An insert fell from the pages of Mark's comic book and landed on the bedroom floor. Advertising, he thought as he picked it up but something stayed his hand over the trash bin. It was a one-page story rendered in typical comic-book frames without speech bubbles or lettering except the title in the first frame: The Journey Begins.
The artist's style was old fashioned; hand-illustrated and monochrome. It reminded Mark of late-70s sci-fi comics, a passion he had inherited from his dad. His stomach lurched as he looked at the stacks of vintage 2000AD comics in the corner, the name Fintan McHewell scrawled in faded ballpoint on the masthead of each by a long-retired newsagent.
Tears stung the corners of Mark's eyes.
Don't you dare cry again, he told himself.
Mark was starting to cope with his father's disappearance but frightened inner Mark, who Mark thought of as Spikey - his mum’s baby name for him - manifested occasionally like a frightened poltergeist and knocked away pieces of the emotional scaffolding he was building. Teeth gritted, he wiped his eyes and forced his attention back to the page.
The first frame showed a boy sitting in his room reading a comic. In the next frame, in close-up, an insert fell from the comic to the floor. The boy picked it up and read the title: The Journey Begins.
Ha! That's clever, thought Mark. I see what they're doing here. The kid even looks a bit a like me. Wow, his room looks like mine too. What are the chances of that?
The teenager in the comic was now standing up staring at his page in shock and in the next frame was standing in his bedroom doorway looking at the paneled door opposite.
An unpleasant tingle started in the back of Mark's neck.
The boy in the comic now stood beside the paneled door, looking at a keypad set into the wall beside it.
Now Mark was on his feet staring open-mouthed at the page in his hand. In a flash of recognition, all the images on the page came together in his mind.
He opened his bedroom door. Directly opposite was the paneled door of his father’s study, beside it the keypad of an electronic lock. His heart pumping, he looked at the next frame in the comic. It showed a close-up of the keypad with the number 2705 on the display. Mark’s skin crawled and his stomach felt queasy. He walked on leaden feet towards the study door. This can’t be happening.
Mark usually ignored the paneled door. The study had always been off-limits; his father’s private sanctuary. Fintan kept it locked and asked that no-one went in there.
Staring at the grandiose door, Mark realized he’d never seen the inside of the study. When his father was around he would never have considered peeking in there but things were different now, or so his mother said.
He looked back at the page. In the next frame, the paneled door was open. The back of the boy’s head occupied the lower-left of the frame, and over his right shoulder Mark could see a desk and office chair against the far wall, and a large bookshelf against the left. Could that really be the inside of his dad’s study? Mark’s curiosity overcame his unease and he typed the code shown in the comic into the keypad.
There was a loud thud from inside the door.
Mark jumped back and cried out in surprise. The electromagnetic lock sprang open and the door swung inward a fraction.
A feeling of unreality started in Mark's feet and rose tingling up his body until it felt like a cocoon. This is impossible. His head reeled and for a moment it felt like he was outside himself looking down at the scene. A crawling sense of misgiving tickled the small of his back. Slowly, Mark put his hand to the door and pushed.
The study door swung open and Mark found himself gazing into darkness. The study was built into the hill, beneath the roof garden, and had no windows. He felt for a light switch. A slight turn of the dimmer knob inside the door and the study was revealed in soft light. Mark went in and eased the oak door closed. The lock sprang shut.
Mark gaped. The room was exactly as depicted in the comic. The rest of the house was the epitome of ultramodern design but the study was straight out of Sherlock Holmes. It was the size of a modest living room; plush, with wooden paneling and a red carpet. It smelt cozy and safe, a combination of wood-polish and burned peat. Inside the door to the right was a large antique globe, beside it a chess table of similar vintage on which ornate pieces were poised in an unfinished game. In the middle of the right wall was an enormous fireplace, the mantelpiece level with Mark’s eyes. Above the mantel, executed in burnished metal and enamel, was a huge coat-of-arms that Mark did not recognize.
A large mahogany desk stood against the far wall, before it a leather office chair. Against the wall opposite the fireplace was a monstrous Gothic bookcase, the full height and width of the wall, decorated with carved gargoyles and demons. In the low light it was hard to see the individual books but Mark guessed there were thousands. He crossed over to it and walked along it towards the desk, rubbing his hand along the spines of the books. They felt smooth and slightly dusty. When he reached the end of the bookcase he rubbed his hands on his jeans and turned to the desk. The office chair was on smooth castors and moved easily when he pulled it. On the desk were a computer monitor and laser printer, somehow absurd against the period furniture.
The last frame on the comic page showed the boy sitting at the desk and finding a keyboard and mouse in a hidden drawer. Mark searched the front of the desk and sure enough, found a shallow drawer with a wireless keyboard and mouse inside. He lifted them out onto the desktop, closed the drawer and sat down in the office chair. Six months’ worth of dust came away from the screen onto his hand, and that too got wiped on his jeans. He booted the PC to the login screen and the screen displayed two names with icons beside them. The first said Fintan; beside it an icon of a chess knight, and beneath it, to Mark’s amazement, was the name Marco with a picture of a sailing ship.
Why did Dad create a user account on the PC for me if I’m not supposed to come in here? Maybe this is part of what he was going to tell me about before he disappeared.
Then a more sinister thought chilled him to the core: What if his father knew he wasn’t coming back and had left him a secret message knowing he would eventually find it? Spikey didn’t like the idea of this at all and advised shutting down the PC and getting the hell out of there.
“Shut up, Spikey,” he said to himself through clenched teeth. “There's no way I'm not checking this out.”
He grabbed the mouse and clicked on his name. A dialog box appeared on the screen with the title:
Type your password
The cursor flashed like a taunt.
He searched the comic page but there were no more frames and no clue as to what the password was.
Typical! After months of heartache he had dared to believe his father was reaching out to him, and the disappointment burned like a fever in his throat. Fintan had obviously set up an account for him but hadn’t gotten around to telling him the password.
Or had he?
Mark looked at the sailing ship image and an idea started to form: What if his dad had left this as a challenge for him? Fintan loved puzzles. He had taken part in a competition when he was a teenager where you had to decipher the clues in a book and figure out the location of a fabulous piece of hidden jewelry. It was one of Fintan’s greatest disappointments: he’d solved the clues only to find the competition had been won years before.
Mark remembered a conversation he’d overheard, his dad’s voice saying: “I want Mark to know the wonders of childhood for as long as he can.” And his mother’s: “You can’t relive your life through Mark’s.”
In that instant Mark knew his father would never have put the user account on the computer had he not intended Mark to figure out the password and use it.
Excitement bubbled in Mark’s stomach.
He looked at the flashing cursor then at the sailing ship icon. It was a caravel; like the ones Columbus had. His dad’s voice came to him again:
“Life is an adventure, Marco; a voyage into the unknown. Each of us is his own explorer; his own Marco Polo.”
A tingle crept up the back of Mark’s neck, warming his ears. His hands shook as he typed:
The login screen disappeared and the hard disk chattered. He was in! He felt like he had won the lottery. The thrill of it raced around his stomach like a dance of butterflies.
A lone icon sat on the computer desktop; a folder named My Documents. He opened it. In the folder was a single file entitled Three Haikus.pdf.
Mark shrugged and double-clicked on the icon. The file opened in Acrobat Reader:
First letter of line
Implies arrangement of the
Books of all knowledge
Order seven books
Numbered by a formula
Ascending the set
Crack the hidden code
Change the natural sequence
Inspect the top shelf
It made no sense. What was a ‘haiku,’ anyway? He googled it.
The Haiku is one of the most important modes of Japanese poetry. Traditionally it consists of a pattern of 5, 7 and 5 phonetic units which correspond partially to the syllables of languages such as English …
OK, so they’re Japanese poems. Dad loves Japanese art and poetry but why would he write these and hide them in my account on the computer?
As his head spun with the mystery of it all, his stomach grumbled. He looked at his watch. Seven o’clock! His mother would be wondering where he was. Time to go.
He couldn’t risk going in and out of the study when his mother was around; best to work on it in his own room. He clicked Print and the document slid out onto the top of the laser printer. He grabbed the printout, shut down the PC and crept out of the study. He could hear the TV on downstairs so the coast was clear. He closed the heavy door, hid the piece of paper in his bedroom and went downstairs to the living room.
“You didn’t call me for dinner!”
“Well, your bedroom door was closed, and you were so upset earlier I figured you needed some time to yourself. I knew you’d come down when you felt hungry. There’s some chicken curry on the stove and some rice ready to go in the microwave; just press ‘Start.’ Be careful draining the rice; don’t burn yourself.”
“Bring it through to the living room when it’s ready.”
She patted the sofa and smiled at him.
“You can sit beside me here while you’re eating and tell me all about the first day of summer holidays.”
Mark finished his dinner then watched TV with his mum for a few hours. He didn’t give much away, saying he had played some video games and had read for a bit. As the food settled in his stomach he felt tired. Eventually he dozed off. He woke to find his mum shaking him gently.
“Mark, it’s 10.30. Time for bed. I’m sure you don’t want me to try and carry you!”
Mark rubbed his eyes then followed his mother into the kitchen to get a glass of water. As they stood at the sink looking at the darkening summer sky over Wicklow Bay, Mark said:
“Mum, will you show me how you do those cryptic crosswords tomorrow?”
Her eyebrows rose.
“Sure. Why the sudden interest?”
“I dunno, I just want to know how they work, I suppose.”
“Well, OK; I’ll show you but they don’t make a lot of sense at first.”
You can say that again, thought Mark.
He headed out of the kitchen then stopped.
“Why did he leave?”
“I don’t know, son. I really don’t.”
“It's still so strange without him. I can't get used to it.”
Bree stared out the window. “Me either. I keep trying to make sense of it but I can't.”
“Do you think he's still alive? I mean, maybe he was kidnapped. You hear about rich people being kidnapped all the time. It can't have been his own choice. If he was planning to leave, he'd never have done it on Christmas day.”
“Oh Mark; not this again, please! There has never been a ransom request and the police told us you'd have been a more likely target for kidnappers. None of his bank accounts or credit cards has been used, he disappeared between here and his office in Wicklow, and his car – a very expensive car – has never been found. It adds up to only one thing.”
“I can't believe he was carjacked and murdered on Christmas Day in Wicklow. I mean, this isn't LA, mum!”
“Mark, stop this! Stop it NOW! I can't cope!” Bree's voice took on a hysterical edge. “It's my fault. I couldn't make him listen. I mean, who goes to the office on Christmas day? Your bloody workaholic father, that's who! I should have insisted he have dinner first. If I'd put my foot down he'd still be with us but he's not, Mark. He's not waiting in the wings somewhere to make a dramatic reappearance; He's DEAD!”
Mark burst into tears. He felt in his soul it was true but to hear his mother say it like that gave it a stark reality that was shocking. Bree grabbed him and pulled him to her. He pressed his face into her shirt and cried searing salt tears into the cotton. They stayed like that for a long time, the moment a catharsis, months in the making. She held him, tears running down her own cheeks, until he stopped crying with a few shuddering breaths.
She conjured a tissue out of somewhere, as only mothers can, and handed it to him. She dabbed her own eyes with another.
They stood looking at each other for several minutes then Bree asked:
“Are you OK?”
He nodded and hugged her again.
He walked out of the kitchen, paused then turned back.
“When you collected my comic from the newsagent’s today; did anything strange happen?”
“Huh? What do you mean?”
“Well, was there anyone else there, behind the counter – other than the usual people, I mean.”
Bree screwed up her eyes. “No, I don’t think so. What are you getting at?”
“Ah, nothing. Goodnight Mum.”
“Uh, OK. Goodnight Son.”
Mark was halfway to the stairs when Bree's voice stopped him:
He turned around to see Bree's head peering around the kitchen doorway.
“I got you an awesome present for your birthday tomorrow.”
Mark cocked his head. “Awesome?”
Bree grinned. “Isn't that what you young people say?”
“Yeah, that's what us young people say. I've no idea what you old fossils say but it isn't 'awesome'.”
“Fossils! Do you want your present or not?” she said with a mock frown.
He walked back to the kitchen and put his arms around Bree. He hugged her fiercely and said “Whatever it is, I'm sure it's totally awesome. Thanks Mum.”
“Yeah, careful you don't snap this old fossil in two!”
“Mum, you're more of a kid than I am, and you know it. Also, you're gorgeous. All the guys in school fancy you, which totally weirds me out but there ya go.”
Bree pouted her lips and fluffed her hair up. “Really? Any of these guys good-looking?”
“I’m joking, Kiddo.” She flicked his nose gently. “You’re so easy to wind up.”
He kissed her and went upstairs.
Back in his room Mark shucked his clothes and got under the duvet. The events of the day orbited his head like stars and made him dizzy. He tried to figure out how the mysterious page got into his comic. He devised many bizarre scenarios and, as he descended into sleep, they got increasingly inventive. One thing for sure, he was going to cycle to the newsagent’s the next morning and find out where the mysterious page came from, and whether it was in all current issues of 2000AD, or just his.
Sleep came eventually.
Sometime later his cell chimed, just loud enough to rouse him. Half-awake, he reached for the phone and read the text. It was from his friend Niamh.
It read: r u awake?
He texted back: yes.
After a moment his cell rang but before he could answer it, it bleeped and died. He lay there wondering where his charger was then remembered it was down in the kitchen. He groaned and debated whether to get the charger or wait until the morning. As he wrestled with his lethargy, tiredness overtook him again and he fell asleep. The phone slipped from his hand and landed on the bedroom floor.
And that seemingly innocuous act of laziness sparked a chain of events that would change their lives forever.