The Crocker Chronicles
"(After)Life In The Fast Lane"
So…the Troubles are over, done forever. You'd think I'd be happy about that. And I suppose I am; save for the fact that I died. But I went out on my terms-not Croatoan's, not the Guard's, nobody's, just Duke Crocker's.
I won't go into the gory details of what it was like to die, much less at the hands of my best friend. (Yes, Nathan Wuornos was my best friend. There, I said it. Deal with it). Nate did what he had to do. I would have told him that, if he'd have ever stopped beating himself up long enough about having to kill me. So I had to make do with Squatch. He deserved to be happy too; he'd lost as much as I had to the Troubles. And Nathan did get his own happy ending too, after a fashion. Paige will fall in love with him. No matter who she is in the end, she and Nate are destined for one another. And baby James too. Nathan Wuornos is tailor-made for fatherhood. Lord knows I wasn't. But I guess that's one legacy I don't mind leaving for my little girl—a clean slate.
Once I'd led Nate back to Audrey, I was off to whatever fate awaited me after I left Sasquatch. I even thought that maybe I'd even get to be with my brown-eyed girl once more. Up ahead of me, I could remember seeing there was a bright white light. Paradise, here I come. Or so I thought.
Imagine my surprise when what I thought would be Heaven turned out to be Vincent Teagues and Agent Howard in the Barn! But in retrospect, I don't know why I was surprised. It's never been quite that easy for me, has it? Why start now because I'm dead?
Vince tells me that while he is Controller, the Barn also needs a guardian, someone to ensure that Troubles don't escape it. Apparently, being an inter-dimensional Barn controller must be a kind of on-the-job-training sort of thing. He doesn't want any of the little dears to escape. And neither he nor Howard quite trusts Croatoan to not try to make a break for it at some point, and I get that. So they need some help.
Howard is Vince's adviser. He can't control the Barn, but he can help to advise Vince, and help the guardian. They tell me they needed someone who knows Troubles. What to look for, how to spot them when they manifest in people, and how to deal with them. Someone uniquely suited to the job, and they had just the person in mind for it.
Guess who they picked.
Duke stood stiffly with an angry expression, looking at Vince Teagues and Agent Howard.
The last he knew, he'd left Dwight Hendrickson outside the Armory after taking Nathan there to save Audrey from Croatoan's influence. Duke figured he'd done his bit to end the Troubles; and had seen the last of Haven, the Barn, and Howard and Vince. And now here he was in the Barn once more.
"I'm done with the Troubles!" he said, his tone heated. "I gave everything I had to this town, even my life! What more do you two want from me?"
"I know that you did," Vince answered kindly. "And that sacrifice is what helped to end the Troubles for good in Haven. Because you gave your life to let others live in peace."
"Which is why I suggested he bring you here," Howard spoke.
"I thought that Vince was the controller of the Barn now," Duke replied, gauging the other man.
"He is; I am here as a sort of adviser," Howard told him.
"Then why am I here and not sipping margaritas on the beach with Jennifer in the afterlife?" Duke replied.
"Jennifer has moved on to the next plane of existence. If we could bring the two of you together, we would. But we cannot," Vince replied, his tone apologetic.
"So I get to stay behind as karmic punishment?" Duke mumbled. "Nice one, guys."
"This is not a punishment meted out for you, Duke," Vince stated. "Unfortunately, there is still work left unfinished."
"I am not going to kill people to take their Troubles anymore!" Duke shouted at them.
"And you won't have to. Your Trouble is gone, along with everyone else's," Howard assured him. "You're unique, Duke; you were specially chosen for this assignment."
"You're going to be a sort of guardian," Vince stated. "You will ensure that no Troubles can escape from here. Or be restarted."
"So I'll just be some ghostly security guard doomed to float around in here for the rest of eternity?"
"No. You're going to be restored to life again."
"Restored? Like reincarnated?"
"After a fashion," Howard said. "The Duke Crocker you were is no more. The body you were born with is dead."
"I know it is, I was still in it when it kicked off," Duke snarled. "Next thing I knew I'm standing there watching Nathan and Audrey-" he broke off, remembering seeing his friends' pain and grief, feeling Nathan's crushing guilt as he smothered the life out of him. Experiencing Audrey's anguish that there had been no other way out for him; silently watching Gloria feeling his wrists for a pulse that wasn't there, her tears when she'd told Nathan he could let go of him, that he was dead.
"I know that it was painful for you," Vince said sincerely, seeing Duke's expression. "If Nathan could have done it differently, he would have; if there had been any other way, he would have done it, but there was no more time. But I sensed you were still there, Duke," he continued. "That even after death, you couldn't bear to leave those you loved. You still wanted to fight to end the Troubles. And that is why we sent you back to Dwight."
"You sent me?" Duke questioned. "I don't remember that. I-I remember going to Dwight, to help him get Nate to Audrey, but-not how I got there," he trailed off, thinking. "So how am I supposed to help if I don't have a body anymore?"
"You will have one," Howard put in. "Do you remember William's-helpers?"
"You mean that creepy little guy and the giant that turned into little black balls? Yeah, I remember them," Duke retorted.
"They were aether constructs-which is what your new body will be built from," Howard explained.
"I don't get it," Duke puzzled. "I was at Croatoan's beck and call because of all the aether in my body. I don't want that again, so if that's what you have in mind for me, you can just toss me back out into the universe and I'll take my chances."
"No, no," Vince scolded gently. "That is another reason we chose you, Duke, was because of the relationship you had with the aether in your body."
"What relationship? It made me sick and turned me and my family into killing machines," Duke retorted. "That's not exactly what I would call a relationship."
"It also bonded with you on a molecular level-much as it did Mara when Croatoan used it to treat her illness when she was a child," Howard told him. "Whether or not you know it, aether is sentient. It sensed your sorrow and your anger, as it did Mara's when she controlled it."
"Focus on intent," Duke said softly, remembering when Mara had walked him through how to release a Trouble so that he wouldn't die.
"Yes. But the aether also experienced love through you," Vince added. "It is capable of learning. Troubles can change and mutate through the years, through intermarriages with different Troubles over generations, we know that. But as Charlotte discovered, aether can also be positively charged, as yours was done. You overrode the impulse that every other Crocker of your line had, to kill to experience the high of the blood rush, to absorb the aether into your bodies. You changed the aether you held in your body through love, Duke. The love you had for Nathan and Audrey; for Haven. Your last act proved that."
"No, Audrey overrode it," Duke mumbled. "I'd have killed everybody in that police station, because I was being controlled by Croatoan through the aether in my body."
"And she could not have done so if you were not still in there fighting," Howard said sternly. "She may have made a small hole; but you fought your way through it."
"Oh-kay," Duke answered cautiously. "And now you want me to be an aether-man controlled by somebody else? No thanks. So if it's all the same to you gents, you can just put me back in the Great Beyond."
"No one will control you, Duke," Vince answered severely. "As though anyone ever could for long," he smiled. "We want you to help us. While yes, the Barn will keep the Troubles away, it is an ever-changing structure, and aether is always developing, seeping into the Void. And there are others out there who would use it for ill intent. That is where you come in."
"Because you can control it, you can feel when it is being ill-used," Howard put in. "It can grant immense power, yes, but you yourself know its side-effects."
"Troubles," Duke said, understanding. "The Troubles were side-effects from the aether being used on people?"
"That is precisely so. Your job will be to detect any aether that might escape the Void; or if it is being used on people," Howard said. "Your race-or your former race of beings-are not quite as advanced as ours, which is why the Troubles developed in the first place, from Mara and William's inflicting them upon your people. And as you discovered, Troubles have altered in such a way that now they can be used against my own people."
"That was so long ago-and people aren't quite as much in the dark ages now as they were back then," Duke pointed out. "And since you're so supposedly advanced, I think you'd be past all of that."
Howard looked at him. "Tell me, Duke-exactly how did people in Haven react when faced with a situation that defied explanation? Were they rational and understanding? Or did they commit people to asylums? Or denounce the Troubled from the pulpit? Or exploit one family's curse to stop another?" he asked, and Duke fell silent.
"Touché. So now what?" he said at length. "You stick me in some machine and make me forget who I was like you did Audrey?"
"No. It is imperative that you remember," Vince told him. "We want you to remember your past. If that was what we had intended to do with you, we would not be having this chat."
"This should make for some interesting conversations back in Haven," Duke commented. "Oh, look, there's Crocker, back from the dead'. People will take one look at me and think that the Troubles must be back."
"That is the one down side to your new life," Vince said. "You cannot go back to Haven. You can never return to Haven; the life you had as Duke Crocker there is finished. You will be reborn, yes, but it will be elsewhere."
"Like where, for instance?"
"Any where we have a need to send you," Howard said. "You can transport yourself as aether does; able to move from your world to my former one. You cannot be hurt by physical means, because your body is made from aether."
"So say if somebody shoots me, I won't die?" Duke asked, brightening. "Well, die again," he corrected.
"No, your body would simply close the wound. But you cannot let other people know that," Howard warned. "For all appearances, you will be human-you'll breathe, you'll have a heartbeat and pulse."
"If I were to get a cut or something it's not going to be gushing black goo, is it?" Duke asked. "As you just pointed out, being different does tend to panic the natives."
"No, it would appear to be blood. But I would not advise putting yourself into a situation to where people could medically examine you." He frowned. "We cannot force you into this decision, Duke; you are a living soul, and free to choose," he continued. "If you wish us to return you so that you may cross over, we can do so."
Duke thought for a long moment, and then looked at Vince.
"Why didn't you choose Dave for this?" he asked.
Vince looked sad, and then replied "I could not. I would have; but Dave had chosen to move on, even before I became the Controller." He smiled slightly. "I can't blame him for that."
"I'm glad I'm your second choice," Duke snarked.
"You were not second choice. David did not have the connection to the aether that you possess," Howard spoke. "So the question is, Duke Crocker, do you want to spend eternity wondering if the Troubles might come again? Or do you want to prevent what happened to you and Haven from ever happening again?"
"Be a shame if you were to have died for nothing," Vince remarked, glancing at the wall as though there were something there.
"Low blow, Vince," Duke retorted. "If I choose to stay and help you," he said slowly. "Do I still have the option of crossing over someday or am I going to be stuck forever with you two?"
"I think you know the answer to that question, Duke," Vince said, smiling. "Or you wouldn't have asked it. Very well," he finished, and the Barn faded away in a flash of light.
"Hey," Duke heard a little voice saying, and felt a poke in his ribs.
He opened his eyes, and found himself looking at a little girl, no more than six or seven years old. He could feel he was lying on sand, and could hear the roar of surf in the background.
He sat up, seeing he had gone from an all-black wardrobe to a form of his original wardrobe-board shorts, camp shirt, a tank top and deck shoes.
"Are you okay?" she asked.
"Yeah, I think so," Duke replied. "Why do you ask?"
"Cause you felled out of the tree," she said. "You just appeared like magic!"
"Susie," Duke heard a woman's call, and a rather attractive woman with long brown hair and blue eyes appeared. She was wearing a sarong wrapped over a swimsuit, and she came over to them.
"Susie, don't bother the man, he's taking a nap," she scolded.
"Him not napping—he felled out of the sky!" Susie chirped, and the woman shook her head.
"She has quite an imagination. I'm sorry," she smiled apologetically at Duke.
"It's okay," Duke answered. He stood up, and dusted himself off. "Actually she's sort of right—I fell out of the tree," he went on, glancing up at it. "Thought I'd try for a coconut."
"Oh, God, are you all right?" she asked, wide-eyed.
"None the worse for wear," Duke grinned, and held his hand out. "Duke Crocker."
"It's nice to meet you. I'm Shelley Marbury, I work at the Beachcomber," she gestured up the hill to the little hotel. "Are you going to be working here too?"
"Maybe," Duke hedged, hoping that Howard would appear and tell him what the hell he was supposed to be doing here.
Shelley smiled and nodded. "Good. Well, I'm glad you're not seriously hurt, Mr. Crocker."
"Call me Duke," he answered.
"All right—Duke," she replied. "C'mon, Suze, let's get back so Mommy can get ready for work," she told her daughter, tugging her along.
"Bye, Duke!" Susie waved.
Duke smiled and waved goodbye. "Bye, Susie," he called after her, and then gasped.
Susie had a black glowing hand print on her back.
"Now you see why you're here," Agent Howard said from behind him.
"Somebody's starting it all over again," Duke answered, his face determined. "Someone wants to restart the Troubles."