"The Great Return"
Gary Baker, November 2012
(part of a much larger project, book 1 of Blood to Dust)
Elias stepped out of the waygate and into his living room as if leaving the archway from the kitchen. He then paused just inches from the portal and scowled at his surroundings.
Nanna wasn’t home, much like he had expected, and the garbage had been taken out to avoid becoming a breeding ground for pests, but what was off was the lack of any other changes. On the wall to his right stood his miniature library, where books both crazy rare and brand new were organized by size, then genre, and then author with an LED ceiling light mounted in the corner above it all. Further along that same wall was the entertainment system with basic speakers and a small series of games and other gadgetry that he only used on the rare occasions when he had nothing better to do than to watch movies streamed from his primary gaming console.
Across from that, along the opposite wall, was the plush thrift-store sofa and the crocheted blanket laid over it by Nanna not long after he had bought it. On a side table nearest Elias, sat a small vase with small clear marbles in the bottom. Somehow the water was still clear of algae growth and the flowers were stillblooming with bright yellows and reds contrasting the deep forest green of the leaves and stalks.
Less than a pace before him stood the coffee table made of carved glass with an iron edging painted black for support, and a few scattered magazines. Of these many still lay open to their last-read pages, like the New Yorker folded over to hold the place at the second to last page of a wondrous article about a man making weather vanes in New Hampshire, and the edition of Time open to an article on the war overseas with an image of a marine receiving a fresh-picked red flower from a young homeless girl in Baghdad.
Elias remembered reading these so very long ago, and remembered specifically leaving them open so that he could finish rereading them at a later time in hopes of ingesting their information that much more. He left them this way on purpose, knowing that Nanna wouldn’t move them since she barely read any more unless Elias was the one to read it to her, but Steph would definitely have cleaned them up assuming Elias was being a slob again.
Suddenly he wanted to call them, wanted to tell them his story and explain his sudden disappearance in hopes of rekindling their family ties.
But those days were long past gone... weren’t they?
It had been a year almost to the day since Elias had last been here, standing between the two rooms in his house, and yet the place showed no obvious signs of this passage at all.
The front window still peeked open a crack on the left-hand side which Elias had told Nanna’s occasional caretaker, Nurse Diedra, to use in order to come check on Nanna while he was camping. She didn’t have a key, but she only needed an open window to get in and the neighborhood was decent enough that he could leave it this way for her without worry. Any time the curtains were open, like they were now, revealing the early morning light spilling over the valley city below, Diedra knew that the window was open for her to access. The fact that it was still open after all this time made him wonder why he still had anything of value on the shelves at all.
Even in a town as nice as this, even in a neighborhood as high-class as this, people would eventually break in with an opportunity like that presented to them.
“Nanna?” He called, without a reply. “Diedra? Steph? Is anyone home?”
Elias turned to the waygate again and watched as it dissolved into the air in the archway. On the other side the kitchen slowly came into view, with the black refrigerator becoming apparent first, followed by the cabinets and other furnishings embellished with deep mahogany redwood panels. On the counter was a piece of paper with a small, handwritten note signed in red ink.
Stepping over to pick it up, Elias noticed the lack of dust on the coffee maker, the lack of mold on the loaf of bread above the microwave, the lack of any sign of time’s passage at all no matter where he looked. Note in hand, he tried to fit his mind around the idea slowly forming within his mind. “Elias:” he began, reading aloud to himself,
as you may have guessed, Silvia is making me write this, so when you read it I really hope you will have called first. Also, I gave Diedra some time off, and was going to clean up a bit but Nanna told me not to. Point being, bro, we all hope you enjoyed your time away and can’t wait to hear all about it! By the way: Sil and I ate your leftover cobbler, so if you get a chance can we get that recipe? Hope to see you on Thanksgiving!
~with wine and cheers,
Elias sighed, feeling his heart ache at having left them for so long for some pointless adventure across a physically impossible world. He wanted to take it all back, he wanted to tell himself that it had never even occurred and that it was all some crazy dream, yet the note debunked any such thoughts.
He heaved an annoyed exhale and spun to make his way down the hall to his room. At the door he hesitated, wondering if he could pick up where he had left off after so long of a time away. Certainly his studentship would have been dropped from Robinson State University, and his menial job would have fired him eons ago, along with any recurring scholarships that he received after writing repeated essays about his life with his grandmother.
Elias reached across to roll up the silken sleeves of his olive green tunic, letting the thick scents of the mountain forests waft up to his nostrils once more. The scent tempted him to turn back, to make his way back to the clifftop and watch the world recoil as they found out about his betrayal.
He wasn’t the immortal, not the one they were looking for at least.
“So then why does this feel so wrong?” He whispered to the dark corridor.
Finally he summoned the courage and pushed his door open, reaching aside to flip the switch on the right-hand wall to set his room alight. The ceiling fan sputtered into a soft whir and left no trails of dust nor electric sparks.
Why wasn’t there any dust?
He moved into his room, crossed to the opposite side and slid the closet’s mirror door over. Inside he found his old clothes, hung neatly by color and style. Nanna had always made sure he ironed them before hanging them up, and his appreciation for cleanliness at work made him sure to wash them completely beforehand. Elias leaned forward and pulled a sleeve of his running jacket to his nose. Instead of inhaling the smells of what he had known would be dust and mildew, of moth-eaten fabric and stagnant air, his senses registered lilac, peony, and lavender petals.
Laundry soap! Elias reeled. How was this possible? How could he have been gone for a year and return to have his clothing still smell as if it had been washed just the day before?! “No,” he backed away in fear until his knees hit the foot of his bed and he toppled onto freshly cleaned blankets and sheets. Elias spun and fell onto his floor, crawling backwards with his eyes set on his bed as though it would come alive and entangle him like the Muliar’s tentacles. “This isn’t....”
The immortal hesitated, unable to finish his words. If his immortality was possible, then how could this not be? Perhaps, despite never hearing as much from Delden or anyone else in the other world, time passed at different speeds depending on the dimension. Perhaps this wasn’t a dream or nightmare, but the epitome of ultimate discovery.
He was an immortal, one of what had to be more seeing as how Lord Idrian’s advisor was even more so than Elias. And while one would be fantastic, and two an odd coincidence, Syl had mentioned another so many times that he often dreamed of a whole world of them--and three meant there was a pattern. Elias knew there had to be more.
“What,” Elias choked, “what day is this?” How long have I been gone? The soap smell would never last more than a month or two even if his closet was never opened in all that time, and he realized he had to change his idea of time’s passing here. It wasn’t months that he had been gone, but weeks.
How many weeks, though?
Suddenly Elias jumped to his feet and caught himself before he could bolt out the door and run into the first person he saw. He wasn’t crazy yet, not so far as he knew of, and wearing lordly garb while asking what day it was would surely get him locked away for a while.
Instead he turned to his closet and grabbed his nicest business casual outfit, a white button-up with black slacks and a half-zip blue polo sweater, threw them onto the bed, and tore off his clothes to take a shower.
Moments later Elias stepped through the steam and wiped a circle in the fogged mirror with a small tan towel. He stared at himself for a moment, then, looking over the man that he had become in the last year, though really it may not have been even six months. His blood-orange hair had grown long, his curls becoming less prominent as the weight of the strands pulled the rest into waves, and his jawbone had been covered by a rough mass of beard fibers. His chocolate brown eyes held more of a rugged quality than he remembered ever having, and the freckles that spanned his cheeks and nose looked more like a dirty map of the constellations than marks of his heritage.
Elias found himself grinning at this stranger and reached forward to grab his shaving kit, neatly placed at the back of the sink counter just like he’d left it.
Moments later Elias was strolling down the busy streets of San Harmone Avenue feeling like a million-dollar man. His hair was tied in a low tail on his neck, his face freshly-shaven, and his clothing smelling like they should for the first time in ages. He smiled as cars passed, waved at bicyclists going about their rounds, and felt the energy of life consume him the more he walked.
The various technologies smelled like putrid chemicals, like carbonate rubbers being burned in funeral pyres, and hinted at the death of his lungs over time, but it also smelled like home. He inhaled the diesel fumes of flatbed trucks as they passed just glad they didn’t resemble horse sweat or body odor, and tasted the lingering dirt and grime of the local cement works at the outskirts of town.
Yet he couldn’t help but feel like his smile was a facade for some reason. He felt like he had ditched his family, maybe not by blood but by proximity and closeness, just for an adventure of a lifetime. Did the fact that time may not have passed much change things?
Possibly, he told himself matter of factly.
So instead of heading straight to work, or Stephan’s place, or the bookstore where it had all begun, Elias made his way to Cafe Gruyer on the main boulevard. The cafe sat across from a tall skyscraper of blue-tinted glass and steel, which tourists and celebrities alike would often frequent as their beloved “hotel-hotspot” in the heart of downtown.
The immortal checked himself in his reflection on the outer window, then grabbed the oak door handle and strode inside. Just inside, he came against the thick aroma of fresh-ground coffee and chocolate, the scents shaking him with violent awe as such that he had never realized before. He inhaled a long breath as if merely to savor it forever and tuck it’s essence away in a special vial within himself to sniff whenever he’d feel the need rising.
“Smells good, doesn’t it?” Came a voice.
Elias opened his eyes and looked upon a small girl with blonde curls held in a ponytail of her own and glasses that rested on the upper bridge of her nose. “Yes,” he smiled, letting his hands relax on the marble countertop. “Like nothing you can imagine, hun.” He paused suddenly, and tilted his head curiously. “Hey, do you know what day it is?”
“The day? Wednesday,” she moved a few things behind the counter that she’d just been drying by hand, “Wednesday, November fifth, sir.”
Elias almost choked. It hadn’t been months since he’d left, hell it hadn’t even been weeks, not even a week... but a day. Assuming that he had first stepped through the portal at about noon on that fateful day, it had been roughly twenty-four hours since he’d seen this world.
At least that was how much time had passed for this realm.
No way, he stared, shocked, with his mouth agape.
The girl nodded amusedly. “Well do you know what you want, or should I give you a moment to decide?”
The immortal pursed his lips, then, and looked the chalkboard menu over. “Dunno, actually,” he breathed, breaking his silence, “actually, is there anything you might recommend, Miss...?”
“Aria,” she caught his gesture and her lips pulled to one side in a quirky grin, “the name’s Aria, sir.”
“Well, then, Aria: what would you recommend for a man who's been away for a very, very long time?”
She turned to look at the board, tapping her cheek with her forefinger. “Hrm, well do you prefer coffee or something sweet?”
“Coffee, for sure.”
“Hot or cold?”
“Warmer than usual, but not scalding.”
“Aha,” she turned to him then and grinned once more. “I’m guessing you’d like something black, too, no sweetener?”
“I might add honey, but nothing too extravagant aside from that.”
Aria nodded and lifted a white ceramic glass from the back wall and scribbled on it with a black dry-erase marker. “How’s about a nice medium cup of volcanic Arabica, then? It’s my personal favorite, so you can’t go wrong there.”
Elias laughed “well, I asked for the best, didn’t I?” He dropped a ten that he had found in his wallet on the counter and took a business card for later.
“Awesome.” She then took his cash and gave him change, then spun to a french-press and poured the steamy black liquid into the glass. As she handed it to him she winked with a jokingly “good choice, sir.”
The immortal smiled, turned, and made his way to the closest table to the bay window to the right of the door.
Elias was zoning out, looking through the steam of his coffee at the hundreds of people going about their day on the boulevard, when something caught his eyes. Something was awry with the alley across from the cafe, the air shimmered lightly and looked as though some vortex of wind were gushing into a sudden vacuum.
As he stared, Elias realized what this must be, and knew even before it appeared that it was the portal having followed him. First there was nothing, as the winds calmed down, and then she stepped out as though from the cover of a fantastical book of magic and prose.