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“I don’t care what anyone says. Truth is stranger than fiction.”
“You have no idea,” muttered Eric without looking up from the box he was rummaging through.
Chad looked across the desk at him, his owlish eyebrows raised. “What?”
“Hm? Oh. Nothing.”
He considered Eric for a moment, and then shrugged and looked back down at the papers stacked in front of him. “Truth is stranger,” he said again. “And much more interesting.”
Eric used to argue this point with him for hours at a time, but somewhere between his first run-in with a golem and that business with the insane, sentient mansion where he first met the little girl who lived in his cell phone, it became clear to him that Chad was right on that particular point, even if Chad couldn’t possibly comprehend just how right he was.
“I mean, what’s the point in wasting your time reading something someone just made up?”
This was where Eric drew the line, however. “Human imagination is infinitely more vast than human history.”
“Vast, maybe. But also useless.”
He knew this argument well enough. Chad was teasing him, egging him on. But he played along. “History would be pretty boring if no one ever had any imagination.”
“It would certainly be easier to research.”
“That’s probably true,” agreed Eric. It only took a few imaginative journalists to turn any simple truth into a convoluted fantasy. It was impossible to know how much of what we accepted as history was actually history and how much of it was fabricated for one reason or another. (Especially given some of the things he’d learned about the world in the past couple years.) “But if it’s all the same to you, I’d rather just focus on the task in front of us.”
Chad shrugged and did that stroking thing he liked to do with his beard. (He thought it made him look distinguished, but Eric thought it only made him look like he was trying to look distinguished, which he was pretty sure was exactly the opposite.) “I suppose so.”
Between them, the desk in Chad’s classroom was buried under cardboard boxes filled with stacks upon stacks of old papers. A lot of it was research of one kind or another, but the vast majority of it was forty years of middle school English writing projects.
“Did you ever meet Terence?”
Eric shook his head. “He retired before I came along. Just by a year or two.”
“I had him all three years of middle school.” Chad Whelt was only five years older than Eric, but he was the youngest of eight children and it delighted him to be anyone’s senior. The result was that he sometimes managed to sound less like thirty-eight than eighty-eight. Now he gazed off into the corner of the room as if recalling some long-lost golden age of his youth and said wistfully, “He was a really good teacher.”
“So I’ve heard.”
Terence Gawes taught English at Creek Bend Middle School for almost four decades before retiring in 1996. In the twenty years since then, he’d written a few little-known crime novels. Eric had read them all, but he couldn’t honestly say that he was a fan. The dialogue was unnecessarily wordy and unconvincing. He was pretty sure that people in 1930s Chicago didn’t talk like…well, like stuck-up English teachers, frankly.
Gawes was much better known for a short series of books on Creek Bend’s German heritage and his work in the town’s historical society, where he’d collaborated with Chad on a number of projects over the years.
The former teacher, author and historian had passed away a few weeks ago, and his widow had entrusted Chad to sort through his papers and donate anything of academic value to the school and museum, the two things he’d loved most after his own home and family.
“I just don’t see the point in saving all this stuff. I mean, it’s middle school. Most of these kids didn’t care about the assignment. Hell, I can’t even read most of them.”
“True. But every now and then you get one who surprises you.”
Chad pulled out a large stack of yellowed papers and shook them at him. “Not this many.”
Eric had to laugh. “No. I wouldn’t think so.” And he didn’t blame him for getting frustrated. They’d already been at it for two hours, and it didn’t seem like they were making any headway. Both of them were beginning to doubt that there was anything of any value in all this mess.
Chad dropped the stack of papers onto his desk and started shuffling through them.
The high school was quiet today. Summer vacation had begun. The kids were gone. Only a few teachers were in the building, finishing up whatever work needed done before graduation day on Sunday. Eric liked these last quiet days of the school year. He liked the peacefulness. But he was quickly growing bored with this project.
“Sixth grade creative writing assignment. Nineteen…” Chad squinted at the top paper on the stack in front of him, trying to read the faded print. “Sixty-two? Wow. He would’ve been...what? Twenty-seven? Twenty-eight? Can you imagine him that young?”
“Like I said, I never really knew him.” He was pretty sure he’d only ever met the man face-to-face a few times in his entire life, and those encounters had been little more than a polite introduction and handshake.
“Right.” Chad began going through the decades-old papers, glancing over each one and then systematically dropping them into the trash.
Eric could think of roughly a million things he’d rather be doing this afternoon, but Chad was his friend and he’d promised to help with this project. Still, he hadn’t expected there to be so much. At the rate they were going, it was going to take weeks to sort through it all.
But there were little treasures scattered throughout the hoard. They’d already found some of the notes on his published works, along with some research for books he never got around to starting. And the school was sure to be interested in some of the student work he’d accumulated in his forty years. Some of the research papers he’d assigned addressed current events of the time, like the Vietnam War, the Cold War, the Berlin Wall and the Watergate scandal, among others. He’d also discovered a handpicked collection of favorite poems and short fiction written by his many students over the decades. Rhoda Inman, the school’s superintendent, was always on the lookout for this sort of stuff.
Chad chuckled. “Here you go,” he said, holding out one of the papers for him to look at. “Mr. Future.”
“You like imagination. Here’s an imaginative one for you.”
Eric took the page and examined it. It was written by a boy named Hector Conant in much neater handwriting than most of his students used today. It was in the form of a letter addressed to a “Mr. Future”:
Dear Mr. Future,
I had a dream about you last night. I saw your face. I saw the things you’ve done. I heard the words you’ve spoken. I know a dream is only a dream. People tell me that all the time. But the truth is that sometimes my dreams come true. Sometimes. When a dream is particularly vivid. And the dream I dreamed about you was the most real dream I’ve ever dreamed in my life. Deep in my heart, I know you are real. And I know I dreamed about you for a reason.
I need your help.
No one here can help me. No one will believe me. But you would believe me. You would help me. It’s what you do. I saw it in my dream. You help people who need help, when no one else can. And you have done such amazing things.
I saw you walking between worlds. I saw you conversing with the dead and escaping unstoppable monsters. I saw you descend into hell and claim an incredible secret. I saw you climb an invisible tower and bargain with a terrible god. You faced witches and goblins and swam with lake monsters and stopped the world from being eaten.
And now I need your help. But you are Mr. Future. You are in a world I barely understand. I’m not sure you are born yet, or even if you will be born in my lifetime. For all the amazing things you do, I am sure you cannot travel back in time.
I have to face the fact that I am on my own.
But maybe, if only in my dreams, you can show me what I should do.
You see, two men arrived in our town a few days ago. They are not normal men. I dreamed about them, too, but it wasn’t a nice dream. It wasn’t at all like the dream I had about you. These are bad men. They have strange powers. They are looking for something. And they have terrible plans for when they find it.
You know who they are. I dreamed that, too. But for all my dreams have shown me, I still don’t know why they are here. I have to find out what they are up to. I know I have to stop them. I know it just like I know that you are real. If I don’t, I believe a lot of people are going to die.
I also dreamed that you found this letter. That’s how I know you’ll one day read it.
I’m going to look for the bad men after school. If I find anything, I’ll leave a message with Mr. Silver. I don’t understand why, but I feel very strongly that I should write to you again.
I really wish you were here,
Eric stared at the page, hardly believing what he’d just read. It’d begun innocently enough. It seemed to be a creative attempt at some simple, experimental fiction. A short story of sorts in the form of a letter to a made-up man from a dream, a man from the future. But those things he wrote…
I saw you walking between worlds. I saw you conversing with the dead and escaping unstoppable monsters. I saw you descend into hell and claim an incredible secret. That described eerily well the experience he had almost two years ago, when he first discovered that there were incredible things in the world. He did, indeed, walk between worlds. More accurately, he’d followed a fissure north through Wisconsin, a sort of crack between this world and another. He’d encountered ghosts on that journey. And he narrowly escaped a trio of golems, frightful, incomprehensible beasts that couldn’t be stopped, only distracted, and only then by something considerable…like two fistfuls of dynamite… And in the end, at his final destination, he descended into a great, dark pit, at the bottom of which really was an incredible secret, something so profound that he couldn’t handle it. It had to be buried in his subconscious mind, where only his dreams could access it.
But that was only the beginning of his adventures. The following summer he discovered strange, unseen sites all over this very town. Invisible sites.
I saw you climb an invisible tower and bargain with a terrible god.
The tower of the old, forgotten high school, unseen for decades, invisible to all without a special shard of glass from a mysterious, broken artifact. But it wasn’t a god that he bargained with. Not exactly, anyway. It was a jinn.
You faced witches and goblins and swam with lake monsters and stopped the world from being eaten. Indeed he had. He met an entire coven of witches in Illinois. There were no goblins, precisely, but there were plenty of goblin-like imps and ogres and even a few giants in those endless fields. And he’d nearly been eaten by a monstrous fish in a lake in Upper Michigan. And he’d prevented a potentially devastating disaster while he was up there.
Chad chuckled again. “It’s clever. I’ll give him that. Everyone knew Terence kept all those assignments. Any letter would be found by some ‘Mr. Future’ or another. Or Mrs., I suppose.”
“Yeah,” said Eric. “Clever.” Much more so than he could ever know. Chad read this letter and saw only the creative imaginings of a boy, but this letter wasn’t fiction at all. It was real. Hector Conant was actually writing to a man he saw in his dreams. A man who really was from the future and would one day have this very letter find its way into his hands.
That future had now become the present, and Eric was that man.
He didn’t even waste time trying to rationalize it. This was the fifth time his life was interrupted by the strangeness of the world. By now, he recognized it when the weird came to call on him.
He even recognized the two “bad men” of which Hector had spoken. Strange men with frightful powers… They sounded remarkably like the nameless agents he’d run into on two separate occasions. They were all dangerous psychopaths who worked for a mysterious organization with an unhealthy interest in all things weird and unnatural. The same organization was responsible for a devastating fire in 1881. If they were back in Creek Bend again in 1962, then Hector really was in trouble.
I need your help.
But he was Mr. Future. He was now. And Hector was the past. He was then. All that would happen to this boy had already happened. Nothing would change that.
His cell phone came to life in his pocket, alerting him to a new text message.
“Since when do you keep your phone on?” asked Chad.
Eric fished the phone from his front pocket. “Karen,” he lied. The truth was that the phone was off. Or, at least, it was set to the “do not disturb” feature, which wasn’t the same as being off, but made sure the stupid thing stayed quiet during class, he guessed. (He still didn’t really know how this new phone worked.) But calls and messages from Isabelle always came through, which was a good thing, because Isabelle was the one person he wanted to always be able to reach him.
IT’S TOTALLY POSSIBLE FOR THAT BOY TO HAVE SEEN YOU IN HIS DREAMS
She was right. He’d had more than one prophetic dream himself. But dreaming of people and events that were decades in the future? What good would that do?
AND THOSE DO TOTALLY SOUND LIKE AGENTS
Eric read the letter again.
Strangely, the thing about it that he found most absurd wasn’t that the boy seemed to actually be talking to him. (Not two months ago he’d shared a brief conversation with a man’s severed head, after all.) It was that Mr. Gawes had only awarded Hector a barely passing D for his trouble. He’d even made notes in the margin about it being lazy, unrealistic and without resolution. “In the future, please try to remain within the parameters of the assignment,” was scrawled across the top in red ink.
“That’s crap,” he muttered.
Chad looked up at him again. “What?”
“I would’ve given him at least a B. Just for creativity.”
Chad gave him a bewildered look.
HE SOUNDS LIKE HE’S IN REAL TROUBLE
But that was over fifty years ago, thought Eric. Whatever trouble he was in was done and over with two decades before I was even born.
BUT THERE MUST BE SOME REASON WHY YOU FOUND THAT LETTER. THINGS DON’T HAPPEN TO YOU JUST BY CHANCE
That was certainly true. But he simply couldn’t comprehend what that reason might be. He couldn’t change the past. He couldn’t even communicate with the boy. All he could do was read his letter.
HE SAID HE’D LEAVE ANOTHER MESSAGE FOR YOU WITH MR. SILVER
Mr. Silver. She didn’t ask him if he knew what that meant. Although the few people who knew about her frequently joked about her being “the little girl who lived in his phone,” she didn’t actually live in his phone. The phone was merely the tool that allowed her to speak to him. She was out there in the world somewhere, traveling between mysterious locations that existed in a strange state of duality, straddling rifts between two or more worlds. She was trapped in that mysterious, timeless realm, but she was never entirely alone. The two of them shared a psychic link that allowed her constant access to his mind. Although she was able and willing to tune him out and give him his privacy when appropriate, she was capable of reading his every thought at any given moment.
She knew very well that he knew who Mr. Silver was.
YOU NEED TO LOOK INTO THIS. NOW
Eric folded the letter twice and then went to drop it in the trash can, but while Chad was looking through his papers, he instead slipped it into his pocket along with the phone. “I’m sorry. I’ve got to go.”
“Everything all right?” asked Chad. The look of genuine concern that crossed his face made Eric feel guilty about lying, but Isabelle was right. He needed to look into this.
“Karen’s having some car trouble. I need to go and help her out.”
He sat up, as if suddenly very interested in the subject of car repair. “Need any help?”
“No. I’ve got it.”
Chad looked disappointedly at the mountain of papers in front of him. “Oh.”
“Don’t worry about this,” he said, motioning at the boxes. “I promised to help and I will.”
“I’m not worried at all,” said Chad. “I’m about ready to give up for the day anyway. I’ll stick around for a little while longer, then I’ll just head home early. We can finish it on Monday.”
Eric started toward the door. “Sounds good. I won’t let you down.”
“I know you won’t. Good luck with the car. Tell Karen I said hi.”
“Sure. See you later.” He walked calmly out the door and then hurried out to the parking lot. He couldn’t go straight to see Mr. Silver. He was going to need to stop at home first. And all the way there, he pondered the boy’s letter.
Even accepting that the boy really did dream about him and his strange adventures (which, in itself, was no stranger than those very adventures, after all) and that the letter really was meant for him, what were the odds of it actually finding him? Sure, Hector would’ve probably known that his English teacher kept all these assignments and that someone, someday, might come across it. Might. That was assuming someone didn’t just throw out the entire box without looking through it, which would’ve made more sense than going to the trouble of sorting through it all, in Eric’s opinion.
But it wasn’t as if Gawes, himself, had sought him out to deliver the letter. He’d happened to befriend a former student, who, like Eric, wasn’t even born when the letter was written. If Chad hadn’t been in Gawes’ class, or if the two of them hadn’t both been members of the Creek Bend Historical Society, or if Chad and Eric had not been friends, or if either of them had done something different with their lives than choosing to teach at the same high school, it never would’ve found him. Chad probably would’ve tossed the letter in the trash without another thought. For that matter, what if Mrs. Gawes hadn’t entrusted her late husband’s intellectual estate to Chad? Or even if Eric had not been free to help him on this particular day?
I THINK YOU’RE OVERTHINKING IT, said Isabelle. The phone was resting in the PT Cruiser’s cup holder, where he could see the screen.
HE SAID IN THE LETTER THAT HE SAW IT FINDING YOU IN HIS DREAMS. HE SAW THAT IF HE TURNED THE LETTER IN AS AN ASSIGNMENT, THAT YOU’D ONE DAY READ IT
That was true, he supposed…
NOTHING THAT CAME BETWEEN MATTERED. ALL HE NEEDED TO KNOW WAS THAT YOU’D READ IT IF HE GAVE IT TO MR. GAWES
“It just seems a little convoluted to me.”
YOU WERE CHOSEN TO HAVE THE DREAMS YOU HAD, she reminded him. YOU WERE CHOSEN FOR ALL THE AMAZING THINGS YOU’VE DONE. WHY COULDN’T YOU BE CHOSEN TO FIND HECTOR’S LETTER?
OF COURSE I AM
Eric frowned at the screen. “You’ve been spending too much time talking to Karen.”
THAT DOESN’T CHANGE THE FACT THAT I’M RIGHT
No, it certainly didn’t. But it was still annoying.