“Regardless of How Lost You Are Returning From, Regardless of How Far” by Anthony R. Cardno
A strange man sits in the high-backed Adirondack chair on the front porch of my house. His posture is relaxed; he looks like he belongs to the house and the house belongs to him. I’ve been gone a year. I’m sure my sudden disappearance shocked my wife and ten-year-old son as much as it did me. I can’t help but wonder if this man is my replacement.
Wary of the stranger, I pause in the shade of an apple tree I don’t remember being on the other side of the road and take in the farmstead I inherited from my father. The house is larger. In my absence, Colleen has added what looks like two rooms on the back. How quickly after I disappeared did she make the addition? And why?
Maybe my wife didn’t enlarge the house. Maybe she was forced to sell after I went missing. Maybe, with his father gone, it made sense to move my son closer to town, closer to school, closer to friends who could help them both cope. Maybe the porch the stranger is sitting on is no longer mine.
The shade of the apple tree helps slightly with the headache I feel coming on. It could be the weather: hotter than I’m accustomed to thanks to my time away, hotter than I remember August in central New York State ever being. I wipe the sweat from my bare forehead and onto my shirt. The material, from the place I went, wicks the moisture away as though it never existed. Which would be great if it wasn’t immediately replaced by more sweat beading on my forehead and trickling down the back of my scalp.
So the headache could be from the weather. Or it could be from the mounting questions that only one of us here can answer.
There’s nothing for it but to go introduce myself to him and ask after my family.
I amble up to the front fence, my gait nonchalant. No outward reflection of the headache or the turmoil I’m feeling inside. I learned to mask pain while I was gone.
I draw the attention of the man on the porch when I stop walking and place a hand on his gate. (No, damn it. My gate.)
“Afternoon,” he calls out, voice pitched just loud enough to carry down the walk to me, and just friendly enough to clue me in that he knows me for a stranger. “Can I help you with something?”
That might be the politest way to say “what are you doing on my property” that I’ve ever heard.
“I was hoping to talk to Colleen Durest,” I find myself answering, tongue thick. Pronouncing my last name in English for the first time in a year is not easy.
A shadow flicks across the man’s face, his body language immediately less curiously amiable and more guardedly confused.
“I’m afraid she no longer lives here,” he answers as he descends the steps and comes along the cemented walk. A walk that was just loose gravel a year ago. How has so much changed? “I don’t think I caught your name. How exactly did you know her?”
“Can you tell me where I might find her?” I deflect with a question of my own. I have my reasons for being guarded, but what right does he have to be the same? “Or if not her, then her son Danny?”
As I say my son’s name, the man reaches the gate. He stands with his arms across his chest. Something about that action, that posture, draws my attention.
“I’m Danny Durest. And I’m pretty sure we’ve never met, Mister…?”
I’m better at masking pain than I am surprise. He notices, I’m sure.
The crossed-arms posture is the same he used on me when he was ten and wasn’t getting his way. His hair is graying at the temples, there are wrinkles on his forehead that could be from laughter or from tears, and there are tiny crows’ feet at the outside of each eye. But those eyes – those eyes are my son’s, as bright blue and intense as they ever were.
My son is fifty years old if he’s a day.
I’ve been gone a lot longer than one year. That explains the addition to the house. And the cemented walk. And the familiarity with which this stranger in my son’s body sits on my porch.
Sweat from my forehead trickles into my eyes. It’s not the only reason my eyes are suddenly red and stinging.
I reach up to wipe the sweat from my forehead, and a wave of dizziness passes through me.
“Mister?” My son, my adult son who has grown up without me, reaches for me.
“Why is it so damned hot…?” I start to ask. Whatever his answer is, I don’t hear it, lost as it is in the buzz building in my ears. I’m going to vomit. Leaning forward to brace myself on the fence is the last thing I do before I pass out.
It happened when I was alone, of course.
If I had made a different decision – if Colleen had accompanied me that Wednesday afternoon, if I’d waited another hour until Danny was home from his friend’s house, if I’d gone to the back field in the morning, if I’d waited until the next day – perhaps none of it would have happened. Perhaps we’d have gone together. Perhaps I’d not have missed my son growing up.
Or perhaps someone else would have gone in my stead: some teenager short-cutting through our field between school and the river. They did that often enough.
I didn’t question whether it was meant to be. I questioned how it happened. I questioned whether I’d get home or die where I was. But I didn’t question why. There was time, while I was gone, to learn a new language and a new culture, but not much time for deep introspection about destiny.
There were three parcels of land my father hadn’t sold off. The first held our house and fenced-in yard. The second held a small apple orchard of about a hundred trees. The third was an open field the same size as the orchard.
So I was alone, in the empty back field, on a weekday afternoon. I meandered through the orchard, checking for signs of unhealthy trees that might need pruning or removal. Eventually, I crossed from orchard to field.
Not thinking too hard about where I was going or why, I wandered the trod paths crisscrossing the field. The day was clear, the temperature comfortable, and whatever stress I might have been carrying from sitting at my computer all morning had long since melted away. All was well until I put my foot down on a spot that didn’t support my weight.
The momentum of my stride awkwardly arrested, I fell, eyes closed and arms thrust out to prevent a collision with dirt and rock that never came. Instead of hitting the ground, I kept falling. Maybe I was in a sinkhole. They were unusual in our area, but not unheard of. I opened my eyes. Rock and soil rushed past me.
I was going to die. Someone once said, “gravity works.” When I hit bottom, I would be mangled. My only consolation: this was happening in my own back yard. My body would be found eventually.
I don’t know how long I fell before the light began to change: warmer, more golden. I knew this was impossible: the farther I got from the surface, the less light should be reaching me. And then another impossibility: my descent began to slow, like the pull of gravity was changing.
It occurred to me that maybe I wasn’t falling into a hole at all. Perhaps I’d suffered a massive heart attack and this experience was my dying brain’s way of processing the cessation of all bodily function. Maybe when I hit “bottom” I would finally lose consciousness and be gone.
Unable to speak, I sent farewell thoughts to Colleen and Danny.
And then I did hit bottom, but not the bottom I was expecting. I came to land with a thud no more forceful than I would have felt if I had actually just tripped over a rock and fallen to solid ground. It jarred my bones, barked my palms and knees. There would be bruising, and blood, but I was alive.
Impossibly, enthusiastically, alive.
And definitely not on Earth.
The large red sun above me was one indication. The purple grass around me was another. But the clincher was the crowd of hairy reptilian tri-peds standing over me.
“Hey mister, are you awake?”
The voice that cuts through the fuzz in my brain is young. Young enough that without looking I don’t know if it belongs to a boy or a girl. I keep my eyes closed, not yet ready to revisit the present I’ve found myself in, where everything has changed and possibly not for the better. Hoping the child will get bored and walk away from me.
“I can see your eyelids fluttering,” the child adds after a moment. “Dad says that’s how he can tell I’m faking still being asleep.”
“And do you fake being asleep often?” I ask this with my eyes still closed but fluttering my eyelids and eyebrows. The child giggles.
“I knew you were awake! And yes. I hate going to school.”
I open my eyes, and see a young girl, probably ten. The same age Danny was when I left. How can I cope with this? My son has a child of his own. It’s obvious: her eyes are Danny’s deep-seated blue. Her hair is Danny’s tawny brown but down to her shoulders where his was always cut short. Her smile is as natural and innocent as his had been at that age.
The room around us is warm but utilitarian. I’m laid out on a twin bed, on top of very plain covers that complement the earth-tones of the room’s walls. The furniture looks hand-crafted: the round table next to the bed, the dresser across the room, the chair beside it. This is a room for visitors, but I’m left to wonder just how much use it gets.
I’d like to imagine it’s been waiting for me, but I suspect that is far from the truth.
I start to sit up, and the girl’s smile disappears.
“You should stay on the bed,” she says in a tone that is more command than suggestion. “You passed out and Dad carried you in here. He said when you woke up you’d probably still be a bit dizzy from being dehydrated.”
“He’s a smart man, your father,” I acknowledge. “I was feeling a bit overheated while I was talking to him at the fence.”
“He’s a certified nursing assistant,” she explains. “He knows this stuff.” I am not surprised my son went into a career helping others. He takes after his mother.
“I’d like to thank him. Is he around?”
“You’ve been asleep for like an hour. He had to go to town, but he should be home in a few minutes.”
“He left you here alone with a stranger?” I can’t help the alarm in my voice. How much had the world changed in forty years that it was now safe to leave your children with a completely unknown visitor?
Or was I really unknown? Had Danny recognized me after all, despite how I hadn’t aged?
“No, silly,” the girl answers. “My brothers are here, playing games in the living room. Dad said one of us should check on you every fifteen minutes or so, and getting Jared and Xavier to interrupt a game to do a chore is hard enough for our parents, it’s impossible for me. So I just keep checking on you myself.”
Brothers. My son has three children, not one. I wonder if the boys take after him or their mother.
“That’s a relief. I didn’t think Danny would be so irresponsible with his children…”
“How do you know?”
Damn it. I need to think before I speak.
“I’ve heard of your father and grandmother, from … someone I used to know. That’s part of why I came past the house.”
“Came to the house, you mean.”
Danny’s voice, from the door, startles the girl. A blush rises to her face. Was she supposed to check on me but not talk? It seems so from the way her demeanor changes.
“Morgyn, go tell your brothers that screen time is over, and to wash up and then help Poppa set for dinner.” He looks at me, face failing to betray any emotion. “Would you like to join us? We can set an extra seat.”
“I… don’t want to be any trouble,” I answer. I really don’t. But I do want some answers, some idea of what’s gone on in my absence. Danny has kids, and now I see a ring on his finger. Colleen isn’t here, so where is she? And who is this “Poppa?” His wife’s father?
“It’s never trouble to help a stranger passing through. My father taught me that.” A distant but closed look comes across his face. It lasts less than a second, but I see it. Then he smiles down at his daughter and pats her on the head. “Go on now, I’d like to talk to our visitor.”
His face changes again as soon as his daughter’s footsteps have faded down the hall.
“Now, before we eat dinner,” he says, his voice part ice and part venom, “you’re going to tell me who you are, what your purpose is for coming here, and why you look like you could be my younger brother.”
Disoriented from the fall, I wondered if I was in a coma, my suffocating brain giving me one last adventure. The kind of adventure I’d read about but never dreamed I could never have on my own: John Carter on Barsoom, Adam Strange on Rann. But I could feel the grass beneath my hands, feel the crisp, cooler air on my skin, hear the tri-ped’s animated vocalizations. It felt real. It had to be real.
The Jezseret, as I’d come to learn they were called, didn’t know what to make of me when I appeared suddenly in their midst. I was unlike anything they’d ever seen: relatively hairless, completely scale-less, and lacking one leg. They treated me at first with the caution I imagine men felt when encountering a new species of animal for the first time. Wary, but not antagonistic.
I earned trust by learning, however slowly, their language and their customs, and by performing tasks they realized a biped could do easier than a tri-ped could. I learned what food I could safely eat, after a few close calls. I learned which wild animals were predators and which were prey. I learned how to maneuver through their society without causing offense. They learned enough about me to know what I could do for them and what I couldn’t, but learning my language was not a priority for them. The closest they came to getting my name correct was “Durzz” and they never attempted to put my first and last name together.
Somehow – because of differences in musculature or gravity or any of a dozen other reasons – I was able to cross the plains faster than any of the Jezseret. So I rose through the servant ranks enough to become an inter-city courier. For the Jezseret, a message delivered in person, even by courier, held greater importance.
I was a novelty, I was useful, I was left to flourish with fewer and fewer restrictions. I had a modest apartment in the city nearest to where I’d first appeared. I had what one might call friends. I was rarely alone unless I wanted to be, and on those occasions my privacy was respected.
Nights, after the friends I’d made went to their own homes, were the worst. There wasn’t a single night I didn’t dream of Colleen and Danny. Some dreams were happy, some wistful. I woke up from all of them anxious, the tightness in my chest unrelenting.
I visited the site of my arrival as often as possible, always hoping a portal would open and I would see home, see Danny playing at the edge of the orchard or Colleen wandering the field calling my name. I’d see that they missed me, that I hadn’t been gone long enough to be forgotten or replaced. But that path, it seemed, was closed to me.
A year after my arrival among the Jezseret, a portal finally appeared. I was returning from a westerly city, having dispatched my courier duties. I was thinking of Danny, of what he’d be doing on what I guessed was a late summer afternoon at home. And then it was there in the air in front of me. A hole, through which I could see the road my home was on.
I was alone. Friends and important government people were expecting me for a dinner celebrating the anniversary of my arrival among the Jezseret, but bypassing the portal was never even an option. I’d have no evidence of where I’d been. Colleen and Danny would be angry with me. They probably wouldn’t believe my story. But I’d be home with the ones I loved.
I walked through the portal, into weather far warmer than I’d become accustomed to. I turned to see the portal close behind me. And all I could see was long dirt road. I turned again, this time toward my house, and saw a man sitting on my porch looking more comfortable than I thought he had a right to.
Appearances and inferences, both are deceiving. Of course he has a right to look so comfortable on my porch. He’s my son, and it isn’t my porch anymore. I lost the right to call this my home forty years ago, when I fell through that hole in the ground.
I should have found a way home sooner. I shouldn’t have become some complacent, so comfortable. I missed Colleen and Danny. I loved them. Why hadn’t I tried harder to get back to them? Why had I even bothered trying to fit in among an alien race when my reasons for living were who-knew-how-many galaxies away?
Danny continues to stare me down, arms crossed in that oh-so-familiar gesture. I haven’t moved from my seated position on the bed, haven’t said a word since he offered his ultimatum.
No, not ultimatum. I firmly believe he’ll still feed me before he sends me on my way. But it will be a cold quiet meal, if I don’t answer his questions.
What do I tell him? How do I start?
“What do you remember of your father?” The question is out before I can stop it. His answer will affect everything but change nothing. He’s taken aback for a moment. I guess he thought I’d just start spilling my story because of his forceful words and crossed arms. Crossed arms that worked on me when he was ten, but that I am no longer easily swayed by. So much has changed.
“I loved him. He was my hero.” The words are quiet, slow to come. “What ten-year-old country boy doesn’t idolize his father, especially when that father never yells, only doles out fair punishments, uses every moment to teach and play and be present? I had friends whose fathers were far more distant. I thought I was the lucky one.”
“You were,” I interrupt. “Some of those men…”
“At least they stuck around!” He doesn’t raise his voice, but the anger bleeds through anyway. “Or if they did leave, they made sure their kids knew why and where they were going. At least they didn’t disappear in the middle of a weekday afternoon, while their kid was out playing and their wife was at work! At least they gave some kind of closure! He abandoned me, and when I realized he really wasn’t coming back, I hated him.” His voice drops to a whisper. “I’ve tried to move past it. For the sake of my family, I have. But part of me still hates me.”
I cannot think of what to say. No words could be adequate to make up for forty years of missed birthdays, school events, girlfriends, a wedding, and the birth of children. I blink back tears, take deep breaths to loosen the pain in my chest. I feel like I’m dying. I’m in freefall again, plummeting down another unexpected hole that has opened up before me even though I’m sitting still.
“It can’t have been easy…” I finally say, my voice a croak of ache and tension.
“What do you know about it?” His voice is sharp, cutting but there are tears in his eyes. Rage warring with re-opened grief. “Have you ever been abandoned in your life?”
“I … no, not in the way you have. But I’ve been separated, against my will, from the people I loved, with no way to get back to them, and I hurt every day because of it.” There are tears in my eyes as well. “Every. Day.”
We lock eyes for a second: the pain of abandonment and separation a bond a kinder universe wouldn’t force us to share. We’ve both lost so much. It’s only just hitting me, but Danny’s had decades to have pain build to hate and then fade to disappointment. And then to have it dredged up again by an unfamiliar familiar face…
“Who are you?” he whispers. How can I tell him? “For a second I wanted to believe my father was somehow back. You could almost be him, as impossible as that should be.” He pulls in a deep breath to push back more tears. “But then you asked about my mother. You didn’t know what happened to her.” His voice again turns cold, almost hateful. “And I thought ‘no, if my father was coming back, it would only happen if he knew my mother was dead from cancer. Maybe then he’d come to pay his respects, even if he was ten years late.'”
“Oh, god.” The words rasp out of me, and the force of them takes Danny by surprise. Dead, she’s dead, my dear Colleen is dead. I’ll never see her again. The universe is colder than I ever imagined it could be. I’m sobbing, and I can’t stop.
Danny, unsure of why I’m reacting this way, can’t quite figure out what to do next. Through blurry eyes I can see him almost take a step towards me, then take a step back. Raise his hand, then lower it. Open his mouth, but not speak.
In that moment, I know what I have to do.
“He’s dead, too. That’s why I’m here.” The words hit Danny as hard as his about Colleen hit me. He rocks in place like I’ve punched him. I don’t pause, the words fabricated on the fly and rushed out before I can second-guess them. “He loved you. He loved your mother. But something drew him further away than he thought he’d go. He wanted to turn around, wanted to come back for you, but every day that went by the road seemed harder to find. He never married again, but had another son. It feels like just yesterday that his heart gave out. He said your mother’s name and yours, and I knew I had to find you. I’m sorry I didn’t tell you sooner. I was shocked at how much I felt like this should have been home, and then … well, the heat got to me and I passed out. It’s a lot warmer here than where I’m from.”
Danny stares at me, the whole time I’m talking, tears blurring his own vision. I’m not sure he’s really seeing me … or seeing the me I’m constructing to break his heart less than I’ve already broken it.
I fall silent and wait. Minutes go by, what would be milliseconds among the Jezseret. This is too hard, on both of us.
“So you’re my younger brother?” Again, the words are a whisper.
“It would seem so.” I can’t bring myself to outright say ‘yes,’ despite how much I’ve already lied. His eyes don’t warm to me, but he nods. “Well, come to dinner before it gets cold. But let’s not share your story with your niece, nephews and brother-in-law just yet. I need to time to understand it myself before the kids learn more about the grandfather I rarely talk about.”
Brother-in-law? How much has changed since I’ve been gone? Do humans finally accept what the Jezseret always have?
He precedes me out of the room, gives me a moment to compose myself. I wipe my eyes, steady myself, and go to spend one last meal with my son.
Dinner conversation is the best it can be, given the restrictions on discussing who Danny thinks I really am. Throughout the meal, he is analyzing me, trying to decide how much of my story he believes, to figure out what I might be after. He believes his father is dead, but he doesn’t know whether to believe the rest of my story or not.
And for all intents and purposes, his father is dead. I am not the man I was when I disappeared. I’m not even the man who stepped through a second portal a few hours ago.
After dinner, I beg off a half-hearted invite to spend the night: business to attend to in the city, with a hotel reservation waiting on me. Danny offers to drive me, but I decline that as well, making the excuse that my car is just a little down the road. I hug the kids, who have taken to me as much as teens can ever take to a stranger. I tell them all I’ll try to be in touch. Danny’s handshake is firm but unforgiving. He doesn’t expect me to ever show my face again. I can’t blame him. I’ve destroyed the last hope he had of seeing his father. But at least I’ve given him the closure he needed, without complicating his family’s life with even more lies.
I walk down the road until I’m sure they have all gone back into the house. Then I sneak through the neighbor’s yard, setting their dog to barking, and cut across the back field.
Maybe the portal is there, open from this end for someone who has already passed through once. Maybe I’ll free-fall back through it to the Jezseret. Maybe I haven’t been gone so long they think I’ve abandoned them.
Anthony R. Cardno’s short stories have appeared in Chiral Mad 4, Re-Launch, Galactic Games, and Kepler’s Cowboys, among other anthologies. He proofreads for Lightspeed magazine, blogs at www.anthonycardno.com, tweets @talekyn and still manages to hold down a day job as a corporate trainer.