Oh my goodness, it's the epilogue! (tosses gummi bears into the air) OK. Sorry, they're these really good German ones. But it's hard to eat them because they're so chewy and my braces hurt and…I'm ranting. Sorry.
PS – Please vote on my profile for which story idea I should do next! The winner will most likely be posted later in the fall (around November-ish) after band season ends and after I'm done drowning in college applications.
Disclaimer: Nothing has changed since chapter one. National Treasure is still not mine, and Mickey Mouse is still stalking my house. (sigh)
Life finally has swung back to a more normal pace, and it is proving difficult to become accustomed to. There have been no adventures, no treasure hunts, no car chases—I don't even want to think about page forty-seven. Thankfully the president understands and hasn't been nagging me, not to imply that he doesn't casually inquire every so often.
And even more surprisingly, neither Abigail nor Riley has shown an interest as to the page's contents like they used to, but I don't blame them at all. They both seem content at the place we've arrived, so much like before his arrest: we eat dinner together at least four times a week (Sadusky occasionally stopping by) and Riley almost as often spends nights in his designated room. His apartment must seem very lonely.
I've actually offered more than once that he should just move in permanently, Abigail coming to my aid when he keeps sprouting this "I need to figure out logistics" excuse. After four months of us offering, one would think logistics are no longer an issue. What sort of "logistics" would there be, anyway? I doubt they're financial—I mean, really—or related with selling the place since it's in such a desired part of town. Can logistics be personal? I don't know.
But I do believe he's up to something; he just won't tell me what it is, strangely enough, much less admit that there is something going on. Although secrecy is what he's good at no doubt, his game's slipped: question evasion has been clumsier, excuses more commonplace. It's very unlike him since after we arrived back from South America, and I won't let it go, even though Abigail's told me to numerous times.
Playing with one of the oranges from the fruit bowl, I run all this through my head as I sit at the breakfast table. A lot has happened around this table. Plans were made, circumstances discussed, meals served (including, of course, pot roast), coffee spit across (courtesy of Caroline after that horror film)…and now what?
"Now what?"—it seems more like a philosophy at this point than a casual question, seeing as it was always something we asked ourselves. He's out of jail—now what? We talked to Ahmed—now what? We found the treasure—now what? The issue is finally resolved—
It's the only one with a blank answer anymore. And not much has happened that could help give it one. Our lives are almost like those of normal people, and it's downright weird, to be honest.
I still haven't told him about his mom. Is there ever a right time to break news like that?
It's eating me up, ravaging the salvaged ruins from the arsonists who rampaged through my system when I thought Riley was dead.
And it's Sunday afternoon and he hasn't been by all weekend. That's also not like him at all.
And that's eating the leftovers from my anxiety over not telling him. Negative emotions are vultures preying on the carnage created by memories and overactive imaginations. Since his arrest in August, I must have collected an entire flock.
Suddenly I hear the door squeak open and footsteps clunk through the hallway. In the doorway soon appears Riley, clad in one of his gray suits with dark hair. I try not to let my sigh of relief make it to the surface.
"Hey, Riley," I say much less anxiously than I feel. "Where've you been all weekend?"
He takes a seat on the side of the square table nearest me. "Oh, you know…around."
Yeah, I've heard that way too many times in the past few weeks going into April to let this go. "Doing what?"
"What kind of things?"
Did Sadusky tell him about that conversation had over the phone with him or…? I'll just chalk that up as a…hm, bizarre occurrence.
"No, really, Riley. What's up?" As his eyes gaze upwards, I immediately guess what's coming out of his mouth. "Other than the ceiling and all that," I say hurriedly before he can make a sound.
"Why?" he asks after a moment.
"I'm just curious."
My God, he's being worse than an overly inquisitive six-year-old. "Because…you've been acting strangely."
"As opposed to what, normal? None of us are normal, so just go ahead and accept that—"
"You know what I mean." I shoot him my trademark stare.
And he laughs; he actually laughs. Again with the jokes I seem to miss. "You think the Ben-stare still works on me? Ben, you accidentally slipped the vaccine to that in my coffee a while ago." As his chuckles die out, my stare remains and he clears his throat more out of nervousness than anything.
"Well, actually," he says, much softer. "I needed you to come with me someplace this afternoon. And I swear it's not a gum run."
Something about his tone worries me. "Is…everything all right?"
"Yeah, I just…" he sighs, shrugging. "I can't do this alone."
Silence penetrates the kitchen completely, the accursed ticking clock having been replaced by a nice digital one. Front teeth resting on his bottom lip, his gaze dances around uncomfortably for a moment; my own is lost in a fog of vagueness.
I'm about to ask him if he can clarify a little as to what's troubling him, but he clears his throat in a changing-the-subject kind of way. "Uh, earlier this week I stopped by my lawyer's office."
"Really? I thought you said you were allergic to lawyers." No really—he actually claimed it on some paperwork a few years ago.
"Yeah, well, Zyrtec works wonders," he says quickly. "Anyway. I, uh…officially changed my name." His hand disappears into one of the suit's many pockets and procures a folded piece of important-looking paper.
"Riley Andrew Poole"
For a second, a million questions fly through my head, but they soon disappear. It's none of my business why he wanted the alteration permanent—though it must have been good enough to risk getting lawyer-hives or whatever he gets.
A confused smile momentarily flashes across his face. "What?"
Now I'm confused. "I didn't say anything."
"I know you didn't."
"Then why'd you say 'what'?"
He avoids the question again, but much more smoothly albeit noticeably—shaking his head, he rises from the table and motions toward the hallway to the front door. OK, let's just chalk this up as Riley being Riley.
I find him sifting through the many keys Abigail has put in a nifty key bowl, presumably debating which car we should take to wherever we're going. After hoisting the set of keys to eye level, he stares it down for three seconds before returning it and repeating the process again.
"Y'know," I start, about to suggest we take mine, but I stop after he jumps. "Are you sure you're OK?" For safe measure, I go ahead and pull my keys out and slip them in my pocket.
When he doesn't answer, I steer him toward the door, my hand on his shoulder. "I'll drive," I say, locking it behind us. "Just tell me where we're going."
"I can drive—really. I'm fine," he adds with extra emphasis, snatching my keys from my pocket quite sneakily. As he moves toward my car, he suddenly stops, turning back around. His hand reaches into another pocket and fishes out some more folded items; one speedily is shoved back in, a flash of white, while the other is painstakingly unfolded and handed to me.
"I kept it with me everywhere; can't you tell?"
Surely I can: where he's folded it time after time definite creases have formed, the color is faded, and the photo-paper is warped and distorted from water—Cibola water, Thailand water. Only after I assess its condition can I focus on the actual image.
In the background, cherry blossom trees line the sidewalk in full bloom, some petals floating in the air like pink snow. But I only have eyes for the main subjects—Riley and Caroline, three years younger, with arms wrapped around each others' shoulders, smilingly, carefree.
And to me, it's heartbreaking.
"I had proposed to her the night before," Riley murmurs as I fold it back up and place it in his hand.
"It's a beautiful picture," I assure him.
Swallowing stiffly, he nods and shuffles to the driver's side of my car. He sighs before he opens the door, and I barely move. That he's not filling me in is still acting as a bothersome poke in the side every so often. But I can't just stand here, not now when he's obviously hurting.
For the first half hour of the trip, the only sounds that permeate the warm car are the crunch of the gravel and then slow labored breaths as he maneuvers to who knows where. I expect him, nervous as he seems, to be white-knuckling it, but each glance at his grip on the wheel tells me otherwise. Not even the radio—which is normally the first thing turned on—is playing a familiar tune in the background.
In assessing the state of things, I forget to take note where we are and subsequently am absolutely lost. It looks like some sort of two-lane highway, few cars and signs populating the stretch.
"Hey, uh…Ben?" he finally says with a very forced conversational tone.
"Well, you remember the night we stole the Declaration."
As if I could forget it. "Of course," I say, arching my voice at the end with a question.
"And…uh," he continues with a fidget. "You remember how we could only find one pair of latex gloves…and that you used them on the document since you didn't want to get them dirty with that chemical of Abigail's fingerprints, right?"
"Mhm…" This is really taking a turn for the bizarre, and I can't help but frown in confusion. Thank goodness he's looking at me, not the road.
"I've been wondering for a while…what did you use to get her thumbprint?"
Sneaking a peek at my face for a split second, he eyes me with one of his trademark skeptical expressions. I say nothing, and the awkward silence envelops us once more. What a random question…what could possibly be so intriguing about my methods then, really?
Well, better safe than sorry. "Riley," I say suddenly. "They do make latex thumbs, y'know…for medical purposes. Doctors use them all the time."
"Oh," he says with a shrug. "A-all right."
"What did you think I had used?" Seriously, I have no clue. And he seems not to want to answer me. Settling back in my seat, I sigh and stare out the window.
Cue the awkward silence—yet again.
And another ten minutes pass, much to my dismay. I was hoping to pull him out of this weird, depressed rut he's fallen into.
"I still can't believe it's over," he starts again, but much more sullenly and without all the flustered twitches.
"With your arrest?" Thank God he's talking; a quiet Riley bodes nothing good.
"Yeah. Sometimes I wake up and go to take a shower and realize I'm out of hair dye and just about have a mental breakdown before I remember it doesn't matter anymore. Or at least to the greater part of society it doesn't matter. But I can't, well…" he sighs, pausing to think. "To them, it's now nothing, but to me, it's always been everything. And it still is: my hair's still red under the chemicals, my arm still looks like it came out of a slasher movie, the past still exists. Resolution changes nothing but the future, but I really wish I could have a do-over in the past."
I digest his words carefully but receive a bout of indigestion on the last bit. Does that apply to all his past, to simply press "restart" and begin anew right out of high school? Of course I'm his friend, but the temptation of avoiding all the suffering would be astronomical…
"Hm?" I definitely wanted that to sound less down and more…well, "peppy" isn't the right word, but it will have to suffice.
"I didn't mean that," he says hastily. "It just sort of popped out, I swear. I'd change some things—anyone would—but…God, if I never met you, I'm sure I'd be dead."
"No, Ben." With a quick glance, he takes his eyes off the road once more. The momentary stare is soberingly serious. "Not an exaggeration. If Ingram had chosen some other treasure hunter, one quite unlike you, the course of events would have been drastically changed. Not only would said course be comparatively shorter, but I would also have had to put up with an oaf who wouldn't have been nearly as much fun as you…and not nearly as good a person." He sighs, and I shift a bit, uncomfortable.
"Out of all the people I've met in my life, Ben, you stand out as the only one who I can be sure is inherently good to the core."
My shifting becomes a bit more prominent; I feel so undeserving of this heartfelt compliment. "Inherently good"? Could that ever apply to me? Meaning well means nothing. After all, the saying does go "the road to hell is paved with good intentions."
But Riley isn't going there—I already determined that months ago. He shouldn't worry about that. On the other hand, I have quite a few bricks already laid down…like (oh god) his mom—
We both climb from the car and onto the sidewalk lining the well-manicured lawn beside it. And still Riley stares at me, confused, and I can't meet his gaze.
Stop living in a dream world, Riley: I can't walk on water and nor will I ever be able to.
"You're too hard on yourself, you know that?" he says, and all I can do is determinedly shake my head. "Stop it, Ben. What I said before I ran away, well…it's over and done with, water under the bridge, OK?" And then he adds quietly, his gaze falling to our shoes. "And…I could never doubt you again after seeing you in Guiana. Watching you across that clearing, seeing you like that…I thought I was going to die."
Wind rustles the new green leaves of the maple trees along the road as I fight to remain calm and dry-eyed. I can't stand keeping this from him any longer—
"Riley, I should have told you ages ago. Your mother—"
"Sadusky told me in January," he says simply, without even a hint of resentment. "Ben…I understand."
He grins, and so do his sky-tinted eyes. "You."
Seeing as I rooted myself to the spot, he has to grab hold of my elbow and pull me along the cobblestone path up to the door of the house we parked in front of. Almost immediately this more positive mood melts away and is replaced by many a self-calming sigh and jittery stance.
After five seconds of bouncing from foot to foot, he resolutely pokes the glowing doorbell with his index finger and takes one last fortifying breath.
Next to his determination, my oblivious confusion must appear rather comical. Thankfully, the middle-aged man who comes to the door stifles his chuckle. His mousy brown hair thinning atop a face half-obscured by large coke-bottle spectacles, the quetsion of why Riley would need to visit this timid-seeming man pops into my head.
"Uh…hello, sirs," he says, perplexed, as he pushes the glasses back up his nose. "What can I do for you?"
Riley holds one finger up, telling the man to wait, while his other hand dives back in the coat pocket with the old, bent photograph. He hands that, plus the white piece of paper I saw briefly back home, to the man, saying, "I, uh…hope you are Timothy Anderson."
The man nods, Riley's shoulders less tense from relief, as he squints through the thick lenses at the photo. Suddenly his eyes expand into wide circles, his hands switching to the other sheet, an old piece of notebook paper. Through his squints, I see his eyes run across the words on the paper like a speedy typewriter, popping up at the conclusion with a metaphorical ping.
"Ah, yes, yes…" he says, quite flustered. "Hold on a moment…" Leaving the door ajar, he dashes back into the foyer as calls of "Martha! Martha!" echo down the hallway.
"Could you tell me what this is about?" I murmur to Riley.
"Nope. Not yet."
Timothy soon returns with his wife, Martha, a shorter, heavier woman with curly locks of that same mousy brown hue. Her eyebrows shoot up in surprise.
"Yes, yes, come on in, dears," she says with a nervous grin.
They lead us to their living room and motion to the sofa, where we sit facing a matching one across from a coffee table. Not three seconds pass before they beckon Riley off to the adjoining room, leaving me to stare at the line of decorated porcelain cow figurines along the mantelpiece. This does nothing to help my spiking curiosity.
Through the closed door, I catch snippets of their conversation.
"…it's really a very long story," Riley's voice says tiredly.
There's silence as Timothy and Martha speak, their softer tones not penetrating the walls. Occasionally, indecipherable murmurs make it to my ears, maybe a sigh or two, but nothing that could give me any sort of clue as to what we're doing here. Was there something we forgot to resolve? I try to wrack my brains, but then Riley speaks again—
"…doesn't the letter and picture prove enough?"
Again the silence, the emptiness of sound, resolution, information. It drives me nuts, and this one's much longer, concluded with a very loud, relieved sigh from Riley.
"…he's my friend," his voice says quickly. "My closest friend." There's a pause. "No, he has a girlfriend," he sighs.
Ah, I was wondering when they would finally ask, "Oh yeah, who's that other guy?"
As the sound of footsteps grows louder, I finally hear Timothy and Martha's voices. "Yes," she says as they come through the door, patting her husband's hand. "We really just want him to have a nice, happy, normal life."
Yeah, now I'm really confused. What are you up to Riley?
"Well," Riley sighs, a grimace playing on his lips. "I can almost guarantee most of that, but…not so much the part about normal. Right, Ben?" he adds with a hopeful grin.
While Martha runs off, muttering to herself ("Just hold on one teensy minute"), Riley furtively shoots me a look that's screaming patience, meandering over to join me on the sofa. Timothy sits across from us.
"So!" he says. "You're really Ben Gates?"
"Yes," I say cautiously, not knowing just how to proceed since I kind of don't know what's going on (hint, hint, Riley).
"I can see what you mean, Riley," he continues. "about the 'normal' part. And…" At this, his face clouds over with sorrow under the lenses. "It's just so…terrible, so terrible about Caroline; it really is. She was such a wonderful girl." A frown stretches over his mouth as Riley nods to himself.
They knew Caroline? Why can't I make the connection?
We all turn and find Martha half-concealed behind the door frame and motioning hastily for her husband. He follows her lead, and rather clumsily, doing some sort of shuffle-jog out of the room; with smiling faces they back away and reveal a small boy clutching a framed picture.
No words are spoken, although many eyes seem to be urging someone to do so. Slowly, the boy's gaze curiously examines the photo, then us, and back again. He's a cute kid—no more than four years old, with dark brown hair, cheerful squinty eyes, and a complexion that, even coming from the dead of winter, looks like a light tan.
After his careful scrutinizing, the slivers of eyes explode into circles of shocked, electric blue as he again reverts to a cycle of glancing between us and the picture, plus Timothy and Martha. I look to Riley beside me; it's like I don't exist, the way he's staring at the boy. And it's captivating.
"Nana?" he says in his young, squeaky voice. "Is dis f'real?"
His big blue dinner plates wait expectantly for Martha to respond, but all she does is smile. That seems to confuse him.
Hesitantly the boy steps further into the living room, sneakered feet shuffling along the hardwood floors and frame in hand, up to Riley. Briefly his gaze falls to the photo before returning to us.
"My name's Wes," he says confidently in his high-pitched speech, and something about it makes me fall in love with the kid, he's so endearing.
Riley can barely make a sound—instead he smiles a twitchy sort of grin.
"I dink you're my daddy."
With both of his tiny golden hands, he switches the frame around so we can see it as well: a less-warped version of Caroline and Riley among the blooming cherry blossoms meets our gaze, protected within the polished wood borders.
Fingers shaking something terrible, Riley fumbles into his inside jacket pocket but comes up empty, then going into his closer breast pocket—finally retrieved is his battered copy. He can hardly unfold it without ripping it along its fragile creases.
But once he does, time—for something like the third time since August—stops, and for once it's because of something good.
Wes, in all his youthful energy, springs buoyantly into Riley's lap and sprawls clumsily on the sofa, flinging his arms around Riley in a desperate hug that's been pent-up all of his four or so years. And I've never seen such an expression on Riley's face.
"Dey tol' me you could come back!" Wes says into Riley's shoulder. "An' Nana an' Papa tell me stories 'bout yer 'ventures wiv dose treasures an' such—" And the babbling continues, and Riley nods, words failing him.
We've come so far.
Without realizing it, I travel back to the days of old, when we were new and inexperienced in the ways of our schemes, ignorant of the role we played in something larger. When Sadusky actually did want to arrest us, when Abigail actually did want to curse me to oblivion, when Riley was just…Riley—how long has it actually been? And is this time or distance we're referring to?
Days, months, years—they don't seem right. Time is too relentless, always going at the same speed, for better or for worse, driving us crazy. But all the most defining moments came in spurts, like bursts of speed that break the needle on the speedometer, catapulting us to the beyond. We've come miles and miles, so when we look back from where we've come after these blasts, the past seems foreign. Who needs time? We forget to count the days.
Riley's sudden touch jarring me from my reverie makes me jump, heart rate aflutter. Wes' arms are tightly latched around his neck, and if I'm not mistaken both sets of blue eyes are glistening, Riley's leaking quite a bit. He doesn't say much out loud, but I sense something in his familiar gaze that I never saw before: a reason, a subtle explanation…
I have never been able to comprehend him, why he acts certain ways, says certain things—but above all, why he keeps being the way he is even despite all my glaring malfunctions. But now I see it, and it's literally staring me in the face.
It's really quite simple…I believe in you.
"Hey, Ben?" he tries again.
Riley smiles in understanding of my mind wanderings. "Will you be his godfather?"
The thought hardly has enough time to register before I accept enthusiastically, his grin becoming more prominent.
"OK, Wes," he says to the also-grinning boy. "This is your Uncle Ben."
Wes' smaller eyes greet me with a bit of puzzlement. "Like da guy on da rice box?"
Briefly Riley and I exchange amused glances. "Yeah," he says slowly. "Kind of."
"But…but," he squeaks. "You don't really look like him." Eyebrow arched, he turns his round face to his father. "What up wid dat?"
For one long, single second there is silence, and then we burst into incoherent laughter like I've never heard in so long. As the stitches fade to stifled giggles, we wipe different tears from our eyes that are now wrenched open; I put an arm around Riley's shoulder and give him a jarring one-armed hug. Eyes meeting, I imply strongly, it's going to be OK, it's going to be OK, Riley. He understands, as he always does—it is going to be OK; we've got our dose of hope.
"Prosperity provideth, but adversity proveth friends." (Queen Elizabeth I)
So…it's finally the end, huh? Wow. (sits in silence for a moment)
To all my readers, reviewers, and people who put this on their alerts or favorites: THANK YOU! This was my first successful multi-chapter story, as well as my first fic to pass 100 (and 200!) reviews. It was an indescribable feeling for a somewhat obscure author like myself. Hugs for you all! And free Riley clones. That's where I've been during my longer update periods. (Maybe.)
So…please review, even if you've never reviewed before. Tell me what you liked/hated/thought I could improve on, from plot and character (the latter somewhat of an obsession for me) to writing style. Please. And—again—thank you.
PS – Don't forget about the poll!