And now for the last chapter.
In the morning, I woke up far too early to the crashing of waves and the diffuse glow of what should have been sunrise. My watch said five thirty, and when I knocked on Leah's door, she was still asleep, and the door was locked. I hadn't spoken to her much last night, and I'd gone to bed early, which was probably the reason for waking so unusually early. Having nothing to do, really, I wandered out of the house and down to the beach. The weather was surprisingly clear for this time of day, at least compared to the day before, and I could see out to the weird, truncated horizon, though I didn't spend a lot of time looking.
I'd only walked a little ways along the beach before I saw another person approaching rapidly – Leah's sister, Rhian, on her morning run. She waved, so I waved back, and within another minute, she had trotted to a stop on the sand in front of me.
"Another early riser?" She said with a smile.
I shrugged. "Sometimes," I replied.
"Well, if you were after the sunrise, I'm sorry to inform you that we don't really have one. The sky just starts getting brighter, that's all. I miss proper sunrises – and sunsets – when I'm here."
I wasn't sure how she could stand to get up early enough to miss the sunrises, but she was right, the lack of a visible sun here was eerie. It was something that I hadn't paid too much attention to until now.
Suddenly, I was overcome by curiosity. The desire to ask something that Leah would have answered incompletely, if at all. Rhian was talkative, after all, and as far as I could tell we were getting along fine, which was more than I could really say for Tess and I. But I didn't want to pry, at the same time.
"I can't imagine what it must have been like for you three, to grow up here," I said.
Rhian smiled, a smile with a good touch of nostalgia. "Imagine your very own fairy tale," she said, "that's what it was like when we were younger, just the three of us. We ran wild – by the time we were eight or so there was really very little to endanger us on the island, so long as we kept our wits about us – and we literally had a whole world of our own, with woods and caves and ruins to explore, places to swim, the library… It just seems like a magical time, looking back, and for the most part I think it was. We were always together, you know, even when we eventually went to school. Of course, as we got older we had different tastes – Leah used to love to build things, for example, while I liked sports – but we stuck together, you know?"
"Actually, I don't," I said, with an apologetic smile. "I'm an only child."
She looked at me oddly for a moment from where we stood on the beach, and then headed for what looked like a grassy dune and sat down. "Well, you must have had a best friend growing up, even if you didn't have any brothers or sisters."
I wondered if Kelly Saunders, who I had made a pinky swear with to be best friends forever in the first grade counted. I had moved away less than six months after that, leaving behind very little but memories and a legacy of candy bars split between the two of us. I had no idea of when I had last heard of her.
"Not really. I moved around a lot, sometimes three places in the same year," I explained to her. My mother had been unable to stop in one place for too long, and I learned to have a life that I could pack away and take with me to the next place. Maybe that was why I had found it so easy to abandon everything and head on off to a new world with Leah.
"I'm sorry," Rhian said, and I shook my head.
"Don't be," I said, "It wasn't a bad thing. It's just different for me to think of growing up with someone like that, for all those years. But your life sounds like a child's paradise."
She smiled, a little sadly. "I guess it was. All that my sisters and I really know about our mom's childhood was that it wasn't happy, and of course you know that the world where my dad is from is completely different from any of the ones that you've seen. I think that they did their best to give us everything that they'd had or that they'd wished that they had. And of course, we visited our family a lot – well, our grandmother on dad's side and a lot of honorary relatives through several different worlds. We weren't lonely: we really only needed each other."
I nodded. I hadn't been lonely. Not really. I'd accepted my life and I'd made the best of everywhere. Besides, there was always my mom, and the growing stack of library cards. And later, when middle school had hit and everyone had been suffering from betrayed friendships and terribly important crushes, I had been able to stay outside of it all. My life had remained mostly calm, because I was never in one place long enough to fully soak it all in.
"The messes we got into as kids are hard for me to even believe now," Rhian continued, her face lighting up, "All those stories you heard the first night? They're not even half of it. There was the time that we tried to make a raft and sail to the edge of the world – we were grounded for weeks, since we'd scared mom and dad to death by almost drowning – and then there was the time that we got stuck in the tree house in a rainstorm. Yes, we have storms here," she said, in answer to my unasked question, "but not often. There's simply not enough of this place to have very strong weather, unless there's some conflict with the void. Hasn't happened in years."
I made a note that whatever that was, it didn't sound good.
"And that's not even counting what we got up to in school. I think we got detention about twelve times between second grade and fifth grade – mind you, most of those were because Leah decided to deck whoever had decided to pick on Tess that week, and the rest were for the kind of pranks that you only think are a good idea when you're nine or ten. Oh, yeah, and the one time that I mouthed off to Mrs. Rovek, but that was just me." She laughed a little. "I suppose you were the good girl when you were a kid – I know I wasn't."
I shrugged. I supposed I might have been – after all, I kept my head down, did the work, and lived for days when I could bring home half the library – but I'd never had the opportunity to get into much trouble. The other kids hadn't trusted me enough at first, and after that I'd had to go home: after a while people just didn't bother me much.
"I wasn't the good kid so much as the quiet kid," I confessed. I looked out at the waves for a moment, half-mesmerized by the light growing in the sky. I had been the kid who sat and thought about things, the kid who read. Bookworm, four-eyes – childish teasing had eventually petered out and died, and anyway after a while I had learned to tune it out and pack it away. I would be gone soon enough that it didn't really matter what the others thought of me.
"The complete opposite of all three of us, nonetheless," Rhian replied, "I swear we drove our parents nuts – still do, if you take a look at Tess and Leah. The amount of times they were called in to school because of Leah and Tess…"
"Leah and Tess got into a lot of trouble then?" I asked. Oh, I could believe it of Leah. She always had a plan, or something up her sleeve, and only rarely could she be bothered to put in all her effort, which had always annoyed me to no end, because when she did she was brilliant. But Tess? Wild horses could not have induced her, I would have thought, to any form of humor or mischief, especially such childish amusements as Leah would have come up with. Of course, I could imagine that scenes like the one I'd witnessed the day before would have gotten them landed in the principal's office. "So they fought together a lot?"
Rhian chewed her lip. "No," she said. "No, it wasn't like that. That is, Leah fought a lot, and Tess fought a lot, but not with each other. Generally it was Leah beating up on whoever had last beat up on Tess… Look, I have to explain something to you about Tess, first."
I nodded my acceptance.
"Tess… she didn't have a very good time, when we were kids. She didn't like other children much, and she definitely didn't have Leah's ability to make friends with just about anyone. Believe it or not, it used to be me and Tess that fought like cats and dogs."
I raised an eyebrow at Rhian.
"It's true," she said, "We never could agree on the way we were going to do things, and Tess, as I'm sure you could have guessed, was a headstrong, impatient little brat. So was I, come to that. Leah grew up keeping the peace between us, since Tess always wanted to do things scientifically and logically, and I wanted to do whatever seemed right at the time."
"You were the heart and Tess was the mind?"
"Something like that. Leah used to say that getting us to agree was like folding two sides of the universe together. Yeah, she's always had some pretty grandiose metaphors hiding out in there. And despite all you see here, she and Tess were pretty close. Closer than I was to either of them. They used to build things together all the time… well, needless to say, I might have been a little more disruptive than was normal because I felt a little left out. They were really good about it all, though, looking back – they tried very hard to keep me in with them and they never ganged up on me – but they were like twins and I was like the tagalong little sister, even though I'm only fifteen minutes behind Leah."
How many times had I tagged along in my life, trying hard to immerse myself into a group or even a pair of friends? It seemed that I'd always been behind – friends had already been made, and other girls already came in convenient, pre-packaged pairs or trios. I suspected that from the outside, Rhian had looked like she came shrink-wrapped with her sisters, and that she was the only one to feel or notice the gap. But that didn't dampen my sympathy for her.
"What happened?" I asked.
"Well, we started to grow up, for one thing," Rhian said, with a laugh, "Those days weren't so bad, really, now that I think of it, but it seemed like the end of the world at the time. We chose to split up – go to a world apiece, that sort of thing – primarily because at that time, we'd developed preferences for different things without even really noticing it. We went to middle school separately. I learned that not having my sisters next to me twenty four seven wasn't nearly as big of a deal as I thought it was."
"And you grew apart?" Because it was the only logical explanation, really. Though it still didn't explain why Leah had ended up worlds away just in time to find me.
"No. Well, we really didn't get a chance, come to that. Leah cut and run when we were fourteen – yes, she went off to study, but everything was different then – and the task of making sure the world got along with Tess fell to me, ultimately. The past four years I've just been wishing she was back so she could do it again, or at least tell me how… and you see how well it works now that she is."
I thought about it for a moment. "Why do you say she ran?"
"Well, she did. I don't know, Ellie… something happened then, and she never would talk about it to anyone. She just got up one day and headed out. Said she couldn't go back. Mom and Dad tried to get her to tell them, but… I just don't know. I was kind of hoping that you did."
The fact that it was Leah's sister fishing for information meant that it didn't bother me much. After all, it was her business too. But Leah's life before she met me was frustratingly close to a blank slate. Yes, I'd heard about the adventures of her childhood – probably a highly exaggerated version of them – but as for her early teen years, they might as well never have happened.
"No," I confessed, heavily, "I don't know a thing."
Rhian looked at me for a long moment, seemingly deciding whether or not to believe me. Finally, she sighed, and chucked a pebble out at the waves.
"Worse luck, then," she said. I nodded. There didn't seem to be much else that could be said. Rhian hurled a couple more pebbles viciously to their watery graves. Then she stood up and brushed off her legs.
"I like you, Ellie," she said. "I think we can be friends. Heck, even Tess likes you, as much as she likes anyone, though you'll never get her to admit it."
I started to protest.
"The fact that you lasted ten minutes in that library with her is proof that she likes you. And you're good for Leah – you make her smile."
"I'd hope so."
"Me too – or I'd have to do something about it. She's not the only person in this family who gets to protect her sisters. But that wasn't the point. She's more herself around you, more than she is with us anymore, at any rate. She acts like she did in the old days now that you're here – the days before everything changed. You wouldn't know – how could you? You weren't there – but it's like she's finally here again, after all this time. Like you woke her back up, or something. So I wanted to say thank you, for bringing my sister back."
I mumbled something about it probably not being me at all. As far as I knew, I'd done nothing. Maybe Leah was happier than when I'd first met her. Maybe being my friend had been good for her, but I thought that maybe the helping had gone the other way around. After all, she was the first person that I'd been close to in years. I hadn't remembered how nice it was to have someone to talk to.
"Nonsense. You did exactly what none of us could do. You didn't see her – well, you didn't see her after, when she was about to run away. I don't know, it was like she was only a shell of what she'd been, always looking around like she was looking for danger, jumping at every sound – Ellie, I hugged her and she flinched. She's still trying to pretend like nothing happened that year, but I know better. I know she was scared, I just don't know of what and she'll never tell me. Mom and Dad went to investigate and all that they saw was that part of an old building had been burned down. Nobody knew what happened, but I know that Leah was a part of it, and that she had to get away from whatever it was. I don't know if it was something she saw or something she did, but she ran from everybody, and she kept running.
"And when we finally lost track of her, we wondered if it was for good – she had a thousand worlds to chose from – and I thought she'd finally run too far to come back. That's why Tess hates her, you know. She thinks that Leah abandoned us… well, abandoned her, specifically. Neither of them has ever exactly been good at perspective, and I suppose that at some level Tess thinks it's something she did that's the problem. All those years of Leah giving anyone who called her a freak a black eye, and she still thinks about that.
"I know Leah. I know she wouldn't have run if she wasn't trying t leave something behind, most of all that she would never have left us if she were herself." Rhian stopped for a moment, looking down at where I was still sitting on the hill, letting all this new information wash over me.
"Amateur psychology aside," she said, "I wanted to tell you that this is the first time I've seen Leah act more like herself, at least the self she was four years ago, but I know that it doesn't mean that she's not still running from something. Ellie, don't do it for me. Do it for Leah."
"Do what?" I asked.
"Well, first, take care of her," Rhian said, "but just as importantly – find out what happened to my sister."
And with that, she turned and left.
I sat on the beach for another hour. I thought about the last two years and the last two days. I thought about the thousand worlds at my fingertips with Leah by my side. I thought about having been jealous of her, of watching enviously from the sidelines as the roommate I barely knew became the coolest girl in the school, and of the first time that I had ever thought of her as a person, when I'd heard her crying in her sleep. I thought about the things that she didn't say, the way she changed the subject and laughed things off. Oh yes, she was still running, her mind traveling at a hundred miles an hour away, stopping to take verbal potshots at her sister, her oldest friend, but always moving on towards something. She was another one who couldn't stop moving, couldn't stop or something would catch up to her, and pull her backwards into the dark. But the fears following her weren't arbitrary. They weren't the kind of things that I could not fight and could not see.
She was not my mother. I could help her, instead of just watching her falter.
I tossed a pebble out into the water and it skipped twice before it sank.
No. I wasn't going to do it for Rhian. I was going to do it because I had seen that skipping, sinking path before, and hadn't known how to stop it. I couldn't take it the first time, and I wasn't going to stand there and watch Leah run from shadowy fears until she collapsed either. She would not end up at the end of her rope, boxed up so that she couldn't move, so that they could watch her, just in case. I was used to sitting up in the night, after all, waiting, always checking and keeping watch for the demons that plagued those desperate dreams. Whatever had happened in her past, I'd find a way to discover it, and I'd do my best to fix it.
I wasn't going to watch her sink.
I dusted off my pants and headed back to the house. One of these days, Leah had promised me, she was going to take me to see a whole new world. Today seemed like a good day to start.
Okay, I'm going to admit that Prodigal was an unusual story, even for me. It's been quite a trip finishing it, and although I know not all of your questions are answered, I do not currently plan a sequel. It's meant to have a whole future open in front of it, and the whole past in locked boxes behind it, and I ended up revealing (or discovering) more about the characters than I had originally intended. Leah and Ellie have been in my head for quite some time now, and it's something of a relief to finally have them out on paper.
It was also a really strange story to try and classify, even from the start. Fantasy was a given, just from the setting, but what about the second? Family, Friendship? Angst? Several things would have fit. I decided on Family because, at the time, I knew that the main conflict was going to be between Leah and Tess. Ah, good old Tess. I'm quite fond of her, and Rhian, and the triplets' parents as well, so don't think too harshly of her.
Questions are always welcome – I'll try my best to answer.
See you all in another world, and in another story,