22. Portrait of Sadie

For the second time that day, Bracken felt as if the floor dropped out from under him. He blinked at Oz, then looked at Jaz. “No…no, she’s not. I mean, she’s…just… But she’s not dead. Right, Jaz?”

Oz also looked at Jaz. “I assumed that was the case when she stopped sending correspondences. Sadie was quite dogged in her search for the doorway generator, so much that only two things could explain her sudden silence. Either she had found the generator, or she had died trying.”

“No, no. You’re thinking of someone else. Right Jaz? He means someone else.” Bracken drummed his fingers on the counter, trying to hide their sudden shaking. “You probably don’t even remember everyone who’s…worked with you, over the years, do you Jaz?”

Jaz raised a hand to her forehead, half covering her eyes.

“Jaz?”

Huey shuffled his feet in the uncomfortable silence, smiling again, his eyes flicking nervously from face to face. “Well, ah, I’ve got what I came for and gave what I came to give, so I guess I’ll say goodbye.”

When no one responded to him, Huey edged to the doors and slid out, clutching his bags of coffee beans

Bracken couldn’t stop watching Jaz. Why wasn’t she answering him?

“I suppose I’ll go too,” said Oz. He stood and shouldered his satchel. “If you do happen to find the generator, please let me know.”

Jaz lowered her hand from her eyes. “Huh?”

“The doorway generator. If you are still looking for it,” Oz said. “My employer has taken an interest in the device. If it can be found, she would pay well for a chance to see it.”

“Oh.” Jaz took an unsteady breath. “Yeah…no. That was Sadie’s project. I wasn’t in on it much. I don’t think it actually exists.”

“Doesn’t it? Hm.” Oz started for the doors. “Goodbye, then. Give my regards to Athamas.”

Bracken blinked, finally breaking his stare to glance at Oz. “Who’s Athamas?”

“You haven’t met him yet?” Asked Oz, an expression approaching surprise crossing his pale face.

Bracken shook his head. “Not yet.”

“You’re in for a treat, then. Goodbye.” Oz left them in their disquiet, slipping outside where he mounted his scooter and motored away.

Bracken waited until the doors closed. Then he was moving, striding over to Jaz, grabbing her by the shoulders and looking into her face. “Where is Sadie?”

“…she passed away. About five years ago…six months by your time, I think.” Her voice grew hoarse. “I’m sorry.”-

Bracken gripped her shoulders harder. “Are you serious. Are. You. Serious.”

Jaz nodded, eyes fixed on the ground.

“Jaz! Why didn’t you tell me?” He heard his voice echo in the room. Was he shouting? He could barely hear himself past the static filling his head. She’s not dead. She’s dead. It’s too late. She’s not dead! No! No, no, nonononono…

But it made sense, too. The way her room seemed to have been lived in, with her clothes still on the hangers. The unfinished projects on her desk. As if she had been there one day and then…not there the next.

Her eyes came up to meet his. They were reddened, filled with tears. “I couldn’t, remember?”

“That was before! You could have told me anytime once I got stuck here, but you let me think…” Bracken’s voice cracked, and he had to stop and swallow hard.

Jaz didn’t meet his eyes. Her voice was hoarse, just above a whisper. “I can’t talk about this right now.”

“What is wrong with you? She’s my aunt! I deserve to know! So does my family.” Bracken pointed a shaking finger at her. “You knew where we lived, because every time she visited she came back here and I’m sure she told you all about us. Why didn’t you reach out to us?”

Jaz pulled away and leaned against the counter, swiping the back of her hand across her cheekbones. She still refused to look at him, which made Bracken even angrier.

“My family thinks she’s still alive somewhere!” Even though they would have been more relieved than saddened to hear that Sadie was gone for good, they still deserved to know.

“What would I have said? I wouldn’t be able to tell your family anything besides she’s dead. I couldn’t even explain how or when.”

“How did she die? At least tell me that. Was she killed?”

“No. It wasn’t like that. She just…got old.”

“She wasn’t old,” Bracken protested. “She wasn’t even thirty the last time she visited.”

“But time passes differently here. Remember? A week out there is seven weeks in here. One year is seven. Sadie wasn’t the only one who’s traveled with me. But she did stay the longest.” Jaz’s eyes drifted downward, seeing memories of days past. “She traveled with me for almost fifty years.”

Bracken’s mouth dropped open. “Fifty?”

Jaz nodded. “The Defiant has…an effect on those who travel in it. Not as drastic as what happens with me, but…some things are affected when the shop resets. Wounds heal, for one thing. And the body…doesn’t age. We thought that since she didn’t look older, she actually wasn’t aging, like I don’t age. But we were wrong. I don’t have a set lifespan. But she did.”

“But…but…that would mean…”

Jaz looked in pain, her mouth and eyes tight. “She was over seventy years old when she passed on.”

“Seventy…” Bracken mouthed the word, staring at her, still gripping her shoulders.

Jaz didn’t try to shrug him off. “I should have told you. I know. You were just so…so set on getting her back, I…I didn’t know what…might happen if you found out she was gone.”

Bracken just stared at her.

Jaz cleared her throat and pushed on. “And not only that she’d lived here, but what here is, and why she stayed, and what she was doing, and…and everything. It’s…it’s complicated and—”

Bracken shook his head. “No, it’s not. You just didn’t want to bother. You were too busy with your big plans for escape—”

Jaz snapped back, quick tears dropping down her cheeks. “Hey! I care. I’m scared to death you’ll get hurt before you can go home. You’ve seen what can happen here. She’d never forgive me if—”

The doors opened, admitting a new customer, who stared at them in mild surprise. Bracken released Jaz’s shoulders and stepped back. Jaz wiped her face with the heels of her hands and moved to the register, leaving Bracken where he stood.

The static filling his mind grew, filling his vision with red sparks, his body moving automatically to the basement door and down the stairs. He paced outside Sadie’s room—old room—clenching and unclenching his fists. Suddenly he spun and punched Jaz’s door, leaving a small and unsatisfactory dent in the thick wood. Inspired by Oz’s display earlier, he drew back his fist, reshaped it into a thick spike, and punched again. This time, he left a large hole in the wood. His arm throbbed, but he wouldn’t feel the full pain until much later. He shook away splinters, drew back and punched again.

Again.

Again.

Now could see into her room through the holes.

Again. And again, and again, until only shreds of wood separated the holes.

“You know, that door will just go back to the way it was when midnight comes around.” Janus sat on the edge of Jaz’s bed, hands folded on his knees.

Bracken started back, blinking. “I…don’t care.”

“I don’t blame you for being angry. She should have told you.”

Bracken scowled at him through the broken door. “You said you knew where she was. You let me think she was alive too.”

“In a way, she is.”

“Stop it.”

Janus raised a hand. “Hear me out. As you’ve seen in Jaz’s case, death is not always final.”

Bracken couldn’t help sneering at this. “If you’re going to say something about an afterlife, don’t.” He turned away from the door, and found Janus standing behind him. He jumped back, bumping the demolished door. A glance into Jaz’s room showed it was now empty.

“You are not the only one who has lost someone dear to them. Jaz and I have been trapped here much longer than you have, and lost people much dearer.” Janus gestured for him to follow, gliding away into the area whre the brick hallway opened into a proper basement.

“I doubt that.” Bracken followed him. The basement was lighted by overhead lamps that hung from long chains fixed to the ceiling. Two columns of metal shelves stood in the center of the room, making an aisle to the back wall. The ones nearest to him held coffee supplies. Bracken followed Janus down the aisle to the back of the basement. The shelves here were even fuller than the front ones. They held all kinds of things, most of which had nothing to do with coffee: deck chairs, broken mirrors, coils of rope, boxy shapes he couldn’t identify, piles of clothing, dishes, toys, books, appliances, containers—there was no end of junk here. The last shelves were overflowing, the floor between them and the wall heaped with even more junk. It was all covered in thick dust.

“Welcome to the emotional distance corner.”

Bracken shied away from Janus, who was suddenly standing beside him. “Stop doing that!”

Janus smiled depreciatingly. “Sorry. Again. It’s kind of unavoidable.”

Bracken scrutinized him. Janus didn’t seem very sorry. If anything, he sounded amused. “Are you a ghost?”

“You could say that. When I was trapped here, I was separated from my physical body. I don’t get around by walking, as you and Jaz do.”

“Did Mr. White-Hair trap you too?”

“Mr. White-Hair?”

“Jaz said that’s who trapped her here when her world was destroyed. A white-haired man.”

“Ah. No, I was trapped in another way. There was a battle in my world. I lost and the…we’ll call them magicians…of my world attempted to imprison my soul. They didn’t quite succeed; as you can see, part of me ended up here. I can’t leave until my body and the rest of my soul are freed.”

“I heard that you’re supposed to have two faces. That you’re a powerful god, or something,” Bracken said. He tried to remember what Oz had called him. Luminary? Loamata?

Janus smiled. The warmth of it didn’t enter his strange eyes, if such a thing were even possible. “That’s an interesting take, certainly.”

“So it’s not true?”

“What do you think?”

“I think no one tells me much around here.”

“What do you wish to know?”

Bracken clenched his fists at his sides. “I want to know what happened to my aunt.”

“The answer to that is not as simple as you might think. Come.” Janus led Bracken away from the junk pile, between two shelves until they reached the wall on the left side of the basement. He didn’t walk so much as slide, his feet not quite coming in contact with the floor. A light clicked on above them automatically, illuminating the area.

Bracken’s eyes widened as he saw what covered the wall.

They were photographs. Millions of them, separated by distinct color schemes into seven thick columns, from the ceiling nearly all the way to the floor. Bracken walked slowly along the wall, looking at the faces, places, streets, fields, lakes, rivers, and forests that made up the whole; bits of life framed by countless viewfinders, passed to Jaz and added to these seven windows she’d made for herself; a view of all the things she couldn’t touch; a map of everywhere she could not go.

“So that’s what Jaz does with them…”

“Look here.” Janus touched a photo in the third column of an old man with spectacles. “This was taken in Grayson Gulch, world three.” He moved down to another segment and touched a different photo of the same old man, without spectacles and wearing different clothes. “This one was taken in a city called Langston, in world five.”

“Did he travel with Jaz too?”

“He did not.” Janus’s finger moved to a picture within the same column of a red-haired woman with freckled skin and a familiar smirk. “You should recognize her.”

Bracken leaned close to it. “That’s Aja.”

“Correct.” Janus moved back down the wall and pointed to another picture. “And this?”

“Aja again. But—”

“But in world six.” Janus glided back the way they had come, stopping to tap another picture. “And now in world three. This is the version of Aja that you met.”

“The version of…”

“Each of these seven worlds is a variation of the others. And variations of nearly each person in each world exist also.”

“How does that even happen?” Bracken asked slowly, suddenly finding it hard to breathe.

“There are many theories. Some think each time a major point in history occurs, the turning point produces separate timelines following the possible outcomes. Others think that each world was created at the same time and developed its own timeline independently of the others.” Janus shrugged. “It doesn’t really matter how they exist, only that they do. This is good news for you, though.”

“Why?”

Janus slid away to the segment he called world six, and tapped another photo. Bracken went to look, and stopped breathing.

Sadie smiled out of the photo, her brown hair braided neatly back, her shoulders wrapped in a lacy shawl. “Your aunt exists in more than one world, too. Even if one life is extinguished, others remain.”

Bracken reached out and touched the photo, brushing her familiar face, and was able to breathe enough to whisper, “Which world is six?”

“Saturday. Two days from now.” Janus was suddenly close beside Bracken. “I’ll help you find her, if you’ll help me get free.”

_______

Note:

A longer post today (which I hope you don’t mind), full of action and reaction. Some of my favorite characters will soon make appearances in upcoming chapters, along with more revelations for Bracken, as well as Jaz. Maybe they’ll even learn how to get along. ^_^

My intention is for Traveler to be the first of a trilogy of books, and revisit some of these characters and worlds in future stories. I am currently drafting and outlining book two, and I’d love to hear from y’all about who you’d like to see more of, and which worlds you want to explore. I am also open to suggestions for completely new worlds (waaat?) for The Defiant to visit. Let me know in the comments here, and as you read on, what you’d like to see in future stories! And thanks a million for reading and liking. 🙂

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