It was raining the night the Old Benbow Inn burned to the ground. Thick, crystalline droplets hung to the sides of the coach Dr. Delbert Doppler drove, splintering and dissolving as they were caught in the mad spin of the wheels. A curtain of raindrops and mist and smoke and tears clouded Sarah Hawkin's eyes as she allowed herself to be driven to safety. She had already gazed back at the spiralling plume of flames and dense, tar black smoke that had, minutes before, been the Inn. Everything mingled into the rain, the hideous orange, the bright unreality of yellow and red against a dark purple night. All of it, windows, trellises, solar plaque roof, dock, flower beds, door, chimney, bedroom and kitchen fused into one, folding and unfolding within itself as the rain washed over it. She had seen enough.
Dr. Doppler guided her into his home with studied gentility. She could tell from the stiff way he held open the door and held her shoulders at the same time, that he couldn't bring himself to say anything. The night was still too unreal, adrenaline from the hurried, frenzied escape ebbing away slowly. Sarah herself could feel her knees growing weak, trembling, aching to give way, to fold. A sharp, nauseating pain pumped along her stomach. She pressed a hand against her mouth to keep from retching.
"I'll prepare us a pot of tea, why don't I?" Doppler lowered Sarah into an armchair, fussing over a few tendrils of hair she could never quite keep out of her eyes, straightening with a look of mingled fear, sadness, and disbelief playing out across his face. His large ears, distinctive characteristics of his canine race, were pressed flat against his skull, his lanky frame hunched into itself. "A hot pot of tea will do all of us a world of good. A world of good, yes. It will."
As the doctor climbed the narrow stairs that lead to his kitchen, Sarah heard her son make his way into the room. His hair was flattened against his skull, dripping, and he had dug his hands deep into the front pockets of his jacket. That jacket he never seemed to take off. Sarah was grateful that it hadn't been burned, that he'd been wearing it. He would miss it too much. He loved that old jacket. It didn't fit him very well, and seemed to sag even more than usual tonight. She found herself staring at the stitches along the fastenings as her son crossed in front of her.
Her voice was barely audible. "Jim...? Your jacket. I'm so glad it didn't burn."
No answer came. He was leaning against the fireplace, his face unreadable. A few drops hung on the bridge of his nose, but he didn't bother to wipe them off. He stared into the fire. It had activated automatically when they had reached the house, timed to conserve energy. The flames snapped and weaved, reaching up towards the chimney, always missing. An anti-fire device built into the fireplace's interior controlled the flames, kept them perpetually at bay. Jim's fingers twitched, once, towards the off switch, but he never moved.
"Here we are." Doppler set a tray laden with tea accessories in front of Sarah. "I have cranberry, lemon, Earl Grey, and Raiasonian swürtzberry. Well-stocked pantry after the winter holidays and one too many well-meaning aunts, you know. Er, well, just take your pick, Sarah." His tone became graver. "I'm going to call the police now." When Sarah didn't react, he placed a gentle hand on her shoulder. "Did you hear me, Sarah? I'm going to call the police."
Sarah made no move towards the tray. Doppler straightened, his expression bordering on barely concealed pity he hoped wouldn't show. His gaze shifted to Jim. The boy seemed to be standing by will alone. His eyes were dead. Doppler cleared his throat.
"It won't take long."
Doppler drove them to the Inn's site on Wednesday. Neon yellow police force fields had been set up to hover around the remains, blocking all access. Only a charred husk remained, solar plaques glinting dully where they had fused into concrete. A few pots and pans, made of flameproof alloys, lay scattered among the ashes. Police-bots whirled among the remains, kicking up clouds of dust and grime. Spines of books, a few broken dishes, a twisted, smoking gun, the replacement boosters from Jim's solar surfer.
"The police have your solar surfer, Jim," Sarah said. "They impounded it that night. It survived." The words sounded mechanical, but she needed to hear her own voice. "You can claim it back now. They wouldn't say no."
Jim rolled a pebble along the ground, his eyes turned towards the horizon. "Don't count on it."
"You could try."
"I don't want to."
She let him go. She couldn't blame him for being angry. He walked away to where Doppler waited by his coach, bypassed the doctor's forcefully cheery greeting, picked his way between smooth, water slick boulders without missing a step. Without his surfer, she had no clear idea where he would go, but she let him walk away. He would come back. He always did.
"Madam." One of the police-bots, Badge 977, came to a stop beside her. "We shall require your presence at headquarters no later than this Friday, 2100 hours. Please contact your insurance provider, if you have one."
"Yes, officer," she murmured. Her eyes were fixed on the charred remains of a book one of the police-bots had picked up, dumping it into a clear plastic bag. The Treasure of Captain Flint. She averted her eyes and picked her way back to Doppler's coach.
"Well, Sarah," he said. "What now?"
She gave him a tired, rueful smile. "We can't go home."
"You know that you're welcome to stay in mine for as long as necessary."
The coach rattled as Sarah climbed aboard. Doppler's eyes, large and made even larger by his horn-rimmed glasses, never left her face. "Delbert," she said. "That's very kind of you, but we couldn't. I can call my mother. It's been years since Jim has seen his grandmother..." Her voice trailed off.
Doppler set the coach in motion, the reins snapping against his broad, bony knees. His eyes had narrowed somewhat, nostrils flaring out into a sniff of barely repressed contempt. "You mean the woman who never lifted a single finger to help you raise Jim?"
"Mother never cared for Leland."
The coach bumped along an uneven, pebble-strewn road. Grey coloured miner's cottages rose to the left, forming a lunette over a precipice of rock. A steep cliff rose to the right, capped by a faded blue lighthouse. Keeping his eyes firmly set on the path before him, Doppler muttered under his breath. "I never cared for Leland. Fine specimen of the male lout."
"Leland made his own choice."
"Leland, Sarah, chose to walk out on you and an eight year old child. And your dear mother, blast the woman all the way to the Crescentia Spaceport, turned her back on you. On both of you." The doctor's gaze shifted momentarily towards the lighthouse, where he was certain Jim would drift. It had been his favourite solar surfer launch site for most of the summer. Had gotten himself arrested at it only once, to everyone's surprise. Doppler turned his penetrating gaze on Sarah. His expression softened.
"I know you want to deal with this on your own, Sarah. But the last thing you or Jim need right now is to deal with your mother. Stay with me. I've got more than enough room at my house, and it'll be a familiar place."
Sarah adjusted her cap, once pristine white but now smudged with stray ashes. She began to chew at her lower lip. "I don't know," she said at length. "Jim can be quite a handful when he wants to, and I fear he's going to want to after this..."
Doppler turned into the cobbled, narrowing road that lead towards his house. "That may be so, but nevertheless I insist. It's the least I could do. I was the last customer at the old, er... Well, old Old Benbow, and I want to be the first to help you get back on your feet."
Sarah chuckled. Doppler, thinking it was because of his slip of the phrase, coloured somewhat, but Sarah gave his knee a reassuring little tap.
"I wasn't laughing at you, Delbert. I was just thinking."
"Oh? What of?"
A grin lit up Sarah's face. "I won't have to serve that horrid Mrs. Tweedy that sickening drink she kept ordering for quite a long time."
"On the clearest of nights, when the winds of the etherium were calm and peaceful..."
Jim's voice came to him as if from far away. From his place on the handrails of the lighthouse, the brisk morning wind snatched away most of his sounds, swirling them away into a bank of puffy white clouds overhead. He couldn't remember any of the remaining words to The Treasure of Captain Flint anyway. It was too long ago since he had last read it. He could still see its spine lying among the ashes, bent and twisted over the area where the main holographic projector had been. That book had cost his mother half a paycheque. He slumped forward, his boots hooking tighter around the rails for balance.
Below, a smoky haze stretched far out into the horizon, curving and dipping into miner's houses and rock quarries and a few mining shafts. Personal and commercial docking strips hung suspended within a cadence of ropes straining against metal supports, loose rigging rattling in the wind as solar sails remained folded, still humming from recent use in the harsh, summer light. Only a few, small mining vessels took off, trailing clouds of exhaust.
"And wouldn't you know it? The world goes on."
He swung back from the rails and walked along the lighthouse's observation deck. It was controlled remotely by the Montressor Meteorological Department, so solitude was assured. No one would find him up here, no people brimming with concern and pity over the fire, not Dr. Doppler, not his mother. It was just him and the sky. He leaned against the rail and looked up at the great expanse of nothingness. Clear, blue, carrying on as usual. If he squinted his eyes, he could just see the faint outline of the Crescentia Spaceport, a crescent moon shaped sliver several miles away. It always seemed so close. Today it felt distant. Unreal.
As he made his way down the lighthouse steps, he dug his hands deeply into his pockets. Dimly, he became aware that the fingers of his right hand were brushing against something. Metal, cold. He stopped. Slowly, almost reverently, he pulled out the object. A copper sphere, decorated with a calligraphic set of letters he couldn't read. Deep grooves ran along its periphery, giving it the appearance of a puzzle. At its very top was a sort of switch, although no amount of pressing had produced any results. Jim held it in both hands as the morning sunlight played along its smooth, well-worn surface. In all the rush, he had forgotten all about it.
Pocketing it, he headed back towards Dr. Doppler's house. From his roosting place, he had followed the doctor's coach, had kept an eye on both Doppler and his mother. He had no doubt the doctor had proposed they stay with him. It was all right with Jim. The doctor had an excellent telescope, and minded his own business.
And he was certain to know a thing or two about strange, complicated puzzles.
It was hard to sleep in such an alien bed; that was the problem. Sarah laid quietly, her eyes fixed on the ceiling, enveloped in a cocoon of unfamiliar smells and sights and sounds. The covers, tangled around her legs as she tossed and turned for most of the night, still smelled faintly of mothballs. The walls of Doppler's guestroom were lined with bookshelves crammed with old newspapers, magazines, journal supplements, scattered awards, family memorabilia, childhood paraphernalia. A banner proclaiming the Montressor School of Astronomy and Astrophysics Alpha Team the winners of the intramural boating championship stared out at her, faded and crinkled. Pictures of a much younger Doppler were stacked in odd corners, competing for shelf space with hologram disks arranged in strict chronological order.
Above her, she could hear Doppler moving about in his slippers, muttering to himself, almost tripping over a throw rug. Her son's softer footfalls mingled with the doctor's, his voice a youthful piping in contrast to Doppler's academic rumble. Both males, however, sounded excited, their movements quick and fluid. Sarah shifted on to her side. She felt somewhat uneasy, listening to their excitement.
Just a short few weeks ago, Jim had come home fingering a strange little sphere he carried in his pocket. Sarah had seen it before. It had belonged to the old Salamander that had stumbled into the Old Benbow the night it had burned down. Jim had brought him in from the night's rain, unaware of the consequences his desire to help would bring. Men had come looking for that old Salamander, the men who had burned down the Benbow. Before their escape with Doppler, Sarah had seen, out of the corner of her eye, as Jim had pocketed the sphere. With everything else that had happened, she hadn't thought about it since then.
The night Jim took it out again, Doppler had been going over her fire insurance with her, hammering out all the lumps and pitfalls the providers were sure to fasten onto. Jim leaned against a bookshelf, gazing at the sphere as it glinted dully in the dim light of Doppler's living room. Everything about the way he held it—tossing it idly from one palm to the other, tracing the surface patterns with careless, lazy motions—gave an impression of disinterested detachment. Sarah knew better, however. He was enthralled.
Doppler had just tangled himself in an aside about uncouth insurance providers when Jim let out a quiet, startled gasp. The next instant, the room was flooded in an eerie green glow, spidery thin lines stretching out over everything. Doppler had risen from his chair with an expression of disconcerted disbelief. Hours before, he had lectured Jim patiently about the difficulty of figuring out how to correctly open the sphere. And here it was, unbelievably, undeniably open, after just a few twists and prods from a fifteen year old. The doctor settled his glasses, determined to regain the upper hand. Before he could finish his hastily assembled lecture on the nature of the green light—that it was, in fact, a full intergalactic map—and pointed out several planets, constellations, nebulas, and errant comets, Jim had figured out what the map really showed.
Since that night, Jim had been unable to speak of anything else. Neither had Doppler. They both ran about, excited as children, discussing routes, expedition funding, the legendary Loot of a Thousand Worlds, giggling, stumbling, opening the map over and over. Sarah would see it's eerie green glow spilling out from beneath Jim's bedroom door, as she had seen the faint blue glow of his favourite holo-book, The Treasure of Captain Flint, spill out from beneath his bedroom door when he was barely five. Later, cracking open the door, Sarah would find him fast asleep, the sphere clutched in one hand, his face peaceful, relaxed. Happy. It brought a smile to her face, and at the same time it broke her heart.
He was leaving her.
"You'll be delighted to know, young Jim, that I've finally secured a ship for our expedition."
Doppler settled down to breakfast with a barely concealed look of triumph on his face. Across from him, Jim's eyes sparkled. He almost leaned forward, before he caught himself and merely nodded. His napkin meticulously folded over his lap, Doppler helped himself to swürtzberry pancakes. He spoke to Jim over a hearty mouthful.
"The ship is ready to sail in one week's notice. They'll be moored at the Crescentia Spaceport, dock No. 15, loading supplies, outfitting a seaworthy crew, making all last minute preparations, probably getting drunk."
Sarah looked up sharply. Doppler coughed once. "But not too drunk, of course," he continued. "Since I feel certain that they will be a most trustworthy crew. The ship's captain, you'll forgive me if I never caught his name, comes highly recommended by mutual friends from my internship days at the Cerulean space station. Lovely days. Simply lovely days."
The doctor wiped away a stray tear, then took another mouthful of syrup heavy pancake. "We head for the shopping district tomorrow. I'll be needing the suitable equipment for space travel, and you..." Doppler cast Jim an embarrassed look. "Well, you'll need almost everything bought new, being as your old possessions, er, well... The accident, you know. You'll need everything brand new." He speared the last square of pancake and chewed it thoroughly. "It'll be fun."
From her place at the head of the table, Sarah chased her own pancake squares around their plate with her fork. Doppler had barely looked at her, intent on his breakfast and his exciting news. Jim, however, had cast her a few, troubled gazes. He seemed, for once, acutely embarrassed to be discussing the oncoming trip. He kept quiet, however, and barely touched his own food. The earlier sparkle had almost drained away from his eyes.
"Mom," he said, "you can come with us. If you like. Really."
"It's all right, Jim. I don't want to get in the way. I wouldn't know what to buy, and you probably wouldn't be very thrilled by anything I'd pick out anyway." She smiled, to set him at ease, to set herself at ease. "You go with Doppler. He's right, I'm sure you'll have a lot of fun."
Doppler gazed at his wristwatch. "But not a great deal of time." Scooping up his napkin in one practiced, fluid motion, he rose from his chair. "Better get a move on, Jim. If we hit that shopping district any later than 11.00 o'clock, it'll be packed to the owner's gizzards."
Jim nodded, his gaze averted from both Doppler and his mother. He rose without touching his breakfast again. For a moment, he hovered where he stood, undecided, thoughts chasing themselves inside his head. He went down the stairs to his makeshift room without a word.
Doppler followed in an incessant stream of excited chatter.
From her place at the table, Sarah could do nothing more than watch them go.
Classical features. That had been the problem. Leland had been an exceptionally handsome man, with long, tapered fingers and the ability to fix almost anything. The mining company clerk with the khaki duffel bag. He personally patched up a hole on the Benbow's roof, whistling through the nails he held in his mouth, protruding sharply into the weakening fall light, charming and capable. As she gazed up at him from the entrance, Sarah loved him. She had no doubts, then, that he would provide for her, keep her safe, love her. She had no doubts at all.
"It's work, Sarah. A miner's life keeps him away from home for long periods of time. You know that."
It was his favourite phrase, after their marriage. He drew it out slowly, patiently, as if he were speaking to a little girl. Promotions came and went, his excitement transmuting into rushed, gruff words, her own lack of excitement spinning itself out into work at the Inn. She began to imagine things. Taverns. Women. Spaceport floozies. She slammed a silver tray into the sink. Blood trickled out from where it caught her wrist, but she didn't notice.
She became angry. He became detached.
"I'll be home in a week."
"No. You'll be home in a month."
That was the day she stopped really caring whether he came home or not. The room they shared above the Benbow was no longer theirs, it was hers. Just her and Jim and her thoughts. She found herself cramming his things into one corner, his shaving razor, his cologne, his nail clipper, his tin box full of change. She pushed them away from her perfume bottles and cotton swabs and jewellery boxes and ivory hair combs. She pushed him away when he came home almost two months later with a hug and some dumb, cheap toy he had picked up for Jim.
"You're never satisfied."
She remembered those words. He liked to use them when they fought. She threw them back at his face. Aren't you the one who always has to jump from one town to the next? She remembered slapping him, but she couldn't be sure. It all happened too quickly. He slapped her. He stretched his mouth out into an ugly gash and barked at her to get into bed. She took an inordinate amount of time getting ready, combing out her hair in front of the mirror, where she could see his reflection as he lay down to sleep. His back rose like geometric rocks, all of it sharp angles and flat spaces. She lay down next to him without a word, her spine stiff, her thoughts racing.
"You won't be coming back this time."
Words trailed out between them before the sun rose. He had already dressed, swiped his belongings into his khaki duffel bag. She trailed after him, feeling numb as he went through the motions of shaving and combing his hair and pulling on his boots and heading down the stairs and opening the door and not noticing when she collapsed onto a chair. Jim. Aren't you going to say goodbye to Jim?
He didn't even say goodbye to her.
Moonlight filtered down through the skylark, refracted by the polished, golden surface of Doppler's telescope. The telescope seemed to stretch out infinitely, looming large and portentous, dwarfing Jim as he sat with one hand trailing over the eyepiece. Galaxies spun within it, magnified and made tangible, fascinating facts to study and write books about, to hear the doctor tell it.
Earlier that day, Doppler had oriented the telescope towards the spot where Treasure Planet should be. Jim leaned forward into the eyepiece, but couldn't see anything. Blackness, flat, with little pinpoints of winking light. After hours of modifications and measurements, Doppler had to accept defeat and retreated to his room, muttering to himself. Jim watched him go with a sense of loss.
Maybe there's nothing really there. Maybe the map's a lie.
Jim brought his knees up, hugging them to his chest as his head came to rest on the back of the telescope's seat. A little rectangular window reflected and magnified the area the telescope had been oriented to. Jim gazed in silence at the bright, shivering stars, suspended in a haze that stretched from deep blue to purple to pink, swirling, endlessly, patiently. Waiting. His eyelids began to drop.
"Jim...?" Sarah's voice came to him as if from far away. "Jim, come on to bed. You've had a busy day. You should rest."
He slid one leg down, making as if to climb down from the telescope. He remained still, however, gazing up through the skylark. The moonlight played across his face, stripping away the colour, masking the scar that ran down his right cheek. A change seemed to come over him, his expression open and innocent and childlike. His eyes, blue and clear, seemed to reflect the night sky, a faint glow of stars that lay in deep, undisturbed wells, always out of reach. He couldn't tear himself away from the sight. His breathing had become even, deep, his chest rising and falling in a slow, even cadence.
"It's beautiful," Sarah said. She placed one hand against the side of the telescope, looking up at the sky. She couldn't bear to see the look on her son's face.
"Mom," he said, his voice barely above a whisper. "I..." His voice died away.
When Sarah turned around, he had turned his face away from the sky, his eyes once again clouded over, hidden beneath thick eyebrows and a curtain of hair. He hunched where he sat, his fingers playing over his bare toes. Uneasy. Sarah waited for him to speak.
He didn't look up. "I don't know why, Mom. When I look at the stars, I..." He raised his eyes. For a moment, the innocence from before seemed to peek out, but Jim blinked and it was gone. "I want to go there," he finished lamely, shrugging.
"I know, Jim. You will."
He seemed about to say something, his mouth opening and closing. A look like regret played out across his face, but he battled to keep it down, closing his eyes. He sat motionless, his face still and unreadable as he breathed through clenched teeth. Watching him, Sarah felt a great surge of love and understanding and regret. Her poor Jim, always burying his emotions. Battling down any shred of feeling. Afraid. Sarah reached out for his shoulder. He didn't shrug her off, and the gesture swelled her heart.
Kneeling, Sarah wrapped her arms around Jim's back, pulling him close. His back felt stiff at first, muscles taut and rigid under his shirt. He kept his face averted. But then, slowly at first, then with a sag of relief, he slumped against her, his head burrowing into the base of her neck. Sarah felt his chest tremble, felt tears against her skin. Her hands massaged out little circles into his back, and she held him closer.
"I don't want to leave you," he murmured. "But I just... I..." His fingers curled into fists against her back, and she knew he was reigning in his emotions again. She whispered soothing sounds and kissed the top of his head, until she felt him relax again, his breath expulsed in a short sigh. "I need to see it. I just need to..."
"You will, Jim." She drew back, cupping his chin between her hands. He seemed embarrassed, his cheeks streaked with tears, vulnerable, but he didn't flinch away. He sniffled, and she wiped at his nose. "You will see many things, travel to many places. I know this. You're..."
She couldn't bring herself to go on. Unspoken words clattered about in her mind. You're like your father. With a sigh, she stood up. Jim had hunched over, running his sleeve over his eyes. Shutting her out again, the moment banishing.
"You should go to bed."
He nodded, once. As he slid off the seat, he looked up. In an instant she couldn't be all that sure of, he gave her a faint smile. It wasn't much, a little twitch of the lips, and then it was gone. But it reached out and comforted Sarah in a way no words ever could.
"Stupid, lumpy pillow. Feels like I'm sleeping on a sack of potatoes."
Jim pushed the pillow away, disgusted, flopping over on his belly as Doppler's guest bed creaked and heaved underneath him. Jim was certain that at least half of the springs were broken, jutting out into his ribs and his hips and his knees. No matter which way he turned, he couldn't get comfortable. He sighed in exasperation and shot a glance at the clock Doppler had set up on the bedside table. 2.03.45 a.m. Jim groaned.
His groan was answered by the thud of something heavy being set down with force. Doppler's voice followed it, raised in clipped, academic tones. Jim lay still, straining to make out words.
"... nonsense. That's what it is. Sentimental nonsense."
Sarah's voice answered, coming from the kitchen. "I don't see things that way, Delbert. Forgive me for not being as black and white as you."
"This is a question of black and white. White, you and Jim. Black, Leland. Plain and simple."
Jim stiffened. His mother's voice had grown louder. "Delbert, you pompous man, you don't know anything about it! Oh, how convenient to dump it all on Leland!"
"I am not dumping it all on Leland. I just can't believe that after all these years, you still—"
"What I do or don't do is my business. Not yours, not anyone's. Mine." Her feet stomped further into the kitchen, her voice lowering. "Besides, you're overreacting. Of course I don't want Leland to come back. I don't want him ever to come back. I just thought..." Her voice trailed away, inaudible. Jim felt cheated, angered.
Doppler's voice rose again. "Well, that's never going to happen, Sarah. And even if it did, it would be wrong. You don't need him anymore, for anything." Slippers thudded over the floor as Doppler moved about, his steps sending tremors down the lantern hung in Jim's room. Jim watched it spin as Doppler's voice trickled down into his subconscious. "Leland would never return to Montressor to help you. You may have blinded yourself to him, but that man was a selfish lout."
"Delbert, we've been through this."
Doppler slammed his hand against something, causing the lantern to spin faster. "Well, damn it, I want to say it! He never cared for anyone. Not you or Jim or anyone. You think he stayed out all that time because he had to? Good husbands, Sarah, make time. They always make tim—"
"I don't want to talk about this."
The ceiling shook slightly as the doctor stomped towards the kitchen. His voice was barely recognizable. "Husbands make time, Sarah! They don't take every opportunity offered to get up and ship out. Understand that."
A thin screech rang out. A dish slammed against the sink. Pieces crinkled as Sarah's footsteps faded away towards her own room, her voice trailing out. "I was just thinking it would be nice if he came back. That's all, Delbert! Just thinking!"
Silence settled in, rushing into Jim's ears. After a while, china pieces rang out, tinkling against each other as Doppler swept them into a pile. His footsteps hovered above for a few minutes before he too was gone.
Lying in bed, his eyes fixed on the slowly spinning lantern, Jim thought he could hear his mother sobbing.
It was a cheap toy. The pieces wouldn't fit together properly, slid off once he managed to fit them in. But he didn't mind. His father had brought it home to him.
"Look, daddy, I finished it."
Daddy rarely spoke. Mommy barely spoke about him. Jim could never get many words out. Everything seemed to pass right through daddy, as if he weren't there. As if he were a ghost. Jim clambered onto his lap while he slept on the couch and pressed his head against his chest. He could barely make out a heartbeat. He beat at the spot with his hands. Daddy didn't like that. With a shudder and a bear grunt, he dislodged Jim, sent him sprawling to the floor.
"I hate you."
Those were words he learned later, when he turned thirteen and everything just seemed to blow out, as if someone had pulled a switch in his head. Colours seemed brighter, sounds louder, nerve ends shooting out to embrace everything. Pain became more intense. He crawled up to the Benbow's roof and squeezed his fingertips until they were white and numb and he thought about daddy and thought he didn't care. He thought about jumping down, about how it would feel once his brain had been shut down. He stood up and stepped towards the edge of the roof.
Below, their docking strip hovered over empty space, mocking him. He grit his teeth and shifted his feet and thought he could jump. He could feel his body, weightless, as it rushed out to meet the empty air. The rocks below. Instead, he crumpled down, fell onto his back, his face turned towards the sky. Slowly, he spread out his hands. He so wanted to fly.
Like daddy had wanted to fly.
Morning came in silence, the fight between Doppler and Sarah still fresh in everybody's mind. It made Sarah distracted. It caused Doppler to behave with overdone civility. It made Jim want to leave them both alone and to be left alone. He barely heard as Doppler informed him that their ship, The R.L.S. Legacy, would be ready to leave in two days, that tomorrow they would set out for the Crescentia Spaceport. His breakfast picked at and eventually abandoned, Jim stomped down the stairs towards his bedroom, flashing a rude hand gesture at Doppler's back.
The strained, angry atmosphere left him spent as he flopped down onto the creaky bed. He stared up at the ceiling and entertained fantasies of Doppler falling overboard and being eaten by a space whale. He envisioned his father burned to a crisp by the laser cannons of a pirate ship that bore a close resemblance to Captain Flint's. And his mother...? He couldn't bring himself to really hurt his mother, even in his fantasies. He had her cut her thumb while she peeled the skin off Cerulean worms, the little gash stinging every time she washed the dishes. And even that felt too mean and petty. Dr. Doppler got himself gobbled by a giant lunar sloth.
Curling up on his side, Jim traced his fingers over the mattress in idle patterns. He should have talked to his mother. Set her at ease. Instead, he was hiding from her again, feeling spiteful. With a sigh, he pushed himself up from the bed and pulled on his jacket. He would take a walk outside. Clear his head. Then he could talk to his mother without so much ugly air hanging between them.
As he passed the door to her bedroom, he stopped. Looking inside, he could see she had straightened out the place, made it her own even though they'd been there only two weeks. The bed was meticulously made, Doppler's loose papers and books arranged neatly and dusted, his boxes sealed and stacked up where she wouldn't trip over them. Gotta hand it to mom.
Jim stepped inside, the motion transporting him to a time when, as a five-year-old runt, he would creep into mommy's room to look through all of her pretty things. Jim sat at the edge of his mother's bed and let himself flop onto the mattress. It smelled of her. Of her dish liquid chapped hands and her freshly washed hair and the cold and mustiness and smoky essence of being inside. He breathed in deeply and allowed his anger to seep out, his mind clearing.
A glint caught the corner of his eye. Craning his head, he could see it was his mother's gold holo-locket. Its chain was smooth and discoloured from constant use, the surface tarnished after many years. His mother thought he couldn't see her, but he knew she would often open the locket and smile at the memories preserved inside. A wistful, sad smile. She opened it almost every day.
Jim reached out for the locket, cradling it in his palm. With the flick of a cleverly concealed switch, he opened it. Static played out across his eyes at first, replaced in a jolt of colour by an image of himself as a baby. A second image showed him as a toddler, then at seven. He never grew up inside his mother's locket. The thought sent a pang of regret across his eyes, and he began to shut it off. As he felt for the on-off switch, his finger brushed against a second switch, indented farther behind. A yellow message flashed out momentarily. Back-up Memory. The words dissolved into the image of a tall, dark haired man with a thickening beard and worn, travel stained clothes.
The face stared out at Jim with a faint, ironic smile. Just stared at him, Jim frowning back at it in disbelief and anger seeping back in and betrayal and he snapped the locket shut. Before he realized what he had done, he had bounded up from the bed and rushed out into the living room. He stopped, his chest heaving, looking around. His mother was outside, watering a few flowers Doppler kept for holistic purposes. The doctor himself was nowhere in sight, probably off to the docks to hammer out the last details of the trip. Jim crossed the living room in a huff and came to stand before the fireplace.
Flames spit and crackled, leaping up towards him, bright and ethereal. Jim held out the hand in which he gripped the locket, the chain biting into his palm. He hesitated. The heat of the flames breathed over his skin, intense and heavy. Jim tightened his grip on the locket, once. He closed his eyes, and opened his hand. With a shudder, he heard the locket strike against the fireplace floor.
A hiss and a crackle made him open his eyes. The locket had fallen into a hollow between two logs, flames converging above it. Jim felt a sickening panic well up in his chest at the sight of it. It glinted, dully, golden and round and it belonged to his mother. Before he could think himself out of it, Jim flung his hand into the flames. Pain shot up every nerve end, bathing his sight in white. He gritted his teeth and wrapped his fingers around the locket. His throat ached to scream, tears bubbling up. The pain seemed to stretch out into eternity, but he finally pulled his hand back out. It curled against his chest, throbbing from the pain, the locket crushed against the skin of his palm.
Tears slid down Jim's cheeks, but he never noticed.
With a flourish, Doppler presented his house keys to Sarah. She had to smile at the over-articulate way in which he explained what each one was for, getting caught up in an aside about a certain pantry door where some old cheese had been stowed, by his father, apparently.
"Do not in your life open that one pantry door, Sarah. The smell alone could kill you. It almost killed me, twice."
"Delbert," Sarah said, patting his hand. "I'll only need to open the front door. Don't worry."
The doctor didn't look any less stressed, but he managed a weak smile of trust and belief. He was as prepared as he would ever be for the trip to the spaceport. A bright yellow and cream space suit covered his entire body, a clunky, hampering power pack protruding from its back. It confined most of Doppler's movements, but his face retained a sense of dignity that was almost touching. Sarah embraced him, the suits buckles biting into her stomach. Doppler, surprised at first, felt a sense of relief wash over him.
"Farwell, Sarah," he murmured. "Jim will be fine. He'll be home in no time."
Sarah stepped away from her embrace slowly. "I hope so. I want him to be happy. I want him to be..."
"Alive?" The doctor adjusted one of the buckles on his suit and sniffled away the tears he had almost shed. "No need to worry about that." Muddled by his own words, confounded by the one buckle that wouldn't snap shut, Doppler blustered out an apology. "W-what I meant to say was, you need not worry that Jim won't be alive. He'll be alive and well. Perfectly well."
The buckled finally fastened, and Doppler flashed the skies a smile of triumph. "Boldly forward I go, ha!"
"Coach to the spaceport shuttle launch site is ready to go! All aboard!"
With a start, Doppler realized they had almost missed their ride. With one last pat at Sarah's hands, he slung on his backpack and called out to Jim. "Get a move on, young Jim. They run a tight coach."
Jim stood at the edge of the curve, backpack slung over one shoulder. Doppler had insisted he purchase a spacesuit as well, but Jim had merely shook his head and given the doctor a look that left no room for further discussion. His old clothes would do just fine. He heard Doppler calling to him and felt a tremor travel down his spine. This was it. They were leaving. They were really leaving.
Sarah watched him in silence. Her arms ached to hold onto him, to keep him from boarding the coach. She clenched her hands tightly over her stomach and waited for Jim to embrace her. It was awkward when he did, but he held her tightly, cheek resting against hers as he kissed it lightly. When he drew back, his eyes were hard and bright and clear. Ready. Excited. His chest rose and fell under quick, giddy breaths. A smile chased itself across Sarah's face.
"Goodbye, mom," he said. "Goodbye."
The Benbonian coach driver called out again, impatiently. Doppler's voice rose from the crowd to request that the frogman please keep his pants on. Moments later, Jim had swung himself inside, and the Benbonian had set the coach in motion. Doppler attempted to wave, but only managed to rock from side to side in his rounded suit, indignation written out over every line of his face. Jim leaned out of the window, dangerously far, his body half-hanging out of the coach. Sarah's heart leaped in her chest, her hands twitching to steady him, to keep him safe. He smiled and waved, his arm pumping against the bright blue sky.
"Goodbye!" he called out. Over and over again, goodbye. Until the sound of his voice was the only thing Sarah could hear.
She raised her hand in a silent farewell, kept it raised even after she could no longer see the coach. As she lowered it, she felt a sense of futility threatening to settle over her. She felt, keenly, with a hint of regret, that this story wasn't hers. She wouldn't be the one stumbling out the details when it was all over, giddy with excitement. She would say, maybe, "Oh, Mrs. Pritchard had twins. You know, she was almost due when you left." Mundane things.
With a sigh, she turned back to Doppler's house. It loomed in front of her, empty and large. From the corner of her eye, she could see the empty space that marked the passing of the Old Benbow. She kept her eyes carefully averted, her fingers reaching for her locket. Placing it on her palm, she switched it on. Jim smiled up at her, gurgling, laughing, happy.
Ashes flaked off onto her fingers, and Sarah stared. Turning the locket over on her palm, she saw the telltale signs of fire. Confused and alarmed, she tried all the different switches, checking to see that everything still worked. She pressed the back-up memory switch last. Leland appeared before her. Still smiling, still there. Sarah closed the locket and held it to her lips.
With trembling fingers, she reached behind the locket and flipped open a tiny compartment. Five hologram cards slid out. Sarah selected the fifth one and held it between her fingers, pinched. Unable to get away. Leland. With a flick, she returned the others and closed the locket. Then, with a firm, determined smile, she crushed the card she had selected.
It splintered into little bits of powdery glass, glinting in the morning sunlight.
20 February 2003. This was actually the first Treasure Planet story I wrote. I have once again taken several liberties, this time with the actual events from the picture. This is not to say I don't like Treasure Planet as it is. I love it or I wouldn't be writing about it. I just wanted to play with the idea of lengthening out the events, allowing Sarah and Jim a bit of breathing time before the adventure was set in motion.
Also, there's the matter of Jim's scar. The odd little thing is: It changes places even in the picture! It's been placed on the right cheek here, because that's where it was located on my screen saver which showed Jim and Doppler as they opened the map for the first time. If the official art book favours any particular cheek, give us a holler.
And I am now fully aware that Jim has no scar; it's just a shadow
Again, I hope you readers won't skewer me. I taste very bad. Tough, gamy.
Eat some Cerulean worms instead. Very healthy.