Monday, March 30, 2009

Long Distance

Jack filled two notebooks with every recollection of Beth he could think of, from the day they met, up until (and including) his conversation with Ellie. He didn’t want her to slip out of his memory as she had everyone else’s. And if she did, he wanted something written down, some proof that she had been, that she’d existed.

He began writing questions in a third notebook. He’d wasted too much time last night having her repeat things and demanding answers that required basic ground work to fully understand. He had a lot of questions. He would be halfway through writing one, and two more would spring to mind. After an hour, his head was throbbing, his eyes burned, and he wasn’t sure if his fingers would ever uncurl from around the pen.

He went outside, in need of fresh air, sunshine. He looked across the yard, at the break in the hedgerow, at the top-story window peeking above the high shrubs. He ambled around the side of the house, looked at the broken paneling of the greenhouse. Jack and his dad were going to just replace the panel with another, he remembered. They’d cut the replacement to size already. Jack went around back, found the sheet of fiberglass. He got his work gloves, found the hammer and nails, and got to work.

It felt good to hit something, stretch his muscles, to do something other than think, and remember.

He had two nails left when his mother came around the corner.

“Jack? Goodness, your father said he was going to help with that. He’ll be pleased you took the initiative. There’s a phone call for you.”

Jack wiped a trickle of sweat from his eyes, working his gloves off and setting them down by the tools. “Nobody ever calls me.”

“Its a wonder it got through at all, the way your sisters are,” his mother agreed.

“So, who is it?” Jack asked, as he held the door for his mother. She pointed to the kitchen.

“You’ll find out soon enough,” she said. “Don’t be too long, though.”

Jack went through the doorway, picked up the phone from where it was lying on the counter just in front of the refrigerator.

“Hello?” he said, “um, this is Jack.”

“Jack? Jack Jacobs?” It was a man’s voice, and sounded as though he was shouting into a tin can. At the bottom of a well.

“Yes, sir.”

The tinny voice laughed. “I told you when we met that you couldn’t call me ‘sir.’ Or—”

“— Or ‘doctor,’ I remember, Doc— um, Mr.—”

“Call me ‘Bob.’ Or ‘Robert’ if you must. Listen, Jack. I only have time to tell you this once, and then its back up the mountain. This project is a lot, a lot bigger than they expected, and I don’t know how long I may be gone. It could be as long as a year, maybe two.”

“Mr. — Bob, um, I don’t know how to tell you this. I was going to try to write a letter—”

“Post is flaky here, Jack, especially coming into the country. I’ll send postcards if anything develops. But this was too important to risk losing in the mail. Do you have something to write with?”

Jack grabbed the pen hanging from the magnet on the side of the refrigerator, tore off a page from the grocery list pad also magnetted to the fridge.

“Okay. But—”

“These numbers are coordinates, Jack. Three sets. Ready?”

Jack write down the strings of numbers, read them back.

“Second thing, Jack. The house. Anything in there, you can use. That includes the computer, if you can figure out how to get it up and running. Not sure how many different boxes the parts are all in. I should have let Beth pack it. She’s the organized one.”

“About Beth, she—”

“Jack, you’re going to have to speak up, I can barely hear you through the static.”

“Beth is gone! She was here till yesterday, and then we kind of had an argument, and she’s gone.”

The line hissed and popped in what passed for the connection’s version of silence.

“You … remember her? Jack, you don’t know how happy I am to hear that. I’m going to have to completely revise my theories, but —" his voice broke, and it didn't sound like static. "Jack, I was afraid I would be the only one.

“Its got to be a shock. I’m sorry, Jack. I tried to get her to come with me, but she insisted on staying. Said she wanted to keep living her normal life. I never should have left, and now—”

“But she said that your work is very important.”

“A big part of it is working on a way to fix this whole mess. You say that she was there until yesterday? Amazing, simply — Ha! She did it! She found another way. Maybe not a perfect solution, but… Jack, you may be contributing to some of the greatest research ever done.”

Jack pictured the man in khaki shorts and a pith helmet, dancing a jig, doodled it on the piece of paper above the coordinates.

“I just want things to go back to normal.”

Bob laughed, the sound a tinny echo in the earpiece. “Jack, as you grow older, you’ll find that ‘normal’ is very, very subjective. Beth told me that there is something not-normal about you.”

“Great, she thinks I’m a freak.”

“No, Jack, don’t misunderstand. She meant that you are special, in some way. She wouldn’t still be there if you weren’t.

“And that means I can mention this one last thing,” the professor said when Jack didn’t say anything “My mule is about to leave without me! Tell Beth when you see her, I mistranslated. The ‘Jade Feather’ is a proper name, a person, not a thing! Pleasant dreams, Jack.”

The connection clicked, and then went silent.

“Jack? Long distance from Peru! How is the professor? What did he have to say?”

Jack stared at the paper with the coordinates. He scribbled “Jade Feather” under them, so he wouldn’t forget.

Jack shrugged. “He wanted to thank us for watching his place, he’s sorry he had to leave so soon after moving in. Oh, he might be gone a while longer. And I can use his stuff over there if I need to.”

“Well, thats very generous of him.”

“He says I might also get to help him with some research he’s working on.”

“Sounds exciting. I hope its nothing dangerous.”

“Yeah, me too,” said Jack, and wondered if it was.

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