Dooley Downs

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XII Mirror Falls

XII Mirror Falls

Peter and Priscilla collapsed on the thick, green grass before them, exhausted. The sound of Mirror Falls crashed before them eternally. They lay panting on the small, patchy field near the edge of the violent, frothy pool that formed the basin of the falls. Mist dappled their skin in the cool night air as their breaths created white plumes of exhaustion. Peter looked at Priscilla, trying to calm his lungs from their near mile long sprint. She returned the gaze, smiling at him warmly. They had reached their destination safely.

While New Goat Road swiftly became Old Goat Road as it exited the Town of Prudence, and winded its way miles through the hills before reaching the crest of Mirror Falls, a short, graded, unpaved trail led directly out of town to the base of the falls. People sometimes visited this place on the weekends during warm days for picnics. But largely the base of Mirror Falls remained isolated, especially in the evenings. The fairly intense mist kept most picnics at a distance and teenagers preferred the dry, quiet, loftiness of Beer Can Flats for their romance and fraternity.

While Sarah’s death tarnished the attractiveness of the falls for the town’s collective memory somewhat, there existed obvious reasons why the base of Mirror Falls remained shunned to some extent. The pool at the base of the falls was rock strewn and tumultuous, nearly to the edge of the shoreline. Swimming in the pool would be disastrous if not downright fatal, as the twin falls created a depth and tow drag that was likely to keep a submerged object under indefinitely. In fact, Sarah Dooley was never found. She either remained buried beneath the turbulent undercurrent of the falls or else she ended up floating down Lower Carp River to the ocean to some undisclosed fate. And unlike Mirror Falls Overlook, no railing kept anyone from entering, or falling into, the pool.

Catching his breath, Peter rolled over onto his side and eventually raised himself up into a sitting position. His gaze measured the falls, aided by the full moon light. It looked treacherous, all consuming. He immediately thought of the past, Mom, which was quickly eclipsed by the present, Dad. A strange feeling, almost a familiarity, washed over his thoughts. It was an odd mixture of creepiness and longing.

Mom is here. Is Dad here, too?

Almost immediately, the tumultuous water subsided, calming into a pristine glass-like surface despite the fact that the twin falls continued their bombardment. Priscilla shot up suddenly with the change. Peter rose to his feet slowly, utterly astonished. This development surpassed any of this wild day, because it defied any explanation. He looked at his twin sister. Her wide eyes described it all.

“P, I think I know what to do,” he asserted.

“I think you know what to do, too!”

“The pool is calm… it can only mean one thing.”

“I’m with you. Do it.” Priscilla’s eyes were like saucers.

Peter reached a hand into his book bag, almost dizzy with the mind-boggling situation before them. He reached past the remaining fireworks, the letters, the knife, locating his destination and closing his hand around it, pulling it out.

The assembled Sooth Jewels shone an eerie light blue in his pale wet hand. Peter trembled slightly as bright droplets of water plopped from the tip of his nose. They were getting soaked in the falls’ mist, accentuating the chill of the night. As if sensing his condition, the Sooth Jewels brightened slightly and pleasant warmth permeated his entire body. Had he not been seeing and experiencing this, he may never have believed. But he knew that had really been the problem all along.

I’m sorry I doubted, Dad. I’m sorry that I didn’t understand.

He approached the edge of the now calm pool as Priscilla rose to join him by his side. She trembled as well, a mixture of chilled wetness, excitement, and nervousness. Reluctantly, but knowing he must, he placed the strange metallic arrow on the surface of the now smooth water. As always, it spun slightly, creating a gentle ripple, before settling on a direction. Nothing else happened. Peter was nonplussed at the result.

“So what now? Do we swim into the falls?”

“Don’t lose faith now, P,” Priscilla said. “There must be something we are overlooking.”

Peter sighed and gritted his teeth, trying to control his frustration and keep his hopes alive. Priscilla tapped his arm suddenly.

“Hey! Remember when we first assembled the two pieces?”

“You mean when we made Roman numerals out of them?”

“No not that. After that! Remember when the two pieces first joined together? They formed a ‘Y’!”

Peter wasted little time in reaching down to retrieve the Sooth Jewels. Excited, but still trying to be careful, he unscrewed the ‘V’ shaped piece from the ‘I’ beam and reversed it. His hands shook furiously with the adrenaline surging through his veins. He looked up at the twin falls, then back down at the ‘V’ extending from the ‘I’, then at his sister. He saw that her eyes marveled at the same revelation. The Sooth Jewels now formed a ‘Y’ pointing in two directions. Priscilla nodded wildly in affirmation.

Peter placed the assembled ‘Y’ on the pristine surface of the pool as steadily as he could, blinking away the drifting mist. As he removed his hand, the Sooth Jewels brightened and a bluish light spread out and saturated the water. The light traveled into and up the falls, calming them as it progressed. The falls seemed to slow down and the mist subsided. Then the Sooth Jewels brightened suddenly as two brighter beams of light extended in slow motion from each prong of the ‘Y’ and made their way to each of the two falls in perfect linear symmetry.

Priscilla absently collected Peter’s hand in her own. Both looked on, slack-jawed and amazed, nearly unable to comprehend the events unfolding before their eyes. It was like being inside of a movie, where the special effects were not generated in a studio, but magically created before your eyes. Things like this were the stuff of dreams, imagination, and fantasy… and quite possibly deserved to remain there. As beautiful as the light emanating from the Sooth Jewels was, and the effect it enacted on the water, there existed a terrible undercurrent, the kind of feeling that only awesome power inspires.

The split beams entered their respective waterfalls and thickened, traveling up the slow-motion columns. They appeared to slow mid-way, expand and take on form. In the left column of water, a woman’s figure took shape; on the right, a man’s. Through varying intensities of blue light, the features began to solidify. Though thoroughly astonished at what was transpiring before them, both Peter and Priscilla were hardly surprised to observe representations of their parents in the falls. The two figures, though wavy in the sluggish fluid, took on movement of their own, looking and smiling first at each other, then turning towards their children. Priscilla’s grip on Peter’s hand tightened, as did Peter’s on hers.

Hello, you two. I miss you. So does Mom.

The figure of Dad in the falls did not move his mouth, but merely smiled. However, his voice, unadulterated, spoke clearly not into their ears, but in the twins’ minds. The phenomenon transcended their attention at the spectacle of the moment. To see the image of Dad and Mom in the falls and to hear Dad’s voice delivered the kind of comfort that brought tears to their eyes. This event was the glorious culmination of a worrisome and harrowing day. They followed suit without even thinking about it, speaking their thoughts with their minds as their lips trembled and their tears rolled down.

…I love you Dad…

…I love you Mom…

…I can’t believe this is happening…

…what happened to you…?

…what do we do now…?

…is this magic…?

…this is magic…

…we’re scared…

Their thoughts projected rapidly, sometimes in unison, sometimes individually. Their glowing, water-bound Dad nodded patiently and reassuringly, allowing their emotions spill forth. Then he smiled and held up his hand for calm.

It’s okay, you two. Everything is fine. Your mother and I are together now, as it should be.

…why doesn’t she say anything…?

…Mom, I love you…

Although your mother is with me, she cannot speak. The afterlife is much more different than you can imagine. It is much more of a feeling than a physical existence. I am much more in the present than she is because my passing occurred recently. She is aware of you, senses you and knows what you are feeling when you direct it to her. When you eventually pass on, you will understand. But you have much more living to do left.

…but, why…?

…why can’t we be with you…?

…we want to be with you…

…why…?

Because life is a preparation for death. You still have things to do, lives to live, growth to experience. You may have a feeling that tells you that staying as young as you are is something desirable. But learning and knowledge only come from living and growing older, making mistakes and learning from them. It isn’t easy and it is not always pleasant, but there are rewards. You two are an example of those rewards. So is your mother, for me. You both have an advantage. You both have each other.

Peter finally spoke, verbally. “But we are just kids. What can we do?”

You came this far. That tells me you both can do quite a lot, especially together.

“But what do we do now?” Priscilla asked.

You do like you have done. You survive. You trust in each other.

“But the Sooth Jewels…” Peter protested, “…Aunt Gretchen… Dooley Downs…”

Don’t concern yourself too much about Aunt Gretchen. Sadly, she lives within her own nightmare. Some of it is her own doing; some of it isn’t. Life and its influences are complicated. She is not as malevolent as you might surmise. In some ways she cannot control what she is, even though she is responsible for what she does.

“That doesn’t make sense,” Peter said.

I know that it sounds confusing, Snogglebog. That is why you must endure, so that you understand. Life is preparation for death. Remember that. Live as long and as good as you can. Fight for it. We have to go now.

“Wait,” Peter protested. He thought of fantastical things of the past, things he explored with his friends in role playing games like Dungeons & Dragons. He thought about his fanciful imaginings of his sister as an Elfish Princess and his friends as Orcs and Goblins and such. He thought about how the Sooth Jewels were like magic items, artifacts of a time long forgotten, held in trust by their parents and their parents before them, preserving an ancient secret of humanity now relegated to myths and fairy tales and children’s games. He wanted to know if it was really all true somehow. Underlying it all, something struggled to articulate itself in his head; something that children readily embrace which is, more often than not, discarded like a cocoon with the emergence into adulthood.

“Are we… Elves?” he asked.

We are ourselves.

Dad and Mom waved goodbye. Their images dissipated as the light receded from the falls into the pool and back into the Sooth Jewels. The falls started up again, spraying their mist about, but the pool remained calm, nearly smooth as glass. Upon it, near the shore, lay the assembled Sooth Jewels, waiting. Still holding his sister’s hand, he knelt down to pluck it from the water’s surface.

The roar of a gunning engine filled the air behind them.

“PETER!!!” Priscilla shrieked.

™ Ÿ ˜

“TIM!!!”

Tim reluctantly stopped descending the courthouse steps, slumped his shoulders and sighing heavily. The hearing with Prudence’s sole judge, Humphrey Guildor had taken less than thirty minutes. He thought the years of harassing phone calls and letters had finally come to a close. Aunt Gretchen simply had no case for custody of his children and her antics had all but insured that she would never be seeing Peter or Priscilla again. Yet here she came bursting from the courthouse doors, set on railing him for one fabrication or another to convince him of his fictional incompetence in raising his own children.

Sarah would weep.

“Peter, Priscilla… go to the car. Mind any traffic, please.”

Peter and Priscilla looked at Dad carefully before silently turning and heading for Tim’s Jalopy across the street at the edge of Swenson Park. Aunt Gretchen’s navy blue Grand Marquis stretched out behind it, its grill looking half ready to devour. Tim braced himself for what loomed to be another painful and awkward interaction with his deceased wife’s sister.

It’s so sad things have come to this.

“Tim!” Aunt Gretchen approached, somewhat breathless. A less hostile tone laced her voice, almost imploring. She touched his shoulder and he turned, facing her grimly.

“Haven’t you done enough, Gretchen? It’s over now. Can’t we just go our separate ways?”

“Tim,” Aunt Gretchen pleaded, “please listen to me. Sarah wouldn’t have wanted it to end this way. You have to see that Peter and Priscilla need a mother figure.”

“A mother figure?” Tim felt heated and tried hard to contain himself with only marginal success. “How can you say that? First, you come onto me in my own house while Sarah was alive, then you accuse me of her death practically before the funeral was over, ruining my good name in town. The countless phone calls, the hostile letters, the burning bag of dog shit on my front doorstep! And now this: an erroneous custody suit.”

“But, don’t you see…” Aunt Gretchen retreated slightly with Tim’s rare display of assertiveness.

“But don’t you see!” Tim growled. “Don’t you see how you’ve alienated your niece and nephew? Don’t you see how you’ve dismantled our relationship? Peter and Priscilla are my children. I alone will care for them. It is only out of the kindness in my heart that I don’t countersue you or at least procure a restraining order against you. There may have been a time just after Sarah’s death when you could have been a part of our lives, but you destroyed that possibility. You destroyed it.”

Aunt Gretchen heard Tim’s words, but her eyes glazed over as she turned her emotional filter off. She responded absently, almost robotically. “But Tim, you have no job. If something should happen to you, how will the kids be cared for?”

“Not by you,” Tim snarled, losing all patience, which was a sufficiently rare occurrence by itself. He turned his back to her and began descending the courthouse steps. He’d had enough and he hated when he got angry at people, even if they deserved it. He considered it a weakness, letting someone else dictate his emotions.

“Tim,” Aunt Gretchen said weakly. Tim turned his torso and face, but not his feet. He gestured at her with his hand.

“Gretchen. You should consider counseling. Please leave us alone now.”

“But Tim, the children, their needs, if something should happen…”

“It’s all taken care of Gretchen, don’t worry about it,” Tim said as he turned and continued down the steps.

“But how…?”

“The Sooth Jewels, Gretchen,” Tim replied over his shoulder. “Peter and Priscilla will always be cared for by the Sooth Jewels. Goodbye.”

Gretchen’s mind immediately started processing this new information. Tim and Sarah hadn’t been rich, but they had been somewhat financially comfortable, able to provide a handout to her now and then. Her parents had provided little after their demise, except for their house, which now had two mortgages on it.

Gretchen just stood there on the courthouse steps in the mild spring sunshine, staring at Tim obtusely as he crossed the street, entered his Jalopy, and drove himself and his children away.

The Sooth Jewels… always be cared for. Always…

™ Ÿ ˜

…always be cared for.

Aunt Gretchen flicked her third cigarette butt out the open window of her car, where it plopped in a tiny shower of sparks on the asphalt next to the other two dead ones. She turned the key in the ignition and depressed the gas pedal heartily. The V8 engine snarled and then subsided as her foot eased off the gas. She sat behind the wheel, staring forward through the wide windshield, past the road, past the buildings, past the edge of town, and beyond that out into the night. Her eyes were focused on an image in her mind. Her body moved almost independently, right hand and arm shifting the car from park into drive, left hand reaching down to release the parking brake and then returning to the steering wheel, right foot depressing the gas pedal. The large automobile moved forward slowly, tires grumbling against the asphalt pavement.

The moon was bright enough to drive with the headlights off.

Time to get my happy ever after…

™ Ÿ ˜

Peter reacted instinctively at Priscilla’s scream, grabbing the triceps of her right arm forcefully and dragging her forward with him into the water as he simultaneously reached for the Sooth Jewels. His ears heard the sound of the brakes, the shredding ground, and felt the menacing bulk of the car behind him. His body and senses knew what his mind raced to catch up and make sense of: that he and his sister were going into the water one way or the other, either by choice or by force.

As soon as Peter grasped the Sooth Jewels the calm of the pool reverted back into the chaos of the base of the falls that had swallowed up his mother. He and his sister flailed wildly, trying desperately to find something to hold onto as they fought to keep their heads above water. Fear surged through Peter’s torso and extremities as he lost grip on Pricilla’s arm, but almost immediately he felt both of her arms latch onto his shoulders. Unfortunately, this leveraged a burden on his ability to keep his head above water.

Peter’s right hand, clutching the Sooth Jewels, pummeled against rocks and boulders in an effort to fight the convulsive currents. His left hand slapped wet stone and slipped just as easily away. For a brief moment, his free hand grasped the purchase of grass and dirt and hope leaped into his heart. They were facing the shoreline. However, his hand tore free and he started taking in mouthfuls of water under the weight of his sister as he failed to find further solid purchase.

The muted rumbling of the falls sounded all around as Peter’s head submerged below the water’s surface. He could hear his sister’s voice yelling above him. Light suddenly flooded the water from above. At first he thought the Sooth Jewels were the source, but no light was emanating from the pieces in his hand. He heard, even under water, the unmistakable slam of a car door and realized the driver of the car that forced them into the water had turned on its headlights. Running out of air, he struggled upwards, thrusting his arms upward. A large, strong, yet slender hand grabbed the wrist that held the Sooth Jewels and pulled Peter up out of the water.

Peter’s upper body lay on the grass while his lower half remained submerged in the splashing water. He felt Priscilla clutching his waist, sputtering and gasping. The hand that had pulled him from the pool still held his arm up firmly, now painfully. He tried pulling himself forward further, but the cold water and the struggle had sapped him of all energy. He suddenly coughed hard and vomited up fluid. He felt himself sliding backward from the pull of the current and Priscilla. The grip on his wrist tightened in a vice and a gold high-heeled shoe came down hard on his free left hand. He screamed in coughing spasms.

“So fitting to find you here with your mommy and daddy,” Aunt Gretchen screeched gleefully. “I bet you are dying to be reunited!”

“You… Dad…” Peter coughed up feebly. He felt tired and miserable and it was draining his ability to feel scared. Dad’s theory of fight or flight required the ingredient of energy, apparently.

“Your father killed your mom. That’s the real tragedy. He became a drunkard over the guilt and was unfit to raise you two. He failed to see reason, but in the end he saw what he was: a failure! And now you two know too much.”

“Please…” Peter managed. Tears streamed from his eyes at the weariness of his body and the hopelessness of their situation. Priscilla wept silently against his back, struggling to hang onto him.

“I want only one thing from you,” Aunt Gretchen sneered, feeling her victory closing in. “Give me the Sooth Jewels. Maybe I’ll let you live.”

Peter twitched his right wrist and motioned toward it with a flick of his head. His soaked hair flipped up over his head and stuck, clearing his eyesight. He looked at his hand for added clarification.

Aunt Gretchen’s eyes blazed. She unfolded Peter’s fingers, noticing greedily the glimmer of something shiny within. Peter relinquished the object and Aunt Gretchen’s grip let go as she hungrily retrieved it. As she stood up straight to inspect the bauble, the focused weight of her shoe brought fresh searing pain on Peter’s other hand. He grimaced, teeth openly clenched as he struggled not to scream from an already raw throat. He pushed in vain at her foot. It didn’t budge.

Aunt Gretchen’s twisted excitement melted into bewilderment and then abject fury. Her voice struggled against its own control. “What the hell is this? Is this some kind of twisted joke?”

“Sooth Jewels,” Peter grunted, still trying to push at Aunt Gretchen’s foot. She failed to notice or even acknowledge Peter’s pain.

Aunt Gretchen huffed. “This is nothing but a bunch of goddamned twisted up paperclips!”

“That’s them, Aunty… I swear… Dad gave them to us…”

Why don’t they do something? Why don’t they burn her like Max?

She glared down at Peter, incredulous. Her next words erupted shrill and staccato as an inferno of anger erupted over her face.

“Goddamn it you little shit you tell me where those fucking Sooth Jewels are right now!”

Aunt Gretchen’s shoe twisted and ground into Peter’s hand. His eyes clenched and his mouth made a round dark circle but no sound issued forth. The agony did, however, invigorate his senses and he finally burst out a rasp of air.

“I swear to God, Aunt Gretchen,” he sobbed. “I swear to God that it’s the truth! Dad gave us those! Those are the Sooth Jewels! He said they would take care of us!”

For a few moments, Aunt Gretchen just glared at Peter, fuming. Then a dark spark lit her eyes. A smile cracked on her lips and she giggled. The smile broke wider and she chortled. Soon the night was consumed by her laughter, bordering on a maniacal cackle. She raised her face to the moon and howled. Then suddenly she stopped, looking back down at Peter serenely, almost lovingly.

“Of course he did,” Aunt Gretchen said sweetly and softly. “Of course he did. He would, wouldn’t he? Your ‘Dad,’ the man who officially changed his signature into a drawing. Your ‘Dad,’ the man of fanciful imaginings and nonsensical words. Your ‘Dad,’ where everything is ‘close enough for government work.’ Your ‘Dad,’ the pathetic drunken Bar Fly. He would, wouldn’t he? He would give you two a couple of twisted up paperclips and tell you that they would take care of you. You poor deluded children… you were raised by a poor deluded father. I am so sorry for you both, really I am.”

Peter started to feel some hope. “Please, Aunt Gretchen. Please let us go. We will never tell…”

“Oh, I know you won’t, my sweet little Peter, I know you won’t.” The sinister tone re-emerged at the tail end of her words and Peter’s stomach dropped. Madness shone in her eyes like pitch black diamonds.

Aunt Gretchen tossed the Sooth Jewels over her shoulder and reached down, grasping Peter’s neck fiercely. She removed her foot from his grateful hand, bending across and over towards Priscilla’s head where she grasped her long, wet hair and twisted it around her hand. Priscilla screamed. Both kids tried to fight, but they were too weak, and Aunt Gretchen was too strong and determined. She drug, or rather shoved, them back into the water’s torrent, but stopped short of pushing them free. Instead, she braced herself and held their heads below the surface.

The terror of what was happening borrowed reserves deep within their bodies, but neither twin found anything to grab hold of. As soon as one of them tried to claw at Aunt Gretchen’s hands or push against the shore, she slammed their faces down into the muddy bank. Lost in the fog of panic and the raging desire for air, Peter tried to concentrate on the Sooth Jewels, but he couldn’t be certain Priscilla was doing the same. And, despite the trauma of current events, doubts about their nature still crept through the corridors of his mind. Still, desperation lacked the luxury of choice. Aunt Gretchen’s vice-like grip prevented either Dooley from doing anything but thrash about in the water.

Soon, however, the cold overtook their bodies and their thrashing grew weaker.

Soon, the only fight left in either of them was the war with their own need to breathe.

Soon, the thought of Sooth Jewels was relegated to a trace recollection in the distant past.

Neither had ever known a physical pain like this before. Each tried drawing on a memory of their parents, but memories were fleeting and impossible to maintain. An aching darkness crept into their minds as their oxygen starved brains prepared to shut down into unconsciousness.

Soon, their bodies would overrule their minds and force them to take the water into their lungs.

The fight was nearing its horrible, futile end. And, as if to herald their impending demise, Aunt Gretchen’s grip suddenly stiffened intensely…

˜ Ÿ ™

…and let go.

Almost immediately strong hands pulled both twins from the chilly waters before the currents snatched them away. They gasped and choked for air in unison, retching numerous times. Their heads spiked with pain and sparkles danced painfully behind their tightly closed eyelids. Thick, hairy arms swept both children close to a thick torso and rotund stomach. It felt comforting and somehow oddly familiar. The big arms squeezed them close, warming their exhausted and frozen bodies. A deep voice they recognized softly sounded from above.

“It’s okay, little ones. Everything will be alright. You’re here with me and Officer Holt.” The voice caused both Dooleys’ eyes to pop open and look up. Red’s burnished, bulbous face peered down at them with a combination of joy, relief, and concern.

“Red!” They yelled in unison, breathlessly.

Officer Holt’s bulky frame stepped into view. His face was anxious and sweaty. He held a large revolver in both hands, pointing it almost forcefully at the ground as his eyes darted about nervously. He peered down at the children squeamishly, as if expecting to witness gore or some other uncomfortable condition. Other than their pale, weary faces and their labored breathing, they seemed fine. They both even managed to smile at him. He relaxed slightly.

“Uh… hi kids. You okay? Uh… the ambulance is on its way, just hold on a minute.”

Peter lolled his head over at his sister. Her own head had slumped forward and her arms hugged Red’s girth, feeding on his ample warmth. Peter thought of how much he loved her. He was surprised at his own resiliency. Though physically drained, he somehow felt mentally energized. Questions buzzed about his brain.

Looking near the water’s edge he saw Aunt Gretchen lying on her side, bathed in the high beam headlights of her own car. A dark, nickel-sized hole in the middle of her back marred the tight, bright gold lamay dress she wore, as did the dribble of blood leaking down from it. Peter registered shock, but not at the fact that Aunt Gretchen appeared dead. For that, a sense of remorse and relief washed over him. His surprise caused him to turret his head towards Officer Holt.

“You shot her?”

Officer Holt suddenly looked nervous again. “Oh… uh… yeah, kid. Hey, I’m sorry. Really. Look, I had to, okay? Really, I’m sorry.”

“Where did you get the gun? I thought you could only carry a tazer.”

“Oh, this!” Officer Holt glanced at the gun, but didn’t bring it up. He held it towards the ground as if it could go off at any second. “Yeah, this. Oh, uh, this is Red’s.”

Peter looked up questioningly at Red. Red raised his eyebrows and quirked his head.

“I’m glad I brought it along,” he affirmed. “Frank here had nerves of steel holding his tazer on your Aunt Gretchen. He barked all manner of impressive orders, but your Aunt didn’t respond. Her hands were in the water attached to you and your sister. If he would have used the tazer, you both would’ve received the charge. It was a risk we couldn’t take. Officer Holt here has better aim. We had to take your Aunt down.”

They sat there near the water’s edge for a few, Peter and Priscilla breathing heavy and trying to collect themselves as Red rubbed their shoulders and held them close. Officer Holt maintained his vigilance: gun toted, eyes darting, and ear cocked. Though the passage of time eluded Peter at the moment, he soon caught the distant warble of sirens. Everyone seemed to let go of a collective sigh of relief. A question emerged in Priscilla’s mind and Peter realized when she spoke that the very same question had been tingling in the back of his own.

“Red?” she inquired.

“Yes, little one?”

“How did you know?”

“Know what?”

“How did you know we would be here?”

Red patted his breast pocket where a slight, square bulge protruded. “Tim wrote me a letter of his own. You see, I knew you kids were hiding something from me. I knew Tim would not have let you out to dry if something had happened to him. You see, after the court case with Aunt Gretchen six months back, Tim made me the executor of his will.”

“His will?” Peter asked.

“Yep, his last wishes.”

“But how do you know Dad is dead? I mean, he is, but how did you know?”

“When you’ve lived as long as I have, you get a sense for things. When you came to the bar tonight with your story it got me thinking about the last time I saw Tim. After talking with Officer Holt and hearing what he had been dealing with all day, the fact that things didn’t fit made them fit all the more. Things were in motion. We had to operate on instinct,” Red observed.

“But how did you know to meet us at Mirror Falls? How did you know to come here right in time to save us?” Peter was still incredulous over their timing.

“Tim told me that he wrote you a letter and gave you some advice to guide you should he ever disappear from your lives. He told me that it would likely lead you to me, but that you would probably leave to find answers elsewhere. He told me to be patient with you, to let you decide your direction and that, if you left, to open the sealed letter he wrote for me. After you left the bar, and mind you it took some powerful patience and understanding to let you go, I did. The letter said you two likely were headed for Mirror Falls. Tim had a hunch about things unfolding and he was right. I am glad I followed his instructions. He was always a very smart cookie. I just wish I could’ve helped prevent this whole tragedy.”

The swirling ambulance lights appeared above the ridge and descended towards them. Officer Holt waved both his arms and the siren shut off, but the light continued to undulate. Red urged the kids to their feet and moved them in position to allow the paramedics room to inspect them. They both grunted to their feet, hung like rags with exhaustion. However, Peter felt his strength returning surprisingly fast. He felt far from fine, but better than expected. He glanced at Priscilla. She looked much perkier than anticipated, rubbing the back of her neck with one hand while gazing on at the approaching ambulance. It seemed that they were recovering unusually fast.

Peter noticed the glint of something metallic in the grass. He reached down, picked it up, and inspected the frail looking object. The Sooth Jewels looked as Aunt Gretchen had claimed: a couple of twisted up paper clips. They bore no warmth and no indication that they had influenced any of the night’s events. Peter wondered at them then stuck them in his pocket. He absently questioned what had actually occurred today and what had been his imagination.

But mostly he felt sorrow and concern; sorrow over Dad and Mom passing, concern over Leela, Bug, and Doodle, sorrow over how messed up Aunt Gretchen had been, concern over Bo Bo and Priscilla. As the ambulance came to a stop before them and the paramedics rushed out to attend to the Dooleys, both Peter and Priscilla acquiesced without fuss, absorbed in their overwhelming thoughts regarding the day’s intensities and the obscurity of the future. The paramedics noted the remarkable condition of the children considering what they had been through. Regardless, they hurried them into warm blankets and fitted them with oxygen breathers.

Red insisted on riding in the ambulance with them on the short ride back to Prudence General Hospital. Officer Frank Holt returned to his cruiser and began radioing in for a tow truck for Aunt Gretchen’s car and the Coroner for her body. He sighed heavily when he realized the extent of what he needed to do to close out the night, much less this case. It seemed clear cut, but it never transpired that way over time. There would be numerous questions and interviews and emotions… and paperwork. Officer Frank Holt sighed heavily again, weeping slightly.

™ Ÿ ˜

“You got there just in time, Red,” Priscilla observed, giving red a smile of admiration. She blinked and pulled her blanket tighter around her frame, leaning her head on Peter’s shoulder.

Red blushed. “Well, better late than never,” he shrugged.

“Better Nate than Lever,” Priscilla giggled.

“What?” Peter and Red asked in unison, scrunching up their faces at Priscilla.

“Bug’s joke he told as we all walked through Swenson Park today.” She looked off dreamily, recalling the fun they were still able to pull out of such a stressful experience.

“What…?” Red began.

“Never mind, Red,” Peter waved him off. “You had to be there! What does ‘better Nate than Lever’ have to do with Bug’s story? In fact, I don’t even get it… poor Nate got killed in the end. What kind of story or joke is that?”

“That’s the punch line,” Priscilla insisted, giggling even more. “It’s like the moral of the story. ‘Better Nate than Lever’ is just a play on words of ‘Better late than never.’ Nate gets sacrificed for the greater good, but it really isn’t about the story; it’s about the ‘gotcha’ moment of the punch line! Bug’s told us that one a million times!”

“I’m lost,” Red smiled.

“It’s okay,” Peter said. “How come I never heard that joke?”

“Because Bug has a soft spot for the ladies,” Priscilla smirked. “Plus, it is the only real joke that he knows, other than his sarcastic banter.”

Peter looked down at his hands, smiling and nodding his head. Finally, he looked up at Red.

“Better late than never, Red… thank you.”

“You must mean, better Nate than Lever, or something to that effect,” he chortled, big belly jiggling. “You will have to let me in on that nugget after this all blows over.”

“Speaking of which,” Priscilla looked up, showing concern, “what happens to us now?”

“Yeah, Red,” Peter said, fear creeping back into his chest, “we’ve lost everything.”

Red regarded them with deep empathy and admiration. They had been through so much and yet giving up had seemed a concept not worthy of serious consideration. He hoped the trauma of their experience didn’t carry itself into their later lives, but he knew it would. It was how people became who they are as adults. The question was whether or not the growth from these events would influence them in a positive manner or a negative one. At their age, they were on a fulcrum. Depending on what happened now and in the immediate future would resonate throughout their entire lives. Still, Tim and Sarah taught them well and he saw both parents in each of them.

They are strong. They will endure.

“Not everything,” Red beamed, sitting up and puffing out his chest. “You still have each other… and now you have me!”

His face brightened as they immediately smiled.

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