something so I can look like a magazine girl. If I have to put up with some idiots making fun of me from time to time, it’s not a big deal.”

“Actually,” she said, a little less stridently. “I already know who you are.”

Jeremy looked at her nervously. “Why does that sound ominous?”

She laughed. “Nothing like that. I just have science class with you and I’ve seen you and Mr. Porter go off on tangents.”

“I don’t think I’ve ever heard them referred to so politely,” Jeremy grinned. “Most of the students usually act like they would rip off their own ears rather than listen to me ask my questions.”

“Well, there is that…” Natalie trailed off and they both laughed again. “Anyway, I thought some of your comments were interesting and I saw you drawing and thought you probably drew interesting things too.”

“W-Well,” Jeremy stammered, “I don’t know how interesting they are; I just draw whatever comes to mind.”

“I figured,” Natalie responded. “I just thought it would be kind of cool to see what you drew. Then I saw you in a confrontation with Eddie and his goons, so I thought we had something in common.”

Jeremy nodded. “Well, at least we know they’re liberated. They’re willing to mistreat men and women equally.” He grinned and they both started back towards the tree. As he reached forward to close up the sketchbook, she caught a quick glance and said, “That’s a nice school of fish you drew there.”

Jeremy looked up and grinned even wider. She got that pretty quickly, he thought. Maybe she’s all right to talk with. Or even…

“Look, I’ve never shown this to anyone other than my Mom, but…”

 

And ever since, he thought, we’ve been best buds. Strange indeed the way things turn out. He smiled and turned to look at her today. She wore her standard short-sleeve shirt, this one a light peach color, with a pair of white shorts that stopped midway above the knee. Her arms and legs were still as plump as when he met her last year, but she had let her hair grow a little longer, now slightly below her shoulders. He had seen her eyes twinkle enough times to know she was about to rib him.

“So what did you do this time to invoke the wrath of Eddie V.?” she asked, deepening her voice to intone the last few words.

“I think I was standing in one place too long,” Jeremy replied ruefully.

“Let me guess, you were talking to bugs again, right?”

Jeremy shrugged. Nat knew about his opinion that “bugs were people too” and didn’t give him too much grief about it. Still, she didn’t share his belief, so talking about it always felt a bit uncomfortable. She didn’t outright laugh at him, but she clearly didn’t take him seriously.

“Yeah, well, it was just this one ant and I didn’t want him to get stepped on,” Jeremy explained feebly.

Natalie nodded. “Uh huh. And the other millions of ants getting crushed all over the world don’t really count because you can’t save them all.” She leaned over, bumping her shoulder into him to knock him sideways, and chuckled. “Oh, Jeremy, you just have a way of finding trouble.”

“Well, trouble in the shape of an eggplant, at least,” he replied and they both laughed.

“You know, you should try to do something about Eddie,” Natalie said, getting serious. “Otherwise he’ll just keep doing this all throughout high school, too.”

“It’s not like I haven’t tried. I talked with the school counselor and even the principal, but apparently, his bullying is considered ‘part of the socialization processes of public schools’.”

”It wouldn’t have anything to do with the fact that his dad contributed a ton of money to rebuild the sports fields, would it, you think?”

Jeremy face took on a mock look of disbelief.

“My gosh, Nat, you are always seeing conspiracies. I can’t imagine our beloved schools could possibly be influenced by something as tawdry as, say, a couple million in school renovations.”

“You’re right, of course. I guess I just have an overactive imagination. I’m sure that despite his low grades, poor social skills and, frankly, unappealing personal odor, Eddie is a valuable member of the student body and has earned his prolonged stay. I guess that means you’re going to have to deal with him yourself.”

“Terrific. Too bad, I can’t just imagine him away. You know, like what if an alien monster came by the school looking to abduct only the biggest jerks for bizarre experiments? Not very useful if they’re looking for brains, but per pound he would be a bargain.”

“Are you ever serious, Jeremy?” Natalie asked.

He pretended not to hear her. “Or, I could threaten to bleed on his shirt the next time his buddies rough me up. There’s got to be a limit to quintuple XL ugly gray t-shirts available for sale,” Jeremy said, appearing to ponder the idea.

“I’m serious Jeremy. You can’t keep reacting to him when he picks on you in class. When you make fun of him in front of the other students, you know he’s going to find a way to take it out on you. You’re smart mouth is going to get you hurt bad one of these days.”

“I’m hearing that a lot today,” Jeremy said wryly.

“Stop with the jokes already. I’m trying to look out for you because you’re too stubborn to do it for yourself. You’re not as witty as you think.”

“That’s a depressing thought. I was hoping I was wittier.”

“Fine, Mr. Funny Man, but you won’t always be able to joke your way out of these situations.”

“Well, I managed today. Ryan and Bobby thought I was too funny to beat up, so I must be improving,” Jeremy said, grinning triumphantly.

“Until the time you die on stage. That won’t be a pretty sight.”

“Yeah, but you’ll drag my broken and bleeding body back to my house won’t you?”

Natalie’s face furrowed as she appeared to think hard about the question.

“I don’t know. I’m still trying to decide if I even like you,” she deadpanned.

They both laughed and Jeremy decided that it was a fine day when she first intruded into his life. He looked at his watch and sighed. No drawing today. He closed up the sketchbook and the two of them headed home from school. About three blocks later, they came to the street where Natalie lived.

“You want to stop in and watch some TV?” Natalie asked. “My mom can fix us up some snacks.”

“Tempting,” Jeremy replied. “But I want to get to the art store before it gets too late and my Mom gets mad. And I still have to go to my room and grab some money, so I’ll have to pass.”

Natalie shrugged and turned away, starting to head down the block to her home. Jeremy called out.

“Natalie?”

She turned and shot him a quizzical look.

“I just wanted to say thank you. I know you’re always trying to protect me from being me. I really am glad we’re friends.”

A smile flashed on her face, starting out big and then fading to an expression Jeremy could not quite identify. She winked at him and said, “You should be.” She continued down the street toward her home.

Jeremy waited a minute or two and she turned to wave before heading up the path to her house. He smiled and wondered at the peculiar expression and the way she said that last comment. Jeremy was still smiling as he walked on towards his own home. On his way, he entertained himself with thoughts of alien monsters punishing Eddie Vane.


Chapter 3

 “I really love art stores!”

 

Jeremy’s home was just a few more blocks further than Natalie’s but still less than a mile from school, which is why his Mom allowed him to walk home while she was still working. The area they lived in was mostly residences, single story homes built many decades ago. Most of them showed similar styles but unlike modern developments, had enough individuality between them that each one of them felt uniquely theirs.

Occasionally, a block would have a small store on the end, due to some leftover zoning rules from years ago. Traditionally, these stores were “Mom and Pop” type outfits, ranging from small drug stores to independent fast food restaurants. As with most areas, the onset of super chain stores had made it difficult for these stores to succeed.

Jeremy’s block was no exception. Until recently, there had been a fried chicken store at the spot on the corner. This had followed a Chinese restaurant and a barbecue restaurant, both of which had closed up after a few years. The new store had the best tasting fried chicken anywhere nearby. The owner, a short bald man with a barrel chest and rasping voice, was both genial and generous in his service and helpings. Despite this, the store had closed up a couple weeks ago and there was no expectation for a new tenant soon.

Jeremy almost missed the turn onto his own block because the closed chicken restaurant was no longer there. In place of the boarded up windows with the “space available” sign, was a new store. Jeremy checked himself. Well, not exactly a “new” store. In fact, the store looked old, practically ancient. It was a squat block of concrete with one small window, covered on the inside by some heavy curtain or shade. Upon closer look, it was not concrete at all, but old gray bricks, stained from what appeared to be years of sun and rain. Curious, Jeremy thought, since the building could only have been built in the last couple of weeks. Maybe they aged the stone on purpose?

He might have followed on that train of thought further if he had not seen the small sign on the wooden entrance door. He let out a small yelp of surprise and excitement as he read the simply painted sign hanging on the door. “Art Store” was all it said, painted in regular black letters on a pale yellow background. Even in his enthusiasm, Jeremy mused that it hardly seemed like an effective way to attract customers. Although, he corrected himself, it caught his eye well enough.

Jeremy hesitated, trembling with indecision. He had no money on him, so if he found something he wanted he wouldn’t be able to buy it. On the other hand, he was still 10 minutes away from home. Throw in another ten minutes back and 5 or ten minutes to throw down his books and find his money, and it could be a half-hour before he got back. There were no hours posted on the door or the little sign. For that matter, he didn’t even know if the store was open. It seemed improbable that a store could be built and stocked so quickly. He decided to go up and simply try the door handle. If the store wasn’t open yet, no loss. If it was open, he could ask someone inside what time they closed. If he found something he liked in the store, surely they would hold it for him until he could run home or, at worst, until tomorrow.

Having reached a satisfactory plan of action, he briskly stepped forward and turned the knob. He took note that the door itself reflected the same unadorned style as the building and the sign. The doorknob was different, though. It looked like real brass, but it was showing the same aging and discoloration as the brick walls. I guess that’s what they call ambience, he thought absently. A silent thrill went through him as the doorknob turned easily and the door opened inward into the store. The door gave off a long, deep creaking noise as it opened and Jeremy chuckled. The ambience extends to the hinges too.

As he stepped through the doorway, two of his senses reacted immediately. First, he was surprised by how dark it seemed to be in the store, although he thought it might just be an illusion after coming in from the bright outdoors. Next, his nose twitched as odors he was familiar with wafted in the air. It was the smell of wax and charcoal and paper and wood. All smells from the wide range of media covering all varieties of art. Indeed, it seemed to Jeremy, as his eyes widened in amazement, this store had everything!

Jeremy stood motionless, his hand still holding the door open, as he drank in the contents of the store. It was a cluttered mess, to be sure, but it had a feeling like there was purpose to the madness. The light was definitely dim, odd for a store that supported such a visual craft. He could not see the entire store from his position, racks of supplies, easels and other materials obscured his view. Off to the right, stacks of canvasses, varying in size, lay carefully in slots set to accommodate their different dimensions. Just before them, row upon row of paints. He was not versed in painting, but he recognized some were acrylic and some were oil. Just inside the door were various edges and kits to aid in drawing and creating shapes.

Jeremy did not immediately see the drawing section, but he was confident there must be one, given the amount of material around for other media. He let the door close and was appalled at how dark it was in the store. He had greatly underestimated how much the sunlight coming in the open front door had been illuminating the interior. He paused a few moments to allow his eyes to adjust to the lower light and then began to wander through the store.

Jeremy began to note odd things about some of the art supplies. Many of them seemed overly ornate, to the point of being unwieldy, at least to his mind. Some of the paintbrushes had elegantly carved designs on the handle. He noticed a few drawing boards and easels that looked like they should be at an antique shop rather than an art store. Well, he supposed that some people might like a more “retro” feel to their art studio, although he thought some of this stuff felt like it should be in a museum.

His wanderings finally took him to the drawing section. He stopped short with an audible expression of ecstasy.

“Oh my gosh!” he gasped.

“I take it you like the selection?”

Jeremy whirled, for some reason feeling guilty, as if he had been sneaking around someone’s home. Appearing in the doorway of what looked like a small office, was an elderly man. His face and hair had the appearance of some considerable age, with cracks and lines running across his forehead, around his eyes and deepening into crevices around his nose and mouth. He had a short-cropped beard, flecked with gray and white, while his head flourished a remarkable shock of hair, also cut short, just above the ears. He had a thick, bulbish nose and heavy cheeks, but his eyes defied the age of his face, shining out in a flinty blue, although Jeremy had thought for a moment they had been green.

The old man stepped through the doorway and straightened. Much to Jeremy’s surprise, he was taller than he had imagined, stretching up over six feet. He had broad shoulders, covered by a shirt of colorless gray. A wide belt wrapped around a thin waist, holding up a pair of blue-gray trousers of odd style. The man seemed to give off a juxtaposition of sensory data, at once giving the feeling of great age and at the same time of astounding vitality. Jeremy was quietly impressed and intrigued by the figure.

“Have you had long enough to answer, son?” the man said (Jeremy could not really think of him as “old” despite the visual evidence).

“Um. Question?” Jeremy asked, confused.

“Oh, yeah, I like the selection a lot,” Jeremy said enthusiastically. “This place is like a gold mine! I can’t believe you fit so much stuff in such a small store. When did you open up? I don’t recall even hearing about a shop like this. Did you advertise? I don’t think you did, I’m sure I would have seen it. Where did you…”

The man held up a hand. “Do you need to come up for air?” he chuckled. Jeremy detected an accent in his voice but it wasn’t familiar. Maybe European?

“Sorry. I just really love art stores,” Jeremy said sheepishly.

“No need for apologies, son. I just didn’t know if you wanted answers to any of those questions.”

“Yeah, all of them!” Jeremy said excitedly, and then paused. “Or I can just keep browsing around if you’re busy. I don’t mean to disturb you.”

“Disturb me?” the man sniffed. “Are you not the customer?” he asked.

“Absolutely!” responded Jeremy.

“And am I not the shopkeeper?”

“Um, that would seem to be likely,” Jeremy replied, a bit less confidently.

“Ha ha!” the man crowed triumphantly. “You have chosen your words with great care. I could just as easily have been a repairmen working in the back or perhaps a relative sleeping when I should have been watching the front door.”

Jeremy said nothing, perplexed at the turn of the conversation.

“In this case, appearance indeed matches fact and I am he who you suppose me to be. Well reasoned, young man.”

“Now, what can I do for you?”

Jeremy decided that he liked this man. He was strange, but not in a menacing or annoying way. If anything, he seemed jovial and quite disposed to talking.

“I was just going to look around for some art supplies. I need to get a new sketchbook and I could probably also use a few more pencils.”

“Aha. You would appear to have a propitious opportunity, since you are, in fact, in an art store, and I, as shopkeeper, can definitely assert that these items do exist within the store.”

Jeremy nodded politely. “Thank you. I know exactly what I want, so I’ll just look around a little more and see if I can find it.”

The man stared down at him and let out his breath in a short burst.

“Pfaw! Knowing what you are looking for does you little good if you don’t know where to look!” he intoned.

“I’m sure I can find it easy enough,” Jeremy said, trailing off as he looked at the man’s face frowning. “But if you would like to assist me in locating the drawing supplies, I would certainly appreciate your help,” he said, trying to mimic the man’s formal style.

The man’s frown instantly disappeared and he laid a large hand on Jeremy’s shoulder, urging him toward the back of the store.

“Come then, son. We shall begin your adventure into unexplored realms.” He winked at Jeremy. “It’s only the rear of the shop, but it never hurts to add some atmosphere.”

Jeremy grinned. Strange, for sure, but Jeremy’s kind of strange.

The two of them weaved between outcroppings of various supplies and materials, dodging around some wooden frames, passing a large selection of fabrics of myriad colors, stepping over what appeared to be bunched up tarps. Finally, in what seemed a longer trip than the size of the store suggested, they arrived at a section filled with various drawing items. Jeremy couldn’t restrain an escaping squawk of delight. He had never seen such a wide variety of supplies.

Some he recognized right off. Pencils, manual and mechanical. Sketchbooks of various sizes and content. A long shelf of ink pens, including some with the same type of extravagant construction as the paintbrushes he had seen. He looked closely at a couple of these and found the designs to be peculiar, but appealing. Still, he was not looking for inking tools. He returned to the sketchbook section and considered the wide variety of pads and paper surfaces available. Looking closer, he noticed that some of these pads had elegant covers to the books, almost like albums. Pretty fancy stuff for my chicken scratches, he thought.

None of the items had any prices on them, nor were there any signs on the shelves to indicate how much everything was. Jeremy stood pensively, chewing his bottom lip, before finally selecting a medium sized sketchbook with a nice surfaced paper that would allow him to work various shades and textures from the pencils. He located specific pencils he liked and turned to show them to the shopkeeper, surprised to see he had somehow quietly left while Jeremy was choosing. Shrugging, Jeremy carried his items to the area he presumed was the counter. His sense of direction must have been off and he found himself in yet another part of the store, this one filled with odd curios and pieces of art.

“Seems you’ve found something you like,” said a strange accented voice. Jeremy turned, startled, as the man stood behind him again, a smile creasing his aged face. The man didn’t seem to make any of the sounds he recognized as familiar with older people. No sighs, grunts, wheezes or other noises. Jeremy stared again at the man’s face, trying to guess his origin and age, but was once again defeated by the odd discrepancies between his eyes and bearing, so at discord with the wrinkles and hair.

“I think these are what I’m looking for, but there aren’t any prices shown, so I’m not sure if I can afford them. Actually, I don’t even have any money on me right now, but I live just down the block and if your prices are good I can run home and back in 30 minutes.”

The man looked at the items in Jeremy’s hands and made a dismissive gesture with his fingers.

“Barely adequate,” he said. Jeremy was unsure whether he was responding to him or talking of something else entirely. “Tell me, why do you like drawing?”

Puzzled, but not bothered by the question, Jeremy replied, “It’s fun. I can work off some stress or just relax. I can do it anywhere and I don’t need anyone else around.”

The man gazed across the store as he considered Jeremy’s answer, weighing it as if it was very profound. He fixed his stare back on Jeremy, and asked more insistently, “No. What is it you like about drawing? What is it you feel when you draw?”

It was Jeremy’s turn to consider. He apparently misinterpreted the man’s question or answered wrong. It was clear the reply either disappointed or dissatisfied the shopkeeper. For some reason, the question was more important to the shopkeeper than Jeremy would have thought and he realized that he wanted to impress the man with the compelling eyes.

“Well,” Jeremy started slowly, pulling pieces of his thoughts together as he spoke. “I think part of it’s the freedom of my imagination. When I’m sketching, anything can be real. It’s as if I can create anything I want; any world or image that I can think of. I don’t know, it’s like, I feel I have this special power that no one else has; to make whatever I think of appear on the page.” Jeremy’s voice grew stronger as he continued. “Sometimes, I don’t even know what’s going on around me. It’s just whatever I’m drawing and me. I can see it in my head and it feels real while I’m drawing.”

He looked up. The man was looking intently at him. He felt a bit embarrassed by his passion. “Anyway, I just have fun doing it, that’s all,” he finished meekly.

The shopkeeper eyed him a few moments longer, and then his face broke into a grin.

“Well spoken, young man!” He put his hand on Jeremy’s shoulder again and began leading him through the shop.

“You’ve touched on one of the oldest powers of art, the ability to create something where nothing existed before.”

 

 

Chapter 4

“Draw me a picture”

  

Reaching the counter and backroom Jeremy had seen earlier, the shopkeeper pulled out two chairs and gestured for Jeremy to take one. Jeremy sat quietly, watching the man slowly settle his frame onto the small chair. Jeremy was unsure how long he had been here, but he knew it would be rude to dash out while the man was still talking. Plus, he thought, this sounds interesting.

The shopkeeper nodded to Jeremy, as if acknowledging his willingness to listen.

“Drawing is as old as man himself and the idea of creation and power is easily as old,” the man began. “When man first walked on two legs on this planet, it wasn’t long before he took to drawing. More than 30,000 years ago, he drew pictures onto walls, cave paintings they’re called now, though that is unlikely what those primitive men thought of them as.”

The shopkeeper paused, as if distracted by a stray thought. “Many of the oldest of these drawings were in caves of what is now France and Spain. You and your Mother should go visit these one day soon.”

Jeremy straightened, surprised. “You know my Mom?”

The shopkeeper made the gesture with his fingers again and continued as if he the question were of no immediate importance.

“Those primitive men drew shapes of animals or men hunting animals. It was an attempt to create power from the drawings to bring the animals to the tribe or improve the hunt. In effect, to create something from their minds. Certainly, at that stage of development, there was little on their minds but eating and survival, but who is to say whether the result was only symbolic, or something more.”

He looked at Jeremy to see if he were listening or more accurately, understanding. Whatever he saw in Jeremy’s eyes must have reassured him. He gave a small grunt of approval, and then leaned back in his chair again.

“Have you ever heard the term ‘collective unconscious’? No? Well, you are young.” He paused a moment, the corners of his lips turning up slightly. “Ah, youth is indeed a wonderful thing.” The half-formed smile faded and the stony look of seriousness returned.

“No matter. It is a phrase that a doctor once used as he and his ilk attempted to define and catalog human behavior. For their point, they understood the concept superficially, never truly realizing the inherent power behind the thought. But I ramble.” He straightened in his chair. “There is an ancient sharing of thought between all humans; it is rarely entertained by people today. You are all entangled in the now and the soon-to-be. Rarely do you relax your thinking and allow what is deep within you to come forth.

“And yet, imagine if you will, as you reach into yourself and create your drawing, as you repeat the act of creation that your ancestors have done for tens of thousands of years, can you also imagine the power of all of those thoughts and creations that have come before? Is it any wonder you feel as if you are touching something powerful and real when you seize your image from your mind and place it on the page?”

Jeremy stared at the man. Part of what he said sounded cool, even appealing. Much of it sounded a bit crackpot, though. Jeremy read science fiction and fantasy books. He loved grand stories such as Lord of the Rings. But he felt he was a relatively well-adjusted boy (if you leave out the talking to bugs, he reminded himself), so while it was fanciful to imagine a great — what did the man call it, collective unconscious? — to tap into, he thought the idea was pretty far-fetched. Still, he appreciated the scope of the conversation and hazarded a question.

“What would this power do if you were able to use it?”

The man laughed, a booming sound that rumbled from his chest. “Ha hm. Well, you have at least been listening, if not necessarily fully understanding. Did you not hear me? You are already using it. Can you not answer your own question?”

Jeremy peered at the man, trying to figure out if he were playing with him. Perhaps this is all some attempt to add to the atmosphere of the store. With all those odd items, the dim lighting and the confusing signals sent off by the old/not-old man, perhaps it was just one big smoke screen, like the gypsy fortuneteller at the circus.

“Well, I don’t notice anything powerful about my drawings. They’re just drawings.”

The man seemed not a bit disappointed in the response. He nodded sagely.

“Of course. No power whatsoever.” He gave Jeremy a friendly squeeze on the shoulder. “Except, perhaps…does not your drawing change you from sad to happy?”

“Yeah, but, wait…” Jeremy replied, confused. Had he told the man that? He wanted to ask, but was stopped when the shopkeeper held up his pointer finger.

“Did you not say you could create anything you imagined in your head? Did you not also say that you imagined you could create your own worlds at your beck and call?”

“Yeah, but it’s just a drawing. I’m not really creating anything.”

“Are you not?”

Jeremy sighed. Okay, this is getting me nowhere. The shopkeeper was entertaining, acting all mysterious and wise, but now it just felt like he was poking fun at Jeremy.

“Look,” Jeremy said reasonably. “This was an interesting conversation and I love your store, but I probably should be getting home soon and I still need to find out how much this stuff costs so I can figure out if I can buy it. How late are you open anyway? I may not be able to come back until after supper now, with my Mom. If you’re not open that late, I can come back tomorrow.”

The man looked at Jeremy. A complex expression crossed his face. Finally, the shopkeeper sighed resignedly and shook his head.

“Yes. You are right. I should not have expected so much so quickly.” He pulled himself upright from his chair and for the first time, Jeremy thought he appeared as old as he seemed.

“Come,” he said firmly. “I have chosen some more appropriate tools for you.”

“But I’ve already found what I want. I appreciate your expertise, but…” Once again, the man raised a finger to quiet Jeremy. This time, Jeremy observed it with less grace. Annoyed, but also a little curious, Jeremy followed him.

On the counter, Jeremy saw one of the elegant sketchbooks with an ornate cover and a few new pencils. He glanced at the pencils and, while not recognizing the brand, could see by the graphite that they represented an excellent selection. He looked again at the sketchbook. The cover was embossed with a design that appeared to be a large animal. The color of the cover was difficult to determine. It appeared to be reddish brown at first look, but as he lifted the book and turned it sideways, the colors appeared to change, becoming more red or more brown depending how the light hit the surface. Six silver rings, evenly spaced from top to bottom down the left side, bound the cover to the pages. Jeremy opened the book and ran his fingers lightly over the paper inside. The texture was beautiful; it felt as if his fingers sighed as they traveled along its surface. He noticed, with some regret, that there were not that many sheets of paper within the book.

He turned to look at the shopkeeper, who once again showed a small smile as he observed Jeremy’s obvious pleasure. Okay, Jeremy thought, he had to give it to him, these were awesome supplies. Supplies seemed too inferior a word for them. The man had used the term tools. Yes, they felt like precision tools.

“These are beautiful,” Jeremy breathed appreciatively to the shopkeeper. “But I’m sure they cost way more than my allowance would let me buy.” He looked longingly at the tools, his fingers still lightly running across the first sheet.

The shopkeeper’s smile changed slightly. “Cost is something we never know until we have used a thing. Who can say if the cost is too high until then?” He ignored Jeremy as he tried to speak. “Before we conclude our business, I still wait for my answer. How would you imagine drawings to have power if not for the ideas they display?”

Jeremy started to sigh, and then caught himself. All right then.

“I would think creation would have to be defined by existence. If what I drew actually were real, that would be something different, true power I guess. I understand what you’re saying about ideas and stuff; I just think that’s symbolic, not real. Is that the answer you’re looking for?”

“I do not ask to test you,” the man said easily. “I ask to provoke you to think. You give less import to your art than you should. Perhaps you should consider that the next time you draw.”

The shopkeeper stood there silently, appearing to mull his thoughts. Jeremy fidgeted. It had to be late now. He really needed to get home. And yet, he felt there was something left to do here. Some feeling told him that the man was testing him. And he had a suspicion that the test was not yet over.

Abruptly, the man stepped forward towards the counter. Jeremy stumbled back in surprise and then reddened as he realized the man was just reaching for the art tools. He lifted the pad and pencils and extended them toward Jeremy.

“Here. I have had an enjoyable conversation with a young artist and surely, there is no finer payment than that for a man. In recompense, I would give you these fine tools to assist you in your future explorations of new worlds and ideas.”

Jeremy was ecstatic, reaching out to accept the gifts and then reluctantly pulled back his hands.

“I can’t tell you how much I would love to take these tools, but I can’t accept them as a gift. Can you tell me how much they cost? I’m sure I can pay you or I can borrow some money from my Mom.”

“Refusing a gift insults the giver. The method of payment for a thing is chosen by the seller. I have elected conversation as the currency of choice. That is sufficient for me.”

“I’m sorry, but I can’t,” Jeremy said adamantly. “My Mom wouldn’t allow it anyway.”

“Hmm,” the man considered this statement. “One must also acknowledge the teachings of your own upbringing.” He rubbed his thumb and index finger across his beard. “Very well, we shall work out a trade.”

“A trade? Of what?” Jeremy asked, looking at his things dubiously. He only had his few textbooks, his old sketchbook and some homework papers. Hardly items the shopkeeper would find useful and, in any case, nothing Jeremy could part with.

“You will draw me a picture of my choice,” the man decided. “Should it satisfy my requirements, I will trade you the pad and pencils for your sketch.”

Jeremy was going to point out that was not a fair trade for the shopkeeper, but he simply shrugged his shoulders. He just hoped it wasn’t going to be such an involved drawing that he would get into trouble with his Mom by coming home too late.

Jeremy reached for his sketchbook and turned to one of the few blank pages left in the back of the book. He picked out a pencil of medium softness and said, “Okay, what is it you want?”

The shopkeeper handed him the new sketchbook and said, “No, draw it in this.”

Jeremy took the book from him like in a dream, gently cradling the sketchbook in his arms as he gazed again at the unique cover. He hesitated only a moment before his eagerness overtook him and he opened the cover to the first page. He stared at the paper for a few seconds; the white was so lustrous it appeared as soft as clouds or whipped cream and yet the texture was rough enough, he knew instinctively, to allow him great range with a pencil. He looked expectantly at the shopkeeper.

“I would like for you to draw me a cup of hot coffee.”

Jeremy blinked. “A what?”

“A cup of hot coffee, if you please. Rich and full of flavor. Have you not tasted coffee before?”

“Uh, yeah, my Mom let me sip some. I didn’t really like it and it has a really strong smell.”

The man clapped his hands. “Excellent. Please include the strong aroma as well.”

“You want me to draw you a cup of coffee with a strong aroma? I’m sorry, that’s rich and full of flavor too.”

The man nodded. “You have correctly understood my request.”

Jeremy swallowed any further comment or protest. Okayyy, he thought. I’ll play out the rest of this joke. He saw the game now. When he finished drawing the picture the shopkeeper would say he couldn’t smell anything and so sorry but I guess I’ll just keep this sketchbook and thanks for amusing me.

Even as the thoughts came to his head, Jeremy didn’t believe them. He honestly liked the shopkeeper, eccentricities and all. Jeremy resolved to do his best at fulfilling the request. He cast his mind back to mornings with his Mom and imagined the smell of her coffee, strong and inescapable in the small kitchen. Mom drank her coffee without sugar or milk, which made it even more powerful. He remembered the taste now. Not terrible, but really strong.

He began to sketch a few base lines, and then began to make the cup take shape. He kept the memory of the smell (“aroma”) in his mind as he drew heat radiating up from the cup. The scene was real enough to him now where he could almost smell the coffee in the store. He glanced up, curiously, to see if the shopkeeper was drinking any coffee, but he had not moved from his position just behind the counter.

The man gestured at him eagerly to continue drawing. He looked past Jeremy into the dimness of his store and said quietly, “We did not have coffee when I was growing up. I have come to regard this as a great loss of my early life.”

Jeremy thought about the accent and the comments about the cave paintings and ventured a probe. “Where did you grow up, incidentally? Somewhere overseas?”

The man’s eyes refocused on Jeremy, so quickly that Jeremy flinched. After a moment of study, they lost some of their intensity and the man said, “Yes, somewhere overseas. That will do.” And his lips once again quivered in an almost smile.

Jeremy finished the drawing and prepared to show it to the man. Before he could turn the sketchbook over to him, the shopkeeper asked him if he signed his work.

Jeremy laughed. “They’re just drawings. It’s not like I’m doing art.”

The man gave him a disapproving look. “You are much too dismissive of your talent. You should learn to sign everything you do. It is not for others that you make your mark, but for yourself.”

“How so?” Jeremy asked, intrigued.

“By signing your drawings you place the conviction of yourself behind your creation. How can you believe what you draw has value if you are unwilling to claim it as your own? Further, if you acknowledge a work as your own, take ownership of it, you will not allow yourself to do anything other than your best.”

The statement seemed incomplete to Jeremy, as if it obscured a better explanation. He decided not to pursue the thought. In its simple form, however, he found it an appealing concept and so he signed a stylized “JS” on the bottom right of the drawing. Finally, he turned the book around to the shopkeeper.

The man’s face lit up and he looked at the drawing with a big grin.

“Yes!” he exclaimed. “I was correct. You are indeed a talented young man!”

Jeremy flushed with pride. He showed his work to no one other than his Mom and Natalie, so he never received compliments other than from those two. His moment of enjoyment was sharply interrupted by a tearing sound. With a yell of surprise, he realized the man was removing the page from the book. The shopkeeper looked up, amused by Jeremy’s reaction.

“Did you not think I would want to keep the drawing?” he asked.

“No,” Jeremy said mildly. “I don’t show my drawings to many people. I’ve never given one away.”

The man looked sadly at Jeremy.

“That is a great loss, then, for you have a gift that should be shared.” He placed the sheet on the counter and picked up the sketchbook, holding it up to Jeremy.

“Oddly enough, I find I have a damaged sketch book here in the store. It appears to be missing a page. As I cannot, in good conscience, sell an item in disrepair, I would appear to have no other choice but to throw it away. It is a pity I cannot find someone who could make use of this slightly damaged but still useful book.”

Jeremy smiled widely. “If it would be of benefit to you, I could take the book off your hands. I might be able to find something to do with it.”

The man appeared to approve of the suggestion.

“How fortuitous, then, that you were here at this moment when I discovered the occurrence. Thus, misfortune turns to fortune and all is well. I would suggest you take these pencils also, since the two are normally sold as a set. As a favorable turn of chance, I find myself with a new piece of art to my liking that somewhat soothes my loss.”

Jeremy grabbed the pencils, and then extended his right hand to the shopkeeper, who clasped it in his big paw and shook it warmly. Gathering up his books and papers, Jeremy made his way to the exit, noticing that he had no trouble finding the door. His nose twitched as he turned back to wave at the shopkeeper who acknowledged him with a gentle tip of his head so as not to spill the coffee he was sipping.

 

What Next? Excerpt

 

Copyright © 2013 Jeffrey M. Daniels

ISBN 978-1-62141-841-2

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, recording or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the author.

Printed in the United States of America.

The characters and events in this book are fictitious. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is coincidental and not intended by the author.

BookLocker.com, Inc.

2013

First Edition

 

“Dad, at last”

 

With a final groan, the great door opened. Standing in the doorway was a man of medium height, a mass of dark curly hair atop his head. He had regular features, bright green eyes and a crooked grin on his face.

“Dad!” Jeremy cried, and crushed the man with a hug 13 years in the making.

The man looked surprised at first and then pained as he gazed kindly down at the curly head buried in his chest. Slowly, he let his arms encircle the boy and murmured into his hair.

“Not exactly.”

 

 

“Previously”

 

What If?, the first book in the Jeremy Shuttle Adventures, introduced Jeremy Shuttle, a reasonably normal 12-year old boy. Sure, he talked to bugs (particularly ants), but up until then, none had actually held up their end of the conversation.

Jeremy lived with his Mom, Teresa Shuttle. He had never met his Dad, William; he had never even seen a picture of him. His Mom had promised to tell him the whole story for his 13th birthday.

Jeremy was especially talented at two things. The first was drawing, which he never shared with anyone but his Mom. Using a pencil, he had an amazing ability to draw things with startling realism.

Jeremy’s other talent was asking questions, something his classmates (and a few of his teachers) wished he didn’t share. Chief among those Jeremy annoyed was Eddie Vane,
whom Jeremy thought of as his “arch-enemy”. Eddie lived up to the name, either in having Jeremy humiliated or beaten up.

After one of these times, Jeremy met his best friend, Natalie. They shared a common bond, since Eddie picked on her because of her weight. Jeremy thought she was pretty and was flattered to have her as a friend. Natalie was interested in something more, but Jeremy had not yet gotten the hint.

On the way home from school, Jeremy noticed a strange art store. Inside, he met a mysterious shopkeeper who asked him a number of equally mysterious questions, including about something called “collective unconscious”. The shopkeeper then asked Jeremy to draw him something and in return, gave Jeremy a new sketchbook.

The next day, Eddie crossed the line in class, bringing Natalie to tears. Jeremy stepped up to defend her and Eddie made sure Jeremy paid for it after class. Bruised and shamed, Jeremy sought release through drawing. His vision of a monster doing to Eddie what Jeremy could not made him feel better…until he and Natalie witnessed the exact monster Jeremy had sketched come to life in the school cafeteria. Many students were hurt, including Eddie.

After Jeremy’s guilt faded, he became excited realizing what he could do with the sketchbook. Natalie, wiser and more cautious, warned Jeremy not to use the book because it could be dangerous. Jeremy stubbornly ignored her.

He decided to transform himself into an ant. He met up with another ant, had some nervous moments with the Queen ant and got hurt in a ferocious battle with enemy ants.

The injury stayed with him when he finally returned to human form. He didn’t tell his Mom how he got hurt because he didn’t want her to take away the sketchbook.

He came up with a plan to use the sketchbook to bring back his missing Dad, but wanted to test the book one more time. Natalie was horrified at his idea and once again asked him not to use the book. She ultimately came to support him, but he still didn’t understand that she was doing so because she cared for him as more than a friend.

He used the sketchbook to travel more than 30,000 years in the past. A saber-tooth tiger attacked Jeremy and he escaped only when a group of cavemen killed the beast…and then invited him to lunch.

They gestured for him to paint something on their cave wall. Jeremy complied as best he could before he reappeared in the present. After recounting his tale to Natalie, she suggested that perhaps his was the first cave painting in history.

Natalie pointed out that the book once again placed Jeremy in danger and urged him to give up his idea, but Jeremy again ignored her. Finding
a picture in his Mom’s room of her and two men, he made a guess at which of the two was his Dad.

A man did appear in their home, but it turned out to be Carl, his Dad’s best friend and business partner, who also went missing 13 years ago. Carl had changed. He begged Teresa to forget William and leave with him. He didn’t even notice Jeremy until he saw the sketchbook. His lust for the sketchbook exceeded even that for Teresa and he seized
the book just as Natalie showed up.

Teresa managed to free the book from Carl. Natalie and Jeremy barely avoided capture as Jeremy raced to draw a sketch to get Carl away from them. Jeremy then tried again to draw his Dad back, but no one appeared.

With all three hurt, both physically and emotionally, an air of defeat and longing hung over them. Teresa opened the sketchbook one final time, gasping at a message mysteriously written there.

A message that could mean Jeremy’s Dad was still alive.

Chapter 1

 

“The Room”

The light came from a single bulb lamp suspended from a beam in the center of the ceiling. The ceiling was nothing more than a grouping of crisscrossed beams of wood below an even higher ceiling of indeterminate nature, mostly from lack of illumination. Jeremy supposed he should be grateful for even that much light, since he could at least see some of the room below the lamp.

He stood silently for a moment, taking time to acclimate himself. There was always a brief period of disassociation after he suddenly appeared in his drawn location. It was a mental adjustment; he needed his head to “get around” the idea that he had transported himself into somewhere that had only existed in his imagination a few moments ago. He wondered if he would ever get used to that feeling.

This time felt different, though. His senses seemed to have adjusted and he seemed to be able to think and move easily enough, but something about the place didn’t feel right. Or real. It was as if everything looked real but didn’t feel real.

He moved over to the walls, the bulb’s light barely reaching the features beneath his thick, curly brown hair. Despite only a few months passing since he first received the sketchbook, he already seemed older. Though it was the same slender face, rounded cheeks and bright green eyes, there was a sense of depth beyond the youthfulness. Jeremy might not even realize the changes himself, but those closest to him could see it clearly…more thoughtful, perhaps even somber.

Jeremy wore his usual outfit, a loose fitting polo shirt and jeans along with blue sneakers. All showed recent wear from the chase in the caves. I hope Mom and Natalie will be okay, he thought. His mouth twisted and he rolled his eyes. I hope I will be okay.

Reaching a hand out to the wall, he touched it cautiously. It was cool to the touch and damp. The cold stone did little to dispel his odd feeling. Jeremy immediately thought of medieval castles and dungeons. He wondered at the wetness. Maybe I’m underground and water leaks in? Squinting in the dim light he stared at the stones; he had the odd impression they were crying. He remembered a movie he had seen when he was young about a house that had a painting that began to bleed when scratched.Wait a minute, that’s not red stuff leaking, is it?

He jumped back from the wall, stifling a cry. He caught himself and stopped. Oh for crying out loud! “It’s just water,” he said. His voice sounded tiny in the stone room, but it gave him some comfort. He smiled his crooked smile again and went back to study the wall. The stones were not terribly rough, but they were far from polished. He gingerly ran his fingers over the moisture and raised them to his face. Not red, scaredy-cat.

He pressed hard against the stone. It was as unyielding as any wall he had ever touched. Still he couldn’t shake the feeling of unreality that had settled over him. Abruptly, he pulled away and turned to survey the rest of the room.

There was a long, straight table made of wood near the front of the room (he assumed it was the front, since the door was on this side). The table looked massive, like a picnic table on steroids.

To the back of the room, abutting the far wall, was a bed of simple construction. The bed had a cloth covering and a small pillow not much bigger than Jeremy’s head. He moved over to the bed and sat upon it, grunting at its hardness. It’s barely even a cot. He hoped he wouldn’t be here long enough to have to sleep on it.

On the short side of the wall, there was a small table, upon which was a fat candle in a metal holder. He noted the candle was unlit and made a cursory search for some form of lighting tool. The search didn’t take long and he found nothing to suggest a way to light the candle.

Outside of the three pieces of furniture, the room was bare. No shelves or windows were present, no paintings or other decorations adorned its walls. It seemed too well outfitted to be a prison cell. The thought occurred to him that he might have traveled in time again and perhaps
he actually was in the middle ages. After all, most of the people back then didn’t have the possessions of current times.

They also didn’t have electricity. He looked up at the dim but unquestionably familiar light bulb
suspended above his head. Despite the trappings of the room, he could not be in anything other than reasonably modern times.

He decided to examine the door to the room. In this, he was suitably impressed, for it was a massive thing. A combination of wood and a dull silver metal he decided was iron. Near the center of the door onits left side, there was a circlet of metal suspended from the mouth
of a lion that he presumed was the door handle. Diagonal beams of wood crossed above and below a wide midsection of iron. Iron bolts punctuated the wood crosses at the tops and bottom.

As his inspection ended, Jeremy sensed, more than felt, the sketchbook in his hand. He moved over to the table, pulling out one of the massive chairs. He was surprised how heavy the chair was and he struggled to get the chair to move.

On the cover of the sketchbook was the same animal-like shape as ever, the color shifting even in this dim light. He opened the book with his breath held and released it quickly as he stared at the first page. There was the drawing of the room he was in, exactly as the shopkeeper had described it to him.

The existence of the drawing troubled him in some way. In the couple of times he had drawn a sketchbook in with him previously, there had never been anything on the pages inside. It seemed identical to the actual room, even down to the bad illumination from the light. His mouth twisted into a sardonic grin. Maybe next time I can draw a halogen light up there.

He closed the sketchbook carefully. After waiting a few moments, he opened it again. The drawing was still there. He could not say why, but a small chill traveled across his nerves.

He looked in the spine for the pencil he always kept there and noted with alarm that there was no drawing implement. He scattered his view around the room but was rewarded only with a confirmation of his previous review…other than the candle, there was no loose item in the room.

The shopkeeper told him to draw this room and not go anywhere. He was supposed to wait and everything would reveal itself to him. He supposed this could be a special place, like a meeting room or a place where visitors came together.

He noticed he had gotten up from his chair and was pacing around the small room. With a conscious effort, he stopped and sat himself back down at the table. All right. Let’s see if we can piece a little of this together to decide what I need to do next .

He was almost certain that he would find answers somewhere in this strange place. The shopkeeper had been adamant about him waiting here. A sudden thought struck him. What if there’s nothing else but this room? What if I were to open that door and find nothing but a great wall of nothingness?
Jeremy began to wonder just what the rules of this place were…or if it truly existed.

The strange feeling of unreality returned, stronger than before. What if this place isn’t real?
If that were the case, it would surely be safer to just follow instructions and wait for something to happen.

The prospect of what might await him outside the door worried and excited him. He imagined his Dad would not simply sit in a room and wait to see if anything would happen. Plus, I don’t know what’s happening with Mom and Natalie back in the “real” world.

He did not think this was part of “his” world. That thought led to a feeling of excitement…and an undefinable tingle of fear. He was more certain than ever he needed to get out of this room. Now.

As if in response to his thoughts, there came a loud banging on the door. Jeremy jumped, first in surprise and then with a breathless anticipation. He moved swiftly to the front of the room and pulled mightily at the heavy door. It showed no acknowledgement of his efforts. He planted both his feet wide apart at the base of the door and grabbed the handle with both hands. He immediately felt the strain in his shoulders as his joints creaked and stretched. He now began to feel equal parts excitement and desperation to get the door open, a feeling he thought could turn to panic if he did not make some progress soon.

Were it not for his eagerness, Jeremy might have recalled that all his previous uses of the sketchbook had brought him danger. Even now, as he tried to get the door to open, he did not even consider the possibility that whatever waited on the other side of the door might not mean him well.

Another bang rang out from the other side of the door, this one seeming more insistent. Jeremy sensed there was nothing the person on the other side could do to help him; the door must open from within. A momentary flash of vampires needing to be invited in flew across his mind before he sent it away amid another bone-creaking yank.

He moved his feet so they braced against the wall just outside the doorframe and increased his pull on the handle. It began to feel like his arms were going to separate from his shoulders. Spots began to form in front of his eyes and he felt dizzy. The door finally budged. It did not actually move, but he felt it give in to him just a little bit. As if that little nudge was all he needed, he felt a renewed strength flow through him and he exerted even more effort against the door. This time the door did move. Slowly, battling him for every inch, it gave more ground. A sliver of space appeared, then a gap. With a final groan, the great door opened.

Jeremy stood hunched over for a few seconds, panting heavily and his arms numb from his shoulders to his elbows. He shook those arms and rolled them in circles above and below his head. He spared a single thought for how these would be hurting for days to come and then darted
around the massive wooden door to the opening he had created.

Standing there in the doorway was a man of medium height, with a fedora hat upon his head, which he removed to reveal a mass of dark curly hair. He had regular features, bright green eyes and a crooked grin on his face. He looked exactly like the man in the photo with his Mom.

“Dad!” Jeremy cried, crushing the man with a hug 13 years in the making.

As he felt his shirt dampening from the small head pressed against it, the man looked down with a kind, but pained expression before wrapping the boy in his arms.

“Not exactly.”

Chapter 2

 

“I’m not real”

Jeremy stayed in his Dad’s arms for what seemed like hours. He was giddy over the feeling of those two arms encircling him and the fact that he had finally succeeded in using the sketchbook properly. Long moments passed when he simply stopped thinking altogether.

Slowly, his mind began to process information again. Time began to flow and his senses returned. His brain sent him insistent signals, made more urgent by his refusing to acknowledge them. He stiffened, stepping back from him as the grip loosened.

“Wait. What?” he stammered in confusion. “What do you mean ‘Not exactly’?”

The man pushed his hat back into shape; crushed during Jeremy’s hug. He looked kindly at Jeremy.

“Are you my Dad, or not?” Jeremy asked.

A bright smile flashed across the man’s face and was gone. Rolling his hat between both hands, he looked directly at Jeremy and answered in a clear, friendly voice.

“Yes.”

Jeremy growled in frustration.

“Yes what?” he asked angrily. “Which question are you answering?”

“Both,” the man replied.

“Both. Oh, thanks. Very helpful,” Jeremy replied sarcastically. What was I thinking about the sketchbook working right this time?
The man grinned again as he watched Jeremy seethe, which only infuriated Jeremy more.

“So let’s see. I’m in some weird place that looks like a medieval castle, but has a light bulb that I materialize into by drawing in a magic sketchbook that I’m trying to use to find my Dad and when I do, he says he’s ‘not exactly’ my Dad. Have I got that all right?”

“Everything but the magic part,” the man said, still smiling.

Jeremy just stared at the man, mouth agape. He looked exactly like the man in the picture he used to draw to get his Dad home. Jeremy paused. Yes. Exactly like him. Every detail was the same as in the photo, except for the hat.

“It looks like you’re figuring it out,” the man said, still watching Jeremy closely. “Why don’t we sit down and get to some explanations?”

They moved to the big table and Jeremy once more struggled to pull out a chair. His “Dad”, he noted wryly, had no such problem.

For a moment, they sat there, son and not-exactly-Dad.

“Why don’t you go first?” Jeremy offered testily.

The man chuckled and nodded. Dad or not, Jeremy found himself liking this man exactly opposite to how much he disliked the last man he had encountered from that troublesome photo.

“The short answer to your question is that I am your Dad.”

“But, I’m not real.” He held up his hand to halt Jeremy’s barrage of questions. “This will go faster if you allow me the time to get some information out of the way first.”

Jeremy swallowed his questions gracelessly. He felt just like his first time with the shopkeeper, who had also held up a hand to stop Jeremy’s questions. He sat back with an air of impatience that elicited another chuckle from the man.

“I know that look. Had it most of my life…or your real Dad did.”

“First, let me correct myself. It is true I am not real. Nor are the table and chairs, or this room. On the other hand, it’s all real, especially here.

“For lack of time, let’s just say that you’re sitting inside the collective unconscious. It’s not so much a place as a thought of a place. And in this place, every thought can be real.

“But not every thought is real. That takes someone and something special. For now, that someone is you and that something is your sketchbook.

“For now.”

Jeremy couldn’t restrain himself any longer.

“But you said it isn’t magic! So, what is it and why me?”

The man chuckled. “That didn’t last very long, did it?”

Jeremy smiled back, feeling the same care the man had for him he always hoped his Dad would have…his real
Dad, he had to remind himself.

“Okay, okay,” Jeremy conceded. “But can we come up with a name I can think of you as? I mean, since I can’t call you Dad?”

“How about Will?” he replied and Jeremy rolled the name around in his head. After a few mental attempts, he found he could get comfortable with the idea. He nodded at Will to continue.

“Again, I’ll shorten the answers a bit so we can move into more pressing matters. I don’t know how much you’ve explored collective unconscious since your talk with the shopkeeper.”

Jeremy showed no surprise at Will’s knowledge of his time in the art store; he just took it in stride with the rest of the weirdness going on. He shook his head.

“I didn’t think so. Briefly, the collective unconscious originally grew out of primal thoughts, those of food, safety and family. Billions of minds across time have always had these primal needs within their thoughts. It’s one reason your quest has allowed you swift access to the immense reservoir of coalesced thought. Drawing upon one of the three primal needs opens pathways for certain people.”

Jeremy listened, transfixed by the possibilities. He ventured a question.

“Is there a reason the shopkeeper had me draw this place rather than just go straight to my Dad?”

Will nodded.

“I can explain that, but it will be easier if you first tell me what happened from when you got your Dad’s message to how you ended up here.”

Jeremy started. “That will take forever! Can’t you just tell me what I’m supposed to do?”

Will shook his head. “It’s not that easy. Part of the answer will reveal itself by your story. Tell your tale first.”

“But Dad needs me!” Jeremy exclaimed. “And Mom and Nat are in trouble!”

Will nodded gravely. “I understand. We have some time. Actually, we have quite a lot of time. It can be made to work differently here.”

“But…” Jeremy persisted.

“Tell me your tales,” said Will, holding his hand up again. “It’s the only way I can help you.”

Jeremy’s face flashed from anger through frustration to thoughtful. This guy is just as annoying as…as the shopkeeper!

“Let’s save the speculation for later, too, okay?” said Will, as if reading Jeremy’s thoughts.

“Okay,” Jeremy sighed. “But it’s a long tale.” He frowned. “I should have drawn a bottle of water in here with me.

“Flashlights, bottles of water…it’s the little things that really matter,” Jeremy added with a grin. He looked at Will and saw him grimace and then lean back, eyebrows raised expectantly.

“Okay, okay,” he said. Now that he was on it, Jeremy felt a growing eagerness to tell his story in this not-real room to his not-real Dad.

Chapter 3

“I think it’s a message”

“Well?” Will asked.

Jeremy looked at him helplessly. He was eager to start, but he couldn’t decide how far back he should go.

“Relax,” Will said softly. “Begin from when your Mom saw the words in the sketchbook.”

Jeremy looked up, startled. “How do you know about that?”

Will just grinned. It was warm and friendly, instantly disarming any irritation Jeremy might have felt.

“Okay, Mr. Mysterious. I suppose that’s as good a place as any…”

“What do you want to do, Mom?” Jeremy asked.

Teresa was still holding the sketchbook and looking at the words at the top of the page.

“Knowing what you’re looking for does you little good if you don’t know where to look,” Natalie read aloud. “I know the shopkeeper told you that before you got the sketchbook, but why is it so important?”

Teresa and Jeremy looked at each other. Jeremy made a move to tell Natalie but Teresa interrupted him. She patted a space on the sofa and Natalie sat down next to her.

“It’s more than the shopkeeper, honey,” Teresa began quietly, but with a trace of excitement in her voice. “This was my husband’s — William’s — favorite phrase. He would tell this to clients when he was preparing to find some lost or sought after item for them. The way he said it, with matter-of-fact conviction and confidence, would always convince them to trust him. Carl…” She shuddered for a moment. “Carl used to say that it was his job to hook the clients and then William would land them.”

She smiled at the recollection of happier times, a better Carl than the maniac who had threatened them. Jeremy smiled at the information, too. He was always hungry for more stories about his Dad, whom he had still never seen in his life. Well, apart from that photo with Mom and even then I guessed wrong. His smile slipped as he once again felt a twinge of guilt at how he put them in terrible danger. Bad enough he seemed to be ensnared every time he used the sketchbook, but this time his Mom and Natalie were hurt by his carelessness.

That’s why he had vowed to himself not to use the sketchbook again until he could gain more control. He truly believed he could use the sketchbook for good, but so far, only bad things seemed to be happening. He knew he needed to find out more about the book and its origins. He had the power, now he needed the knowledge to use it wisely.

Natalie watched the expressions on the two people who were as close to her as her own family. On Teresa’s face, she saw that same flicker of hope and longing that had briefly surfaced when Jeremy had tried to draw his Dad into their home. She dearly wanted to help Teresa fill the
hole in her heart and hoped that whatever she and Jeremy believed these words meant was true.

Jeremy, of course, remained a puzzle and a frustration to Natalie. After that moment in the bedroom where he had saved her from that awful man, he had finally gotten up the courage to ask her to be his girlfriend, but their first kiss was interrupted by concern over his Mom. Natalie
couldn’t be upset over that. It was one of Jeremy’s more attractive traits. Now he seemed to be pulling back into his shy habits again, using the search for his Dad as an excuse to avoid talking about their relationship. Maybe she needed to have a conversation with Teresa about him.

“But what do you think it means?” Natalie asked, breaking the momentary silence.

Teresa looked at Natalie, glanced at her son and looked back, with an expression both hopeful and uncertain.

“I don’t know,” she said. Softly, she repeated, “I don’t know.”

Jeremy couldn’t contain himself any longer.

“I think it was a message!” he exclaimed excitedly.

Teresa continued to stare down at the sketchbook, so Natalie spoke.

“You think it’s a message…from your Dad?” Natalie spoke carefully. She knew how much the two of them had invested in the hope these words had given them and she heard that in Teresa’s voice and the look of excitement on Jeremy’s face. She wondered whether they weren’t allowing their hope to blind them to the dangers they might be facing. She didn’t want her naturally cautious nature to dash that hope prematurely. If the sketchbook had convinced her of
anything, it was that there were amazing forces that existed she had never been aware of before.

Jeremy looked at her sharply, but seeing her face and hearing her tone, did not become defensive. His face softened and he smiled gratefully at her to show he appreciated her indulgence. She bit back her own smile and kept her face carefully neutral.

“Yeah. I think Dad is trying to tell us that he’s ok and that we need to figure out where he is. He’s the ‘what we’re looking for’ and we need to figure out the ‘where to look’ part!”

Natalie decided not to challenge Jeremy’s belief that his Dad was in no danger. One other thing her experiences with the sketchbook had demonstrated was that trouble always followed when trying to use the book, even for good purposes.

“Where do you think we need to look, then?” Natalie asked.

“I think we should start in France,” Jeremy declared confidently.

This time, Teresa did look up, and her face showed conflicting emotions. Still, both she and Natalie could see why France might be the logical place to start. That was where William went missing, years ago. The shopkeeper had hinted that Jeremy and Teresa should go there and
Jeremy’s own adventures had taken him there already.

Teresa suddenly stood up, closing the sketchbook. In a clear voice, she said simply, “I agree.

“School is out in a few weeks, I’ll make the preparations.”

Natalie saw in their faces a mirror of determination and anticipation. She once again fretted over the dangers that seemed to revolve around the sketchbook. As the episode with Carl proved, more people knew about the sketchbook than they were aware. Natalie felt the Shuttles would need someone else with them who could see beyond their hopes.

I’m going with them. They just don’t know that yet.

Chapter 4

 

“I’m a little scared, too”

“I don’t want you using this anymore until we learn more about it.”

Teresa looked intently at her son, holding his eyes in her steely gaze.

Jeremy managed not to flinch under his Mom’s stare, but it wasn’t easy. It was his own fault, he knew, for bringing up the subject, but he had felt it important enough, especially with their trip only a couple of weeks away.

“Believe me, Mom,” Jeremy said. “I was thinking the exact same thing since my last attempt went…uh…a little sideways.” Teresa snorted. “But,” he hurried on, “what if the sketchbook is the only way to bring Dad back? We still don’t know if I can bring anything back
with me.”

“You brought something back just a few weeks ago,” she said ominously and this time Jeremy did flinch.

“Ok, yeah, that didn’t work out so great, but technically, I didn’t bring Carl here, I sketched him.” He ignored her frown and continued, “I tried that with Dad and nothing happened. I think it’s going to work differently with Dad.”

Teresa pursed her lips as she listened to her son. She had seen the results of the “magic” sketchbook twice already. Despite the recently healed injuries she suffered from one of those creations, she still couldn’t fully convince herself that her son could “conjure” up reality by drawing in that sketchbook.

“What makes you think you’re the one who has to bring William…your Dad…back?”

“It’s just the way these things always seem to work, Mom,” he said in a helpless voice, realizing how stupid it sounded. As expected, his Mom’s expression remained unconvinced.

“You have a lot of experience in ‘these things’?” she asked sarcastically.

“Actually, yes,” Jeremy boasted and then hurried past his Mom’s immediate sniff of disbelief. “Maybe not personally, but that’s always the way these tales go.”

Teresa struggled to get her face under control. In a calmer voice, she asked, “You’re basing your whole argument on stories you’ve read? In what, science fiction? Comic books?”

“Partly, yes,” Jeremy declared. “But not only that. I mean, the shopkeeper gave me the sketchbook. My talent makes it work. I’m the only one who travels because of it.”

“You’ve never drawn anyone else. You could try drawing me going somewhere.”

“Forget it!” Jeremy said, horrified.

“Oh?” Teresa replied in an irritated tone. “And where do you get the only say in how you use the book. You’re still my son!”

“That’s not it, Mom!” Jeremy said, sounding hurt. “I don’t want to risk putting you in danger.”

Teresa’s eyes softened and she motioned for her son. She clutched him in a tight hug and she could feel the fierceness of his love for her in his own grip. She felt bad for misreading Jeremy’s intentions, but truthfully, the book scared her. Teresa began to see how Natalie could be so set against Jeremy using the sketchbook.

“Even so,” she continued in a milder tone. “I feel the same about you. Every time you use this sketchbook, you get into something dangerous.”

Jeremy couldn’t argue that point. It seemed that each time he used the book, the danger became increasingly threatening. Still, Jeremy could think of no other way to test his theory…and he had a strong feeling that he needed to test it soon.

“I know Mom,” he said quietly. “I’m a little scared, too.”

He paused, gathering his certainty around him like stone columns supporting a building and let all that come through as he spoke again.

“I’m willing to risk anything to bring Dad back to us.”

Teresa sucked her lower lip between her teeth, using the brief pain to hold back more tears. In the last few months, her son had seemed to mature so much. There were times she could swear she heard William’s voice when Jeremy spoke. That only increased her long-buried ache for her
missing husband.

Releasing her lip, she took a slow, deep breath. Her eyes tightened with thoughts of potential dangers, but she forced a trembling smile to her face.

“Alright. You win.” Her eyes held Jeremy, preventing him from celebrating. “How do you plan to test your idea?”

Jeremy had indeed grown over the past few months. Getting closer to his Mom and Natalie had made him more sensitive to others’ feelings, especially women. He understood how much his Mom’s permission cost her. It was this understanding that allowed him to prevent a smile from reaching his face as he replied.

“I’ll go to Washington D.C. and bring back a souvenir.”

His Mom looked at him curiously. “Why Washington? Why not somewhere close by or even inside the house?”

This time Jeremy couldn’t restrain a chuckle.

“I always wanted to visit the Lincoln Memorial and I figured why waste an opportunity?”

Teresa didn’t allow herself to be swayed so quickly.

“That’s nice, but I still think it would be safer if you tried this out closer to home.”

“Honestly, Mom,” Jeremy answered, understanding his Mom’s nervousness. “I don’t think it makes any difference with the sketchbook whether I’m next door or in France, 30,000 years ago. I would feel better if something is going to go wrong, that it happen far from you or Natalie.” He watched his Mom go through her mixed emotions over his last statement and added, “Besides, I really, really would love to see the Lincoln Memorial!”

Teresa couldn’t help but be affected by her son’ enthusiasm and a real smile brightened her face. Thoughts of what might go wrong crept back swiftly and the smile faded almost as quickly as it had appeared.

“Fine,” she eventually said. “Just tell me you’re planning on visiting this year?”

Jeremy grinned at her question and he opened the sketchbook to get started on his drawing.

“Well, yeah. First, it would have to be after the Memorial was built, which was only in 1922, so it’s not like I’m going back to see Lincoln himself.” He paused and added playfully, “Although, now that you mention it…”

“Don’t get cute, buster,” Teresa said in a menacing tone and they both laughed. “Since when did you become an expert on our capital city?”

“Not so much Washington D.C., just Abraham Lincoln. It’s your fault, really.”

“Oh?” Teresa said, arching an eyebrow. “Do tell?”

Jeremy laughed at her expression.

“Remember when you went on your classic movie “mission” with me, making me watch all those old movies?”

“I didn’t realize you were suffering so,” she replied, with a sly smile. “You seemed to enjoy them.”

“I did!” Jeremy hurriedly said. “Okay, bad word, ‘making’. How about ‘sharing’?”

“Better.”

“Okay. Sheesh,” Jeremy said in mock exasperation. “Everyone’s so picky.”

“Picky enough to know when you’re taking too long to answer a simple question,” she retorted.

“Fine, fine. Can’t a boy have a nice leisurely talk with his beloved Mom?”

Teresa snorted back a laugh but didn’t take the bait. She simply folded her arms across her chest and resumed her arched-eyebrow gaze.

“Right,” Jeremy said, wasting no more time. “So anyway, after I watched ‘Mr. Smith Goes to Washington’, I promised myself I would go to D.C. one day and talk with Mr. Lincoln, too.”

Teresa smiled again. She had guessed the reason as soon as Jeremy had mentioned their “classic movie nights”. She was thrilled the movies had made such an impact on him.

Jeremy began sketching in earnest, using a picture he had found on a website. Once again, he allowed some of the pure amazement flow through as he thought of how wondrous it was to own this incredible sketchbook. Already he had transformed into an ant, had lunch with cavemen and even created a monster out of nothing. Two monsters, if you count Carl .

Within a surprisingly short time, he had completed the drawing. Even he was amazed how quickly he was able to realize his art and wondered if the sketchbook was helping him somehow. He lowered the book so his Mom could see.

Teresa let out an involuntary gasp and her face shone with admiration and love. Jeremy flushed with pride.

“Oh Jeremy!” his Mom said, wrapping an arm around his shoulders. “You always take my breath away with your talent.” Jeremy swallowed back his pleasure and squeezed his Mom’s arm as they both gazed at the sketch.

The drawing was set a distance away from the Memorial, but you could still clearly see the Lincoln statue seated in his stone chair. The lower right side of the drawing showed a curly-haired boy holding a sketchbook near a small tree. Despite the scale, there was no
mistaking Jeremy.

“Why so far away?” his Mom asked.

“I figured even as busy as D.C. is, a boy popping out of nowhere in the middle of the Memorial would probably get noticed by someone.”

“Probably,” Teresa chuckled. “Why did you draw the sketchbook with you?”

“I’ve wanted to see if the sketchbook would work from the “other side”, so to speak.”

“Didn’t you say you already tried that back in your adventures with the cavemen?”

“Yeah, but I thought there might have been things that prevented it from working.”

“Does it really matter?”

“To tell the truth, I don’t really know.” Jeremy pulled at his lower lip. “Maybe that’s as good a reason as any to try it.” He added carefully, “Maybe if I did get into trouble, I could draw myself out of it.” He hurried on as he saw his Mom frown, “Besides, what could it hurt to try it again?”

Teresa left the frown on her face but didn’t pursue the issue. “Is it done?” was all she asked.

“Yep! All that’s left is for me to sign it.”

Teresa heard the barely concealed excitement in Jeremy’s voice. Now, with the moment here, she felt her misgivings flood back.

“Jeremy…” she began.

“I’ll be fine, Mom,” Jeremy interrupted, recognizing her concern and flashing a confident smile at her. “I’ll keep my head down and not do anything other than buy a small souvenir and then get out of the way.”

Teresa stared at him for a few moments and whether she shrugged or shuddered, Jeremy couldn’t tell. Eventually, she made a curt nod.

“I’ll give you one hour,” she said in a tone that suggested negotiation was futile.

Jeremy picked up the pencil once more and put his now familiar stylish “JS” in the lower right portion of the page. As before, he was gone. There was no sound or flash of light. One moment he was holding the pencil to the page and the next his pencil was falling onto the sketchbook.

Teresa reached quickly for the sketchbook to ensure the book didn’t close, since she knew from experience the drawing would disappear once the book closed on it. Jeremy was getting better at the process now, having placed the book on the seat of the chair before signing.

Fighting back her natural urge to close the book anyway, she sat down on the couch and gazed at the drawing. Holding the book open upon her lap, she tried to relax and not count each second adding up to an hour.

 

 

Chapter 5

 

“Looking for lost treasure?”

Jeremy was getting used to the effect of the sketchbook. Granted he wasn’t appearing in a non-human body or in the middle of the Stone Age, but the disorientation was becoming tolerable.

So, it was with reckless speed he turned and stepped forward, followed immediately by a muffled cry as he collided with a large pole. He fell to the ground with a soft thud and managed to silence his moanquickly. He didn’t know if anyone had seen him “pop” in, but he
sure didn’t need to bring any attention to himself. He hunkered down behind a nearby hedge as he overheard some voices.

Peeking around the bushes, he noticed the “pole” he had bumped into was really the tree he had drawn in his sketch. It was much larger than in the picture he had used for reference. Guess the website had an old photo. The tree had clearly grown taller and, much to his skull’s regret, wider. Wait a minute. Since when does the time change between my drawing and my arrival? He grunted quietly. Yet another mystery about the sketchbook to solve. Jeremy wondered if the cause was the book itself or in Jeremy’s continued use.

He was distracted by an uncomfortable feeling and reached his hand up to his forehead. Jeremy grimaced as he felt wetness there. A sad smile twisted his lips as he realized he was once again going to come back injured from one of his trips. As if Mom needed another reason to stop me from using the sketchbook!

He ducked back behind the hedge again as the voices he heard earlier drew closer. Furtively, he reached for the sketchbook that had fallen when he struck the tree and he dragged it as quietly as he could under the bush with him.

Jeremy could hear the voices clearly now, it was two men conversing. One voice was a reedy, whiny sound; giving the impression its owner spent much time complaining. The other voice was deeper and quieter. Even in Jeremy’s young experience, the voice carried the quality of someone familiar with being in charge.

“So, where is he supposed to be?” the reedy voice asked.

“Close to here,” replied the deep voice.

“Do you buy this story? The kid’s just going to show up?” Reedy voice asked. Without waiting for a reply, he continued, “All this for some stupid sketchbook?”

“Shut up, Leo,” Deep Voice commanded.

“I’m just saying,” the reedy voice of Leo said. “I don’t like doing this all out in the open. And there are cops everywhere.”

“Shut up!” Deep Voice put a threatening emphasis on the second word and few moments passed before Leo spoke again.

“I’m sorry, Manny,” he said softly. “It’s just this whole thing seems a little weird to me.”

Manny grunted. He had to agree, this was a weird assignment. Not that he’d tell Leo that. He had been involved with his share of snatch and grabs for DaHurst before, so the request wasn’t that odd. Even his strange insistence of the sketchbook wasn’t out of the ordinary;
they’d taken possession of plenty of rare items for him.

It was the seriousness in his tone when he told Manny not to let the boy draw anything in the book. That was definitely weird…that and the look in his eyes when Leo asked. Manny grunted again. Leo always had to ask. He was handy on the jobs, but he never knew when to shut up.

“What’s so important about the book, Mr. DaHurst?” he had whined in his reedy voice. Even Manny’s nerves could only take that sound for so long.

DaHurst never showed any reaction to Leo. Or to me ,
Manny thought dryly. In fact, he almost never answered any questions, especially from Leo.

That time, though, he looked intently at Leo, who moved back a step, and then DaHurst swept his gaze toward Manny. A scary smile crossed his lips and his eyes flashed. It took all of Manny’s will not to follow Leo away from that look.

“It’s everything I dream of!” he said directly to Manny, as if it were he, not Leo, who had asked the question. Then DaHurst let out a cackle. Swear on my soul! Like in an old horror movie!

Thinking back to that look in DaHurst’s eyes, Manny thought it was the only time he had been afraid in the old man’s presence. Manny unconsciously shook his head. That was the look of a man insane.

Of course, they had taken the job. DaHurst always paid well and you don’t want to risk being cut out of future work by turning down what appeared to be a simple enough job. Even with the security in D.C., the focus would be mostly on the buildings and politicians, not the visitors.

“DaHurst was pretty weird, wasn’t he?” Leo’s whine interrupted Manny’s thoughts.

“Don’t say that name!” Manny growled.

“Sorry, Manny,” Leo said quickly, a note of real fear creeping into his voice. “There’s no one around, anyway,” he added hopefully.

“That’s where you’re lucky, then,” Manny said ominously.

Jeremy didn’t catch the “or else” part of Manny’s reply as the voices passed outside his hearing. He had heard enough to freeze him behind the hedge. He struggled to make sense of the conversation he had just been said.

How can they be talking about me? How could they know I was coming here…I just thought about it myself yesterday and only told Mom about it, like thirty minutes ago!

Another thought hit him right after that.

They know about the sketchbook!

Then another. But how ?

His thoughts began flashing faster, carrying his pulse and heart along with them. Sweat formed on his forehead and dripped into his cut, stinging him. He bit back a cry as he struggled to bring himself under control.

Breathe, Jeremy. Breathe .

As his heart slowed, he tried to organize his thoughts. Beyond Nat and Mom, he knew of only three other people who had knowledge of the sketchbook, his Dad, the shopkeeper and Carl. One was missing, one gave him the book in the first place and one he had sent back to wherever he was originally trapped.

Some “secret” sketchbook. Now there’s some other guy who’s sicced two goons to kidnap me!

Jeremy knew he needed time to get away and think about what he had just learned. He could feel shadows gathering, a near-certain sense of danger. The book strikes again.

He now was grateful his Mom was only allowing him an hour before closing the sketchbook and bringing him home. Surely, he could avoid the two men for that long.

He threw out his plan to visit the Lincoln Memorial; they were obviously expecting him to show up there. He paused, holding his breath and listening intently. Nothing. Slowly, ever so slowly, he rose up to peer over the bushes.

Not a hundred feet away, two men stood facing the Memorial building. One was of burly build, squat but wide, with thick black hair edging towards gray. He had a loose-fitting collared short-sleeve shirt and gray slacks and a pair of tan loafers. The other man was taller, also wide, but more towards fat, with scraggly reddish hair. He wore a colorful shirt that Jeremy likened to Hawaiian and had faded green shorts that came to his knees, exposing pale, plump legs and bare feet inside brown sandals.

Jeremy ducked down and began to crawl behind the line of bushes in the opposite direction of the two men.

“Looking for lost treasure?” a jovial voice said, followed by laughter.

A friendly looking man, in a group of what Jeremy assumed were tourists, greeted him. The man had a wide brimmed canvas hat, as Jeremy had seen on some golfers. His hair that showed below the brim was white, as was the beard that adorned his round cheeks and below
his large nose. For a brief instant, Jeremy imagined Santa Claus as a tourist. The man’s eyes were clear and brown and he extended a thick, hairy arm to help Jeremy stand.

Jeremy hesitated, darting a glance back to the two men. His heart sank as he saw them turn, first curiously and then intently eyeing him.

“Oh!” said a woman from the group, a plump, brown-haired lady Jeremy guessed was in her 50’s. “You’ve cut yourself!”

The other tourists all gathered around Jeremy, smothering him in concern. If he weren’t so worried about the two men now swiftly approaching, he would have found it funny to gain so many new “grandparents”.

Two thoughts kept him serious. First, Jeremy knew that the two men were bad people who did bad things. Second, he knew that the danger the sketchbook always seemed to get him into was not exclusive on who else got hurt. Images of the dead warrior ant, his Mom’s head as it cracked against the wall and Natalie’s screams as Carl tried to pull her to some awful fate were vivid in his mind.

I have to get away from these people before they get hurt, too !

In a flash of inspiration, he put a hand to his head and said, “Ow!” You’re right! I need to get back to my Mom and she’ll fix me up.”

“We’ll go with you,” the man with the hat said. The others eagerly seconded his suggestion.

“Oh no, that’s okay,” Jeremy said swiftly, seeing the two men sidle closer. “She’s waiting for me. Thanks!”

With that, he broke into a run, leaving the group with a mixture of concerned and puzzled looks on their faces. Jeremy angled to a large street bordering the gardens, where he slowed to a brisk walk. He glanced at a sign that read “Constitution Avenue” and knew from his research that this could lead him to the Smithsonian Museums. Not that he planned on going inside the Museum, but the street was busy with tourists and locals alike and he hoped it would be too public for the two men. A quick glance back dashed that hope.

The two men had picked up the pace of their walking, but did not run. In the open space, two men running after a young boy would have been as obvious as walking around with a rifle. Fortunately, the kid was heading towards the buildings. Manny smiled grimly. Thinks
he can lose himself by mixing in with the people.
He shook his head. That doesn’t even work in the movies.

Leo, thankfully, was silent. Manny glanced over and saw Leo’s “professional” face. No one who saw that face would match it with the whiny voice from earlier. Manny snorted. Annoying, but capable.

The two men followed Jeremy as he ran across Washington, D.C.

 

 

Chapter 6

 

“You’re nothing but a cheap copy”

Jeremy coughed and swallowed. He could talk a long time, sure, but he couldn’t ever recall telling a tale this long.

“Boy I’m parched!” he said to Will.

“Why don’t you take a drink of water?” Will replied.

“Is that stuff dripping from the stones safe to drink?” Jeremy asked, looking dubiously at the wall. “I don’t suppose you have a cup or saucer or something handy? Or am I supposed to lick the water off the wall?”

“You could do that, of course, but you might tear up your tongue,” Will offered affably.

“Thanks for that image,” Jeremy said with poor humor. “Any other bright ideas?”

“Well, I was going to suggest you simply drink from the water bottle over there.”

Jeremy head turned in the direction of Will’s outstretched arm. Upon the small table with the candle, there now stood a plastic bottle. Jeremy’s eyes bulged and he looked at Will.

“How did that get there?” he demanded.

Will actually laughed aloud.

“How do you think it got there?” he asked.

“Do you have to answer every question with another question? Why do I feel like I’m talking to a psychiatrist when I talk to you?” Jeremy groused, bringing forth another laugh.

“Considering where we are, you might be more correct than you know,” said Will, still smiling. His tone grew more serious when he asked, “Do you remember what I told you about the primal thoughts driving the collective unconscious?”

Jeremy rolled his eyes and slapped his forehead. “Duh. Survival. Food.” He looked at Will. “So, you’re saying I made that water appear?” Will nodded.

“But,” Jeremy said, still struggling with the concept. “I didn’t draw anything.”

Will nodded again. “Why don’t you get yourself a drink and we can talk a little more about where you are right now.”

Jeremy was happy to be getting some answers, but he was happier to get a drink. He got up from his seat and picked up the bottle of water. It was cool to the touch, and the clear plastic bottle was just beginning to cloud over with condensation. He even recognized the brand as the kind his Mom kept in the house.

Taking a long gulp to start and then a couple of smaller ones, he returned to his big chair and placed the bottle on the table next to him. Dabbing a little moisture from his lips, he sat back down and asked the question that had been burning ever since he found out Will was not his Dad.

“Can you tell me about the sketchbook and how to find my Dad, or not?”

“Yes.” Will replied and they both chuckled.

“Well, it’s a straight answer, at least.” Jeremy said sarcastically. “As usual, it’s not very helpful.”

“Perhaps you should consider the way you word your questions,” Will replied, still chuckling. “You’ll understand more once we get traveling.”

“What are we waiting for?” Jeremy shouted. He jumped up and headed back to the door. He started to tug on it and managed to pull it open a few inches when Will yanked him back.

“Don’t do that!” he commanded and Jeremy took a step back, suddenly afraid. Will looked abashed and held both hands up in front of his chest.

“I’m sorry, but you mustn’t leave the room just yet,” he said in calmer tone.

“Why?” Jeremy asked, his fear abating.

Will sighed. “Two reasons. First, while we’re in this room, we’re essentially timeless. We could stay here for days without any time passing in the real world.”

“So that’s why you have me telling my life story,” Jeremy mused. “Must be why there’s a bed here, too…for extended stays. Couldn’t I have drawn something better furnished?”

Will shook his head. “The less that’s here, the harder it is to locate.”

“Locate?” Jeremy’s nervousness returned. “Is someone trying to locate this place? How could they?”

“That’s the other reason for staying inside. There are dangers outside the door.”

“Dangers? Like what?”

“Like me,” a deep voice said.

Jeremy snapped his head around in the direction of that eerily familiar voice.

“No way!” he said in dismay.

“Miss me, punk?” Carl said, grinning his irritating, arrogant grin. He was a giant of a man, with broad shoulders and thick forearms. He had movie star looks: square jaw, tanned skin, blue eyes and a mass of wavy blond hair. He was also rotten to the core.

“No way!” Jeremy repeated. “I thought you were gone forever. Back to wherever you…oh.”

“Still smart as ever,” Carl sneered. “Only this time, I’ve got my own exit out and all I need is that book you’re holding.”

“Still dumb as ever, then,” Jeremy retorted. “This isn’t even the real sketchbook, genius.”

Carl laughed; a rich and handsome sound that Jeremy had nonetheless learned to detest.

“You don’t get it, huh?” Carl chuckled. He looked at Will. “You’re just as useless as the real William. Didn’t you tell him anything?”

Will looked at Carl in confusion. He could sense Jeremy’s anger and fear for the man that had been his Dad’s best friend, but Carl’s attitude puzzled Will. As far as he knew, there was no reason for Carl to talk this way. He looked inquisitively at Jeremy.

“Oh, you don’t know, do you?” Jeremy said acidly. “Since you seemed to know everything else that happened to me, I…whatever.” His face took on a look of disgust. “Seems your old pal here not only was a phony, but he wanted to take Mom from you.”

Will’s head snapped around to look at Carl. The leer on Carl’s face told the truth of Jeremy’s words. Will looked at Jeremy again.

“How?” he asked.

“When I tried to bring you…Dad…back, I got Carl by mistake. He turned out to be a real…jerk.” Jeremy had to fight the urge to use more colorful language. “When Mom told him to get lost, he threw her against the wall and made a grab for the sketchbook.” Jeremy’s
face knotted with memory. “He hurt Natalie!” he exclaimed, as if those last words were the greatest crime.

Carl laughed again. “Say, that’s right. How is the porkins? Put on any more weight?”

Jeremy turned purple.

“You really are a scumbag, aren’t you?”

Carl laughed again and began to move forward. Will, whose face had darkened when Jeremy had mentioned Teresa being hurt, stepped between them.

“Jeremy,” he said quietly. “Take the sketchbook, go out the door and wait for me.”

Jeremy hesitated, looking at Carl, bulky and fit, no matter where he had been for the last 13 years.

“But you said not to go…” he began.

“We’re past that now,” Will cut him off. “Go. Just don’t wander. I’ll be out in a moment.” He saw Jeremy continue to hesitate. “I’ll handle this.”

Carl’s face broke into a huge grin.

“You?” he guffawed. “The real William was a weakling. You’re nothing but a cheap copy.” He ambled forward.

“Go. Now!” Will ordered and stepped into Carl’s path without looking to see if Jeremy had obeyed him.

Jeremy did exit the room, pausing only a second or two before entering the dark hallway. He couldn’t tell how long it was because the only illumination came from the meager light spilling from the open door. As sounds of scuffling echoed from the room, Jeremy used all his will
to resist rushing back in. He had come to trust Will’s capability, but Carl was so much bigger…

Within the room, Carl moved to push past Will, disdainfully swiping away the hand that had grabbed his arm. He grunted in surprise, more than pain, when the hand locked on his arm and pulled him back.

“Get off me, ghost,” Carl growled. “I don’t have time for this.”

Will grinned a thin lip smile, bearing his teeth. “Oh, I think you’ll find plenty of time on your hands soon enough.”

Carl yanked his muscled arm and his surprise turned to confusion when he couldn’t shake Will’s grip.

“What?” he bellowed. “William isn’t this strong.” His eyes bulged and his neck corded with strain. “You’re not William!”

The chill grin remained on Will’s face, causing a prickle of something in Carl, something that seemed to drain the confidence from his voice and his muscles.

“I am Jeremy’s Dad, well enough. Created in his image…a boy’s image of his Dad. And in a boy’s mind, what Dad isn’t
invincible?” He locked eyes with Carl. “Perhaps you’re the one who doesn’t understand what’s going on.”

Incredibly, Carl felt himself being pulled backwards further into the room. A shiver of fear shot through him.

“Not again!” he shrieked. “Never again!”

He rushed forward, using Will’s strength to add to his momentum. Ramming his shoulder into Will’s chest, he threw him against the stone wall. With the wind knocked out of him, Will’s grip loosened and Carl ripped his arm free. Without pause, he swung his other fist dead at Will’s face.

Will braced himself against the wall and brought his left arm up to absorb the impact of the blow. Such was the force of the swing that Will’s left arm went briefly numb. Quickly, before Carl could press the advantage, Will seized Carl’s arm with his right hand and used Carl’s own weight to flip their positions, slamming Carl against the wall.

Carl sagged a moment and Will used the time to massage his left arm back to feeling. He watched Carl roar as he prepared to bull rush Will. Carl kept low, aiming for Will’s legs. Suddenly, he straightened up, planning another crushing blow to Will’s chest.

Will was watching the apparently out-of-control charge by Carl carefully. He had stood lightly balanced on the balls of his feet, knees slightly bent. When Carl changed his lunge, Will ducked under and circled his arms around Carl’s massive waist, burying his own shoulder in Carl’s stomach and using Carl’s momentum to lift and flip him up and over his shoulder.

Carl fell with a crash, stunned. He shook his head groggily and had barely a second to register the huge chair before all went black.

Will dropped the heavy chair, panting. He looked down at the crumpled form of Carl, seeing his chest still rising and falling.

Will straightened up with a gasp and a chuckle. You would think, not being real, I wouldn’t have to feel real pain .

He moved to the small table to pick up the candle and then stepped into the hallway, only to have his breath knocked out again by a crushing hug from Jeremy.

“I’m so glad you’re safe,” Jeremy said.

“Easy there, kid,” Will said warmly. Real or not, he was coming to love the boy. “Here, hold this.”

Jeremy took the candle, blushing a little. Will pretended not to notice.

“How do we light it?” Jeremy asked.

“That’s up to you,” Will said, with a slight cough. He waved off Jeremy’s concerned look. “I’m fine.”

“How did you beat him?” Jeremy asked, wide-eyed.

“That was you, too,” Will said, smiling as he ruffled Jeremy’s hair. “Apparently, you have a high opinion of your Dad.”

Jeremy looked confused for a moment, but then began to get a sense of what Will was implying. He looked at the candle and noticed it was lit. Jeremy was surprised only in his lack of surprise.

Will nodded approvingly. “Now that we have some light…” He moved to the heavy door and pulled it shut with a resounding noise that echoed in the hallway.

“Won’t he just open it again when he wakes up?” Jeremy asked.

“It won’t be easy without the key,” Will chuckled, looking at Jeremy.

“I’m guessing that would be me, too?” Jeremy said with a smile. “So, now what? Is there some special door we need to find? How long is this hallway?”

“There are no doors,” Will said simply. “The hallway is as long as you need it to be. Until you decide where to go.”

“But…” Jeremy started. He stopped, shaking his head. “Never mind. Just more craziness. So, I guess we should start walking?”

Will nodded, the flickering candle playing shadows about his face.

“Are you going to tell me more about the sketchbook?” Jeremy asked as they set off. “And maybe you could explain why Carl keeps popping up?”

“I’ll tell you what I know,” Will said. “But it’s your Dad who will have the answers you want.”

Jeremy grunted. “Sounds like you’re stalling and believe me, I know stalling.” Will laughed. Jeremy squinted at him in the dim light. “You’re sure you can find him?”

Will nodded. “I’m sure you can find him. Try to think about your Dad while we travel. Maybe it would help if you continue telling me your story while we walk?”

Jeremy shrugged.Sure, why not. What else was there to do ?

Jeremy Shuttle Adventures, Book Three What Now?

Copyright © 2014 Jeffrey M. Daniels

ISBN 978-1-62646-859-7

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, recording or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the author.

Printed in the United States of America on acid-free paper.

The characters and events in this book are fictitious. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is coincidental and not intended by the author.

BookLocker.com, Inc.
2014

First Edition

Read more about the books in the Jeremy Shuttle series and ask questions of the author, at the official website: jeffreymdaniels.com

The mystery revealed!

Jeremy looked at him, perplexed. He could never recall seeing someone who looked or sounded anything like this man. He radiated danger, that much Jeremy could tell, but other than that, he bore no resemblance to anything Jeremy had seen…real or unreal.

The man looked unsympathetic. Jeremy wondered if the face was capable of anything but raw animalistic emotion, but the man’s voice was surprisingly calm, as he said, “Still don’t remember me?”
“What if I do this?” And he laughed again, only this time the laugh was not as sinister. It was still guttural, almost like a series of grunts. Jeremy strained his memory. He did think he recognized the laugh. But where…

“Oh my gosh!” Jeremy exclaimed.

Previously

What If?, the first book in the Jeremy Shuttle Adventures, introduced Jeremy Shuttle, a reasonably normal 12-year old boy. Sure, he talked to bugs (particularly ants), but up until then, none had actually held up their end of the conversation.

Jeremy lived with his Mom, Teresa Shuttle. He had never met his Dad, William; he had never even seen a picture of him. His Mom had promised to tell him the whole story for his 13th birthday.
Jeremy was especially talented at two things. The first was drawing, which he never shared with anyone but his Mom. Using a pencil, he had an amazing ability to draw things with startling realism.
Jeremy’s other talent was asking questions, something his classmates (and a few of his teachers) wished he didn’t share. Chief among those Jeremy annoyed was Eddie Vane, whom Jeremy thought of as his “arch-enemy”. Eddie lived up to the name, either in having Jeremy humiliated or beaten up.

After one of these times, Jeremy met his best friend, Natalie. They shared a common bond, since Eddie picked on her because of her weight. Jeremy thought she was pretty and was flattered to have her as a friend. Natalie was interested in something more, but Jeremy had not yet gotten the hint.

On the way home from school, Jeremy noticed a strange art store. Inside, he met a mysterious shopkeeper who asked him a number of equally mysterious questions, including about something called “collective unconscious”. The shopkeeper then asked Jeremy to draw him something and in return, gave Jeremy a new sketchbook.

The next day, Eddie crossed the line in class, bringing Natalie to tears. Jeremy stepped up to defend her and Eddie made sure Jeremy paid for it after class. Bruised and shamed, Jeremy sought release through drawing. His vision of a monster doing to Eddie what Jeremy could not made him feel better…until he and Natalie witnessed the exact monster Jeremy had sketched come to life in the school cafeteria. Many students were hurt, including Eddie.

After Jeremy’s guilt faded, he became excited realizing what he could do with the sketchbook. Natalie, wiser and more cautious, warned Jeremy not to use the book because it could be dangerous. Jeremy stubbornly ignored her.

He decided to transform himself into an ant. He met up with another ant, had some nervous moments with the Queen ant and got hurt in a ferocious battle with enemy ants.

The injury stayed with him when he finally returned to human form. He didn’t tell his Mom how he got hurt because he didn’t want her to take away the sketchbook.

He came up with a plan to use the sketchbook to bring back his missing Dad, but wanted to test the book one more time. Natalie was horrified at his idea and once again asked him not to use the book. She ultimately came to support him, but he still didn’t understand that she was doing so because she cared for him as more than a friend.

He used the sketchbook to travel more than 30,000 years in the past. A saber tooth tiger attacked Jeremy and he escaped only when a group of cavemen killed the beast…and then invited him to lunch.
They gestured for him to paint something on their cave wall. Jeremy complied as best he could before he reappeared in the present. After recounting his tale to Natalie, she suggested that perhaps his was the first cave painting in history.

Natalie pointed out that the book once again placed Jeremy in danger and urged him to give up his idea, but Jeremy again ignored her. Finding a picture in his Mom’s room of her and two men, he made a guess at which of the two was his Dad.

A man did appear in their home, but it turned out to be Carl, his Dad’s best friend and business partner, who also went missing 13 years ago. Carl had changed. He begged Teresa to forget William and leave with him. He didn’t even notice Jeremy until he saw the sketchbook. His lust for the sketchbook exceeded even that for Teresa and he seized the book just as Natalie showed up.

Teresa managed to free the book from Carl. Natalie and Jeremy barely avoided capture as Jeremy raced to draw a sketch to get Carl away from them. Jeremy then tried again to draw his Dad back, but no one appeared.
With all three hurt, both physically and emotionally, an air of defeat and longing hung over them. Teresa opened the sketchbook one final time, gasping at a message mysteriously written there.

A message that could mean Jeremy’s Dad was still alive.

What Next?, the second book in the Jeremy Shuttle Adventures, opened with Jeremy in a strange, medieval-looking room. Shortly after arriving there (Jeremy drew himself there in a sketch), he opens the door and sees his Dad standing in the doorway.

After a few moments of sheer joy, Jeremy discovers that the man is not his Dad…he is not even real. Jeremy has somehow transported himself inside the collective unconscious and his “fake” Dad, whom he calls Will, warns him that his thoughts can affect everything around him. Will asks Jeremy to tell him all the events that led him to appearing in the room. Impatiently, Jeremy agrees and begins the tale.

Jeremy doesn’t get far into the story before they receive a visit from Carl, the former best friend of his Dad. A fight between Will and Carl takes place, with Carl left locked in the room as Will and Jeremy start their quest to find Jeremy’s real Dad.

Jeremy continues to relate the tale of what has happened since he saw his Dad’s message in the sketchbook. He tells Will how he convinced his Mom that they should go to France to search for more clues on his Dad’s disappearance. Natalie silently vowed to go with them.

Before leaving for France, Jeremy told his Mom he should prove things could be brought back with him when he traveled through the sketchbook. His Mom resisted, but Jeremy eventually won her over. Choosing Washington, D.C. as his destination, Jeremy was stunned to overhear two men talking about the sketchbook…and him! After some pursuit, Jeremy decided to allow himself to be captured in hopes of finding out who was behind the plot to kidnap him. His plan did not work out as well as he hoped and he gave his Mom and Natalie a shock when his Mom eventually brought him back home.

Will interrupted Jeremy at this point to lecture him about being too reckless. He explained more about the collective unconscious, revealing that it was Jeremy, not the sketchbook, who tapped into the power of all mankind’s collected history of thought energy. As if to prove the point, the two suddenly found themselves in a setting reminiscent of a famous adventure film that Jeremy’s Mom had likened his Dad to the lead character. Jeremy and Will came across another copy of the sketchbook and another visit from Carl, this time wielding a gun. Jeremy and a wounded Will made their escape, allowing Jeremy time to fill in more blanks about how he arrived to meet Will.

His Mom did bring Natalie along for their trip to France and they first paid a visit to the policeman with whom Teresa Shuttle had spoken to about her husband’s disappearance. Now a Capitaine in the Police Nationale, the man was mostly unhelpful, except for warning the three of them against the designs of Jarvis DaHurst. Frustrated but undaunted, the threesome made the trip to Ardèche to try to enter the caves.
During his tale, Jeremy’s imagination again takes control of their journey, forcing them to parachute out of the airplane amidst a flock of pterodactyls. Washing ashore on a small island, they witness dinosaurs and even stranger sights. Jeremy feels a strong pull towards his Dad and leads them on to where he hopes he will finally find him. He relates the rest of his tale to Will during this time.

Resting before setting out for the cave, Teresa, Natalie and Jeremy are eating breakfast at a cafe when they are joined by a short, balding man. He takes a keen interest in Jeremy that only Natalie sees as unnatural. Uncomfortable with her questions, he leaves the trio behind. They are convinced it is DaHurst, but Jeremy sees a more important sight: the art store he got the sketchbook from is somehow in the shops across the street from the cafe.

The threesome just beats DaHurst and his two thugs into the shop, where the shopkeeper hustles them to the back room before DaHurst enters. A harsh discussion between the shopkeeper and DaHurst leads to a stalemate. The shopkeeper meets with Teresa, Natalie and Jeremy separately and urges then to get to the caves quickly.

Shortly after they arrive, DaHurst shows up with his men. Creating a distraction, Jeremy runs for the back of the cave with Natalie and finishes a sketch the shopkeeper had told him to draw…the one that takes him to the room where he meets Will. Unknown to Jeremy, DaHurst eventually captures the sketchbook and burns the drawing. Unlike every other time, Jeremy does not return when the sketch is gone, leaving his Mom and Natalie to believe the worst.

At the same time, Jeremy and Will are now losing a race to stay ahead of a hungry Tyrannosaurus Rex. Before it can reach them, it goes up in flames, followed by everything else, including Will. As the land rocks and heaves, Jeremy is thrown into a dark gorge and loses consciousness.

DaHurst orders his men to blow up the mouth of the cavern, with Natalie and Teresa inside. A desperate fight with the remaining thug ends with Natalie shattering her ankle, Teresa shot in the side and the two of them buried alive.

Jeremy awakens in terror and darkness that quickly turns to dread as he sees he is back in the same room he started the whole adventure. He wonders aloud if he has gone mad and a voice assures him he has not.

The voice belongs to his real Dad, who tells him they first need to save Teresa and Natalie and then stop something even worse from happening.

Jeremy Shuttle Adventures, Book Three

What Now?

Jeffrey M. Daniels

Chapter 1

“You need to hear this”

 

The cough roused Natalie from her near-unconscious state.

It was a weak cough, causing her fears to return instantly. She had lost sense of the time and place. Prying open her eyes, once again caked with dust, she blinked at the burn when some of it fell into her eyes.

Oh yes, she remembered. We’re trapped in this cave. She spared a few moments to consider the helplessness of their situation before her concern for Jeremy’s Mom outweighed all other thoughts.

“Mrs. Shuttle?” she asked softly. “Teresa?”

Natalie became frantic at the lack of a reply. Jeremy had asked her to look after his Mom and she had failed miserably. Now Teresa Shuttle lay hurt from the cave-in and bleeding from a gunshot, Natalie had a shattered ankle and there was no cell phone reception through the rubble…no means to call for help. Natalie saw no hope for the two of them.

The soft cough came again and then a hoarse whisper which Natalie could not catch. She pushed herself back to a half-sitting position, grimacing as the awkward movement sent daggers of pain from the ruins of her ankle.
Reaching over to Teresa, she lightly brushed away the new layer of dirt from her face. The air was still clouded by the settling remains of the explosion that buried them here.

Having cleaned as well as she could, she dripped some water onto Teresa’s lips. She smiled grimly as she thought the water was the only thing they had in good supply…it would surely outlast the air in the cave.

Teresa’s eyelids fluttered and opened as she licked the water from her lips. Seeing this, Natalie brought the bottle to Teresa’s mouth and carefully inclined the container until Teresa had managed a few shallow sips. She acknowledged Natalie with a grateful curl of her mouth.

Amazing that she can still smile. Natalie thought about what Teresa had said – when was it…hours ago? – that her long-lost husband William would save them and wondered again at the woman’s mental state. She had taken a blow to the head as well as lost so much blood from the gunshot in her side. Natalie would have been surprised if anyone could think clearly in those circumstances. Especially with what happened to her son.

The thought made Natalie want to cry out in despair. Oh Jeremy! He had used his sketchbook to transport himself somewhere that he thought would help him find his Dad, but when DaHurst had burned the sketchbook page, it should have ended the power of the drawing. Yet, Jeremy had not returned.

Despite the caked dirt, Natalie felt tears welling up in her eyes as she thought of the last moment she and Jeremy had shared. He had promised her he would come back and asked her to look after his Mom. Natalie had been certain she was never going to see him again. She wished she had followed her intuition and dropped the book and grabbed Jeremy and not let go. She should have known. Every time he used the sketchbook, something terrible happened.

“Natalie.” The barely audible call from Teresa immediately brought her back from her thoughts. She felt the woman’s hand move gently over her own. As she looked at Teresa, her heart nearly broke. All the more painful when she saw the smile in Teresa’s eyes.

“Shh,” Natalie said. “We should conserve our air.” She didn’t know why she said it. It’s not as if anyone knows we’re here.

Teresa actually smiled at that, as if guessing the young girl’s thoughts.

“I know dear,” Teresa whispered. “But you need to hear this.” She motioned for Natalie to lean closer, sparing her the effort of talking louder. In truth, Teresa felt dizzy and faint. Despite the water, her throat felt dry and her lungs struggled to find breathable air. She had no illusions about how dire her condition was, but she strove to put all of her confidence and belief in her voice.

“It’s natural that you don’t believe me,” she said, her voice strong despite the near whisper. “I understand you think it’s my loss of blood and perhaps shock.” She smiled again, to show she was capable of rational thought.
“I don’t know that I would think differently if our places were reversed.”

Natalie’s face twisted with indecision. She loved this woman dearly, as much as she did her Mom. A stray thought struck her that if things had gone as she hoped with Jeremy…but she couldn’t pursue it from the pain of her own loss.

But what Teresa asked of her! To believe that they would be rescued by her missing husband…missing for the entirety of Jeremy’s life… She understood Teresa’s need to believe in that insane hope. Natalie desperately wanted to believe it too. For if it was true, it meant Jeremy had been successful in finding his Dad…and that Jeremy, too, could be alive.

Natalie closed her eyes to hold back tears. It was impossible. Incredible. And despite all the impossible and incredible events that had occurred since Jeremy was given the sketchbook, she could not convince herself that what Teresa claimed could be true.

She felt the hand on her own squeeze and when she opened her eyes, she saw Teresa looking at her with love. At that, Natalie did cry and pressed her face to Teresa’s chest.

Teresa stroked the young girl’s hair gently, thinking once more how wonderful and fortunate this was the girl Jeremy had fallen in love with.

“That’s all right,” she murmured. “I’ll believe for the both of us.”

In the stillness of the cave, the whisper echoed like a shout. It was a promise of hope…or a gasp of madness.

Chapter 2

“Let’s get started”

“I can’t tell the difference,” Jeremy said.

William looked at his son curiously. Still flushed with the thrill of seeing him for the first time, William knew he had a long way to go before he could read Jeremy’s meanings when he spoke.

“Between what?” he asked.

“You and Will,” Jeremy said as he looked closely at his Dad. He finally just shook his head. “Never mind, it’s not important. What do you want me to draw, Dad?”

Jeremy looked expectantly at his newly found Dad. He was filled with pleasure at his success in finding and meeting his Dad for the first time in his life.

William Shuttle saw the joy in his son’s eyes and shared it. When his wife had told him that she was with child, now more than 13 years ago, William was beyond happy. He never thought that anything could top the feeling he had when Teresa had accepted his marriage proposal, but the years together had proved him the fool. Each succeeding year their love had grown deeper, their bond more close, their souls more linked. Yet, the ultimate expression of their love, a child, redefined his understanding of love.

Inwardly, William became grim. He should never have allowed Teresa and Carl to convince him to stay in France. No matter the precious value of the artifact he sought, this was his child! But he had allowed them and for his weakness, he had suffered 13 years away from his beloved Teresa and missed all of his son’s youth.

The grimness was dispelled by a simple thought, which brought a smile to his face.

Not all of it. And not anymore.

He walked over to Jeremy and hugged him. Jeremy was surprised and uncertain of the reason, but couldn’t care less. He was just glad to have finally found his Dad through all the danger and the trials. Jeremy thought about the story his Mom had finally told him about his Dad and his adventures. He remembered his time exploring with Will, the collective unconscious version of his Dad. His Dad was the coolest Dad he could imagine, a real live adventurer. Jeremy thought that his Dad must have dozens of amazing stories he could tell Jeremy. He was excited picturing all of them sitting together in the house and listening to the tales.

The thought brought him back to himself and William could feel the tension return to the boy’s body. He looked at his son and released him with a nod.

“Let’s get started,” William said. He motioned for them to sit at the large wooden table in the front of the room. It was a massive construction made of thick beams of wood for its legs and a giant slab of polished wood for the top.

Jeremy pulled out a chair big enough for a man twice his size. He stared once more at the sketchbook on the table. His Dad had given him little explanation of its origin, or of the room they were in. For a wonder, Jeremy found his insatiable curiosity outweighed by his concern for his Mom and Natalie. He was sure they were both in danger. His Dad had confirmed as much when Jeremy first woke in the dimly lit room and how Jeremy was the only one who could help them.

Reaching for the sketchbook, he paused to see if this one bore any differences from the one he had been given by the shopkeeper. It had the same odd cover, with a drawing of an animal. The cover was oddly toned, almost holographic, in that the color of the cover changed as the book was moved. Shifting through a series of reds, browns and bronzes, it gave an eerie feeling of movement to the animal.

The cover was attached by six silver rings on the left side, binding the few remaining sheets inside. Those pages were of a smooth white finish wonderfully receptive to pencil art. Jeremy wondered why the book seemed to have less drawing pages than he recalled, but again put aside his questions and looked eagerly at his Dad.

William considered what to tell Jeremy about the situation inside the cave. Knowing Jeremy’s curiosity, he would have many questions on how William knew what he knew. William also worried about how effective Jeremy would be if he were aware just how seriously the two were injured.

Still, he could not deny the pain Jeremy had endured in his quest to find him. Jeremy had sacrificed and had others sacrifice until it had nearly broken the boy, but Jeremy prevailed. All in search of a Dad he’s never met. William mulled over that idea. Jeremy risked what he did in the hope that he could reunite William and Teresa so that the three of them could be a family.

That bravery demands my honesty.

“Jeremy,” William began slowly. “There is a lot you deserve to be told.” He looked meaningfully at his son, who returned the look with one of such complete trust William had to swallow before continuing.

“I will tell you everything I know. I promise this to you.” He held his son’s eyes. “But right now, circumstances demand I tell you only what you need to know.”

Jeremy understood the unspoken plea his Dad implied. He compressed his lips and his jaw tightened.

“I understand, Dad,” he said. “We need to save Mom and Natalie first.”

William’s face relaxed into a relieved smile.

“Good,” he replied. “Because this will be difficult for you.” He paused. “Your Mom and Natalie are in serious condition and are trapped inside the Ardèche cave.” He waited, gauging his son’s reaction.

Jeremy did not think to question his Dad’s statement. Nor did he ask how his Dad came to know what had happened. Somewhere inside, Jeremy had felt something awful had happened to Mom and Natalie. His eyes narrowed and his lips twitched, but that was his only outward display of his fear.

William nodded at Jeremy.

“You’re going to use the sketchbook to transport me to the cave where I can help the two of them.”

Jeremy’s surprise and hurt forced the question through his lips.

“Just you?”

William placed a hand on Jeremy’s arm.

“Yes, and I’ll explain why.” Jeremy looked at him wide-eyed but trusting. William pulled out a chair and sat facing Jeremy.

“We’re in the real world now. There is a reason this room looks much like the room you drew when you first entered the collective unconscious. It is unique. In a sense, it is a nexus, an echo, like the sketchbooks.”

“Like the art store?” Jeremy offered helpfully.

“Yes!” William said, flashing an appreciative smile at his son. “What makes these places unique is that they are only accessible if they are occupied.”

“But don’t we both want to leave?” Jeremy interrupted.

“And who will protect the sketchbook?” William asked.

“Can’t we just come back and get it?”

William smiled. “That’s an excellent question. Would you like to hear that tale or help save your Mom and Natalie?”

Jeremy frowned at his Dad, but knew he was right. He was wasting precious time.

“Okay, then. What should I draw?”

William ruffled Jeremy’s hair and began to describe the place he wanted to go. He gave Jeremy explicit detail to ensure the location would be correct but avoided any mention of the condition of Teresa and Natalie.

Jeremy held back asking his Dad how he had all these details; he was confident his Dad would tell him eventually. Opening the sketchbook, he began drawing some basic layout lines on the first sheet. He decided to ask a different question.

“Dad, why didn’t Will tell me any of this when we were together? Why make it so hard to find you?”

William sighed, looking at his son.

“Can you focus on the drawing if I’m talking?”

Jeremy nodded and to his Dad’s silence he added, “Yes, Dad. I promise it won’t distract me.”

William listened closely to his son’s voice and heard the truth in his words. He leaned back in his chair, motioning for Jeremy to continue drawing.

Chapter 3

“How do I get out of here?”

 

“Part of the explanation,” William began, “revolves around the nature of the collective unconscious and the power you tap into, but we don’t have enough time to explore that concept just now.

“When you arrived in the room from your drawing, you were actually within the collective unconscious, in other words a place of pure thought. You probably sensed some of its unreality as soon as you appeared.”

Jeremy continued to work on the sketch, but he nodded his head. He remembered that, even after he had touched the hard stone walls, the room had a feeling of not being real. He shook the thought from his mind and refocused on his drawing.

William caught the motion and relaxed slightly, reassured of his son’s commitment to finishing the sketch.

“Unfortunately, what made that place so effective to contact you also worked to prevent me from meeting you directly. From the moment you appeared, your environment was controlled by your mind, conscious and unconscious.

“What I could do, though, was wait for you to begin thinking of me. Within the reality of the collective unconscious, you shaped an image of me from your thoughts. Empty as it was of any history or memory, I could fill that vision with my knowledge and personality…to the point your unconscious mind allowed.”

Jeremy had moved from penciling to shading in the drawing. Confident in his progress, he risked a look up from the sketchbook.

“I’m not getting it, Dad,” he said sheepishly.

“That’s fair,” William chuckled. “I’ve had 13 years to study the phenomenon and I’m still not sure I get it.” He saw his son grin while returning to drawing and he smiled as well.

“Let me see if I can simplify it,” William said. “As soon as you arrived within the collective unconscious, you began to shape its ‘reality’ using your power unconsciously. When you thought of finding me, your mind created ‘Will’ out of the fabric of the collective unconscious, a place where any thoughts could be made real. Follow me so far?”

Jeremy tilted his head side to side while he drew, suggesting a definite maybe. His Dad grinned, at both his son’s confusion and his own attempt to simplify something so complex.

“Your creating that doppelganger of me also created a form of connection between us. It was imperfect. While I could see and hear through Will, his mind and memories were limited by your knowledge of me and that was precious little. So I could not speak through Will, though he could speak as me.”

Jeremy flashed his Dad a look of confusion, shaking his head and bent back over the sketch.

“I know, I know. Later, when we have more time, I’ll see if I can do better. To sum up, as you came closer to reaching me through your journey within the collective unconscious, the connection between Will and me became stronger. He became more of me; the resonance of me and what I am gained strength in him until, at the end, there was little difference between us.” Will paused, a thin grin on his lips. “Think of it like a cellular phone. When you first created Will, the signal between him and me was low. As you came closer to my actual location, the signal strength was strong enough for me to get through.”

The smile took a sad aspect. “Of course, by then there was no time to tell you anything.”

Jeremy swallowed, remembering the chase that ended with Will engulfed in flames. He ventured another question.

“Did…did you feel any of…” his voice trailed off, choked with emotion and surprised at how great the hurt was still.

William leaned forward in his chair and said softly, “No, son. All I felt was his love for you.”

Jeremy clamped his teeth to bite back tears. He straightened, took a deep breath and then went back to finishing the figure of his Dad in the sketch.

“That was the reason Will couldn’t tell you more about the collective unconscious or about finding me. As your creation, he was limited only to the knowledge you had at the time.”

William sat back in the chair again.

“In its way, that helped you find me. If you knew too much too soon, if you had not earned that knowledge, your mind might not have developed enough facility and control over the collective unconscious to pierce the unreality and finally find me.”

Jeremy looked up thoughtfully.

“So you’re basically saying it wasn’t you or Will who was making it hard on me…it was me?”

William looked at his son and a sly smile crept to his lips.

“Well,” he said to Jeremy. “Knowing what you are looking for does you little good…”

“…if you don’t know where to look,” Jeremy finished for him. He grunted. “Our family motto. Is that like your ‘get out of jail free card’ every time I have a tough question for you?”

William laughed. “Could be. Could be.” He looked at the sketchbook. “Ready?”

Jeremy turned the sketchbook to let his Dad see the finished work and basked in the look of surprised pleasure and pride on his Dad’s face.

“Fantastic work, son!” William exclaimed. “When this is all over, we’re going to have you do some art for display at the shop.” He paused and winked at Jeremy. “Maybe we can convince your Mom to take up painting again, too. What do you think?”

Jeremy beamed enthusiastically and turned the book back, preparing to sign the drawing, sending his Dad to help his Mom and Natalie. He paused, hand hovering over the sketch.

“Uh, Dad,” he said. “How do I get out of here?”

William stood up and placed his hands on each of Jeremy’s shoulders.

“When your Mom and Natalie are safe, close the book and I’ll be back here with you. Then we can leave together.”

Jeremy’s enthusiasm returned as he imagined their future as a family. His smile faltered only a little as he asked, “How will I know?”

William returned the smile. “You’ll see,” he said cryptically.

Jeremy twisted his mouth and rolled his eyes at his Dad, bringing a twinkle to William’s eyes. Leaning over the sketchbook, Jeremy signed his stylized “JS” in the lower right corner of the drawing. His Dad instantly disappeared; no sound, no puff of smoke, no magic words, leaving Jeremy only with the image of that twinkle in his Dad’s eyes and silence.

Chapter 4

“You’ll see”

 

Jeremy sat in the quiet room and watched the shadows cast by the flickering candle. The walls seemed to expand and shrink, as if breathing, in the way the light danced across the stones.

Restless, he got up from the large chair and paced around the room. It did not take long, for the room was as he remembered, small and unadorned.

He touched the walls and felt the familiar dampness, snickering at the memory of his first visit to the room, when he thought the liquid might be blood.

Walking to the flat wooden bed, he attempted to lie on its hard, unpadded base. The pillow was barely larger than his head, but even that wasn’t the reason he got back on his feet. He was filled with nervous energy, his thoughts racing too fast to rest.

Why did Dad leave me here?

Even though he understood the reason at the time, his anxiousness made the question resurface. Others quickly followed.

When should I close the sketchbook and bring him back? What’s happening with Mom and Nat?

Both his pacing and his thoughts brought him full circle back to the long table upon which the sketchbook lay open. He watched the candlelight play across the page and smiled grimly as it made the image appear to move. He gasped.

It is moving!

He pulled at the chair and sat in front of the sketchbook. No. It isn’t moving. Something is missing. What? He stared at the drawing. Dad! Dad is missing from the drawing!

Jeremy didn’t understand. In all his other drawings in the sketchbook, nothing changed until he closed the book and then the entire drawing disappeared. Never before had one part of the image simply vanished. Jeremy felt an unconscious shiver.

Has something happened to Dad? Where is he?

The drawing seemed to smear. Jeremy rubbed his eyes to be sure. It lasted only a few seconds and then it refocused…now showing a sketch of his Dad leaning over what looked like the prone forms of Natalie and his Mom.

Fear and excitement battled within him. He intuitively figured out it was his mind that directed the image to his Dad. He now understood his Dad’s cryptic “You’ll see”. He could see! He could see what was going on with his Dad!

The image did not change further, forcing him to revise his conclusion.

I can see glimpses of what’s going on, like snapshots from a camera. But I can’t watch it like a video.

He thought that made sense, since it was a sketchbook and not a video player, but that made him laugh aloud, since nothing about this made sense.

Jeremy still didn’t know how or why the scene changed to what was on the page now. He thought hard about his Dad, Mom, and Nat, but the drawing remained the same.

He noted, with little surprise, that the style of the drawing was his. The lines, the shading, even the layout was exactly as he would have drawn the scene. He remembered when he and Will retrieved the “echo” sketchbook from the cave. Something similar must be at work here.

Jeremy released a frustrated grunt. He needed his Dad for answers but knew his Mom and Nat needed his Dad more right now. He ached at not being able to help them and seethed in helplessness. Taking a deep breath, he tried to relax.

The drawing had not changed, despite Jeremy’s fervent wishes. Leaning back in the chair, he wrestled with his emotions, trying to bring them under control. Perhaps by remaining calm he could trigger whatever changed the scene once more. He could only hope, as he stared at the sketchbook. Without knowing how the drawing changed in the first place, he could only wait. And watch.

Chapter 5

“I had lost hope”

 

Watching where he was standing, William looked cautiously around as he appeared in the cave. The change in place and scenery was immediate and without sensation, but the abrupt change of setting threatened to unbalance his senses. He took a few precious moments to steady himself.

The cave was still cloudy from settling dust and pulverized rock. William found this encouraging, as it suggested the time passed since the explosion was not as great as he feared. Perhaps a couple of hours; surely not more.

Whether it was logic or hope driving the thought, William clung to it as tightly as he did the medical pack he had Jeremy sketch into the cave with him.

This was the dicey part, for Jeremy was not sending William into the collective unconscious, where Jeremy could exert direct control on the environment. Could Jeremy create real objects within the real world?
The plastic tackle box is real enough, but does Jeremy have enough power to create the contents?

William didn’t bother to check. The point was moot until he found his way to Teresa and Natalie. He flicked the flashlight around that Jeremy had drawn in his hand. The fact that it worked brought him more hope about the box containing medical supplies.

Creeping slowly in the murkiness, he carefully navigated around the debris on the cave floor. Alternating the light in front of him between the silt-filled air and the ground, he moved into the main part of the cave.

Small rocks slid under his feet, constantly attempting to unbalance him, but William was experienced with inhospitable locations and deftly avoided any mishaps.

Dark shapes on the ground ahead of him almost tricked him into increasing his pace, but years of training allowed him to control his speed, protecting his mission from a careless last-second mistake.

Still, knowing that his wife, whom he loved more than he could ever have imagined, was lying just ahead, made his blood pound furiously. He cursed the need for caution that made him wait even a few moments longer. Had he not waited long enough? Thirteen years had seemed an eternity, but even that felt like nothing compared to these last few steps.

He knelt down beside the two prone forms, brushing away loose gravel and dirt to place the medical box flat on the ground. William’s throat tightened and he felt his eyes fill with tears of joy as he gazed at his beloved Teresa.

He smiled in disbelief. Not just the fact that he was finally reunited with her, but that she was even more beautiful than in his mind’s lasting image. Even covered with silt, dirt encrusted in her hair, he still marveled at how age had only enhanced her beauty. He moved a dirt-caked strand of hair from her face and bent down to tenderly place his lips on hers.

“Nnnh.”

The groan came from the young girl’s form draped over Teresa’s chest. William raised himself from Teresa’s face just as Natalie’s eyes fluttered open. In the dim illumination of the flashlight, he could see the eyes were foggy with fear and loss, dark black pools of sorrow that quickly widened in confusion.

“Am…Am I hallucinating?” she asked and then laughed as she thought of the absurdity of asking a hallucination if it was real.

William heard the danger in the laugh, only a small step from hysteria. Yet he was impressed by the will of this young girl, who couldn’t be more than 15. He thought about what his son had fought through to find him and he wondered if there was something in the new generation of kids that made them more remarkable.

“No,” he answered and then waited to let it sink in.

“You’re William,” she whispered. “Mrs. Shuttle’s…Teresa’s husband.”

He had known the girl was strong and a protective influence on his son, but still she surprised him how quickly she grasped the meaning of his presence.

“You seem to be taking it in stride,” he said.

“She…she said you would come,” Natalie gasped. William reached for the half-full water bottle and brought it to her lips. Natalie pulled back and shook her head towards Teresa. William smiled kindly, already seeing why Jeremy thought she was so special.

“Drink,” he said softly. “I have supplies.”

At that, Natalie’s shoulders sagged and a small sob escaped her lips, but she tilted the bottle up and sipped some water into her dusty throat.

“I…I had lost hope,” she said, turning away in shame. William reached over and gently took her chin, turning her to face him. His smile washed away her doubts and thrilled her with a more urgent emotion. Yet all she could bring herself to ask was, “How?”

William understood the deeper meaning of the question. Taking her hand in his, he said, “Jeremy drew me here.”

Natalie dropped the bottle and let loose her tears. William moved around Teresa’s body, still holding Natalie’s hand until he could pull Natalie’s face against his chest. He could feel the power of her love for his son in the shaking of her body and he silently promised he would not let Jeremy tarry as he had once with Teresa.

Suddenly, Natalie pushed herself from William, fear and urgency fired her eyes. She moved to Teresa and cried out as her shattered ankle shifted. William motioned her to stillness as he played the light over her leg. He grimaced at the wreckage he saw.

“No, no…” Natalie pleaded, but William held up a hand and turned the flashlight toward him so she could see his face.

“I know.” His eyes held Natalie and in them, she saw his love for his wife. “But we need to do something about this ankle now or you may never walk right again.” His voice softened as he smiled at her. “Do you think I waited this long to ever let her go again?”

Natalie felt fresh tears from his smile, but they were warm and comforting. She managed a shaky smile of her own. If Jeremy ever looks at me like that… She swallowed and nodded. She did not need him to tell her that what he was going to do next would hurt.

Taking as much care as he could, William cleaned off some of the dirt from around her ankle. Shivers of pain made her leg tremble, but Natalie only allowed a small squeak in acknowledgement. Inwardly, William spared a thought of admiration while remaining focused on the task.

Slowly he pulled the ankle down, creating space for the bones to move and then he began to turn the ankle. Natalie could no longer keep silent as a shriek of pain ripped from her. William thought to speak words of encouragement, but knew they would sound hollow against the terrible pain so he continued his efforts to straighten the ankle until he could release the tension slowly, allowing the bones to set in something close to normal position.

Flipping open the tackle box, William was overjoyed to find it completely stocked. He would have to ask his son one day how he knew what went in there. Taking bandages and antiseptic, William began wrapping Natalie’s ankle as securely as he could. He wished he had something he could use for a makeshift splint, but nothing was nearby.

Working quickly, with practiced hands, he finished and then once again engulfed Natalie until her breathing steadied. Tears made pale trails through the caked dirt on her face, but she presented him a brave smile and said, “Now go save your wife.”

He favored her a look of deep affection and kissed her forehead, which made her smile deepen, causing dimples to form on her plump cheeks. Squeezing her hand warmly, he moved over to Teresa.

Chapter 6

“This is the first thing to go”

 

William hovered over his wife’s body for a moment or two, drinking in the presence of her. Her form, her scent, their shared history flooded back into him and nearly threatened to overwhelm him. He took a short breath, closed his eyes for a second and slowly restarted his breathing. Opening his eyes again, he focused on searching her body for injuries.

The bruise on her forehead was obvious. Although there was some blood, it was caked and dry, the dull red turned brown by the dust. Taking one of the spare water bottles from the backpack lying nearby, he took a small cloth from the medical tackle box and dampened it. Working carefully, he dabbed away the dirt and the caked blood. The wound on her head was small and had already begun to close. Only a dribble of blood surfaced as he cleaned.

Reaching into the box, he brought out some disinfectant, swabbed the area and then placed a gauze patch over the wound while securing it with some medical tape. Satisfied, he carefully checked the rest of her body, moving his hands skillfully across her chest, ribs, arms and elsewhere, attempting to determine if there were any breaks or damage. He patiently kept up his examination, purposefully avoiding the heavily wrapped area around her midsection though his mind screamed at him to check that. Eliminate everything else first and then work on the big thing.

Satisfied about her condition, he moved to unwrap the belt around Teresa’s midsection. He glanced over to Natalie, who was watching intently through pain-glazed eyes.

“My dear,” he said kindly. “You have my lifelong thanks. Your marvelous ingenuity has saved my wife’s life.”

Natalie closed her eyes, tension running from her body and her eyes watered again from relief. I didn’t fail! She opened her eyes and smiled wearily at William.

“Can you…can you help her?”

”She is serious,” he said, knowing he should not spare the girl the truth. “But I think I can stabilize her with these supplies until help reaches us.”

“Help?” Natalie asked, confused. “Do you mean from Jeremy?”

“Jeremy has done his part,” William said. “Our help needs to come from a more normal source.” He smiled at her and she simply nodded. His very presence had removed all her doubts about miracles. Though she could still see no rational reason for hope, it burned like a fire within her.

William returned to unwrapping the makeshift bandage Natalie had created. He bit back a gasp as he saw the ugliness of the gunshot wound. He refused to acknowledge how other such wounds he had seen in the past ended. This was his Teresa. He would not…could not…believe that after 13 years they would be reunited only to be parted again.

He worked carefully but swiftly around the wound. It was dirty and blood still leaked from it, though the combination of the rag and dust had helped it coagulate somewhat. He knew that it would start up again as soon as he cleared it away, but the threat of infection was greater at this point than the loss of more blood. If he were right, they would not have to be here much longer.

Working deftly, he cleaned the area of damage, noticing with some longing the beautiful olive color of her skin outside the purpled and bruised area of her injury. He longed to hold her and gaze at her. He found it difficult to see his task for a moment as a vision of her, in their bedroom, came unbidden to his mind’s eye. Angrily, he shook his head clear and continued his work. As he expected, the wound started to bleed again.

“Oh no!” Natalie exclaimed as the ground shook. Small rocks fell from the walls, loosened in the earlier blast. The dust stirred and swirled back into the air. “What now?”

William risked a look up from his work and gauged the activity in the cave. He grinned and looked at Natalie encouragingly. “That should be our more normal source.”

Natalie looked at him perplexed. She wondered if all the Shuttles had a touch of madness in them.

William finished his work on his wife’s injuries. He threw down the last of the bloodied bandages with a sigh and looked at his work. The gauze was already damp with blood, but it would hold for a little bit and Teresa’s wound was no longer in danger of any further infection. Providing she hasn’t already succumbed to one. He dismissed the thought and straightened his now cramped legs. Moving forward, he leaned over his wife’s face, wiping away the newly formed dust and placed a more energetic kiss upon her lips. A couple of seconds passed and then he felt her lips responding. Her eyelids fluttered open and in those eyes he saw no surprise or shock, only love so deep he could not have imagined it, but for that he felt the same about her, too.

“Oh!” Natalie exclaimed softly. She smiled through fresh tears and thought giddily that is was just like Sleeping Beauty.

Teresa managed to move an arm to bring her hand up to William’s cheek. She brushed her hand across the beard on his face and said weakly, “This is the first thing to go when we get out of here.”

William took her hand and lowered her arm back down, admonishing her not to move but not letting go of her hand. Another small trembling in the cave interrupted their heartfelt glances. This one was louder than the first.

Rocks from the front of the cave began to shake. A couple of them fell out of the rockfall that blocked the entrance. Dust stirred even more, forcing them to lower themselves as much as possible to find some clean air. William gently gave a wet cloth to Teresa and Natalie to place over their noses and mouths.

Once more the cave trembled. More rocks fell from the opening and this time a tiny shaft of light poked through the deadfall.

“Madame Shuttle?” The voice was barely audible in the still rumbling cave.

William placed a finger over his wife’s mouth and pushed the cloth back over her face. Getting up, he moved carefully to the front of the cave and the small opening.

“Paul,” William said. “I am happy to hear your voice again.”

“Mr. Shuttle?” a tiny voice replied, even in its low volume the surprise was evident. “William? Mon Dieu, this is a surprise!”

“Well met, Capitaine,” William said. “My wife is sorely injured. We will need to get her to a hospital as soon as you can get through.”

“I suspected as much,” the Capitaine said. “We should be in to you in just a few more attempts. Five more minutes, at most.”

“Thank you, Paul. For everything.”

The Capitaine did not reply and William moved back to his wife and Natalie.

“How did you know?” Natalie asked.

William smiled at the girl, taking one of her hands, and one of his wife’s and placing them together in his hand.

“The same way you should have,” he said, still smiling through another tremor and a larger opening in the cave mouth.

Natalie looked confused, but only for a moment. William again was impressed with the active mind of this young girl. He had followed the travels of his son’s group through the sketchbook but only caught glimpses of what had transpired. It was his son’s admiration that he had felt and began to associate with Natalie.

“He followed us here,” she said flatly. “He knew where we were going and knew we would be in trouble.”

“It’s what friends do,” William said, squeezing the hands of the two treasured women.

Chapter 7

“I will take care of this myself”

 

I have no need of friends.


DaHurst sat in the back of his limo and brooded.

He was returning now with his quest only partly completed. This left him in a black mood. Failure was not something he tolerated. That was for the rabble. Their lives were his to control. His and others like him. Those who understood that the true goal in life is power. Not political or economic, but power to control destiny. His, and by extension, everyone else’s.

He stepped from the car without acknowledging his driver. Consumed by his thoughts he gripped tightly to the book. His blood quickened and an edge of excitement now began to drive him almost to a run up the steps to his home. At last, I will know the secrets of this sketchbook.

He had spent years collecting various versions of the book, following instructions (not orders, he told himself). All to serve the purpose of somehow overcoming the power of the true sketchbook, should he never achieve ownership of that rare edition. When he had heard about the Shuttle expedition 13 years ago, he knew the time was right for him to obtain the final copy.

He took the cup of tea from his servant, sipping slowly as he contemplated the events that must now take place. No wine for him tonight, for he wanted a clear head and senses for the events ahead. Looking around, he frowned.

“Where is he?” he asked in low, ominous voice.

His servant quavered just a fraction. Although used to DaHurst’s black moods, he knew nothing caused him greater frustration than the absence of his guest. The servant shivered again as he thought of that bizarre visitor.

“He went out, sir,” he replied, voice steady despite his misgivings. “Out to hunt.”

DaHurst fried the servant with a blazing look, favorably impressed by his man’s ability to withstand the stare without withering. His mouth twisted. It took some time to break one in this well.

“When?”

“A few hours ago, sir.” The servant ventured a short additional piece of information, “He said you would not arrive for a few more hours.”

DaHurst‘s look informed the servant the additional information was not wanted or needed. He put the cup down and stalked to the back of the home, where the large garden stretched out behind the tall mansion. He had created the preserve years before ever meeting his house guest, stocking it with the equivalent of a jungle‘s worth of animals, both common and rare. No doubt, a few of the animals he held there would be considered illegal, but he cared little for unenforceable legalities.

He stood on the patio gazing out into the tangled green. Somewhere in there, his unusual partner was acting out some ridiculous ritual. DaHurst snorted. Hunting like a wild man. What can he possibly gain by such frivolity?

After a time, the bushes parted to the southeast and there came a figure from within. He was a short man, bulky but not in a bodybuilding way. He was bare-chested, his wiry muscles hidden behind an uncommonly hairy chest. His eyes sat deep in his head, giving his forehead an obscene slant and his head was covered by an unruly mop of tangled brownish hair. He had an ugly mass of hair on his face that approximated a beard.

He strode up to the patio indifferent to DaHurst’s impatience. Across one shoulder, he carried a small deer, blood still dripping from the wound in its side. DaHurst twisted his mouth in disgust.

“Off doing your vulgar hunting?” he asked.

The man looked at him without expression, dropping the animal at DaHurst’s feet, causing blood to splash up on his pants legs.

The man laughed as DaHurst jumped away, cursing. It was a rough thing, the laugh, guttural and deep, as if it came from a place far away.

DaHurst looked at the man with distaste.

“Go clean up. I have what we need.”

The brutish man looked at him with equal contempt.

“Fool! You have nothing but another copy.”

“Impossible!” DaHurst exclaimed. “I lost two good men obtaining this from the Shuttles and then buried them to protect the recovery. Do not mock me now!”

“Bah!” the man sneered. “You are beneath mocking. The book you have is a copy; I would know. And those you claim buried are now free. You should have killed them. You are weak.”

DaHurst trembled in anger and indecision. In matters of the sketchbook, the man had been uncannily accurate. Yet, how could the Shuttle woman have possibly escaped that death trap?

“I don’t understand,” he said. “If this is not the original sketchbook, where is it? Who has it now?”

The sneer on the man’s face was gone, replaced by a look of finality.

“Where it began…in the hands of the boy.” He looked at DaHurst with a face that DaHurst recognized. DaHurst used the same face on all other members of the human race. The man regarded him as inferior. DaHurst raged inside at the thought of this creature viewing him in that manner.

“What do we do next?”

“We do nothing next,” the man said, shaking his shaggy head. “I will take care of this myself.”

“What are you saying?” DaHurst asked warily.

“My need for you is over,” the man replied. “You were useful for a time, but now your carelessness has caused the book to reach the boy. And he has reunited with his father, which means he will also have knowledge to go with the power. I can waste no more time with you.”

“Don’t you dare leave!” DaHurst raged. “I have done everything you asked in obtaining these sketchbook copies. I have provided you men and resources. I expect to get what I am due.”

The man turned quickly, brandishing a long blade still wet with animal blood.

“Do not tempt me, puny man,” he hissed. “Your kind is worse than any I’ve met over the years. You bark and bray as if you know power but you are nothing, just as all of you infesting and crowding on this world are nothing.”

“I always suspected you were mad,” DaHurst said. “But I never knew how deeply. You are beyond delusional! If you think you can walk out now, without consequences, you are as foolish as you are insane.”

To DaHurst’s surprise, the man laughed at this, a guttural sound not truly like humor.

“You speak of delusion, but your whole world is nothing but fakery.” He walked to the door, sheathing the knife on his way. “I go to change into clothes you have provided me. After that I will depart.” He looked evenly at DaHurst. “We will not speak again.”

DaHurst boiled after the man left. He could think of a hundred ways to make him pay instantly, but none of those got him what he wanted. If the book truly had the power the man had suggested, then he would need to track the man’s travels.

He reached for the phone and began to dial. He hung up. Out of habit, he had been dialing Manny, but Manny would not answer anymore. Cursing once again, DaHurst dialed a different name.

He would have the man followed and he would find the book. If need be he would learn how to use the power himself. But for now, he would have to forego his revenge on the brute of a man.

His mouth twisted in a feral grin, eerily much like the man who dominated his thoughts.

For now.

Chapter 8

“Leave the girl alone”

Now, as William sat quietly beside his wife’s bed, he thought these past few days of peace had been too short. He held her hand in his and watched her as she rested. He had not left her room since she was wheeled in here after having the bullet removed. He had relaxed when told there was no internal damage and she merely needed time to recover. Though he had kept a brave front, there was a shadow of fear deep within him when he had first seen the dangerous loss of blood she had suffered. Now, relieved of that burden, he could only feel love. A love grown fiercer and stronger from years of longing. Forged from heartache and need, it was a thing like unto the strongest steel and burned like something just out of the forge.

He had not been surprised to see Natalie when she first hobbled into the room on crutches. She was a remarkable girl and stubborn in her love for his wife and his son. Stubborn to the point of her own harm. It was not enough that she had gained her injuries through her efforts to protect his family, but now she forced herself out of her room well before it was sensible to see to the healing of Teresa.

He smiled as he looked up at her now, back in the room again despite admonitions from both the nurse and doctor attending her. He saw her wince slightly as she struggled to move closer. He let loose Teresa’s hand to help her, bringing a chair close to the bed and holding her as she slowly sank to the seat. Moving her crutches to the side, he sat down again, giving her hand a squeeze before returning to take Teresa’s hand.

Natalie looked at the scene of William holding his wife’s hands and she felt warm tears fill her eyes. The feeling of love in the room was so great she could almost begin crying again. She was so happy for Teresa, a happiness made greater knowing that Teresa would be all right.

“How is she doing?” Natalie asked.

“She is recovering well,” William said. “The doctors say she will be fine.”

“And how are you doing?” Natalie asked.

William looked at the young girl. How precious. He smiled a wide smile that lighted his face. Natalie needed no further answer. She nodded.

“Good, because we have some talking to do later,” William said.

Natalie nodded again. They had avoided talking about the events in the cave before now. The concern was all about the rescue and then making sure Teresa was okay. She could scarcely believe the great fortune of Capitaine Chevalier clearing the rocks to free them. But then, she had been caught up in their loss and was hardly thinking straight.

“Leave the girl alone.” The voice was faint but clearly audible within the room. Natalie sat up straight as William whirled around to see his wife’s eyes open and clear. He bent down to kiss her and she raised a hand to hold him back. “I thought I told you to get rid of that.”

He paused, disappointed and then heard a tickle of girlish laughter behind him. He looked to see Natalie quickly put a hand across her mouth and when he returned to gaze at Teresa, he saw the smile on her face. Smiling himself and shaking his head, he bent down and placed a long kiss on her lips. He let his passion and longing flow through him and was gratified and excited to feel her fervor just as hot. He became conscious of the rapid beeping of the monitor beside them as it registered her increased pulse. Sheepishly, he pulled away.

“Maybe we should wait a little longer for the full reunion,” he said. Teresa raised her eyebrows and gave him a look that made his pulse quicken even more.

“Ahem.” Natalie made a little clearing noise and the two adults looked at her. “There are minors in the room, you know.” Teresa and William began laughing and Natalie joined in. The door opened and a puzzled nurse ducked her head in. She seemed to gauge the reason immediately and offered a smile to the group as she moved to the monitor.

“Perhaps we will need to consider disconnecting this when the two of you are awake.”