At first it was disappointing, how easy it was to go back to feeling lonely after the sudden excitement of defeating the enemy, becoming a Guardian, being accepted into a loving group. It wasn’t so much that the Guardians were cruel or mean, only that they were so deeply nourished by the belief of millions of children that they were quite content to only meet up as Guardians of the World when there was a crisis. And with Pitch defeated, there were few of those to deal with.
Bunnymund went back to painting his eggs and keeping his hunting skills fresh in the Australian wilds. North stayed focused on creating new toys and alchemically fantastic recipes. Toothiana was always busy, collecting children’s teeth and memories, chatting with her Baby Teeth. And Sandy had a significant workload every evening, bringing good dreams to people, combating the Nightmares and living shadows that remained. He couldn’t get to everyone, but he tried his hardest. He was always the last at any meeting, the first to leave, not willing to let any child go unnoticed if it was in his power.
So it simply happened that Jack went back to living alone, moving from place to place, creating ice and frost wherever he went. The glow of belief was a warm balm inside of him, but he was also aware that it was fragile. He did not have the benefit of the faith of millions, and when – two years after he had begun to be believed in – a child simply stopped and would not start again, he felt it as a light going off in his heart. That year he visited Jamie and brought him a snow day replete with sledding and snowball fights and it was so much fun he forgot that the reason he’d actually gone to see Jamie was that he wanted to remind himself that Jamie still believed.
But Jamie was faithful. Where the belief of other children was a candle light, Jamie was a hearth-fire, blazing all the way down in his cold body.
After a few more years, he finally decided to build himself a home. Well, ‘appropriated’ would be more accurate. He found an abandoned log cabin that he knew no one came to anymore, the paths to it had long since overgrown. He ripped off one of the walls so that it would be open to the capricious winds and patched up the remaining, rotting planks with liberal amounts of packed snow and ice. The cabin ended up a drafty, cold, windswept place, with frost decorating the wood and the panes of glass that remained.
At first, Jack had been proud of his creation. It was his first proper home for centuries. But one day he’d come back after thrilling his way through Siberia, and he saw it for what it was. A broken down old shack that looked cold and uninviting. The kind of place that no one in their right mind would consider a home. He thought of North’s grand, complex Workshop with its bright, busy colours and how excited he’d been the first time he’d seen them. He thought of Toothiana’s home, out in the open but still beautiful and harmonious, symmetrical and singing with craftsmanship. He stared at what he had made with dismay, and leaned tiredly on his staff. What was he doing wrong? Was it just that he didn’t have the energy because not enough children believed? Maybe his imagination was only limited to doing exciting things with frost.
He thought maybe a frost castle, somewhere in the Arctic. But he was too impatient for it. If he wasn’t rushing about on the winds, a heavy sadness began to overtake him. He had no time to weave a palace of frost. The shack would have to do.
The first time the Nightmare came to visit him, he wasn’t actually asleep, and she was in her horse form, small and dainty. At first he was paranoid that Pitch has returned, and he raced all around her, looking, shouting that Pitch show himself. But the fear ebbed when the Nightmare whickered at him in amusement, and he stopped and stared at her. Shifting black sands, glowing eyes, she was beautiful in her own way. She was well-formed, graceful and sleek. Sandy hadn’t been able to find all of the Nightmares, and chances were he never would. They were in the world, and Jack kind of liked them. Not only that, but as days turned into months and Pitch never showed up, Jack accepted that the Nightmare was her own spirit and wanted to stay.
So the Nightmare became a companion, and with her company she brought painful dreams to him on the rare occasion that he slumped down in the bough of a great tree and slept. But they were bittersweet dreams, bringing his sister back to him. There had been wonder on the day he had died, the power of fun had revealed itself to him, but still; he had lost his sister on that day. The memories that Toothiana had returned to him of his human past twinged at his heart.
His memories of his sister were most vivid in dream, and he cherished seeing her face again, hearing her laugh. He found that he did not resent the Nightmare, and they became friends of sorts. Sometimes she even raced on the winds with him.
Two years later, they were galloping on the swelling waves over the Sea of Okhotsk in Russia, and he turned to her and shouted:
‘I really should give you a name!’
The Nightmare nodded her head enthusiastically, mane tossing in every direction in the wind. Her magic kept up with his and they raced each other to the coast of Sakhalin, snow flurries following in their wake.
As they tumbled onto the cold coast, snow whirling around them, Jack stared at the Nightmare and thought hard. Over time, he had heard many legends relating to Nightmares, many different names from many different cultures.
‘What about Mora?’ he asked.
She stepped forward and pressed her sandy head against his shoulder, an affectionate sign for all that it shifted a deep-seated fear within him. Even during the day when she was weaker in the light, her proximity and her touch awakened fear and paranoia that rose and danced like ice crystals inside of him. But he was getting used to it now, and able to ride the fear out, knowing where it came from.
He lifted his hand, reached around and stroked her cheek. She was warm and velvety, and the tactile touches made her shiver with delight. More than that – Jack would never say as much – it woke a painful longing in him as well. He held on for a moment longer than she was comfortable, and then let go with an apologetic smile.
‘Well, Mora, don’t think we’re gonna get back to the old shack tonight. What say we go see some Nivkh kids and make them some snow bears? I love snow bears!’
And with that he dashed off further into the island, Mora galloping behind, breath steaming in the frigid air. He was never worried about her giving the kids bad dreams, she only seemed concerned with him, and left everyone else alone. It was nice. It was like having a friend.
And so, twenty two years passed from that evening he helped defeat Pitch and gained believers. He wasn’t completely alone, but he was lonely. Mora stayed by his side, only disappearing when the other Guardians came to visit. Jack was particularly worried that Sandy would change her into a Good Dream, and he didn’t know how to begin explaining that he wanted the memories of his sister, wanted the vividness of her expressions and habits. It was an understanding he shared with Mora, that sometimes even painful memories could hold a sweetness if you knew where to look, that even nightmares did not always have to be completely without heart. So she went away when she sensed them, or he sent her away. Not that it happened often, the Guardians were so busy and content that they had visited him less and less as time went by.
Twenty two years and one evening under the light of the Man in the Moon, he felt an old, familiar, bell-like chime in his heart. He looked up immediately, his pulse racing, a cold zing of remembrance moving through him. And with it, love. He could not look up at the Man in the Moon and not feel a strange, alien love like a reaching starburst of light inside of him.
It’s time, the Man in the Moon said inside of his heart. And a moment later, a picture of Jamie’s face – an adult now, with two children – played strongly in his mind’s eye, almost as though he were looking at a projected slide.
‘It’s time for what?’ Jack said, and waited. He heard nothing in response.
‘You know, sometimes you’re not very helpful!’
He shook his staff up at the moon in frustration and then spun on one foot, trying to think of what it meant.
‘It’s time for what? Are you saying he’s in trouble? Does he need me?’ He glared up at the moon. ‘Nothing to say?’
Mora walked up to him slowly, tilted her head and looked at the moon herself.
‘You gotta work on your communication skills, buddy,’ Jack said, angry, and looked up at the moon a moment longer, before turning back to Mora. ‘I’m going to see Jamie, you coming?’
Mora was up in the air before he’d even finished the sentence. Offering her a grim smile, he set off on the fastest winds he could find, high up where tiny ice crystals were forming to make cirrus and the air was so thin only he and other beings like him could survive. He raced forwards, the wind tearing at his hair and fraying at his hoodie. He didn’t know what to expect, what he would find. The words, It’s time, reverberated through him like a mantra with no clear meaning. He was terrified, and he only wished he knew why.
It was morning by the time they reached Jamie's hometown, and Jack, choosing to remain invisible this time, hunkered down outside the two storey Bennett residence, waiting.
A moment later, Jamie exited, looking haggard and worn. But he still had a weary smile for his young children; seven and nine year old girls; one serious, one mischievous, both sweet. And he had a tender glance for his partner, Wesley, who leaned out of the house and waved at him.
‘Jamie, are you sure you should be going into work today? I’m worried about you.’
‘It’s just some kind of head cold, I don’t know. It’ll be fine!’
‘I’m serious though. Just...consider it?’
‘I’ll tell you what, I’ll drop the kids off to school and then book a doctor’s appointment, how does that sound?’ Jamie looked hopefully in Wesley’s direction, and his partner nodded from the doorway, still looking concerned. Jack waited nearby. Was this why the Man in the Moon had called to him? Jamie was sick? That didn’t seem like something the Man in the Moon would concern himself with. What was going on?
Jamie turned and picked up his youngest daughter to give her a hug, and then halfway through straightening he wrenched in pain, dropped her and clapped his hands to his head. A moment later he turned and vomited cereal and bile to the ground.
‘Gross, Daddy!’ his youngest daughter cried. Wesley had his phone out of his pocket and was dialling even as he ran to Jamie’s side.
Jamie didn’t seem focused on any of them. He fell to his knees, and then to his side. Jack watched with horror when he keeled onto his back and his eyes rolled up into his head. His children were shrieking, trying to wake him up, and Wesley was getting an ambulance, describing the symptoms, saying things like, ‘no, I don’t think he’s got any risk of aneurysm in his family, what are you saying? Yeah, yeah, sure I’ll check his airway. Just hurry, okay?’
It was chaos. Jack hung back, uncertain, while Mora pranced agitated and excited all at the same time, feeding on the fear but aware of Jack’s distress all the same. Jack felt helpless as Wesley did everything the person on the phone was telling him to do and Jamie still wouldn’t wake up. He felt helpless when the ambulance pulled up and checked Jamie’s vitals and a neighbour rushed over to say that she could take the kids while Wesley went with his husband to the hospital.
Then, as he began to fly behind the ambulance, fear pulsing in his throat, eyes blurry with terror, he felt something jerk hard inside of him.
He tumbled to a halt, staring blankly at the ambulance. The tug happened again, somewhere behind his heart and belly, and he dropped his staff and clutched at it with his hands. It hurt.
Then, seconds later, Jamie’s hearth-fire of faith and love burning inside of him, burning for twenty two years, snuffed out. Jack collapsed onto the road, breath forced out of him. He felt lost. He hadn’t known how dependent he’d become on Jamie’s belief in him, and he stared blankly through tear-blurred eyes where the ambulance had been – still rushing to the hospital with a dead body lying inside of it – and could barely think.
Time passed, and Jack became aware of Mora nudging at his shoulder. She picked up his staff and dropped it on top of him. She pawed and stamped nearby, upset and charged with energy. He didn’t know how much she understood of what had happened. But she wouldn’t leave his side.
He rolled himself onto his hands and knees and tried to summon the will to drag himself upright, his head heavy. There was a hollow, flapping emptiness inside of him, making the sound that flags made during high winds.
Mora thrust her head under his arm and let him use her strength to pull him upright. He leaned heavily against her, fear exploding in like tiny bombs inside of him. It was a result, in part, of his close proximity to her. She was high-strung and her energy was fierce and strong after being exposed to so much fear.
‘He’s dead,’ Jack said, hardly recognising the sound of his shredded voice. ‘Just like that.’
He staggered off the road, staff gripped weakly in one hand, and sat down heavily on the ground again.
‘I thought he had a lot more time. Thirty is...that’s hardly no time at all. Right? That doesn’t seem fair.’
Why, Jack thought, would the Man in the Moon bring him here for this? It was just cruel. He glared up at the sky, and the full moon was there, hanging low on the horizon, getting ready to set and allow the sun to reign.
He rose up on the winds, Mora following hesitantly, and stared at the satellite on the horizon that orbited the planet.
‘Why would you do this? Why would you bring me here to see that?’
He heard nothing.
‘Do you have some kind of plan?’ Jack’s heart leapt with a brutal hope. ‘Are you going to make him a Guardian?’
There was no response. Not even that pulse of love in his heart. It felt like a clear no, a letdown that went far beyond disappointment. It piqued Jack’s rage and had him racing through the sky towards the moon as though he could reach it and throttle the life out of the leader of the Guardians.
‘What use have you been to me, huh? Three hundred years alone and nothing! Nothing except some ice and some frost and some snow days! And what now? It’s time to make Jack live his life just like the good old days? Where no one knew who I was or believed in me? It’s time for the Man in the Moon to be all cryptic and useless again? I’m tired of playing these games with you! Tired of them!’ He was embarrassed to find himself crying again, glad – for once – that no one except Mora could see him in this moment. His voice wouldn’t stop breaking. His body shook.
He hardly noticed the blizzard that had spread behind him, the heavy anvils of cloud and the flurries of snow that had already begun. All he cared about was getting out of there, getting as far away as he possibly could. He travelled north towards the coldest regions of the world, trying to outrun what had happened, trying to outrun the hollow space in his heart that Jamie’s death had left behind.