Sometime in the near future...
Xander flew out of the portal as though shot from a cannon. His legs kicked, his arms spun. His feet hit the ground, tangled together, and he went down. He tumbled over pine needles, a small bush. His shoulder struck a tree trunk. Clawing at the bark, he scrambled to stand.
Cold wetness struck his face, contrasting with the warmth of his tears, of the blood already on his cheeks.
Holding the tree, he turned his eyes skyward. Beyond the branches and needles, ash-colored clouds churned as though stirred by angry fingers. Rain burst from them, spattering fat drops across the woods. For the briefest moment he thought, Of course, of course the heavens would be crying too!
Then he pushed off the tree and began running. His sneakers slipped and slid over the wet ground cover. They sailed out from under him, and he fell, soaking his hip and leg with mud. He rose and ran, feeling he was heading the right direction, but not certain. He crested a small hill and descended the other side.
He stopped to get his bearings. He blinked rain out of his eyes, only to have it replaced by tears. He pushed a palm into each socket, shook his head, and tried to get ahold of himself. To his right, he recognized a short cliff of earth, tree roots protruding like veins. He knew where he was.
He stumbled forward, raised his face again, and screamed: rage, pain, grief . . . it all roared out of him. He dropped his head and sobbed.
No, no, no...
This isn’t happening. It isn’t!
Then he saw the underside of his forearms, and knew it was happening . . . it had happened. The blood was still there. It glistened darker than movie blood, thicker. It coated his arms as though someone had slathered paint over them with wide brushstrokes.
Oh, God, he prayed, let it be paint! Let there have been some mistake and make it not blood, anything but blood!
But he knew better.
Raindrops plopped on his forearms, cleaning away the red in small starbursts and long streaks. Suddenly, he didn’t want it to be gone, washed away. There was a finality to it that he couldn’t stand. He crossed his arms over his chest, protecting them from the rain.
He ducked his head and plowed into the bushes. Branches scratched at his face, his arms; they snagged his clothes. He yanked himself free and tumbled out on the other side, landing in the long grass of a meadow. He pushed himself up and saw the log where he and David had first found Young Jesse—the boy who would become their great-great uncle—sitting there, carving a piece of wood.
He ran across the meadow to another clump of tall bushes and pushed through. The rain slowed and stopped. Water dripped frm the trees like ghosts of a once-mighty army. He kept going, mounted a hill, and looked down a shallow slope to where the house stood. Barely a house, really. Only the framework had been completed, two-by-fours forming the shape of the house in which Xander and his family had been living for barely eight days.
How could so much have changed in eight days?
He spotted Jesse then, standing under a dripping roof on the railless porch—at least that much of the house was finished. He was talking to a man. Had to be his father. He looked rugged: scruffy stubble over a square jaw and hollow cheeks, short-cropped hair, and muscles pushing against a dirty white T-shirt.
The man noticed Xander and scowled. He reached back to a workbench, grabbed a hammer, and stepped forward.
Jesse, seeing Xander now as well, slapped his hand against his father’s chest. A big grin broke out on the boy’s face and he yelled, “Xander!” He turned to his father. “That’s Xander, one of the boys I told you about,” he said. “Your great-great grandson.”
The man’s scowl softened. Then he noticed Xander’s condition, and his features became worried and puzzled.
Jesse hopped off the porch and ran toward Xander. “You’re back!” he said. “You said you would be, but—”
He stopped, eyed Xander up and down. He took in the blood, Xander’s deep frown, his wet, red eyes. “What... what . . . ?” He looked past Xander. “Where’s David?”
Xander fell to his knees. He covered his face and smelled the blood on his hands. He looked up at Jesse. “Dae’s...dead. Jesse, Taksidian killed him!”
Jesse’s image clouded away as tears filled Xander’s eyes. He cried, big wailing sobs. Now that he’d said it, nothing could hold back the torrent of his emotions.
Someone dropped down beside him, put strong arms around him.
It was Jesse’s father, hugging him. He didn’t say a word, just embraced him, as if knowing it was the only thing he could do. Xander reached to the arm that was crossing his chest and gripped it.
Jesse said, “Are you . . . are you sure?” His voice was high, like a six-year-old kid’s, and he was trembling. Tears poured down his cheeks.
Xander nodded. “I saw it. He...stabbed him. Taks...he ran away. Keal...our friend...he’s a nurse...he checked... there was no...no...” He couldn’t say it: no pulse, no heartbeat, because that said too much: no life...no David. It was too late.
He pushed Jesse’s father away so he could look at him. “Don’t build it,” Xander said. “Don’t build the house.” He looked past Jesse to the towering framework. “Burn it! You have to!”
Jesse’s father shook his head. “That won’t help, son.”
“But if there’s no house, then we wouldn’t move in. Taksidian wouldn’t try to take it. David and Taksidian would never meet, and Taksidian won’t kill him!”
“You’re here,” Jesse’s dad said. “If we don’t build it, someone will. You being here now proves it. We can’t change that. I’m sorry.”
“But...but...” Xander looked from the man to Jesse and back again. He dropped his head.
Jesse’s father touched his face. “You’re hurt,” he said. “That’s a bad gash on your chin.”
Xander slapped away his hand. “It’s not me!” he yelled. “David...it’s David. There has to be something we can do!” he said, then whispered, pleadingly: “Something.” He looked at Jesse, and his anguish turned to anger. “Why didn’t you warn us?” he yelled. “You see me here now, telling you what happened. You’re fourteen. You come to the house to help when you’re in your nineties! You must have known. You never warned us! Why?”
Jesse’s lips quivered. “I...” He squeezed his eyes, pushing out fat drops. “I don’t know!” He rushed to Xander and knelt in front of him. He grabbed Xander’s shoulders. “I will! I promise, I will!”
“You don’t,” Xander said. “You didn’t.” A fact. Simple as that.
Xander stared into Jesse’s eyes. They were so blue, like the old man Jesse’s. For a moment he felt it was him—Old Man Jesse, not fourteen-year-old Jesse—making the promise. Xander wanted to punch him, punch him and never stop punching him.
“I wouldn’t forget this,” Jesse said. “I wouldn’t, not ever.”
“Maybe,” Xander said, “maybe...” He turned to Jesse’s dad. “I need to write it down, what happened. I need paper, paper and a pen.”
“Son, it’s too late.”
“I need a pen and paper!” Xander yelled. “Please.”
Jesse’s dad rose, looked toward the house, back to Xander.
“Please,” Xander said. “I have to try. Something. Anything.”
Jesse’s dad trudged off toward the house, head low.
“What are you thinking?” Jesse said. He sniffed.
“Keep my letter,” Xander pleaded. “Read it every day. Maybe you won’t forget now. Maybe you will warn us.”
“I will. I promise.” Jesse’s eyes dropped to Xander’s arms. He pushed his fingers into the blood, then looked at his red fingertips. His face scrunched up in pain and sorrow.
Jesse’s dad sloshed back through the mud with a scrap of paper and a pencil. Xander leaned back to sit on his heels. He spread the paper over his thigh and scribbled a word. His hands were shaking so badly, even he couldn’t read it. He groaned, tried again. Then he drew a picture. He looked at it and knew it was pointless. David was dead. Jesse never warned them. He crumpled the paper in his fist.
He leaned forward, wanting nothing more than to disappear, to be gone from this pain and this day.
His brother’s face filled his mind: floppy long hair, dimples, Dad’s hazel eyes—more green than brown. Those eyes always seemed to sparkle . . . until they didn’t. He had held David in his arms, yelling for help. So much blood. David had watched Xander’s face. He hadn’t seemed scared, he’d seemed almost at peace. Then his breathing had failed, and those eyes stopped sparkling; they had focused on something far away and stayed that way.
Xander’s forehead landed in the mud between Jesse’s knees. He felt the boy’s hands on his back, comforting. But nothing could comfort him now. He let out a long howl. The tears came again, the wrenching sobs, and he knew they would never stop...