Really quickly before I get to the blog post, I wanted to take a minute to talk about October, which is Breast Cancer Awareness Month and Bullying Prevention Month. Do self checks, be an Upstander, and be there for one another. You can learn more about breast cancer and make donations at the National Breast Cancer Foundation website. To help stop bullying and cyber bullying, you can learn to be an Upstander for those who are being targeted; find out more at stopbullying.gov.
PART THREE: A SORT OF SAFEHOUSE
If you have read the previous two parts, here’s a quick catch-up: In Part One we meet Harrison, his mother, and his step-father. We find out that his father was having an affair before his mother left him and got married to her current husband. At lunch a strange man comments on the dragon-looking chandelier in the restaurant, where Harrison’s step-father is drinking too much. Getting back in the car with a now drunk driver, Harrison’s step-father runs a stop light and they get hit. Harrison dies.
In Part Two, Harrison wakes to find he’s been snatched out of his route to the afterlife and taken to the Great Abyss by a man called Mr. Strangeman, the very same strange man that had spoken to him in the restaurant. Mr. Strangeman, alongside a woman named Avarellia, who seems to have magical abilities, a 14th Century Scottish soldier named Garth, and author Lucy Maud Montgomery have taken Harrison captive as “ransom” to get what they need from someone named Guidance, keeper of Limbo. Harrison agrees to help them, however unaware he is of their plan, if they find out what happened to his mom. With that there was a stolen soul on the run, and the chase had begun…
Garth was shoulder to shoulder with his fellow Scottish soldiers. King Edward’s men were incoming, their shapes on the horizon, but they wouldn’t reach their destination, the Scottish siege of Stirling Castle. The Earl of Moray, nephew to the disputed King of Scots Robert the Bruce, commanded their movement. The invading army under Edward was large, but unsuspecting of the Bruce intercepting their journey. This Battle of Bannockburn would last only two days and end with the Bruce and his Scots taking the victory. Garth, however, would not be there to celebrate with them.
He and another soldier advanced at Moray’s command, downhill and into a gathering mist of blood. Sweat wet Garth’s brow; blood wet his war hammer. He struck an enemy down, denting his armor and crushing his bones, and then another, and another. The approaching enemies rallied towards Garth, pummeling his ally soldier on their way. Garth fought every one of them off, swinging his weapon with the force of a pendulum.
From among the attacking soldiers there rose one as tall and as broad as Garth, the steam of hot breath seeping out of his helmet. The other soldiers cleared, allowing the newcomer passage across the battlefield to Garth, who steadied himself to fight his equal. The clustered clouds bolstered up and let their rain fall. The enemy raised his axe, already soaked in death. Garth took the first attack, but the other soldier leaned back, avoiding the swing. It was only moments then: Garth was unsteady. His blow had missed, and his enemy had countered. The axe came down heavy into Garth’s leg. He collapsed before his enemy yanked the axe back into the air, held it high, and took the final swing.
Lost in the noise of the ongoing battle, this death was insignificant. Garth of Bannockburn was forgotten.
Somewhere in the place between life and death,
Present Day, not that time exists there
Garth held his leg tightly in his free hand, his eyes squeezed closed. “Hurting again?” asked Avarellia in a whisper. Garth took a deep breath and then nodded once, reluctantly.
“As always,” he said. He leaned heavier on his hammer than normal, clenched in the same fist it was in when he died, in the same fist it would always be in.
Misses Montgomery and Mr. Strangeman stood at the mouth of the damp cave they’d taken refuge in, a ways ahead of the other fugitives. Harrison was sat on the ground at their feet, awake but resting his eyes. “I love him dearly,” whispered Misses Montgomery, sweeping a glance at Garth, “but at this pace, Guidance will cast us all into darkness before we’ve even gone before the Council of the Afterlife.” From the cave they could see their goal in the distance, a ghostly sort of lighthouse that towered over the wasteland that was and is the Great Abyss.
“No doubt he’s on our trail,” Mr. Strangeman agreed. “The shop is gone, and with it our only passage to the boy’s world. How do four agents of the afterlife and a stolen soul hide from the keeper of Limbo, hm?”
Misses Montgomery took pause, her eyes wandering down to Harrison, though she did not turn her head. “A stolen soul,” she echoed. “He’s not alive, but he’s not quite dead…”
Harrison opened his eyes and threw his head back. “I can hear you,” he muttered.
“Quite,” she said. “Mr. Strangeman, do tell me, at what juncture does a subconscious mind separate from a person’s soul?”
“Well…” Mr. Strangeman seemed to be doing some calculations in his mind, at least that’s what it seemed like to Harrison. The gangly Strangeman towered over his allied captive, studying him. “Not yet,” he finally answered. “Avarellia, Garth, come!”
Avarellia cocked her head to the side and said, “Am I a dog?”
“Not here, anyway,” said Mr. Strangeman, “but hiding out in the subconscious world of a lost soul, you could be nearly anything.”
“Come again,” said Harrison, rising to his feet like a rocket lit ablaze. “Am I the lost soul in this scenario?”
“That’s perfect,” hollered Garth. He limped over to the others, just behind Avarellia. “We hide in his mind until Guidance has passed us by.”
“Come again,” repeated Harrison.
Misses Montgomery showed a subtle smile and said, “Precisely,” in a grand sort of way. “Can you make it happen, Avarellia?”
Avarellia did her own calculations and then shrugged. “Whatever could happen is better than Guidance finding us. Okay, kid, listen. We’re going to absorb ourselves into your subconscious. It’s like a world unique to your mind.”
“No, no.” Harrison backed away. “There’s lots of bad poetry in there, you don’t wanna do that.”
“We don’t have a choice,” Mr. Strangeman interjected. “If we don’t do something now, you’ll get your afterlife sentencing and it’ll be done. No knowledge of your mother. No chance at us being able to help you.”
Harrison was quiet.
“Now, once we’re in there, you’ll have to find us,” continued Avarellia. “We’ll be stranded, disparate thoughts floating through the universe you’ve got in your head, until you acknowledge us as real. We’ll be hidden just around the corner from plain sight. After we’re all found, if all goes well, we’ll be able to come right back to this spot after Guidance has lost our trail. Got it?”
Harrison shook his head. “I’m really not that trustworthy. My mom doesn’t even know that I was secretly still in contact with my dad.”
“You can do it,” said Garth. “You won’t have a choice.”
Harrison opened his mouth to protest again, but Avarellia had already touched her fingers to his head. A moment later, they were all five melted into his invisible mind.
Harrison had only blinked, but that was all the time it took. One moment he was in a cave with four unlikely allies and the next he was standing in a black and white world. Walls stretched high into the black atmosphere. He was in a hallway. There was nothing behind him, but ahead there was a door outlined in thin, white light.
He wanted to feel panicked, but he didn’t. He felt more in tune with himself than he ever had before. He was, somehow, at peace. His mouth opened, prepared to call out to Mr. Strangeman, or the author of Anne of Green Gables who was inexplicably using him as ransom, or Avarellia and Garth. But he never got to the part where he actually called for them, because—what’s behind that door?
Harrison felt like he was still in his body, walking, but he had to focus with everything he had to see his own hands or feet, as if they weren’t really there. Nonetheless, he was moving toward the door. Voices could be heard, quietly discussing something that, from the sharp edges of their tones, seemed to be serious. There was no doorknob, but Harrison reached for it anyway. The door opened.
He stepped into a penthouse office, darkly lit and colorless, but he stopped short, one foot shakily touching the floor in front of the other. It was his father and his father’s mistress, outlined in black and white against the window of a skyscraper, a lurid cityscape beyond. They were hiding in an office but displayed to the world.
He couldn’t focus on the woman; he couldn’t even bring himself to look at her. She was like a thought he couldn’t access, but his father turned, locked eyes with him said, simply, “Son?”
Harrison didn’t respond. He parted his lips as if to do so, but he couldn’t deposit any words into the heavy air. The woman, a blotchy silhouette next to his father, seemed to be vying for Harrison’s attention, though he couldn’t tell how. He couldn’t tell why.
“Son,” his father repeated, his voice more desperate than his languid body language. “You’re alive?”
“I’m…” Harrison tried to look at the woman but couldn’t. He swallowed; his throat felt like cotton. “I don’t know.”
“We were so scared, Harry—your mother and I.” His father half-turned away and frowned. “What would we have done if you hadn’t been found.”
“Harrison,” said a woman’s voice. It was like an echo from far away, bouncing off the stark walls of the office. The woman standing next to Harrison’s father came quickly into focus, pushing Harrison onto his back foot: It was Misses Montgomery. The black and white world melted into endless darkness, leaving only the windows overlooking an empty city beyond and Montgomery in front of them. “You see me now?” she asked.
Harrison nodded. Tears had gathered in his eyes, one drop releasing onto his cheek.
Misses Montgomery squinted at the boy and said, “Are you all right?” Her voice was nearly soft. Harrison stared at the vacant space where his father had stood moments earlier. “Why have you connected me to this part of your subconscious, Harrison?”
Harrison finally met Misses Montgomery’s eyes. He took a deep breath. “I read that you may have…”
“Committed suicide,” she finished his sentence. “Yes, I’ve gathered that’s what they say about me in the modern world.”
Misses Montgomery looked away, as if she was rallying a memory. “I don’t remember,” she said. “But I wouldn’t suggest it either way, because if I did, I ended up stuck in the Great Abyss without a second chance at happiness. And if you had succeeded, we wouldn’t have you now, come to save us all.”
Harrison somehow managed a smile, a real smile. “My captor is comforting me,” he said.
“Quid pro quo, my child.” As she spoke, water rose up in the windows behind her, and when she took notice she went to Harrison’s side. “Where to now? To the bad poetry?” She extended a hand to him. He looked at it for a long moment, considering the gesture, and then took it in his own hand.
“I guess we’ll find out,” he answered. “We don’t have a choice.”
The windows shattered, letting the water flush over them. Harrison raised his arm to weather the blow, but the water left him standing—and dry. When the white froth on the water’s surface lowered down over their heads and bubbled at their feet, the world had transformed from a colorless office to a stormy beach, lit only by a cloud-covered moon and the vicious flashes lightning. Rain was loosed from the heavens of Harrison’s subconscious to drench the sand beneath their feet. Misses Montgomery stood tall and straight, unshifted by the transition. “Perfect,” she muttered.
Harrison scanned the beach, empty except for a dog running in and out of the waves. “I don’t recognize this,” he said.
“No?” Montgomery turned her eyes on the playing dog, too. She took a deep breath of the ocean air, nodding. “Perhaps one of the others have let their mind mingle with yours. I’m no expert on this stuff, anyway.”
“What does that mean?”
Misses Montgomery took a step forward and called for the dog by name—“Avarellia!” The animal, mid-sprint, tripped over its own legs, crumpling into itself and rolling through the water and sand head over paw. It’s form writhed and reshaped until finally Avarellia flopped onto her back in place of the dog.
Avarellia pushed herself up and stared at Harrison and Montgomery. “We very quickly developed a problem,” she hollered.
“Pray tell,” replied Montgomery.
“I lost the boys.”
Guidance sat on a rock in the cave where the soul thieves had taken refuge. Mr. Strangeman and Garth were asleep, unconscious, in chains at his feet. Strangeman groaned; his eyes blinked open to see his new captor. “Hello, old friend,” said Guidance in a voice rich and kind, but filled with sorrow.
Mr. Strangeman let his head fall back against the stone floor. “Guidance,” he whispered. “So, we’ve failed? Captured from the mind of the boy.” A form vaguely like Harrison’s, surrounded in a dark blue glow, hovered above them.
Guidance smiled but ignored the question of failure. “It’s been a long time; we haven’t spoken since…” Guidance paused, looked away. “It’s hard to remember these things when time and the multiverse are always laid before me. But, was she worth it? Avarellia?”
“Oh…” Strangeman halfheartedly tested his restraints with a gentle tug. They weren’t going to budge. “Things didn’t go as planned, you might say… And, if I’m honest, she lost more than I ever could have in the whole affair.”
“When an angel and a reaper take up together, there’s little good that can come of it.” Guidance breathed. “But I am sorry that it didn’t last.”
“You knew it wouldn’t, no doubt. The humans would call her and I friends now, I think,” said Mr. Strangeman.
Guidance chuckled and released a long-held breath. “You haven’t failed yet,” he said finally. “Because I do not know the purpose for your snatching a soul from its chance at trial.”
“He was leverage.”
Mr. Strangeman closed his eyes, fighting a teardrop that escaped down his cheek anyway. “Second chances.”
“Failed lovers. A forgotten soldier. And a frightened writer.” Guidance leaned against the cave wall, considering, and then shook his head.
Mr. Strangeman let the silence linger for a long moment before he said, “Tell me something, Guidance: Is Harrison’s mother alive?”
Guidance frowned at his friend. “No. No she’s not.”