Sarah, Returned

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Chapter Eight

Matt’s little red Hyundai comes roaring out of the darkness, into the gas station parking lot, breaking every speed limit in town. I smile, amused. He’s usually such a careful driver. In an instant, he’s parked the car directly in front of me, and leaps out without bothering to take the key out of the ignition. In two long bounds, he’s got his arms around me, giving me only a split second to notice the tears streaming down his cheeks. I almost choke up myself at this, because Matt never cries. I mean never. I’ve never seen so much as a twinkle of a tear in the corner of his eye. Even at Grandma’s funeral…even at his own parents’…his eyes were as dry as if it were any other day, his face perfectly even and stoic.

My dear cousin is one of those stoic New Hampshire guys who hides a sensitive soul behind a passionless exterior. Only those few of us who are lucky to know him intimately realize he’s a poet inside, and a real softie, too. Those tears streaking his clean-shaven face are startling, but endearing, too. I never doubted his love for me, but if I needed proof, this is definitely it.

The hug he instantly envelopes me in is joyous and powerful, lifting me off my feet. I am sure he didn’t bother to look at my filthy 17th century clothing. All he saw was my face, and that was enough for him. At least my hair is long and loose, not tucked up into a little white cap, as usual; that would have been too obvious to hide, even in his enthusiasm to throw his arms around me.

I hug him back, tightly, so happy to be with him once more. I would be thrilled to spend all night in the gas station parking lot, getting re-acquainted with my honorary big brother, but there’s an element of time at play here. I need to get into Grandma’s room without delay. Farmers with children don’t stay single for long in 1699. I have to get back to Joshua before he gives me up for lost and marries someone else.

The mere thought of another woman replacing me in his affections, in our home, and especially in our children’s lives, makes me instinctively curl my hands into fists behind Matt’s back. No. There will be no remarriage for Joshua if I can help it. Wait for me, darling, I’m coming. I push the silent words out of my mind and into the universe. Please, God, let them find him.

Matt is so overjoyed, and quite relieved, at finding me again, I’m starting to feel a bit guilty. He must have been a wreck, thinking something terrible happened to me. I can’t do that to him again if I can help it. When I am able to leave, I’ll make sure he knows where I’m going, and why. A note, maybe? And, a time capsule I’ll leave for him in 1699, with instructions in the note in 2017 on where to find it. That will give him reassurance that I’m okay, and where I want to be, while showing him time travel is real.

After what seems like an eternity (but a pleasant one), Matt finally puts me down and looks me over from head to toe, to make sure I’m in one piece and unharmed. He never takes his hands off my shoulders. Once satisfied I’m fine, he drags his gaze back up to my face, shrugging one green sweater-clad arm up high enough to wipe the glistening streaks of salt water from his eyes, and his look of concern transforms to one of wonder.

“You….you look fine,” he stammers, still not quite believing I’m real. “Dirty. God, you need a shower. But, fine. Though, those clothes…?” He gives me a quizzical look.

“It’s hard to explain,” I say, gently. What else is there to tell him? That I’ve been kidnapped by a bunch of rogue archaeologists and forced to work as a museum docent in period costume for the past month?

“Are you okay?’

“Yes.”

“Were you kidnapped?”

“In a way.” Yeah, the same way Grandma, Grizel, and who knows how many others were kidnapped. Via time portal.

Matt laughs a little, shaking his head in confusion. “What does that even mean?”

“I’ll tell you all about it later,” I promise him. “Not here. At the house.”

Hmm? Funny how I can’t bring myself to call it “home.”

Matt glances up at the gas station as if seeing it looming there behind us for the first time. He nods, understanding dawning. “Of course. You want to go home. This isn’t the place for proper reunions or explanations. You want to get home, get cleaned up, maybe change your clothes, enjoy familiar surroundings, while knowing you’re safe.”

“Something like that.”

Oh, Matt. If you only knew.

“Let’s go. We’ll get you home, make you comfortable, let you rest. Whatever you want. I’ll even make you a nice cup of tea. You should know, though, I called the police on the way here. Since your disappearance is an active investigation, I had to let them know you are back and alive. They’ll be coming by the house later to get your statement, but agreed to wait a couple of hours for you to get settled back in. Is that okay?”

“It’s fine, Matt,” I say, giving him a warm smile. He’s so eager to make sure I’m both fine and happy to be back. There’s this tiny hint of worry in his voice that I might not really want to be here. Anyone who didn’t know him as well as I do would miss it, but he can’t put anything past me after all these years together. I think he’s concerned I’ve been Stockholm Syndrom-ed by whoever kidnapped me, and I want to go back to them.

He’s not entirely wrong. Not in the strictest sense.

He leads me by the hand to his car, and even opens the door for me. Man, he is determined to not let me out of his sight now that he has me back. As I snuggle down into the comfortable, velour-covered bucket seat, I’m struck hard by just how much I’ve missed modern conveniences without even realizing it. I mean, sure, I keenly felt their absence for the first few years, but once Joshua and I had Clara, that all went away, as I came to accept the 17th century as my new home. Now, sitting in a soft, air conditioned car, I realize I just pushed those longings to the back of my mind. Why wish for something that won’t be invented for another 300 years, right? Ah, this is really nice. There’s nothing this soft to sit on where I just came from, at least not in New England. Rich people in the bigger cities, as well as royalty, have stuffed, upholstered furniture back then, but not us practical, working class Quakers. I wonder what other things I took for granted I’ll gain a new appreciation for during my brief return here?

We drive in a comfortable silence for a while. Matt keeps one hand on the wheel and one hand holding mine, which is so sweet it makes me want to kiss his cheek. I smile at him as he drives, then look out the window at the town where I’ve lived my whole life. Technically, I’ve never lived anywhere else, because I was still in Dover in the past. It’s odd, looking at these familiar surroundings now. They are just as I remember them, but strange, too. The lay of the land is similar to the way it is in the 17th century, but so many new buildings, electric wires, utility poles, street signs, and paved roads obscure some of the natural landmarks I’d begun to think of as the “real” Dover back then. As I gaze out at modern Dover, I can see ancient Dover superimposed over it, as if those long ago days are only a step away, into a dimension just beyond our own. Because I still don’t know how time travel works on a quantum physics level, that might actually be true, and my family is right here, close enough I could reach out and touch them, if only I could find a break in the veil.

About halfway back to the house, Matt speaks.

“The police found evidence of tampering with your car.” He squeezes my hand more tightly, as if to give me strength. I don’t need it, but I appreciate the gesture. “Did you know anything about it?”

What?

“Tampering?” I ask, confused. “No. I had no idea. Do you mean someone messed with my car?”

“Yes.”

“Before or after I parked it at the top of Garrison Hill?”

“Before. Wait. So, you actually drove up there yourself?”

“Yeah, to be alone. The going missing part happened after that.”

“But, why were your keys still in the ignition?”

“They were?” News to me. It wouldn’t be the first time I locked my keys in a car when I was distracted. Locksmiths in Dover loved me. “I had no idea. I was pretty upset at the time. I probably just got absent-minded and left them in there by accident. You know that’s kind of my thing.” I give him a small laugh, to loosen him up.

“I guess it is,” he says, a hint of a smile appearing on his lips in response. “Well, that’s something. The police will definitely want to know that detail. This whole time, they’ve been thinking you were taken from the car quickly, like when you were getting out of it, or even just prior.”

“So, car tampering?” I prompt him. Why would anyone mess with my car? That’s weird. Then again, so is time travel. Who am I to say what’s weird anymore?

“Yes. Once the police towed your car back to the impound lot to investigate it for clues to your disappearance, they discovered someone cut through several lines in your engine. The tubes that bring up the windshield washer fluid were cut, as were the lines to the AC, and some other things. They think whoever did it was trying to cut your brake lines, but didn’t know where they were, so just cut through anything that looked like they might disable the car.”

“Why would anyone want to do that?” I exclaim, offended more than shocked. I’m not sure why. Just the idea of someone wanting to hurt me by cutting my car’s brakes strikes me as deeply offensive. I mean, that’s just plain rude!

“The current theory is that someone who knows you wanted to get you out of the way, most likely so they could get your half of the inheritance.”

“Whose theory? This can’t just be the local police.”

“No, you’re right. It’s the state police. We’ve even had the FBI bring people out to give their opinion, too. Considering the amount of money at stake in Grandma’s will, they considered your disappearance a federal matter as much as a state one. The local police have been helping, of course. The whole town has, actually. Practically everyone we know, and hundreds we don’t, spent a week combing every inch of the county for you. We even looked into parts of Massachusetts and Maine.”

“How much money are we talking about, Matt? I know it’s supposed to be something ridiculous, but the last I heard, the exact number hadn’t been released yet. If anyone knew, it might have given them motivation to remove either one of us.”

“I know. That’s why there’s been 24/7 police protection on the house since you left, just in case the perpetrator tried to get to me, too.”

Have you talked to Grandma’s lawyer?” I press, suddenly curious about the exact amount for the first time in 14 years.

He nods, looking almost guilty. “I wanted to wait until we knew what happened to you, but all the different law enforcement personnel we were working with insisted on it. We actually had the lawyer come to the house, and all the professionals on the investigation sat in on the meeting. They needed the amount for evidence. In addition to half the house and half of Grandma’s personal belongings, to be divided between us as we see fit, we are each inheriting $80 million. That’s enough for someone to want to do away with either one of us. Because you’re younger, you probably made an easier looking target, but that doesn’t mean I’m not still one, too. Even before the amount was spoken aloud, half the town knew it was going to be a staggering number, because so many people knew Grandma. It could be anyone close enough to us or to Grandma to think they have a chance at inheriting it with one or both of us gone.”

“But, how could anyone get half of the inheritance just by removing me from the picture? It’s not like someone could just waltz in and say, ‘Since Sarah’s not here, I think I’ll claim her half of the $80 million.’ That doesn’t make sense.”

“You’re right,” Matt agrees. “That’s why it has to be someone who knows us personally, and either has an actual legal claim to the money if you’re gone, or someone who thinks they can make a play for it with you out of the way. Or, you know, both of us out of the way.”

“That narrows down the suspects,” I muse. It’s so weird thinking someone tried to kill me. Considering I’ve now traveled through time by accident twice, the fact that I’m flabbergasted by anything is really saying something.

“It does,” Matt affirms, stroking the back of my hand with his thumb, his way of trying to comfort me as he drives. “I’ve been questioned more than once by a few different agencies. You understand, right? I have the most to gain from your disappearance, so I’ve always been the prime suspect, from the beginning.”

“You?” I exclaim, and almost laugh. It’s so ludicrous. Matt would never hurt a fly, much less try to kill the cousin he helped raise. “That’s insane.”

“You think so, because you know me. It’s not that obvious to outside observers.”

“But, they think you may be a target, too. You can’t be a target and a suspect.” I protest.

“They think I may be a target, but aren’t sure, since so far, you are the only one of us who has gone missing. If it remained just you, and no one made a move against me, I would eventually have to go to court to defend myself. If you hadn’t shown back up within a year or so, I’m sure I would have been indicted.”

“Wow. I’m sorry, Matt.”

“I know. And, just because you’re back, it doesn’t mean I’m off the hook. At least, I won’t be until you tell the police what really happened to you.”

“Of course,” I pick up on the hidden request in his tone with ease. “Consider yourself off the list. Was anyone else questioned besides you?”

Matt visibly relaxes at my promise. “Yes. Karen, of course, though she would never hurt you. We both know that. Great-Uncle Jacob, his son and grandchildren, Carter, our housekeeper, a couple of your ex-boyfriends, all of your close girlfriends, all of Grandma’s known close friends and business contacts, our next door neighbors on both sides, and the people across the street. Even some of your professors at the university were questioned.”

“Any idea on who might have done it? That’s a lot of questioning. Surely there’s been some theory developed by now.”

“Believe it or not, no. I’m still the prime suspect. Everyone they talked to claimed ignorance, of course. And, whoever did it might not have known much about cars, but they were smart enough to wear gloves when they tampered with yours. There were no fingerprints.”

“That doesn’t make me feel exactly great about going home, Matt.”

Not that I’m planning on staying here for long, but returning to a house where there might be someone who tried to off me doesn’t exactly fill me with confidence. I have to make absolutely certain I don’t tarry here. Get in, answer whatever questions the police have for me, search Grandma’s room, and get out. With any luck, I won’t need to find the professor, and the portal will open as soon as I touch the correct item. That way, I can leave right from her room.

And, whatever I do, for whatever time I spend here, I must not allow myself to be alone with Karen. Matt may still be dazzled enough by her to think she’s a perfect angel, but I know if it was anyone we know personally, and not an acquaintance of Grandma’s, it most surely was that witch.

“You’ll be safe, I promise,” Matt assures me. “It’s only Karen and me at the house. No one will hurt you there.”

I almost laugh out loud. Just Matt and Karen? Yeah, right, I’ll be safe. I’m going to need a police escort in my own house to keep her away from me.

It’s a good thing I’m motivated in my quest. That woman will not keep me from my husband and children. I will never, ever allow it.

Matt is incredibly gentle with me, holding my hand all the way back to the house. When we finally arrive, I wince as the gears of the garage door opener engage. They’re like nails on a chalkboard to my newly sensitive ears. I’ve heard no machinery in more than a decade; I’ve become used to the silence that used to send me into a frenzy. I never thought I would be able to accept a world so quiet, where even minor background noise like air conditioning or a refrigerator making ice didn’t exist. Now, I long for it. How did I ever get anything done here with all this ruckus? There isn’t a single space of pure silence anywhere in any developed nation; I would have to go up to the top of an extremely tall mountain or into the depths of a remote forest to find it. In the 17th century, the silence is just a part of life.

Matt insists on opening the car door for me, something I don’t think I ever remember him actually doing. He’s always encouraged me to be independent and do things for myself, without relying on any man. This show of gallantry, which I’ve seen him exhibit only with girlfriends and Grandma, is more proof of how happy he is to have me back safe and sound. Matt has always been extraordinarily kind to me; it’s just that this knight in shining armor thing was never part of our sibling-like relationship. His goal was to make me self-sufficient, not try to impress me by being Sir Galahad.

He comes around to my side of the car, opens the door, and takes my hand to lead me inside. It occurs to me he probably should have taken me to the hospital to get an exam first, to make sure I’m physically all right and haven’t been assaulted or abused. I’m almost sure that’s standard protocol when a missing person returns. He’s not thinking clearly. Did the police tell him to take me there, and he just insisted on bringing me home first? It’s possible, and with the type of money he and I just inherited, they may have deferred to him. Money talks, especially in a small town like this, with every agency looking for donations and benefactors. He’s so eager to get me through the door, it’s like he thinks he can keep me safe in there forever, if only he can carry me across the threshold.

There’s that pang of guilt again. If only I could explain why I have to leave again, forever this time. But, no. Even if he believed the time travel story, which is unlikely, Matt would never understand me wanting to leave him, even for a husband and children. He’s never met them, so they won’t seem real to him, whereas he knows he is real, and right here. My desire to go back to them would crush him. I can’t say anything about it to him, or give him any kind of warning or comfort, and I hate myself for it.

It doesn’t change anything, though. I can’t stay here. Not as long as they are there.
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