John gone, p.20
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       John Gone, p.20

           Michael Kayatta
 

  Chapter 16

  “Just like on Starship Love Affair,” John’s mother muttered, poking at Kala’s hologram with her finger. “But he’s not this small in real life, right?” Kala released an exaggerated sigh and dissipated his visage.

  John, his mother, and Ronika were sitting on the oddly patterned green couch in his living room. John’s mom was wedged between Ronika and her son, who’d just finished telling her about the watch, the robot, and the hologram. He’d explained most of what he knew about the way it all worked, and had even told her some about the places he’d seen and visited. He had, however, left out multiple details and never so much as mentioned the Advocates, knowing that telling her everything would have led to nothing but more heartache, fear, and grief for his already worried mother.

  John’s mother had believed all of it, and how could she not? Ronika was there to corroborate everything, the small black robot from the stories was in her lap, a grumpy blue hologram had been standing on John’s new watch until a few minutes ago, and all of the other details seemed to fit with the few things she’d already known. But even without the proof, John would have had an easy time convincing her of most anything. She wasn’t gullible, but she was in a highly vulnerable state, willing to happily cling to almost any explanation that accompanied her son back home.

  “It all makes sense,” John’s mom said as she leaned back into the couch. “Well, as much sense as it can. But John, I still don’t understand how you got hurt.”

  He was sitting as he usually sat on the couch he’d grown up with, pushed back against the corner by the pillowed arm with his feet up close to the rest of his body, knees bent and flat against the bottom cushion. His mother noticed a particularly mother-frightening set of small tattered holes along the denim covering the back of his calf, circled in dried blood. John noticed the expression it gave her.

  “Believe it or not, it’s an animal bite,” he explained. “Remember, I told you about when I ended up in Canada? I got bitten by a badger there,” he said, closely examining his own wound for the first time. “It’s alright, though. It hurt at first, but it’s okay now.”

  “A badger?” she asked.

  “While I’m here, I’ll clean it up and get some fresh clothes,” he said. “A shower wouldn’t hurt either.”

  “While you’re here?” his mother asked worriedly. “Are you leaving?”

  John looked down at his watch. “Mom, I don’t have a lot of control over it. At 3:14, I’m gone again.”

  His mother’s face saddened. “I thought,” she said quietly, “since you were here, I guess I just thought that this was over. I thought maybe that’s why you hadn’t come back in three days, that you were just waiting for all this to be over before coming home.”

  “No,” John answered solemnly. “I’m sorry, I, um, it’s not over yet, Mom.”

  “Oh,” his mother sounded. She picked up a mug of tea from the coffee table in front of her and sipped it. It was her third cup since her son and his friend’s arrival.

  “I didn’t come back sooner because I wanted to have the time to explain it all,” John said.

  “But you came now, right?” she replied, forcing a smile. “That’s what matters.” She placed her mug back down on the table. “So, how does all of this end?” she asked.

  “What do you mean?” John replied, knowing exactly what she meant.

  “How do you stop this? You can’t just jump around the world forever.”

  “No, no I can’t.”

  “I know you said you can’t force it off your arm, but do you have some other plan? Some way of fixing this?” She turned to her son’s redheaded friend. “Ronika, you’re smart. Have you thought of anything?”

  “No,” Ronika replied distantly. “I haven’t.”

  “But she’s been trying,” John jumped in. “And we’re close to figuring this thing out. She’s been a great help so far.”

  Ronika smiled at John’s defense of her.

  “What about the man in the watch?” his mother asked. “If he built it, doesn’t he know how to get it off of you? Why doesn’t he try to help?”

  “I am trying to help him, but--” Kala began before John silenced him with a quick push of the watch’s knob.

  “He’s trying to help, like Ronika,” John said. “Both of them have been trying to think of something for me.”

  “Okay,” his mother replied. “As long as everyone’s trying.”

  “I’m going to go take a shower and throw on some fresh clothes, alright?”

  “I’m surprised you didn’t go sooner.”

  John stood from the couch and exited the room, leaving his mother alone with Ronika on the couch.

  “He seems more, I don’t know, confident,” John’s mom said. Ronika nodded in agreement. “It’s like he’s the one explaining everything to me, telling me that it’s all going to be fine, even if it isn’t. Usually that would be reversed. I wonder where that’s coming from.”

  “He’s had a lot to deal with these--” Ronika began.

  John’s mother interrupted. “Are you two--”

  “No,” Ronika answered.

  “I’m going to get more tea,” John’s mom said quickly, standing from the couch. She picked up her empty mug and plopped the used tea bag inside. “You want some?” she asked, walking into the kitchen. “This blend is called Samurai Chai, and it’s packed with caffeine.”

  “Sure!” Ronika answered back, usually perking at the mention of anything with “samurai” in its name.

  “So what is going on with you two?” John’s mom asked from the kitchen.

  Ronika tried to answer her. “I don’t know. Sometimes I think--”

  “He’s been spending a lot of time there, at your place, I mean. That’s got to count for something. He obviously trusts you.”

  “Yeah, he does.”

  “How old are you?”

  “I just turned nineteen.”

  “Do you live by yourself?”

  “Yes.” Ronika looked down at the scattered TV Guides across the coffee table. Most were open with various listings circled in a wide red marker.

  “Were you one of those kids who couldn’t wait to turn eighteen and move out of her parents’ house?” John’s mother asked.

  “It’s not like that,” Ronika said. “My father died a few years ago. And my mother, well, I don’t know much about her. I don’t think I’ve ever met her.”

  John’s mother finished preparing the tea and brought the two mugs back to the living room.

  “I’m sorry. I should have remembered. John had said that your--“

  “That was fast,” Ronika interrupted, motioning at the tea.

  John’s mother looked down at the mugs as she placed them on the table. “I use a little instant boiler instead of a kettle. Boiling water is boiling water, you know? It’s not as romantic as a chirping kettle, but hell, it makes a hot cup of tea in about thirty seconds. Still needs about five minutes more to steep, though.”

  Ronika picked up the purple polka-dot mug that had been brought to her and smelled the brew inside. “It smells excellent,” she said. “Thank you.”

  “John can be an odd kid sometimes,” his mother said. “He can be completely oblivious to certain things. I don’t want to say he’s self-involved. No, that’s not it. He’s just the sort of person who convinces himself of what’s important and zeros in on it. Usually he’s wrong.” She chuckled. “About what’s important, I mean. But that’s just how he is. I find that usually just talking to him about things helps, if he is missing something, whatever that is. So, maybe what I’m saying is, just talk to him about it. If there is an ‘it.’”

  Ronika stared down into her tea and watched it darken slowly. She stirred the bag around the mug by its string.

  “Thank you, for taking care of him,” John’s mother said.

  “I haven’t been, really,” Ronika answered back, feeling more than a little uncomfortable.

  “But you have,
she replied. “He used to talk about you all of the time.”

  “Used to,” she repeated.

  “Tell me the truth,” John’s mother said. “How dangerous is this? I know you guys didn’t tell me everything. What are you two hiding?”

  Ronika was taken aback by the suddenness of the question. “There are two men,” she began to explain.

  “Don’t tell me,” John’s mother said. “On second thought, I don’t want to know. Just ... you’re keeping him safe, right?”

  “As best as I know how.”

  John reentered the room in a towel as Ronika finished her sentence. “You guys have no idea how great that was,” he said, approaching the couch.

  “John, would you get dressed? We have company over,” his mother fumed.

  “Jeez,” John replied. “Sorry.” He left as quickly as he’d come.

  “See?” his mother said. “Oblivious.”

  “I guess,” Ronika replied.

  “I’m sorry for the inquisition before.”

  “There’s a lot to take in.”

  John’s mother stirred her tea with the bag still inside. “Hey, do you watch Starship Love Affair?”

  “Oh!” Ronika exclaimed, lighting up. “I love Starship Love Affair. Did you see the last one?”

  “Not yet,” John’s mom replied. “So no spoilers! I just haven’t had a lot of time. I’ve been out looking for John, talking to the police, drinking tea--”

  “Mom!” John said, appearing behind them again, this time fully dressed. “I forgot about the cops! Are we putting you at risk by being here?”

  “Oh! No, I forgot to tell you,” she said, turning her head back toward her son. “They’re not looking for you anymore. Though, that’s not entirely true. They still have a missing person report on you, but I can call that off.”

  “Really?” John said excitedly, climbing over the back of the couch.

  “Yes, and I don’t know much, but Tom, the officer in charge of the case, told me that they found an older woman at America Offline who was apparently always hanging around the warehouse playing with that board they have over there. They heard her talking to someone about how she was constantly having to reject Virgil’s ‘advances.’ When they questioned her about it, they found some sort of high-powered taser in her purse that she claimed she was carrying for self-defense.”

  “I’m sure it was to protect her from all of the muggers and murderers lurking around the island,” John added flippantly.

  “Anyway,” his mother continued, “Tom put it together that perhaps Virgil had tried to hit on her, and that she zapped him. When they confronted the woman about it, she became so frazzled that she had a heart attack right then and there.”

  “Oh, my goodness,” Ronika said. “Is she okay?”

  “No,” John’s mom replied. “She died from it. The police are writing it off as an accident and blaming her for Virgil’s death.”

  “They’re wrong, though,” John said. “That’s not fair. It was me.”

  John’s mother placed her hand over the watch on his wrist. “It wasn’t you,” she said. “It was this thing attached to you. It’s not your fault.”

  “I know,” John said sullenly, “but, still. Now everyone thinks some poor grandma did it.”

  “Not everyone,” his mother said, letting go of his arm. “And it’s not like they’re drawing up posthumous charges against her. They’re just closing the case.”

  “John,” Ronika chimed in, “I should go.”

  “Why?” he replied. “You don’t have to.”

  “No,” she said, “I do. I have to get back to my place and get Mouse ready so that it’s online as soon as you jump. Plus, it will give you some time alone with your mom.”

  “Alright,” John said. “I’ll walk you out.”

  They stood from the couch and walked outside to where Ronika had parked the scooter.

  “Thanks for bringing me,” she told him.

  John looked up at her and gave her a half-smile and a half-nod, seeming unsure of what to say.

  She reached for him. As they hugged, she whispered in his ear. “You know this is the fifth, right?”

  “I know.”

  “Okay,” she said, releasing him.

  “What’s farther than France?” he asked absently.

  “A lot of places,” she answered. “But whatever happens, we’ll get you back home again. We’re a great team, right?

  “We are.”

  “Then I’ll see you at 3:14. The next 3:14.”

  “Yeah,” John said, starting to move back toward his house.

  “John?”

  He turned back to her.

  “Do you think I’m selfish?” she asked.

  “What? No. Why would you say that?”

  “Sometimes I don’t think my priorities are,” she looked down at the ground, “what they should be.”

  “I don’t understand,” he said.

  “Um,” Ronika muttered, raising her head. “Forget it. I’ll be on Mouse by the time you jump, okay?”

  “Yeah,” John said, looking puzzled.

  Ronika mounted the scooter and turned the key in its ignition. “See you on the other side!” she said through a newfound smile. She revved the scooter and sped down the street, quickly gaining enough distance from the house to disappear from John’s view.

  John walked back into his house where he was greeted by another hug from his mother.

  “I seem to be getting a lot of hugs lately,” he said, his mouth again squished against her shoulder.

  “Sorry,” she replied, letting go of him. “I’m just so happy to see you okay.”

  “Me, too,” John said. He walked with his mother past the living room and through her bedroom to the porch outside.

  Two lawn chairs sat behind the sliding glass door facing the sea. Both of them sat, he in the right, she in the left. The breeze sailing in from the ocean was strong, and John lifted his knees to his chest, balling himself to protect from its chill.

  The rhythmic crashes of the rolling waves were something John had heard daily since his childhood. Their sound was as natural to him as the air he breathed and John realized that at some point he’d become accustomed to tuning them out, accidentally not hearing them at all.

  Tonight was different. He listened to each with a sense of renewal, fearing secretly that he’d neither see nor hear them again. He looked out across the water to the slowly flashing buoys that floated at a distance from the shore, still visible against the light from the half-risen sun behind them. He counted six from where he sat, one less than he remembered counting each day as a child. He wondered when the seventh had gone out.

  John found himself calmed by the remnants of his childhood that enveloped him. He wondered why he’d never taken the time to appreciate them again as a teenager, as he knew he must have when he was five or six.

  He looked left to his mother and recognized the expression on her face as the one he wore now: tranquil. He realized then that she had learned this technique long ago. She must have experienced this feeling daily, just sitting here, looking out at the beyond. Maybe he finally understood how she managed to smile each day, even while living in a place where her neighbors didn’t respect her, where she worked sixty hours a week serving them, and where she’d had to raise a kid by herself since someone abandoned her. He thought about what he’d said to Kala, that this house was the worst part of their lives. Perhaps that wasn’t entirely fair.

  A loud wave crashed in the sand, and John remembered that Kala was underground. The doctor hadn’t had the chance to see or hear the ocean in over three decades. John quickly pulled the watch’s knob out one click and whispered, “Sorry,” quietly into the face.

  “I--” Kala started to stutter before silencing. The doctor, John, and his mother sat together and looked into the rolling ocean without anyone choosing to speak for over half an hour. Eventually, John’s mother was the one to break the silence.

>   “So, you’ve done it. You got out of here,” she said. “I’m happy for you. I know it’s what you’ve always wanted.”

  “Not like this,” John said.

  “We don’t always get to choose how things happen,” she replied.

  “I know.”

  “Still, I’m proud of you. It seems like you’ve grown up three years worth almost overnight.”

  “Maybe.”

  “And that’s all you needed, to get out there and see the world. Anything other than what I could give you here. Go figure.”

  “Thanks for believing me. I know it’s a crazy story. And thanks for not being angry that I didn’t come back sooner.”

  “I got your note,” his mother replied. “But, I really had no idea what to make of it at the time.”

  John looked up at the fast-moving clouds above them and remembered scrawling the shortly worded note on a tissue with his mother’s eyeliner. It seemed like ages ago.

  “Will you come back here now?” his mother asked. “Now that I know everything, and now that the police aren’t hopping around after you?”

  “Sure,” he said. “But what about Ronika? We’ve sort of been running things from her place. I know she’s been by herself for a few years already, but now that we’ve been spending time together, I don’t want to leave her alone again.”

  “She can come, too!” his mother exclaimed. “Tell her to pack a bag and come stay with us until this whole thing blows over.”

  “Really?” John said. “Okay! I’ll tell her.”

  “Good,” his mother said.

  “So, hey, Mom?”

  “Yes?”

  “I know I always talk about getting off the island. And I’m not going to pretend like that’s not important to me, but it’s never been to get away from this, our family, or anything. You know that, right? We have a pretty good life here, I think.”

  “Yeah, we do.”

  “Even if we are in the middle of Geriatric Park,” he said. “Where dinosaurs still roam the Earth.” His mother laughed along with him at the comment.

  John looked down at his watch. They still had a lot of time. His eyes weighed down and he fell unconscious, calmly asleep in the lawn chair behind his house.

  It was another few minutes before John’s mother realized her son was sleeping, and she didn’t bother trying to wake him once she did. Instead, she quietly stood and walked back into her bedroom. Taking the red blanket from the foot of her bed, she walked back to her son and laid it carefully across him.

  She looked down at her sleeping child, and suddenly wondered if she’d lost him. Whether to girls, to the watch, or to age, their relationship had changed. Losing him was something she’d feared since his father had left them almost seventeen years ago, and that fear had done nothing but grown as John had.

  She wondered if her decision to stay on the island had been selfish. She wondered if homeschooling John until high school had been more for her benefit than for his. She wondered if she had stunted him, and not encouraged him strongly enough to build relationships with people other than her.

  Then, at the peak of her doubts, she released them. Looking at John now, she knew that for better or worse, she’d done her best. It was time to share him with the rest of the world, because it was happening with or without her permission.

  For the first time in sixteen years, John’s mother remembered that she had her own goals and aspirations. It was time for both her and her son to move on; not apart, but together in a way different than what both of them were used to. She thought of the possibilities that awaited her: a new apartment, a new job, maybe even a date.

  She peered out to the waves on the ocean, now glinting against the sun’s morning rays. They’d always seemed the same each morning, rising from the sea and crashing in the sand, but the water that made them was never the same water, and the shells and life that they carried were perpetually different, always changing unseen beneath their crest.

  Helene, she thought, it’s time. What have I been so scared of? Everything is out there just waiting. It’s out there already, just beyond the ocean.

  John awoke hours later beneath a carefully laid red blanket. He looked to his mother, whom he found asleep on the chair beside him.

  “I’ll be back again,” he said.

  When the hands of his watch touched 3:14, Helene was still sleeping, smiling in dreams, and never even noticed the bright blue flash of light that surrounded her son’s disappearance.

 

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