35. The Last Present

Bracken woke in darkness on his back, wet, and alone. He sat up and winced, putting a hand to his chest. It ached dully, like a deep bruise. He started to call out for Jaz, but coughed instead.

Footsteps pounded up the stairs and someone burst through the basement door. Bracken heard heavy thumpings and chairs skidding across the floor, then he was being hugged tightly by Jaz.

He winced, letting his arms hang at his sides. His chin rested on her shoulder. “…did I die?”

“Almost. You healed when the shop reset.” Jaz released him and sat back against a tall suitcase, half-closing her eyes. A bit of silver light from a full moon shone through the windows, so pale and colorless Bracken couldn’t tell if Jaz’s skin was unusually white or just painted with moonlight.

He wondered vaguely about the suitcase. Suitcases, he realized as his eyes began to adjust to the semi-darkness, and an array of luggage around the room became somewhat visible. “What happened?”

“You don’t remember?” Jaz moved her eyes toward him. “You challenged Costello to a duel and he shot you.”

That triggered a memory. Bracken flinched and felt his chest again. “With…air.”

“Yeah.” Jaz narrowed her stare into a glare. “What were you thinking? That was absolutely the stupidest thing you’ve done yet.”

“I didn’t know he’d try to kill me—”

“He wasn’t trying to. It was a basic strike, about as forceful as a hard punch to humans.”

Bracken shook his head. “That was more than just a punch.”

“Yeah, because you’re not a human. I keep telling you, stay out of trouble, but you just had to go and—”

Bracken sat up on his knees. “You never said stay out of trouble.”

Jaz thumped her forehead with the heels of both hands. “It was implied! You’ve seen what can happen here—I died for fates’ sake! Twice, almost.” She thrust her hands toward him. “What in hells is wrong with you?”

“I just wanted to find Sadie. You wouldn’t help, so…”

“You can’t find Sadie! She’s gone, okay? She’s dead.”

The bruised, aching place in Bracken’s chest tightened. “But I can find her. Davin could have found her alternate,” he muttered, suddenly struggling to speak past the ache.

Jaz surged forward on her knees, splashing through a puddle of thin liquid on the floor, stirring up a pungent smell. She latched onto his shoulders. “Stop it, Bracken! You can’t bring her back by latching onto someone who looks like her! Sadie is gone. And I’m sorry. I’m really sorry. But she’s gone.”

Bracken couldn’t listen. He couldn’t speak, either. The tight ache moved up into his throat.

“And it’s my fault,” Jaz continued softly, tears gathering in her eyes. “I should have sent her away. I just…couldn’t.”

She turned her head away, like she always did when conversation got too personal, but he felt trembling emotion in her fingertips like electricity.

Seeing her this way loosed something in his throat, and he could speak again.

“She stayed because she didn’t want to be with us. My family—we chased her away. My dad especially. He hated that she traveled. He would argue with her every time she visited, tell her she was a liar and a fake unless she settled down with us. Finally, she just stopped coming back. That’s why I needed to find her. If I could just explain—they meant well, they just didn’t understand she was different—maybe she’d forgive us. Or just take me with her.”

Jaz shook her head. She rubbed a hand across her wet cheeks and stood suddenly. “Wait here a second.” She hurried into the basement.

Bracken shivered. His back was wet. He lifted a hand from the floor, found it was wet, and looked down to see he was sitting in a pool of…something.

The lights above the workspace came on, glowing a gentle orange-yellow. Janus appeared behind the counter, moving about. The running faucet went silent; the dishwasher door closed. Janus glanced at Bracken and smiled, as if nothing were out of the ordinary. “Evening. Or morning, rather.”

Bracken looked back down at the floor. Now he could see that he was sitting in blood. He stood quickly, reeled and caught himself on the edge of the nearest counter.

Jaz came back upstairs clutching a wide, thin, hardback book to her chest. She glanced at Janus as she came around the counters and her eyes narrowed, but for once she didn’t yell at him to go away. She caught Bracken’s arm and helped him onto a stool. He sat stiffly, holding his arms away from his body.

Jaz laid the book on the counter in front of him. On the cover was painted a pair of brown, feathered wings.

“This is a book,” Jaz said, after Bracken stared at the cover for a long moment.

“I know what a book is,” Bracken replied, feeling sticky and gross. He wondered if it was possible to bathe in a coffee shop.

“It’s Sadie’s. She wrote it.”

“She did?” Bracken leaned forward and touched the cover, running his fingertips along the edge of the book and then over the wings. Then he snapped his fingers away as the wings faded, sinking down into the white background. Black and gold letters faded in, one line appearing at a time, as if they were being drawn by an invisible pen: The Brown Bird and the Trickster King. The wings faded back in on either side of the words, fluttering slowly. Bracken exclaimed and picked up the book with both hands. He ran his fingers over the animated wings, but felt only the flat, smooth surface of the cover.

“Open it,” Jaz prompted.

Bracken set the book down on the counter and opened it, turning the first page over. It was slightly glossy, cream-colored, and blank. Jaz reached over and drew her fingertip across the paper.

A watery, painted image of a brown bird surfaced and moved across the page, wings pumping in flight. It traveled across the left-side page, dipping into the crevice made by the book’s spine and onto the right-side page, where a spread of tall, white-tipped mountains rose to block the bird’s path. Black script appeared along the bottom of the page:

Once, there was a brown bird who loved to travel. She decided to leave home and fly to a new land she had never seen, beyond the great Snowy Mountains…’

Bracken looked up at Jaz. “I know this story. She used to tell it to us when she visited.”

Jaz smiled. “I know. She had this book made in Vasencea. Davin—”

“Was helping her, yeah.” Bracken turned to the next page, which was also blank until he brushed a fingertip across it. More illustrations surfaced: The brown bird attempting to fly over an icy summit and failing, returning to the green earth in lament. “How does it do that?”

“It’s self-animating paper. They make it in Vasencea with alchemy. It works like oil on water, except rather than floating on top, the color pigments stay beneath the fibers of the paper until touch activates them.” Jaz watched the moving bird fluttering, straining against a wind too strong for it. “It was a gift for you.”

Bracken forgot about being bruised and sticky with his own blood. He stared at Jaz, forgetting even to breathe.

She met his eyes, for once not turning away. “This was the last thing she wanted to do before she died. She wanted to go see you, Bracken. She just…ran out of time. And I should have sent it to you. I kept telling myself I would, but I…I was afraid you’d figure out the truth and come here and end up wasting your life here too.” She made a sound in her throat that was half sob, half laughter. “But you came anyway.”

Bracken almost put an arm around her, but Janus was lurking at the counter nearby, watching. Plus, he had a vague feeling that if he gave in to his impulse to comfort her, he would have to forgive her, and if he forgave her they would really, actually become friends. Then any agreement with Janus would be out of the question since he was technically an enemy. And Janus was his last remaining hope of ever seeing Sadie again.

Bracken slid off his stool and closed the book, clutching it against his chest. His legs wobbled as he walked to the basement door, but he didn’t stop until he had escaped to his room, just as the tears he’d been holding back began streaming down his cheeks.


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