Chapter 28: Hello and Goodbye

Ian and Mitch stood hugging in the dark. A frog let out a deep croak and splashed its way through the swampy grass. Ian was the first to look up, wiping the electric strands of Mitch’s hair from his face. Mitch stepped back, looking around wildly.

“We didn’t go anywhere!” Ian cried. “We’re still here! In this blasted swamp! It was you!” he said accusingly, grabbing Mitch by the arm. “You didn’t think hard enough! You didn’t say the coordinates right! You didn’t—”

“MITCH!” came a voice from the edge of the clearing. Mitch spun around to see her grandfather shuffling toward her.

“Granddaddy!” Mitch cried. She pushed Ian off and ran full speed into her grandfather’s arms.

“Oh Mitch!” Graham cried, tears streaming down his cheeks. “You’re alive!

Mitch buried her face into her grandfather’s coat, breathing in the familiar scents of cypress and magnolia. All the tears she had been holding back for the last month came pouring out.

Oh granddaddy,” she sobbed. “It was awful! It was just awful!

“I know, baby girl. I know. Come now. There’ll be plenty time to talk. Now let’s just get you back to—”

Graham stopped short, his mouth dropping open.

“Ian?” he whispered, squinting into the dark. “Boy…is that…is that you?”

Ian stepped from the shadows and into the moonlight. Mitch’s own mouth dropped. She was shocked at how different he looked. The short, rusty hair of his voyage vessel had turned dark and curly, and his delicate frame had transformed into the body of a sporty teenager.        

“My word,” Graham exhaled. “It’s you—it’s really you—oh Ian—” But he was interrupted by the sound of footsteps splashing through the flarefield. Dora, Miki, and Oren rushed to Ian’s side.

“Oh you sweet boy!” Dora cried, gathering him into a suffocating hug. “You sweet, brave boy!”

Ian’s face twisted painfully to one side. “Hi Dora,” he gasped. “Nice…to see…you too…”

“Dora,” said Miki gently. “We are fortunate Ian is here with us…alive. Let us not strangle the poor boy so soon after he’s arrived.”

“Oh,” said Dora, releasing her grip. “Oh, I’m sorry, sweetie, it’s just so good—just so good—” She let out a loud sob. “—to have you home!” She gave him a loving shake by the shoulders and wiped her eyes with the back of her hands.

“Now where is that Scarlett girl? Come here baby! Auntie Dora’s got a hug for you!”     

Miki smiled as Dora marched off toward Mitch.

“Holtfield,” he said, bowing deeply. His own eyes were shining with tears when he looked up. “Welcome home, my comrade.”

Ian returned Miki’s bow and pulled him into a tight hug. “I’ve missed you, my friend,” he said painfully.

“Holtfield!” Oren called, puffing on the end of a cigar as he made his way over to where Ian and Miki were standing.

“Well, I’ll be. Look at you. Haven’t changed one bit. Sure is good to see you, boy.”

He held out his hand, but Ian didn’t take it.

“Ian!” Graham chimed in, joining the group with Mitch and Dora at his side. “Oh Ian—Mitch’s just told me all about your escape! You brilliant boy—you wonderful, brilliant—”

“Sucker?” Ian interrupted hotly.

Graham and Oren’s faces fell flat.

“Ian—” Oren started.

“NO!” Ian shouted. “I don’t want to hear it! You’ve had seven years to come up with excuses! Do you know what it’s like—being trapped in the past for seven years? The same place, the same people, the same stupid stew for dinner month after month, year after year?! The same crazy thoughts running over and over in your mind! Did I do something wrong? Did I miss the tracker? What happened to the plan? WHY WON’T THEY COME???!!!

Ian clenched his fists in anger, his curly hair bouncing wildly atop his head with every question he hurled at Oren and Graham.  

How could you do this?! How could you keep a secret like that from me?! How could you send me into the past knowing I’d be trapped?! You were my family—MY FAMILY!!!” Ian bellowed. “And you lied to me! You lied about everything! Just like you lied to Mitch! You’re a liar! You’re a liar! You’re a li—”

THAT’S ENOUGH!” Graham roared, grabbing Ian by the shoulders. “You don’t know what you’re talking about, boy! So you better get ahold of your tongue before you say something you regret!”

Ian fell silent, shocked by the force of Graham’s reproach.

“Graham!” Oren shouted, prying his brother from Ian and giving him a hard shove backward. “You bull-headed country bumpkin! Get your hands off the poor boy! He has every right to be mad at us!”

NO Oren! You slithery serpent! He’s got every right to be mad at YOU! You’re the reason we had to close the Corridor early! You’re the reason he and half our people got trapped! Now you tell him the truth before I do!”

“Wait!” Mitch shouted, suddenly realizing they were missing two members of their Collective. “Just wait one minute—ALL of you! Where’s Reece? And Izzie?” A wave of terrible dread washed over her as she remembered their mission. “Are they okay? Did they make it back?”

Graham looked at Oren, eyes burning with anger.

“Tell her,” he said. “Tell her where you sent them off to.”

“I hardly think it was I who—”

“Where are they?!” Mitch interrupted before they could start arguing again.

“Looking for you,” Oren said exasperatedly, turning to Mitch. “And him.” He pointed to Ian. “They left seconds before you arrived. They’re headed for the Sun King’s Court.”

No,” whispered Mitch, her eyes filling with horror. She looked at Ian, who met her panicked stare. “We have to stop them!” she cried, running back into the flarefield. “Zahlamaer’s there!”

She stomped her feet into the ground. Bright blue sparks shot up around her.

“No!” Graham cried. “Mitch! STOP!

He hobbled as fast as he could through the marshy field, but it was too late. Mitch had already disappeared into the light.

MIIIITTTCCCHHH!” Graham screamed, dropping to his knees.

Ian looked from Graham to Oren.

“Don’t do it,” Oren warned. “Don’t you dare do it, Ian!”

Ian’s eyes flashed with defiance. He stomped his feet into the ground.

Ian!” Oren reached out and grabbed Ian by the arm. A burst of light shot from the earth to the moon, knocking Oren off his feet.

NO!” Dora and Miki shouted together. But it was too late. Ian had already disappeared.

“Son of a blazar!” Oren yelled, picking himself up from the ground. “Do you see what you’ve done?! We lost them again!”

“You must be out of your mind,” Graham growled, looking up at Oren with fire in his eyes.

“Couldn’t just hold your temper,” Oren raged on. “Had to lash out at Ian and start up fightin’ in the middle of a flarefield! You uncivilized…OLDBOOR!”

“How long you think it’d take ‘em to notice their friends is missing, huh? Think we’d make it back to Ol’ Cypress, sit down to dinner, then casually explain why there’s two empty chairs? You FOOL! Miki told us all this ain’t a good idea, but you didn’t listen, did you? Just sauntered down into that basement with them kids at your heels, fillin’ their heads with wild ideas, and…and…oh my…”

Graham staggered forward with a groan.  

“Graham!” Miki cried, rushing to help.

“I’m fine,” Graham protested, struggling to stand, but he couldn’t hide the pale blue light spasming up and down his neck.

A look of terrible understanding passed all their faces.    

“Does Mitch know?” Oren asked gravely.

“No,” Graham replied, pulling up his collar. 

There was a pause.

“Well,” Oren said finally. “It’s just one more thing we have to tell her when she gets back.”

If she gets back,” Graham said, his voice breaking with despair.

When she gets back,” Oren insisted. “I’m sorry, brother,” added softly. “I didn’t know.”

Miki and Dora led their ailing friend to a tree stump where he took a seat.

Oren looked up into the starry sky. He tried to visualize the Corridor—its sparkling hallway and flickering lights, the endless rows of flashing stardoors. He thought back to his and Graham’s first time racing through the timechute. He had almost thrown up, but Graham had a strong stomach—he loved the drop, the corkscrew turns, the feeling of weightlessness as they zipped through time.

It was a shame, Oren thought, to be so anchored by that same time now. He looked down at the tiny sparks shooting up around his ankles. It was a real shame.

New chapters of The Secret Corridor will be published every Friday to Listen at SpotifyApple Podcasts, or Buzzsprout.

Chapter photo created with the assistance of DALL·E 2.