Chapter 12: Broken Puzzle
The long night fades into an early morning haze, on a flat horizon in a very dead area of the plains. A landscape of very few colors and features, somewhere in southern Oklahoma.
Their jeep rolls along a wide lane of cracked and loose blacktop, sputtering along. Sputtering, sputtering, rumbling towards an unintended stop. Jack is still driving, bleary-eyed, hands locked onto the wheel.
"Dammit," he grumbles under his breath.
The jeep grinds to a stop. Jack climbs down out of the front seat on his buckling legs, holding onto the open window as he presses his tired head against it. The drive was over.
"You might as well hop on out, it's done."
"Done?" Cory yawns.
"I think we used up all the gasoline."
Cory and Reggie join him out on the roadway, taking in the sights of just how lost they appear.
"How far did we get?" Reggie asks, wiping sleep away.
Jack surveys the land, hands on hips. "Oklahoma, maybe? It doesn't really matter, we only needed to get away from Dallas. We've done that, we've got breathing room."
"Why so far away?"
"We're all scared of the unpredictable, right? When I see something that even I can't explain, that's foreign to me…I don't mean to brag, but that's cause for concern. For now, it's not our battle. Let them implode." He points up ahead on the road; there's some sort of structure visible far on up ahead. "May as well head that way."
Cory and Reggie grab their bags out of the jeep to follow him on down the lane.
It's a very quiet frontier. No birds, wildlife, trees rustling. An area still digging out from the dust bowl. Thirty seconds of tired walking before Jack cracks the ice.
"So Quinn is dead, and his sons are trying a power grab. I should have seen it earlier, last time. He was holding a sword when talking to you, right?"
"Yeah," Reggie confirms.
"That was one of the clues. Quinn was a rough old Texan, loved his guns, his game hunting. His sons had the affinity for in knives and swords. I believe Quinn may have been pouring money away – perhaps into the Orion – and the boys didn't like that. Then the younger, Jeremiah I'd assume, found some sort of shape shifting power-"
"How do you find a shape shifting power? Buy it in the back of some old magazine?" Reggie snorts, skeptical.
"If time travel is possible, what makes you think a shape-shifter isn't?" Jack answers back, posing a loaded question.
"Is it another one of those fountain powers?" Cory asks him.
"It could be. I don't know all of them, hopefully it was a one-time-only power, and it's gone as soon as someone finishes off Quinn- er, Jeremiah. Whoever it is."
Cory attempts to explain to Reggie. "It's like a big puzzle that's spread out over both worlds. There's little bits and pieces and artifacts you can find – and make I guess, ingredients. Apparently one of the things you can make is the Fountain of Youth. Or what I did, make that amulet that lets you roll back time. And you think this morphing, that's part of it, Jack?"
"Adds up. The Coopers wished they were deeper into the game then they were. I guess Jeremiah's work finally paid off. But I don't know what we do now that they're out of the picture. If it's the Austrians, then I supposed we should pack for Europe."
"And then what? Go door to door to every crazy scientist's labs and castles? We – I mean, you, don't have clue who's pulling this shit."
"Right," Jack agrees. "But if they haven't launched yet, we've got time. It's still 1959."
"Yeah, about that," Reggie interjects. "You can get us back to our time, right? If this was all for nothing-"
"I'm sure there's a way. It was a pause button, not a permanent rewind. Finding a way to snap back should be easy."
"You keep saying pause button," Cory complains, "like someone made it. How'd it get there? Who made it? How'd you learn about it?"
"I don't remember."
Cory rolls his eyes and waves him off. "And here's something else I don't get. So sometime around now, they launch up a rocket, powered by nuclear bombs, and make this huge explosion up into the sky, where everything goes to hell, right?" he pauses. "How does no one else know about this?"
Jack stops walking. "What do you mean by that?"
"Like…maybe there's not satellites and everything like there is today, but even then, now, someone had to know that this huge bomb went off, even if it was in the middle of nowhere. Pictures, or someone talking, an article, a book, something. What if they launched it from the other world? How do you know it didn't?"
Jack sheepishly scrunches his face up, and sounds exposed. "Oh. That makes sense."
"I thought you were the brain here! You hadn't ever tried thinking of that one?"
"It hadn't occurred to me, I'd forgotten all about the bombs. My mind doesn't work right, Cory, it's worn out. I'm an old man."
"Can we go to the other world?" Reggie asks, excited, face lighting up."
"Well I don't have either of our stones," Cory points out, "Aubna carries them. But you don't need them, right Jack? You know something else?"
He's made Jack uncomfortable. "I'll explain when we get there," he says, motioning towards the building ahead.
"You know, you can drop the mysterious act now. You owe us that."
A minute later they reach the building, the oasis in the desert of scruff. The building in question is a wide farmhouse on land long since dried up. The house is abandoned, splintering and peeling; there's a barn in similar condition next to it.
Undeterred by potential dangers, they approach the house, and walk towards the open front door. It's entirely missing, an empty frame. The house inside is completely empty; no furniture or detail at all, only the floors and walls remain.
Reggie leans inside and looks towards the ceiling. "I don't think they're gonna have any gas."
Jack gives the floor a stomp. A bit of dust swirls up and settles again. "Forget the gas. This place will do." He enters the crumbling foyer and glances around from cobweb to cobweb. "My body has become acclimated to the shift between worlds, that's how I jump at will, Cory. But it takes time. I need to want it, and I need concentration and quiet. That's how it works."
"For how long?"
"Fifteen, twenty minutes?" I'm doing to go upstairs," Jack says, pointing ahead at a staircase leading straight up. "You two stay out front and keep watch, can you do that?"
He takes a step up the creaky stairs. "I'll shout for you when I think I'm ready. Once I'm locked in, it's hard to break out. All you'll need to do is take my hand and wait for the jump."
The boys oblige, and exit through the open doorway. Jack exhales, clenches and releases his fists slowly, and trods the rest of the way up the worn steps.
"What's the second world look like? Reggie grills Cory as they sit on the steps of the house's front porch.
"I told you, it's the same. Almost."
"Is there like, is there a version of us there? Like there's an evil Reggie? That kind of parallel thing?"
"I don't think so," Cory laughs. "It's just…it's weird. I know that's kind of broad, but that's what it feels like, feels lonely, like you're all by yourself in it. Well, no, not bad like that, but I always feel…special, feels like I'm special. This big secret that no one else around me knows, that I'm not really one of them. I guess I don't like that feeling."
"Does it hurt? When you warp?"
"No, it's real…it's like…" he holds his hands out, struggling to find the right description, standing up, "it's like a shock. I can't really compare it to anything else, it's like if getting electrocuted didn't hurt you, there's no sting or anything, but it feels like everything shifts. Like that feeling you get in bed when you're almost asleep, and get that feeling like you're falling, and snap out of it. It's like that."
"Huh." Reggie taps his knuckles against the floorboards and glances around the empty, whistling panorama. "I can't stand sitting here, we've done enough of that on the damn bus all summer." He gives Cory a knock against the knee. "I'm gonna go see how the magic man's doing up there."
"Careful," Cory warns nonchalantly, an aside."
It was presumably once a bedroom up on the second floor, but now is an empty space with a lone, broken bed frame, shoved into a corner. Dust-blown windows still intact.
Reggie nudges the door open a finger at a time, and peeks inside, expecting to see something fantastic taking place. "Jack?" he whispers.
"Reggie," he hears him groan in response, and accepting groan.
He enters the room, and finds Jack lying on the floor, arms crosses, eyes closed. His voice conveys trained calmness, trying hard not to make any effort.
"Are…are you doing it? Is it working?" Reggie asks, eying him from above.
"I'm trying," Jack croaks. "I have to make my mind clear and blank. Push out pain."
Reggie quickly lowers his voice. "Oh, sorry, I just wanted to see, I'll go back-"
"No. Come sit, just talk to me. Refocus my brain somewhere else, I need to re-rack. Distracted before you came in."
Reggie carefully walks over and sits down next to Jack, trying to be delicate to maintain quiet. He keeps his distance and keeps a wary eye on him, like approaching a bomb with a shaky trigger while he maintains wonder and awe.
Jack slowly exhales out his mouth. All his speech is soft and faint, a fluid stream out lips that barely budge. "So you play baseball with Cory?"
"Er, yeah. That's right."
"Left field. Usually. You…you know baseball?"
"I'm not from the stone age, Reggie, we had baseball when I was a boy. Did you know that Canadians invented the game?"
"Get outta here."
"It's true. I think." A corner of his mouth tilts upward. "I like baseball. You know why, Reggie?" he asks, a rhetorical question. "There's no clock, no time limit. Just like me. Maybe one of these days I'll run out of outs. When this happens, when we fly away…you're going to fall asleep. When you cross for the first time, your body has to adjust. It takes hours, you'll miss a few things. You're groggy, unaware.
"Mister Arpin…I don't know what we're about to step into next, but things could start spiraling out of control. Worse than Dallas. Can your head handle it?"
"Absolutely," Reggie nods. "Born for a challenge."
"What do you mean by that? You said it before."
"That's what fuels me. When I was a little kid, we were growing up hard. Bad part of Jersey, not a lot of money, bad deal. I told my parents I'd grow up out of it to be the best ballplayer in the world, so they could buy a big house of their own." He says the last line with a chuckle.
"That was noble."
"And I tried to. Still try to be the best. Course, they both got real good jobs years back, so now they don't need my money. That's what pushed me when I was being who I was, now it's taking new steps, new places. High school, rookie ball, A-ball, whatever they throw at me, I have to win. Or I go home. What about you?
Jack rolls his eyes up in his head, moving deeper into his relaxation. "Selfishness," he groans, and then pauses. "People think that eternal life and youth – relative for me – is the ultimate gift, the ultimate goal to achieve. And for a few greedy seconds, I did too. But then what happens? After the ever after? I suppose certain men would relish my opportunity for a hedonistic life, but the cost was too steep.
"I can never have a family, can never have real friends, can never feel the changes of maturation that make me human. Aging is a privilege that I've relinquished."
"But you think there's a Fountain of Aging?"
"By my logic, there must be. Something so unnatural must have a counter, a balance. But I have no idea where to find it. And I've been searching for generations."
Reggie slowly rises back up to his feet, ready to move out before Jack drowns himself in his own sorrow. A subject he felt didn't need any more poking and prodding.
"And I wish that Cory didn't hate me," Jack continues. "There's nothing I can do…to reverse that now…but he's a good kid. His intentions are pure, moral standings pure."
Reggie looks out the window, one that looks down over the front of the house. Cory is looking back up at him, waving his arms for him to come down. Something wrong.
"Uh, I think he needs me."