Chapter 1: Silent House
"Hi. Ummm... I... wow. I know. It's been... too long. I know we have a lot to talk about. If... you're okay with that."
"I understand if you don't want to talk to me. Seriously, I do. I mean... over ten years... why start now? I can't imagine how hard it must've been for you. I just..." He sighed. "I just want to make things right. I still love you."
There was no response save for the soft hush of the waves, and the sound of the wind.
Jack Brennan shook his head and turned away from the bathroom mirror, heading back out into his cabin. "Yeah, why be all dramatic? I'll figure out some way to say it..."
With a sigh, he flopped backwards onto his bed and let his eyes slide shut. A groan escaped his throat. He wasn't sure if he'd call it being stupid, crazy, or having balls the size of Russia. His parents weren't the sort to hold grudges... when he'd run away eleven years ago. So what? Eleven years ago, I was the sort of guy who'd abandon his family. Now look at me. His breathing became louder and more labored, and his eyes squeezed shut tighter as he struggled to fight off the wave of panic threatening to overwhelm him. No no no NO. I'm doing this. I already spent the money, packed... I can freak out when I get to shore. And then I'm going to see them.
Why was I such an idiot?
A soft rapping on his cabin door woke Jack from his restless sleep some time later, and he mumbled incoherently as he sat up.
"There's bagels in the fridge," he muttered, stretching and grunting as shuffled over to the door and wrenched it open. "...You're not Janet."
Pascal chuckled and shook his head, clapping a hand on Jack's shoulder and steering him out onto the deck of the boat. "I'd hope not, son, but maybe she'll be out here somewhere."
"I think she's from out of town..." The crisp smell of salt and sand jolted Jack's brain awake, and he gave a start. "We... we're here! Already? Oh, God, oh, God..." He felt his head start to throb painfully, and his vision blurred and began to swim. "They... take me back, please. Take me back. I can't do this. They'll... they'll hate..." His voice caught as he tried to bring himself to finish his thoughts.
Pascal shook his head, prying Jack's arms from around his waist. "I'm afraid that won't be possible, son. Where's that determination I saw back in the city?" He sighed. "Trust me... any parent worth their salt would be thrilled to see their son come back, now, you hear me? And you know it damn well. Now let's get you to the inn and get you some tea to calm you down, there's a lad."
The two men slowly made their way across the silent shores of Mineral Town, Jack dragging his feet every so often as his nerves started to jitter up again.
They eventually came to a stop in front of the Juniper Inn, looming large and imposing over them. The silence was only laced with the intermittent chirping of the odd early bird.
"Maybe I should... just skip this part and go right home," Jack suggested, his palms growing sweaty. He wiped them on his pants and sighed. "I mean, I come all this way back and head to see someone else first, I don't know if they-"
"In you go, son, they can wait a few more minutes." Pascal gently pushed Jack inside, closing the door behind them.
A burly, red-haired man sat behind a long bar on the near wall, looking up from his paper and raising his eyebrows.
"Morning, Doug!" Pascal waved, ushering Jack over to the counter. "How's life treating you?"
"Like a cheap whore," Doug grunted, setting his newspaper down and folding it with a soft chuckle. He set his eyes on Jack, and his eyebrows knit slightly. "Huh, second traveler in a week. That's new."
Jack gulped, and stuck out his hand. "Umm, actually-"
Doug took his hand and shook it firmly, but continued eyeing the trembling young man critically. "You know, I'm probably wrong here, but I'm pretty sure we've met before."
"Well, you see, I..."
"I mean, plenty of people with brown eyes and brown hair, but..." He leaned in even closer and gazed at a small scar running down the side of Jack's nose. He pointed at it, causing Jack's eyes to cross and stare anxiously at the beefy fingertip. "...How'd you get that little fella there?"
"M...Mr. Callahan, it's me," Jack stammered. "I g-got that when A-A-Ann and I were playing in the mines...it's me. J-Jack Brennan."
Doug's eyes widened slightly, and his finger lowered. "Son of a bitch," he murmured thoughtfully. "It is you, isn't it? Little Jack..." He slumped back in his chair and heaved a great sigh. "Son, you scared the shit out of us, you know that? We all thought..."
"I'm sorry," Jack said contritely, looking Doug right in the eye as he did so. "I really am. I'm here to... I don't know." He shook his head. "I want to... make it right. If I can."
"I'm sorry, but I've got to go home," Jack interrupted, backing away and dashing out the door. "But I'll be back, I promise! Tell Ann I said hi!" he yelled over his shoulder as he ran out, Doug trying-and failing-to call after him to wait.
As Jack's feet slapped loudly against the pavement, taking a right onto Harrison Street and passing the supermarket and the clinic, he gradually slowed down to an uneasy stroll. The early March sun, pleasant under any other circumstances, now seemed to nurture the small seed of anxiety that sprouted, knotted, and swelled in his stomach.
He still hadn't worked out what to say.
Maybe that's it, he mused, smiling a bit. Just speak from the heart. Sure as hell didn't have any trouble doing that before, right?
"Jack? Jack Brennan? Is that you?"
Once again, Jack was yanked out of his musings by an all-too-familiar voice. Looking up from the ground, he saw a fairly short, pretty, dark-haired woman in her late forties standing before him. Her jaw hung open, and she sputtered as she pointed at him.
"I... oh, heavens, it's you, isn't it? The boy from the..." She faltered for a second, and then shook her head rapidly. "I can't believe it, we all thought you'd d-"
"Hi, Mrs. Lipschitz," Jack said weakly, his words swept away by the torrent gushing from her lips. "How's Aja and Mr. Lipschitz?"
"-you back here, not a call or a letter, or a peep, but you're back!" she cried, hugging him tightly. "What's it been, eleven years? Eleven years! By the way, dear," she added in an offhanded manner, "Duke is fine, and Aja ran away a few years after you did." She pulled away from him gently, studying his face. "You've grown so handsome. I'll bet the girls never leave you alone." She chuckled slyly. "Or maybe it's the b-"
Jack felt his face grow hot and cleared his throat. "So, umm... Aja left too?" He winced inwardly at his complete lack of tact as he saw Manna's features darken briefly, but the shadow passed by quickly enough that it may as well have never been there.
"Well, yes. She and Duke got into a huge fight... but I don't think she knows we've seen her racing on TV. She's doing great!" Her expression grew tender, and she stroked Jack's cheek, though she looked a bit uncertain. "And Jack... there's something I should let you-"
Jack couldn't shake off the feeling that something was wrong, but he brushed aside his worries and interrupted Manna. "Mrs. Lipschitz, it was really great seeing you guys again, and I'll stop by to catch up later, but... my mom and dad, I've gotta..." He rambled while jogging backwards, then spun around to jog off towards his family's farm.
"Jack, wait!" Manna cried, running after him. "There's something you need to-"
She skidded to a halt mere steps behind him, and her heart sank. "Oh, Jack..."
If he heard her, he gave no indication. He stood staring blankly at the ruins before him. His childhood home - his parents' cozy, clean, beautiful house - was a complete, sagging wreck. The front door lay near the mailbox, bashed to splinters. The large picture window in the living room was heavily cracked and grimy, and the kitchen had caved in, along with most of the roof. Still, the house remained in better shape than the coop or stable. Only the faded brown barn, its red paint mostly stripped away by the elements, was relatively fine.
The fields were tangled and choked with snarled weeds, broken pieces of lumber, and bits of broken glass glinting dully in the sunlight. The grass was brown and dead, and the soil was littered with rocks and stones. A particularly large one sat in the filthy fish pond near his old bedroom.
"I... don't get it," Jack whispered, sounding dazed. He swayed slightly where he stood. "Did they... move?" He turned around to face Manna, his face struggling to stay calm and blank. "Where'd they move to? They... they moved... right?"
Manna felt her throat tighten, and she wrapped her arms around herself. She suddenly felt very cold inside. "Jack..."
"Please tell me where they moved to, Manna," he pleaded, his voice quivering slightly.
Trying to swallow the hard lump in her throat, Manna straightened up and tried to make her voice as gentle as possible - this was no time to run off at the mouth. "Jack... five years ago... a... a tornado... there was this storm, a terrible storm..." She trailed off as she found her voice cracking and becoming thicker, and looked down at the ground.
"So they moved, right?" Jack repeated, his voice getting higher. "Manna? They... are they staying somewhere in town?" He laughed. It was a horrible, high, false sound, and Manna flinched as it cut through her heart. "It... it's just a home! It's just a home, no big deal! Hey, someone built it before, right?" He spun back around and swept his arm out, gesturing to the fields. "All that bitching I did about working out there, may as well earn my keep now and help Mom clear the fields again, huh?"
Manna stayed unusually silent, though her vision began to blur with hot tears.
Jack finally sank to his knees and pounded a fist against the earth. "So where the hell are they? WHERE ARE THEY?" He grabbed a rock and gripped it so hard his hand began to hurt. "Where are my FUCKING parents?"
"I don't need you to say it!" he snapped, tossing the rock back to the ground. His words came out strangled. "I get it. I get it! Okay?"
The dam finally broke, and Manna rushed over and hugged him as he began to sob loudly. She rocked him back and forth, letting her own tears fall without a sound.
Jack shook uncontrollably as he cried into Manna's shirt, his body threatening to collapse completely from the shock and grief. "Mama... Daddy..."
They stayed like that for a while, Manna stroking his hair and humming gently to calm him down. "Okay, sweetie, let's go to my house, alright?" she whispered when Jack's crying had subsided into sniffles. Putting her fingertips under his chin, she tilted his head up so his bloodshot eyes were staring into hers. "Let's get you some tea and we can talk about it if you want, okay? I know it hurts, but we're here for you. Come on, up you go."
He nodded wordlessly, and climbed unsteadily to his feet, allowing Manna to drape an arm around his shoulder and lead him down the street to the winery, while his mind struggled to comprehend it all.
All he knew in that moment was that he didn't deserve to be alive.