Hey, this is Kara. Haven’t talked to you in a few days. I heard you took off. What happened? Well, I guess it doesn’t matter what happened. That’s not why I called, if that’s why you didn’t answer.
Jamal says you were pretty down that night. I told him he was an idiot for ordering you the car. Guess you probably would have figured it out yourself eventually. You got yourself here well enough. He says you’ll be back. I told him that I’m not so sure. He doesn’t know about Niles. Nobody does, if you’re curious. That boy is one of the only people around here who knows how to keep his private life private.
But what did I say? I don’t care what happened. I called to thank you, for everything you did to help out with the exhibit. We couldn’t have set it all up in time without you. It’s too bad that you won’t be there for the event. I would kick Niles out, if you wanted—okay, okay, I’m done with that.
A lot of shit got dumped on you. Nobody blames you for needing a moment to catch your breath. Or longer than a moment. Know that you can come back whenever, and we’ll be waiting. Okay? Try to take care of yourself out there.
Henry wasn’t met with a force field beyond the boundaries of Tortus Bay. There was no immediate compulsion to return, or any homesickness. Of course, it would have been odd if there were. He’d only lived there for a month. Looking back on that time, it felt much longer. Every day seemed so full.
Jungston was the same as it ever had been; A village, only slightly larger than Tortus Bay, but which he’d occasionally heard referred to as “the city.” He stayed at a hotel there for one night, and enjoyed a pleasant chat with the woman who owned the place. She talked about the troubles of growing up in the area, and opined on the general rarity of visitors. She’d never heard of Tortus Bay before, and their conversation came to an abrupt end shortly after he brought it up.
The urge struck him to ask her what possible end could be served by making up a fake village, but decided against it. He didn’t know her, and she ran the only hotel in the village. So he acted dumb, dumped his backpack in his vaguely mold-smelling room, and made a few calls.
At first he used his cell phone, but nobody answered. Not his mom, not his dad, and not Ray. Then he switched to the hotel phone. None of them would recognize the number that way. Still, none of them answered. Not his mom, not his dad, and not Ray. They were all busy people. He didn’t leave any of them a message.
That night he thought about nothing, but watched the light of the bedside lamp slide off the stucco ceiling. Thoughts came to him, in that way, but he let them slip away into whatever ether from which they had come.
What was he doing? How long would he do it for? How long could he do it for? When he needed money, how would he get it? Were people ever happy, roaming the road from hotel room to hotel room? Were people ever happy, going back home? Were people ever happy?
He could write a book. People would think of it as fiction. He could tell them the truth. Seldom few people believed the truth, even back in Tortus Bay. He could force someone to come back with him, to show them what was happening in that strange village. But some people lived there, and still never saw it.
How stupid did a person have to be, to run away from magic?
The next day he moved on to Greenfield, which was perhaps large enough to be called a city. That, or his perception had become skewed much faster than he imagined it would. His driver seemed disinterested in small talk. They listened to a country music station the whole way. He had him stop at a Super 8 on a street outside downtown, and the teenager at the desk inside didn’t seem any more inclined toward conversation.
Henry once more retreated to his room. What was the point of travelling from place to place, if all he saw there was the inside of hotel rooms? The thoughts were coming thicker, now—hanging on stronger, and demanding rumination. He didn’t have to care where he was at the moment, if there was an ultimate destination. But there wasn’t. He didn’t have to care where he was at the moment, if he was running away.
He decided he wasn’t doing that either. On a literal level he was running from Leia Thao, of course, but that was all bullshit anyhow. Nothing he ever needed to get involved with in the first place. No matter where he went, or with what intention, he always seemed to do that. He always found something nasty to stick his nose into. Tortus Bay hadn’t worked out. Now he was moving on. That was all there was to it.
Once again his mother ignored his call. As did his father. But Ray picked up. His voice was crackly, and distant. “Hey. Henry?”
“Yes.” The voice brought back memories. He nearly hung up.
“Where are you?”
On a hotel bed. Alone. “Greenfield,” he said. “Middle of nowhere.”
“Yeah, you don’t say. Never heard of it.” There was a commotion in the background. Construction? Traffic? “Are you okay?”
There was silence on the line, but neither of them hung up.
“So you called to chat?” Ray asked.
“But then I had nothing to say. That’s the theme of the day.”
The background noise died away. “I don’t understand. Are you sure you’re okay?”
“My parents won’t pick up the phone. They never called me one time. Neither did you.”
“Look, you weren’t banished, Henry. You left. And I don’t know about your folks, but I never thought I’d hear from you again.”
“I think I know how-”
“And it’s kind of fucked up to call someone out of the blue, after you put a hell of a lot of effort into convincing them that they’d never hear from you again. Especially when you have nothing to say.”
Henry spent a lot of time re-imagining that call with Ray. There were other ways he could have started it. So many more things he’d wanted to say. He wanted to tell him about the secret magic of a small village of which nobody had ever heard. Ray knew he wasn’t crazy. Ray would have listened, at least. But instead his voice had toppled him sideways. Now it felt wrong to call back. Maybe he would, anyway.
Greenfield boasted three grocery stores. One of them was only a few blocks from the Super 8, so he hoofed it down there in the morning. He wasn’t hungry, but he couldn’t exactly remember the last time he’d had something to eat. So he bought what people buy in those situations: a bag of carrots, a rotisserie chicken, and a wide assortment of juices and colorful energy drinks. “Have you ever heard of Tortus Bay?” he asked the cashier.
“No,” she said, smiling. “Where’s that?”
“Not far from here. Maybe five hours by car.”
“Is that where you’re from?”
“Not exactly. It sort of… called to me. The people there do magic.”
Her smile fell away. “Like tricks?”
“No, it’s more—well yeah, I guess. Like tricks.”
“Okay. Have a nice day.”
That night Henry’s shoulder kept him up until dawn. The old wound ached and bled as though it were new, sending him repeatedly into the bathroom to grab another cheap towel to try to staunch the flow. He wondered what the cleaning staff would think.
Eventually he scrounged in the bottom of his bag, and applied the last of Teresa Bramble’s paste. The white of the medicine clumped on his skin, and was swept away in the blood. It did nothing to help him.
Hey, buddy. It’s Jamal. Not answering your phone, huh? Maybe you weren’t expecting to hear from me so soon. I don’t know, maybe I shouldn’t have called at all.
I figured you were in some kind of trouble. Thought it was personal, and I wouldn’t press too much into it. A lot of people say that I’m too nosy about people’s personal lives. They don’t think that I listen, but I do. Sometimes.
Then I got to talking with Kara. So I’ll ask: are you in real trouble? If you are, you can come right on back. Don’t have a lot of business recently, I can put you up for a while. Could even be quiet about it, if I have to.
If I’m rambling about nothing just ignore me, I guess. But I wanted to throw all that out there. You’re one of the good ones. Lord knows we need some more of that around here. But you have to do what you have to do, I suppose. Take care, alright?