When Jack died, it was the way a man of his experience deserved to go; softly and in his sleep. In the bed he shared with Abigail, the sheets rose and fell in synchronisation with his slow, steady breathing. And then, like a key turning in a lock, something inside him had come undone and he'd woken to find himself rising out of his body, like spiralling steam. In the moment before he was pulled, up and onwards, he looked down at his own face, worn and lined with age but peaceful. He looked at Abigail sleeping blissfully on beside his body and tried to reach out- to touch her one last time.
"Abigail," he murmured, trying to say goodbye, to wake her, to give her some warning of what she would find in the morning but his voice made no sound. His fingertips ghosted across her sleeping face and he caught the shiver that shook her, even in sleep. And then he was rising. Or falling. He supposed it depended on the viewpoint- as he was pulled from Earth. The stars seemed to get bigger, to shoot down around his head in a crown, in a blur. He saw lights around him, golden like fireflies, thousands of spirits like him, soaring for the heavens in the night sky.
His thoughts went out to Abigail, to Lindsey, to Buckley and Abigail Suzanne- the faces of his immediate family, the loved ones he was leaving behind on Earth. He was concerned with how they would cope with his loss, but over the years his family had become a stone pillar, a rock and underneath the grief they would accept the way things were. It was his time to go, he mused, he'd lived a long life. And they would have a body to say goodbye to, no questions left unanswered.
It wouldn't't be like before….
It seemed to him, as he entered a myriad of blurring images- houses, streets, all empty but familiar- that he still existed. He was dying, dead but he was still Jack, still Mr Salmon, father of Lindsey and Buckley, husband to Abigail. And his thoughts turned traitorously down a path he knew his heart may not be able to survive if it was disappointed.
And then he stopped. It took a moment for him to gather his bearings.
Jack was in a place he recognised. Stalks of corn were broken beneath his feet, the smell of moist earth rising to meet him. The sky was pearly with early morning mist, the kind that hovered above the ground in those moments before the sun completely rises. The sky was lightly flushed.
He wanted to cry out at the injustice of it all, but he couldn't draw breath. It seemed to him that an unnatural silence blanketed the cornfield that had haunted him for years and he waited, motionless, for it to break.
He couldn't have said what it was. Later, he would have said he was waiting, that he'd always been waiting though he hadn't known it. But as the sun slowly separated from the Earth, sending faint beams of light through the mist, he turned as though someone had called his name.
Jack could see someone in the mist, far away on the other side of the cornfield. They approached slowly, another shape loping towards him at a greater speed that alarmed him. He would have taken a step back, but his feet were rooted in place. It was a dog, he realized a moment later and it barked joyfully at him, tail wagging as it sniffed him and licked his face, achingly familiar.
"Holiday?" He sounded incredulous even to his own ears, but it was. Holiday barked and circled his legs, before bounding back towards the other figure, closer now, but still too far away to make out the face.
Jack watched the unknown person approach him. And the more he watched, the more he recognised the way they walked, the tilt of the head- it was a slow realization, a whisper of a memory stirring from where it had slept, lying dormant for twenty long years. It was a girl he realized absently. Quite young- the hips still undeveloped, chest flat, mousy hair parted down the middle. Something inside him stuttered then, tensing, an old fault line preparing to crack open. An idea rose to the front of his mind, to the edge of his lips but he couldn't think it, couldn't form the idea into the name that meant everything.
(And the girl was so close now. He could reach out and touch her but he was afraid-)
"Dad!" And Susie, his Susie, first born, beloved, dead dead dead closed the gap, her feet flying over the corn field as she flung her arms around him.
"Susie," Jack was crying. He hugged her tight, breathing her in through sobs that wracked his body. She was here. Really here, in his arms, absent for so long. Stolen from them twenty years ago.
"Susie," he repeated, just to say her name aloud and have it mean something again. "Susie."
"I'm here," She said and he realized that her voice had not changed. Just as her appearance had not changed. She was still his little girl, wearing the clothes he'd last seen her in, on that last morning before she left the house and never came back.
Jack pulled back, keeping her small left hand clasped in his own. He looked into her blue eyes. "I've missed you so much," he said, almost waiting for her to disappear. Susie smiled and it was breathtaking. He remembered how he described it to Len Fennerman, all those years ago; like stars exploding.
"I know," she said, "I was always watching you- all of you, for years."
And it occurred to him, that his daughter, his Susie, had never really left them. He'd thought her lost, frozen, gone, but she'd been right there, always.
He looked past her face, for just a moment, to look at the cornfield. Susie followed his glance and she answered his unspoken question.
"It was there," she pointed at a spot some twenty yards away and as she did so, the ground seemed to shift beneath them roiling and churning until he could see a trap door of flat frozen wood among the bristled corn stalks, slithers of light peeking through the cracks. The air was colder, darker. Around them, snow started to fall. Jack clutched Susie closer to him, as though he could ward off the fate of a child that had already happened, recognising that moment, that awful day materialising around them. He was suddenly very afraid.
"It's okay Dad." Susie said, petting Holiday with her free hand.
"No," he was sobbing, "it's not okay. It's not right. You weren't supposed to die honey- I failed you-"
"What happened to me," she told him solemnly, "could happen to anyone. It did. It took me a long time to realize I wasn't the only one."
The name GeorgeHarvey lingered unspoken in the air between them.
"I'm so sorry I couldn't protect you from him…"As he had failed to keep his child safe, so too had he failed to apprehend her murderer. Susie smiled and it was wistful, heartbreaking, her eyes locked on the trap door- the lip of her grave.
"I forgive you." Those three words, light as air set him free. They were, he realized, the words he had needed to hear for a very long time. Peace started to spread throughout his body as though he'd sunk into a warm bath.
Susie looked up at him. "Come on," she said, "There's so much I have to show you."
Hand in hers, Jack walked with his daughter until the cornfield around them melted away into something new. He marvelled at the coloured blocks of Fairfax high school up ahead- their whole neighbourhood, but somehow, not- spread out around them. There were questions he had wanted to know the answers to- where was her body? what happened in those final minutes? had she been lonely in heaven all this time?- but they died in his throat. They were dead; they had all the time in the world. Susie was here and he would stay by her side forever, watching- waiting.
Death was the only certainty in life, Jack realized. And one day -far in the future he hoped- his family, all of them, would be together again. Jack. Abigail. Susie. Lindsey. Buckley.
The Salmons, all of them together the way they were supposed to be- the way they should have been- if it hadn't been for the ongoing horror of that one moment on December 6th, 1973.