40 Souls to Keep - 20. Chapter 20
In the lifetime before this one, Jase had ridden plenty of Greyhound buses. Mostly to and from college, a numbing eight-hour drive that stopped in half a dozen towns between Virginia Tech and his childhood home in Maryland. He’d gone to VT on an engineering scholarship, which didn’t treat him as well as a football scholarship would have, but then he’d always been a crappy football player and a good student with a head for numbers. The son of a Metro station attendant took what he could get.
He’d been an ordinary student who’d scored an ordinary job in computer networking three months out of school and followed the American Dream as far as it went for a skinny, awkward gay kid. His financial successes were as unremarkable as his emotional ones. He’d lived modestly and had never broken the law.
Remembering it now reminded him of an epic movie—the kind that ran too long and plodded forward painfully. The kind of story that nobody cared about. Completely unremarkable.
He superimposed the person he’d become over the shadow of who he’d been, but the silhouettes didn’t match. They weren’t even close, which led to another whole discussion, too complex for Jase to tackle at his juncture: why him?
He’d been no hero back then, in mind or in spirit. Why had he been chosen?
The countryside ascended from the flats of southern Florida to the gentle rolling hills of Ocala, where the bus stopped for the fourth time since he’d boarded it in Naples that morning. At this rate, he’d reach his destination in a week, a cruel reward considering how long he’d waited.
It had taken all of five minutes after healing Lucas to realize he’d lost his power of influence. Martinez had smoothed his way with the police, but luckily they hadn’t given him more than a passing glance in the scramble to figure out how Swift had conned them all. The blame game had started before Jase had even boarded the ambulance with Lucas.
After twenty minutes in beautiful Ocala, the driver gave them leave to file back on board. Jase chose a seat near the back of the bus and closed his eyes. The trip would pass more quickly in slumber, but was that what he wanted? Of all the times he’d imagined the final leg of his journey, ambivalence had never played a part. Yet here it was, choking him. Crushing his heart.
When night finally stole the view out his window—somewhere in South Carolina—he closed his eyes and thought of Lucas, even though he’d promised himself not to only an hour before.
He made the trip up the coast in a day and a half, arriving in Springfield for the evening rush hour. The bus lumbered through the crowded streets and crawled toward the station. “Springfield, Virginia,” the driver mumbled into the speaker as he opened the door. “Franconia and Alexandria. Metro stop for the blue and yellow lines. Thirty minutes.”
Jase gathered up the backpack he’d brought and climbed down into the chilly October air, missing the balmy warmth of Florida with the first gust of wind. He glanced through the window to the large clock inside the station, squinting to see through the dirt-smeared glass. Four-thirty. If things were as they had been, though there was no guarantee of that, he’d find the house empty when he arrived, abandoned before dawn to beat the traffic into the city.
Rush hour made the Metro a nightmare, but King Street was only one stop north. Twenty minutes later he was walking through Old Town Alexandria, leaving the majority of the traffic behind.
Very little planning had gone into this part of the trip, and it probably should have. But as the businesses thinned, and the neighborhood turned more residential, Jase couldn’t work up more than a passing worry. He didn’t expect to find anyone at their old house. James had never been the kind of guy to set down roots. Purchasing it in the first place had pained him, though he’d done it for Jase. Unfettered by that promise, surely he would have moved on.
The roads grew narrower. The houses here were small, older, but meticulously maintained, on par with their steep property value. Seven years and a deep recession had crippled most of the rest of the country, but apparently Old Town floated on the surface of that sea of despair, buoyed by location and limited supply.
Jase didn’t see a single For Sale sign on his seven-block trek, and he smiled, vindicated. He remembered his elation all those years ago when a house hit the market in their price range. James had been less than enthusiastic, only caving when Jase had worked the numbers to show him the investment potential. Real estate was all timing. The neighborhood had been on the high side of affordable then, but with two incomes they’d managed the mortgage. No way could they have done so now. Then again, he was measuring his success against a seven-year-old memory.
He rounded the corner onto North Payne holding his breath, then released it in a rush when the house came into view. White with black shutters, it looked exactly the same, though the landscaping had matured. A small bench on the front porch and some potted mums helped perpetuate a lived-in feel. A Wall Street Journal, rolled and bagged, lay on the driveway.
Jase grabbed for the picket fence when his knees went weak. Missing an unremembered place was no different than lamenting the loss of something never owned. Home had been as nebulous as the moon for seven years. Then for two days, it had been a memory, both anticipated and resented. None of that prepared him for the reality of lily-white siding, brass numbers on a mailbox, and a familiar basketball hoop mounted at the head of the short concrete driveway.
Stumbling a little, he approached the front door, unable to shake the idea that it would all be snatched away if he turned his back. He stepped off the porch, setting one foot in the mounded mulch covering the flower bed, and reached for the stone frog hiding in the shadow of a tree root. It peeled away from the ground reluctantly, but the key was where it had always been, duct-taped to the underside.
Shaking, Jase slid it into the keyhole, ready for it to stick, but the lock disengaged with a snap. Belatedly, he thought to knock, rapping his knuckles on the open door as he peered into the living room. “Hello?” He cleared his throat and tried again. “Anybody home?”
He was playing a dangerous game. Maybe James had sold the house years ago? He didn’t relish going to jail for breaking and entering when he’d just earned his freedom. Then his eyes fell to a familiar picture hanging in the foyer, and he knew he’d come to the right place.
James loved photography, and their house had been filled with his prints. The one on the foyer wall had been his favorite, a picture of the beach in Mendocino where they’d met. Shot at twilight, the breaking waves appeared luminescent. Their own little bit of magic.
As tempting as it was to touch, Jase kept his curious hands to himself. He sat at the kitchen table while he waited, eyes playing over the details of cabinets, countertop and appliances, disconcerted to find everything looking well used, when in his mind it was less than a year old.
Hands folded, he waited, staring at the two mugs sitting side by side on the sink, each with a bit of cold coffee in the bottom. Barely half an hour later, a car pulled into the driveway—a tiny red hybrid. It parked out of sight, close to the porch. The front door opened and two deep voices floated forward from the foyer, speaking in low tones.
A familiar laugh had Jase catching his breath, and then, before he had time to wonder if barging in and making himself at home had been the best idea, James walked into the kitchen. He looked as if the past seven years had never happened, even wearing a suit in the same shade of gray Jase recalled him donning their last morning together. A few extra lines around his eyes belied a man closing in on forty, but except for that, he was exactly who Jase had left behind all those years ago, in appearance, at any rate.
Those seven years hadn’t been as kind to Jase; he knew that. They’d made him as hard and cynical in some ways as he’d become open-minded in others. He’d been thin all his life; now he was gaunt. Laughter had always been a few seconds away, around every corner, but only recently, in the past few days, had it been creeping back, coaxing his mouth from its permanent frown. Then, he’d been carefree. Now, he moved carefully. His eyes were haunted.
“James,” he said, standing.
James froze, still on the threshold. His mouth fell open. His briefcase slipped from loose fingers and clunked to the floor. Raising a shaky hand to the frame, he stared at Jase without speaking.
“I’m sorry. I know this is a shock.” Jase took a step forward.
“Michael,” James said, and for a moment, Jase thought he was calling the other man forward. Then he realized. I’m Michael.
The moment stretched, and Jase readied another apology, only to have it crushed in his chest when James sprang forward. “Michael.”
He squeezed Jase close, arms tight around his back. “I thought you were dead.” Pulling back far enough to meet Jase’s eyes, tears in his own, he said, “We all thought you were dead.”
“I’m sorry for that. I can explain, but it’s going to sound crazy.”
“You don’t have to. I—I don’t even care. As long as you’re okay.”
Another man stepped into the room, eyes hard and expression carefully blank. He took care to set his briefcase down quietly next to James’s but didn’t say a word. Jase released James and stepped back, feeling the break in his heart as strongly as in his body. “Hello.” He nodded at the stranger.
“Oh.” James gestured the other man forward. “Michael, this is Casey. He...”
Jase filled the awkward pause. “You don’t need to explain anything to me.” He offered his hand and Casey took it, eyes wary.
“The famous Michael.” His soft voice was at odds with his firm grip. “I’m glad to see you alive. You have no idea what your disappearance did to James.”
Jase tamped down his irritation at the biting words. They were probably true. Plus, he recognized protectiveness when he saw it. He released Casey’s hand. “And you have no idea how sorry I am for that. I promise, I never would have hurt him on purpose.”
Casey’s piercing gaze softened slightly. “I’m sure, if what James has told me about you is true.”
Still cautious. And blind with jealousy. Jase said the one thing he knew would defuse that. “I’m not staying.” Casey’s relief was so blatant, Jase almost smiled.
“Oh.” James reached to touch him, pulling back at the last second. “You’re not?”
“I can’t. But I wanted to see you and explain what happened.”
“Okay.” James sank into a chair while Casey hovered uncertainly.
Jase waved him forward. “Please stay.”
He kept it simple, deciding at the last minute to leave most of the details to himself, telling them a story about a head injury, the resulting amnesia and years of wandering. Then of another blow to the head, received just days before—that part was true enough—and the return of his memory.
It wasn’t that he feared their reaction to the truth. He simply didn’t want to take the time to deal with it. If that was self-serving, then so be it. He deserved a bit of selfishness.
“I can’t stay,” he said again. “But it was important for me to see you. Make sure you were all right.”
“Thanks,” James whispered. “I’m okay. Great, really.” Casey put a confirming arm around his shoulders, his expression more friendly now that Jase had announced his intention to leave.
When he’d entered the house, Jase had refrained from nosing around. The matched cups on the sink had been a clear sign, and not an unwelcome one. He thought about asking now if he could walk through the rooms, say goodbye to a place that still felt like home. But James’s tortured expression and Casey’s quiet hostility decided the issue. It was better this way.
Whatever possessions he’d once owned, most were undoubtedly gone. As for what remained, another man now called them his. This wasn’t his home anymore.
Indulging in one final glance around the room, he stood and slung his backpack over his shoulder. The itch he’d been putting out of his mind for two days, the desire to get back to Lucas, became unbearable. He took a tentative step forward, and James met him halfway, taking him into his arms. “Goodbye,” Jase whispered, turning his face to James’s ear. “I’m glad you’re okay.”
And equally glad he wasn’t staying. They’d never had a problem communicating, even silently. That hadn’t changed. Jase let himself out the front door, ignoring the furious whispering that had begun in the kitchen the moment he walked out.
Philip had found his happy ending, and so had he. He hadn’t come here to reclaim his old life, only to bid it farewell. Nothing compelled him to stay. Whatever heavy hand had been on the pulse of his destiny, it was gone.
It wasn’t until a hand caught Jase’s elbow that he turned to find James behind him. “I called you three times. Have you gone deaf as well as stopped eating?”
Jase hefted his backpack higher on his shoulder. Deaf to certain things, yes. “I’m sorry. I don’t answer to that name anymore.” The explanation lacked substance, but James let it slide. A plastic shoebox was tucked under his arm, which he gripped tightly in both hands for a moment before offering it to Jase.
“I saved these. I thought...I always hoped that one day you’d be back for them.”
Warily, Jase accepted the box and peeled off the white lid. Inside were a stack of papers, including his birth certificate, Social Security card and a folded portfolio with Investments inked onto the outside in black pen. Remnants of a life he no longer desired, but invaluable if he wanted to make a fresh start. “Thank you.”
In answer, James plucked his wallet from his back pocket. “Do you need money?”
He did. Life was no longer a simple matter of asking people to pay his way, but the thought of taking from James chafed. He’d taken so much already. “I’m fine,” Jase said, pushing the wallet away.
As stubborn as always, James didn’t relent. “You look like you haven’t eaten in a month. I have no idea—never mind. Please take something.” He reached into his bifold and emerged with a handful of twenties. “This house is still half yours. I never—Casey wanted me to look into having you declared—” He swallowed. “I couldn’t. So your name’s still on the deed. I can buy you out, if that would be okay. Just call when you’re ready. But for now, take this. It’s the least I can do, and if you ever need anything else, you know where I am.” He pushed the money at Jase. “Please take it.”
Jase did, recognizing that James felt the need to make amends as well, though he had no reason to do so.
“Thank you.” He pocketed the cash and fit the top back onto the plastic box. “This will make things easier.”
James nodded, forcing a smile, and Jase returned it before starting back to the Metro station. The money would be enough to carry him back to Lucas and Macy.
More than enough to get him home.
* * *
In Savannah, a young woman boarded the bus. Shoulders slumped, head bowed, she could have been ninety the way she moved, though Jase pegged her for no more than twenty-one or twenty-two. He watched through sleepy eyes as she moved up the aisle. Long brown hair, greasy and unkempt, framed a pretty face, though Jase imagined she’d be far more attractive without the cold frown. Despite her lapse in personal hygiene, her clothing looked brand-new and expensive, a fact proven when she moved past Jase’s seat. A price tag fluttered from the sleeve of her jacket.
His sleepiness vanished as she passed. Alert, he sensed her stop one row back, where an elderly lady was sitting. They’d chatted briefly at a stop in North Carolina. Dot was her name, traveling to see her daughter in Orlando.
“I’d like you to move across the aisle,” the girl said to Dot. “I’m very tired and I’d like two seats together so I can stretch out.”
Wouldn’t they all? While the bus north had never reached half full, even on the busiest legs, the trip south was a different story. Nearly every seat was taken as people fled the approaching winter in large numbers, like flocks of geese. He smirked, expecting Dot to issue a polite no. His eyes flew open when he heard her answer.
“Of course, dear,” she said. “Give me one moment.” A flurry of activity ensued and out of the corner of his eye, Jase watched Dot settle herself down in the cramped seat across the aisle.
“Hey, what’d you say to her?” someone a few aisles back asked.
The young woman’s answer drifted to Jase’s ears. “Read your book and leave me alone.” Exhaustion, not derision, rang in her tone. And everybody left her alone.
Jase debated for a brief second before standing and moving one aisle back. Without comment, he picked up the satchel the girl had placed on the seat and sat down beside her. She glared. “Do you mind?”
Jase handed her the satchel. “Do I mind what?”
Something in his tone made her rethink her next words. She grabbed the satchel and settled on a reply that bordered on polite. “Can you please move?”
Their proximity afforded Jase a more detailed inspection. He’d thought her angry, and there was some of that in her face. Deep lines cut away from the corners of her eyes and mouth. He wondered when she’d last smiled. But mostly he saw exhaustion, a bone-deep weariness that he was very familiar with. And under all of that: terror. Not the sudden kind of fear that got your heart pounding. The kind that stayed and festered.
Jase had never known that emotion himself, but he’d been several years older when chosen, and, even lost and alone, possessed the self-confidence that came with age.
On closer inspection, this girl looked barely eighteen. The longer Jase looked at her, the harder she trembled. When she saw his eyes drop to her shaking hands, she folded them across her chest, clasping her arms. “Why are you staring at me?” she asked, earlier belligerence absent.
“I’m sorry,” Jase said. “I don’t mean to upset you. But you look like you’re in trouble, and I’d like to help.”
Her eyes brimmed with tears. “You can’t help me, mister. So leave me alone, okay? Please go away.”
Yep. Absolutely terrified. And as close to the edge as Jase had been when Philip had come to him. There are no coincidences.
“Listen,” he said, gentling his voice. “Don’t be scared. I’m not going to hurt you. But I’m not going to leave you alone, either. You can ask me to take a hike all you want, and it won’t make a bit of difference. That sweet voice of yours doesn’t work on me.” Her mouth dropped open. Jase couldn’t help but smile, knowing now how’d he looked to Philip all those years ago.
“Ten minutes!” the driver called.
Jase sighed. How to proceed? Deciding for straightforward—it had worked for Philip—he rolled up his sleeve, staring at the number with a kind of appreciation he’d never had before. “This is mine,” he said, turning his arm so there was no mistaking what she was seeing. “What number do you have?”
“I...” She swallowed, clasping her arms tighter. “I have twenty-one.”
Twenty-one. It hardly seemed fair. Just half of his quota. But another look at her face and the twinge of injustice faded. So young. “It’s going to be okay,” he said. “I promise.”
The tears spilled down her cheeks. “Really?”
“Yes.” He stuck out his hand. “I’m Jase. What’s your name?”
She dropped her eyes to answer. Her hand, when she took his, was ice-cold. “Claire.”
“Did you pick it?” An inane question, perhaps, but she nodded.
“I saw it in a magazine, and I thought...it sounded pretty.”
“It’s very pretty,” Jase assured her.
“You don’t have to humor me, mister.”
Jase swallowed a smile. “It’s Jase, remember?”
“I remember. I’m not an idiot, either.”
This time, he couldn’t stop the grin. “You know what, Claire?” He gathered his backpack in one hand and her bag in the other. “What do you say we go get some lunch? There will be other buses. Unless...” He looked pointedly at her left arm. “You have somewhere you need to be.”
Claire shook her head, looking up at him through stringy hair. “Why do you want to go to lunch?”
Shrugging, Jase played along. “I’m hungry.”
“Why,” she clarified, “do you want to go to lunch with me?”
“Because.” Jase stood. “I think you have questions. And there’s a good chance I know the answers to at least some of them. Interested?” He held out his hand.
Choking down a sob, she took it.
* * *
Returning to Lucas took longer than he expected. He promised Clare he’d stay at her side until she was ready to be alone, and they spent two days together, walking the haunted streets of Savannah, swapping their own personal ghost stories. From Philip, Jase had needed information and reassurance. Claire soaked up Jase’s advice and never stopped asking questions, but what she really wanted was a friend. More, she craved security. Familiarity. A place where people knew her. A home.
“Come anytime,” he told her. “Or call. Don’t think twice.”
She patted the side pocket of her bag. In the small, battered notebook she carried was Lucas’s name and address. That information had been easy enough to get off the internet—by some miracle, there was only one Lucas Jacobson in Naples. He truly was one of a kind.
“You’ll be there?” she asked.
“I hope to be.”
Whatever she read in his eyes, the questions stopped there. Intelligent and witty, she’d come around quickly. Understanding her mission had helped. Watching her put the pieces together and step up to her task had been both satisfying and sad. Jase tugged her hair—now clean and in a well-coiffed ponytail—and smiled. “Good luck, Claire.”
She threw her arms around his neck, only letting go when the bus beeped for the third time. “You too.”
* * *
Living like a normal human again did have its drawbacks. Stepping off the Greyhound in Naples felt like coming home, but in reality that home was several miles away, and Jase didn’t have the money for a taxi. Instead, he endured another two hours of public transit before disembarking at a shopping center a half a mile from Lucas’s address. Jase took the directions from his pocket, crudely sketched from MapQuest, and set off.
Dread and anticipation warred. He’d left Lucas less than a week ago, but they’d parted with no promises, no plans for the future. Jase had been too scared to offer anything. Too filled with memories of past and present.
Their connection had been forged in a crisis. Would it hold together now?
Lost in thought, he didn’t notice the car coasting alongside him until he glanced up. Lucas brought the Jetta to a full stop and leaned an elbow out the window. The car’s familiar chug-chug, along with Lucas’s breezy nonchalance, brought Jase’s heart into his throat. His pulse stuttered, then began to race.
They stared at each other until Lucas tipped his sunglasses down over his nose. “Need a ride?”
Jase crossed the street on unsteady legs and leaned down, putting them eye to eye. Lucas didn’t move an inch, his face revealing nothing, but from the backseat, Macy waved frantically.
Jase waved back. “I’m not going much farther, actually. Just a block or two.”
Lucas ran his tongue along his bottom teeth. “Headed anywhere special?”
“Yes, as a matter of fact. Home.”
A grin broke over Lucas’s face. “In that case,” he said. “Get in.”
And that's a wrap.
Another round of thanks to my amazing beta reader, Betsy, and my editor, Deb.
Thank you everyone here at GA who followed along with the story. The comments and recognition are always appreciated. More than you know.
Thank you for reading. I hope you enjoyed it.
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