“Dad.” Nick said, trying to rouse his father into talking to him. “What happened?”
“Stupid people, doing stupid things. They never learn. You know they never learn.”
“I wasn’t there, I don’t know what you did.”
“I killed a man. A stupid man. A man who probably deserved to die, I mean who doesn’t these days, but the fact that I had to do it, doesn’t make me happy.”
“You’ve killed a lot of people.” Nick said.
“It’s so pointless. There is nowhere left to go, nothing left to do. So little left to try and achieve. Fighting here. Fighting up in Iowa. Fighting everywhere you passed through on the trip down here. Just like there was fighting before. Nothing ever changes.”
“I’m not sure that’s a good thing. I could kill everyone in this place, you know? I could probably wipe out Miami, all of it. Stewart might stop me or Sentry could come back and put an end to it. Probably. What would be the point though? I don’t even know if there is an end to it, can I die? What happens if I do? Am I rea?”
“Of course, you’re real! I mean you’re here with me. I can touch you.” Nick reached out and patted his father’s forearm.
“Only if I let you.” Nick’s patting hand passed through flesh that simple wasn’t there on his next touch. “See?”
“Do you still feel? Like can you tell when I’m touching you?”
“Yes, of course I can!”
“And you’re still concerned about things too. You don’t like killing. That’s feeling of the emotional kind.”
“True. I can’t turn that off; I wish I could.”
“If you could you’d be a monster.”
Max turned his head and looked at his son for a moment. “You’re right. I’d just turn that part off and never bother turning it back on.”
“Good that means you’re still human.”
“For now.” Max said with trace of bitterness.
“Maybe you’ll age out of it. What happened in the bar?”
Max nodded, “Okay, I’ll tell you. It’s nothing you won’t hear from someone else tomorrow.” Max detailed what happened I the bar earlier in the evening, adding that it wasn’t the first time someone warlord wannabe had come into the bar to make a name for themselves.
“How many, do you think? Over the years I mean?”
“A dozen? Eighteen? It happens every few months. It has been slowing down a little, I think.”
“Things are getting better.”
“I wouldn’t say that.”
Nick left his father brooding and moved into the bedroom of the suite that his dad and Stewart had told him stay in. He hadn’t seen the man in eight years and didn’t know where to start with him. I get more answers from Stewart.
Nick pulled off his shirt and selected a clean one from his meager inventory. His dad had found him a few more articles of clothing, he still lacked almost everything. Living out of a backpack was okay for a while and his short stint in the military had taught him how to pack light, that didn’t mean he liked it.
After getting dressed again he headed for the door.
“Nick.” His father called him.
“Where are you going?”
“Out for a walk. Maybe along the beach.”
“Dangerous out there. I know. I’m not eleven anymore and I know how to handle myself. You didn’t have to have Stewart hustle me out of the bar tonight; I think I would have survived. You don’t need to babysit me when I go out and take a walk along the beach.”
“There are people, things, that will want to use you to hurt or manipulate me.”
“Then they are fools; if you cared about what happened to me you would have gotten word to me and Jessica sometime in the last 8 years.”
“Nick.” Max’s voice began, cut off by the slammed door.
The young man marched to the stairs at the end of the hall and went down the stairwell. Outside Max was waiting for him.
“I tell you, what’s happened to me does make it almost effortless to keep up with you.”
“I’ll keep that in mind. It’s a shame my gifts don’t impede your abilities too.” Nick said, starting across the street for the beach. His father followed him quietly and the people ahead of him gave him a wide berth.
“Do they all know who I am?”
“It’s probably more me.” Max said, “I am sure most of them do. Look, Nick, I’m sorry.”
“Sorry for what part of it? The last eight years, tonight? Last night, the previous two weeks?”
Max held his hands widespread before him, “How about all of it?”
“Okay?” Max asked.
“Not, ‘okay, I forgive everything.’ More like ‘okay, we can move forward a little.’ You haven’t told me anything. Not really. Yeah, yeah, I get that you need to be close to keep an eye on the portal or rift or whatever you call it. In case something comes through… That doesn’t make any sense to me.”
“What part of it confuses you?”
“I didn’t say ‘confuse’, I said it doesn’t make any sense. Look, a second ago you teleported to the sidewalk from my room. Poof.” Nick put his two fists together and then rose them up while spreading his fingers. “What you’re saying is that you couldn’t do that to get to Bill’s house? Not even once? In eight years? Not even to let us know you were alive? Or not dead, at least.”
“Every millisecond counts. These things are fast.”
“So why aren’t you camped out at the rift?”
Max looked away from his son.
“See?” Nick started to shake, his fists clenched, then the anger seemed to drain out of him. “I see through that. Like I said, I’m not 11 anymore. You didn’t come back because you didn’t want to.”
“I didn’t think it was a good idea. After the bomb, after me and Stewart died, it wasn’t fast, you know. Our recovery. It took months. By the time I could appear, well everyone who had come down here was gone and the thing we thought we were trying to fix was still a problem.”
“Why didn’t you lead with that?”
“Sometimes I forget that you’re not eleven anymore.”
“Dad, I say this with as much love as I can; fuck you. You made a choice, you have to live with the consequences. You’ve been making choices for the last two weeks and I think you’re still covering and lying and trying to tell me what you think I want to hear. You know all I want to really hear? The truth. Is the truth too hard for you?”
“You want the truth? You think you can handle it?” Max stepped in front of his son, the people around them were watching closely, not quite closing in, but no longer stepping away either.
“Yes. It’s all I came here for. When I found out you were alive…I couldn’t think of anything else, but to get down here. Either to curse you out and hug.”
“And what do you want to do now that you’re here?”
“I haven’t decided yet. I still don’t know anything.”
“I don’t know what going on.” Max said.
“That’s the truth. You wanted the truth that I’m afraid to tell you and there it is. I’m ashamed. I’m scared. I’m dead. But it doesn’t take those things away from me. I just don’t know what’s going to happen. I don’t know if I should leave, I don’t know if you’re safer here or if you were safer in Iowa. I simply don’t have any answers. How can I tell you what you need to hear when you I don’t even know it myself?”
Nick stood there for a moment, looking at his dad, then quietly said, “Oh.”
“Can I tell you a story?”
“So long as it’s true.”
“It is. This story began about 18 years ago, a little more, actually. It began the night you were born. I picked you up and held you and realized I had no idea what to do with you. You were my first-born kid. Your mom, she was out, it was a hard birth, something you probably remember us telling you.”
“So, she is out and here I am holding this purplish looking little life, you weren’t crying, not really fussing, but when I held you in my hands, do you think it was magical? Do you think I was filled with wonder and excitement for what would be? I was scared. Scared shitless, wondering what I had done. I knew everything was going to be different from that moment on, and I wasn’t wrong about that. But I also knew I had no experience in the daddy business. I had no idea what to do with you. I could have killed you, I was afraid I would drop you on your head and you would die. Or maybe when I put you on the table with the heat lamp that you would fall off somehow. I didn’t want to put you down. I was afraid.”
“Isn’t that normal?” Nick asked.
“Exactly. Humans have been doing this for a hundred thousand years and the species somehow survived it. I wasn’t alone. There are literally enough books on raising your child that you could fill a library…or your phone memory. No, I calmed down. You had grandparents I could talk to and my dad, your grandfather, he must have seen that fear in me when he came to see you that morning. He took me by the hand, led me out of the room, the room I hadn’t left because I was afraid to and out of the hospital to the parking lot.” Max shook his head, “I remember looking back the whole time, but your grandma was there and I didn’t have any excuses not to go with my dad. We get out to the parking lot and he doesn’t say anything. He takes two cigars out of his pocket, clips them off, hands one to me and pulls out a lighter.”
Max smiled, “Your old granddad wasn’t cheap, these weren’t cigars he bought from a gas station on the way to the hospital. These were planned, Churchills, big fat thick cigars like we sell in there.” Max hitched a thumb back to the bar. “My point is they took a while to smoke, maybe forty-five minutes. We hardly said a word the whole time, I think he said congratulations or something. We finish smoking and then my old man says to me, ‘You’ll do fine. You’ve got nothing to be afraid of. If there were anything wrong with the kid the doctors would know by now. You’re not going to drop him or sit on him. You might step on him, but you won’t hurt him permanently. You can’t live in fear for him, because that’s not living. He can survive out of your sight and he will. You did.’ And that was it, that was the sum of his parenting advice to me. I felt a little short changed at first, but then I was too busy with you and work and your mom’s postpartum depression.”
“He was right, then.” Nick said.
“He was, yes. But he didn’t need to say anything, I would have figured it out, he just made it easier. That’s how this relates to now. There is no one here to make this easier for me. Or Stewart. There are no books to read, there are no grandparents to ask for advice. There is not a hundred thousand years of history to draw upon. I live in fear that I will make a mistake and every single person will pay for it with their lives, or unlives.”
“You have Stewart. And there is whatshisname, Doctor Sentry.”
“Neither of whom have any idea what they are doing either. I suppose Gus has talked to you a lot?” Max asked. Nick nodded, “Yeah, you wouldn’t have heard much from Jane, but Gus always likes to keep people filled in.”
“What’s so special about Gus?”
“He’s a character, says he sees the future.”
“No. I know about Ruben’s angels. They give him commands to keep him alive and commands to be places and do things and he does them, because he thinks they are angels.”
Max shrugged, “I really couldn’t say. There are ghosts and goblins aplenty out there now and one man’s ghoul is another man’s angel. Ruben has a very limited precognition that helps him avoid death, or it has so far. Gus, now he really can see into the future. Just don’t buy into the hype that he knows everything that is going to happen.”
“Gus only knows what’s going to happen to Gus and even then, he really only has a limited view of what might happen. Nothing is set, according to Gus. Ruben, on the other hand, would tell you that everything is set and going according to God’s plan.”
“Wait, so if Gus only sees his future then how is that helpful?”
“He can look into what may happen if he were to drop everything and stay with you or me or anyone he sees what will transpire and then tells you. The fact is though, that just by doing that Gus is altering what may happen, isn’t he? Your future is going to be lived by you alone, not you and Gus, he has no intention of going with you everywhere to find out what you are going to go through. Even if he just goes along to observe and doesn’t interact at all…it would still change things.”
“Just by being there. I get it. He might get shot if he were in the way of someone trying to shoot me.”
“Exactly. He is useful, but only in a smaller sort of way.”
“Everyone says you’re a god now. Why can’t you see into the future?”
“Everyone is probably wrong about that.” Max stepped aside and gestured to the beach and they started walking towards it again. A group of people fell into step behind them, keeping pace.
“Why? I mean Gus said something bad came through the portal and nearly killed everyone, but you and Stewart and Sentry killed it.”
“True. It was a mess. How do you fight a ghost? How do you kill me? Many have tried over the years too, but just because I am a ghost, or can be, doesn’t provide me with any insight on how to defeat another thing like me.”
“Could you kill Stewart?” Nick asked.
“But you could hurt either of them?”
Max nodded, “Yes, they are like me enough that I could damage them, maybe even permanently.”
“We’re like, similar, so we can affect each other easier. The thing from the other side, it wasn’t really like us at all. I guess their version of Sentry did things differently. He’s dead, by the way, their version of Sentry.”
“How do you know?”
“Gus found out. They are different from us, but he figured how to talk to the one before we killed it. All in the future that never happened, of course. Their Sentry, as near as the one we killed could tell, died in the first few hours of the outbreak.”
“He told me there are maybe twenty of them left on the other side.”
“I think there are twenty-three, in their whole world of 8 billion souls, twenty three came out alive. And now they are fighting each other and have nowhere to go and nothing to do. Gods without worshippers.”
“Unless they come here.” Nick said.
“Unless they come here.” They walked down into the surf and let the waves crest over their feet, the people behind them did the same, some carrying low lit hurricane lamps, their followers seemed to be in a good mood, with some laughter trickling over to interrupt Max and Nick’s conversation.
“How did you kill the one that came over here?” Nick asked.
“The three of us were not up to it, we would never have done it on our own. Fortunately, we weren’t alone, there must be a hundred thousand people in the area now, back then there was probably close to that number too, maybe eighteen or so died.”
“Eighteen?” Nick said, wrinkling his brow, “That’s not so many…”
“Thousand. And we had the Navy, they had weapons that helped. Well, not weapons so much as defenses. A few toys and gizmos that some super human churns out for them were effective. Their lead gizmo maker died that night though, but the well isn’t dry yet, there are others. The zombies helped a lot too. As a distraction. Sentry figured out how to get the guy into a physical form so we could pummel on him. Gus figured out which of the gadget maker’s toys could hurt him, by process of future looking. Stewart and I, well, we held on as best we could. The guy we fought was named Jared, a native of their Florida, Hispanic, very angry, pretty stupid too. I think that’s why we got lucky. So much of that fight was luck. We’re still getting lucky. Their world is divided into regions of control, Jared had about one twenty fourth of their world and they fought each other for territory pretty much every single day.”
“Wait? What? Wouldn’t they figure out that Jared is dead? Wouldn’t they come looking for him? Wouldn’t they find the portal?” Nick’s voice was rising with each question.
Max put a hand on his son’s shoulder, “We know. You’re smart, you know that? We’re not too dumb ourselves. We knew they would notice him missing, so we did what we had to do.”
“Nick, where exactly do you think Sentry spends his time these days?”