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Better Late

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The train to Collinsport was nearly empty. He didn't mind. In fact, he was relieved; he was never one for crowds.

Chris placed his travel-weathered backpack in the seat next to him. He hoped that would be enough to ward off any potential travel friends between Massachusetts and Maine. It had been days since he had last really talked with another human being. This was not the day he wanted to start again.

A large suitcase was waiting for him in the luggage car. It was between that parcel and the backpack that Chris stowed his whole life during his travels. He did not need much: just a few well-worn paperbacks for entertainment and a week's worth of clothes. Anything too terribly worn was soon discarded and replaced at the nearest second-hand store. That always meant that he looked a little care worn. But a man living on the cash he picked up from odd jobs could rarely afford better.

Even though he carried so little with him, he had almost hesitated in taking everything on this trip back to Collinsport. Maybe he would come back? But it was only a passing fancy. He knew that had already stayed away for too long.

* * *

Two Years Earlier

Chris Jennings was not an easy man keep track of. He liked it that way. Still, he was aware that his family back in Collinsport was frequently trying to get in touch with him. Despite his best instincts, he always managed to leave a crumb trail of forwarding addresses for them. It meant that he received their letters at a marked delay. Usually—and he hated himself a bit for believing so—that wasn't a problem. Birthday missives and impassioned pleas for answers could wait until later.

Other times the delay had more dire consequences. He remembered well how anxious, twitchy fingers misdialed his brother's number on the day he received news of their parents' deaths. He knew no excuse would cover missing their funerals by two weeks, but he tried each one he could grasp. He could tell that Tom was humoring him, barely repressing sighs as he continued on with his stories.

“But you are coming back, right?” his brother finally asked. “We need you here, at least right now.”

Chris said he would try. "It'll just take some time."

That had been years ago. He still had not seen their graves. He would have to visit once he arrived in Collinsport. He was certainly very late; maybe they would understand.

* * *

The car picked up few travelers between Boston to Dover. Without exception, the people who boarded were an older, staid sort of folk. Too timid to manage either the demands of driving or air travel, they kept to themselves. In the moments when they dared look over to him, they did so with a bit of disdain. Chris could practically feel the daggers lobbed at him from the woman three seats behind. He almost understood: he had set up his demeanor to repel any human contact. This was the cost of that behavior. He was good at continuing to thumb through his book without acknowledging them.

Still their routine appearance at each stop had led him to believe that they were the only kinds of people who'd make this trek with him. So when the train stopped in Dover, Chris offered only a few cursory glances up to watch who boarded. At first, only a middle-aged couple stepped into the car. The attendant helped them with their bags and stepped to the doorway to give out last call. A few minutes passed and Chris returned to his book as the whistle rang out through the still air.

But just as quickly, he heard a voice sing out: "Hey! Wait up, wait up!" It quickly grew louder. The attendant reached out a hand and grasped a ticket for inspection. "Sorry," said the voice. "I had to make sure some of my things were situated in another car."

"This bag is all you're taking in the car?"

"Yes, sir!"

"Then come aboard, Miss," he said as he handed back the ticket.

Chris slouched further in his chair, forcing his knees to stick out in on an angle. He looked up a moment and caught a brief glimpse of her: long brown hair, too young face, and a long man's coat that looked to be covering a tall, lean form. Their eyes met and she gave him a smile. She took a seat in the aisle adjacent to his.

He turned his focus to his book. The train began its journey again and Chris gradually forgot that there was a potential companion at his side. It was easy for him to ignore her first few entreaties of "Psst!" But they soon started coming more frequently, at a slightly higher pitch and he found himself forced to glance to his left.

She was smiling, book in hand and slouched in the same position as him. With a slight grunt, Chris righted himself in his seat. "Yes?" he asked.

"Oh, you don't have to change for my benefit," she said as she sat up. "I was just wondering what it was like to sit that way."

"Oh, I'm sure."

"Don't be like that," she said, scrunching her nose in annoyance. "It's not so bad to talk to a stranger on a train."

"Yet no one else is doing it."

"Who cares about them?" She leaned a little into the aisle and asked, "Where're you going?"

"Collinsport. You've probably never heard of it."

She let out a joyful screech—causing all behind them to look up—and bowed her head. "You stole my line! A friend of mine joined up with an art colony there and I'm joining too."

Chris smiled and returned to his book. "That's not such an uncommon occurrence in Collinsport."

"And you know because…"

"I was born there."

"Ah." She extended her right hand into the aisle and said, "Hi, I'm Tracy. You are…?" He didn't return the gesture. She pulled her arm back and shrugged. "It's best that you answer. I'm probably not going to tire of you or leave you alone."

He still gave no answer. Tracy reached into her bag and pulled out a silver flask. She waited until his eyes met hers before mouthing an unmistakable phrase: I Have Whisky. Chris signed as he pulled his backpack from its seat. He slipped it between his legs before motioning for her to come over.

Quickly, she was ensconced to his right. "What's your name?" she asked again.

"Chris. Chris Jennings."

"Nice to meet you, Chris. And now: a good response deserves a treat," she said as she handed him the flask.

Carefully, he unscrewed the top and took a quick swig. There was only a slight burn before the warmth spread throughout his body. "You don't know how much I needed that," he said, handing it back to her.

"I can imagine." She took a swig herself before asking, "Why are you going home: business or pleasure?"

"I guess you'd have to call it unfinished family business."

"That's not very specific. Isn't all family business unfinished?"

Chris couldn't disagree.

* * *

1 Year Earlier

"It's been a year."

"And?"

"It's been a year since they died," said Tom. "And it's been nearly a year since you said you'd come home."

"And I'm sorry for that! What more do you want from me?"

It was a familiar argument. They had been having some variation on this argument for the last year. Any phone call between the brothers let the broken promise simmer just beneath the surface or explode in some dramatic way at any point in the conversation. At first, Chris was content to deflect away from the situation: talk his way out of it or, if that failed, end the call with nothing like finality. If someone wanted to talk to him, it would be on his terms.

But something changed. It became more important for Tom to state his mind than to keep the peace to remain in contact. He wanted something very different.

"I just want you to admit it! Admit that you don't really want to keep on with me. Or with Amy. Or that their deaths didn't mean to you what it meant to us. Admit that you don't care! That's the only reason you won't come home. There can't be any other reason!"

And Chris did not know how to handle that. "I can't admit to something that's not true."

"Then I don't think we can continue to do this." The line went silent for a moment. "It would still be nice if you could send a note to Amy by next Saturday. It's her…"

"It's her birthday. I remember."

"Good," said Tom. "It really made her day last year. She really misses you. And...and so do I."

"Tom, I…"

He heard a click and the familiar buzz of the telephone line.

* * *

"I don't believe you," he said, barely containing a laugh.

With right hand raised, she leaned in and said, "I shit you not. It was not behavior befitting a Barnard student but…"

"A Barnard dropout?"

"It just makes sense, doesn't it? I said my goodbyes, passed a few parcels out to my friends, and left before the Dean could get to me. My parents didn't appreciate any of this, especially since I had told them nothing about the sneaking, the drinking, the...well, you know."

"I kind of do. It's not easy to explain to people who think they know you that they don't anymore."

She nodded and slipped in a little closer, "Why did you drop out?"

His eyes drifted from hers. What could he say to that? Lubricated by half a flask of whiskey, he had probably already said too much. Chris glanced back and said, "I just changed. I couldn't take the pressure of it anymore. I showed up to fewer and fewer classes until, well, I didn't show up to anything."

"And your parents?"

"They were worried. Everyone was worried. But I readjusted and became me and they begrudgingly learned to live with a new normal."

Tracy fell back against her seat. "Good," she said, "Maybe then all this ugliness between the three of us will disappear."

Chris shifted away from her. It was easier to slip away than admit the truth: no it probably won't, at least not entirely.

"Who do you look forward to seeing?" she asked.

"My sister," he said.

"Why don't you tell me about her?"

"I could probably talk about her from here to the next stop," he said.

"That's not a problem." Tracy leaned in and said, "Just talk."

"Well, she's a kid—a really great kid. So much has happened. I just want to see her again, talk with her. Know where she is."

"But you don't need to know those things about your parents? Your brother?"

Chris shook his head. He motioned to Tracy for the flask. "There's no need to wonder: I know all about them."

* * *

Three Days Earlier

Slowly, his world came together. The mist from the previous night dissipated, leaving the wreck of his bedroom in full, glorious view. Chris groaned as he pulled himself up from the floor. He ripped the tatters of last night's shirt from his chest and inspected it for blood. There was none to be found.

He walked to the door and inspected the lock. The knob was a mess of metal but each of the bars still seemed to be in place. He gave the door a pull and smiled when it didn't budge. "It held," he said, groggy. He sorted through the contents of an overturned dresser until he found the keys. Carefully, he unlocked each. Again, he pulled the door in; this time it opened into a pristine living room.

Chris held his breath as he stepped out. All the could think was: it worked last night, but what about the next? So many of his various home grown methods of containment work for a brief spell before the Wolf figures out the trick, either by cunning or brute force.

Still, it was better to be grateful small victories. No one knew that better than he.

Chris was on the verge of getting ready to meet the new day when he noticed the letter peeking from beneath the front door. When had that arrived? He retrieved it and looked it over. The front was covered with multiple forwarding addresses. The upper corner noted the author: Joe Haskell | Collinsport, Maine. His first instinct was to toss it in the trash. Joe had never written him before; nothing good could be inside the envelope.

But he opened it just the same.

Dear Chris,

I hate to be the one to send you this news. At the same time, I don't want you to hear about this from anyone else. You need to hear this from a friend, from family.

I don't even know how to explain…

The words began to blur together, indistinguishable between his tears. Chris fell to his knees. He balled the note up and tossed it at the wall. For a moment, he could only stare ahead. But the sobs began to well up in his throat. He wrapped his hands over his ears and leaned down to the floor, weeping aloud.

* * *

Tracy had offered to give him a lift into town. He gladly accepted it. Though the ride was cramped between everyone and their bags, he found that he appreciated it. She had even insisted on a hug before letting him off in front of the Collinsport Inn. "Don't be a stranger!" she announced cheerfully.

"I'll try," he answered.

"Don't try, just do it!" She gave a wave and was off.

Chris turned around and looked at the Inn. It was late, but he knew that there was almost always someone at the front desk. He could probably swing a room easily.

Yet, the first few rings of the front bell brought no one out. He sighed and eyed the diner just off from the lobby. "It's better than nothing."

He dragged his bags into the diner and took a seat at the first table he saw. He placed his head in his hands, hoping for at least a few seconds of repose, but a voice broke through his malaise: "Can it really be?"

Chris looked up to see a young woman before him, coffee pot in hand. "Maggie?"

She smiled. She placed the coffee pot on the table and then held a hand out to him. "Come here."

He took her hand. In a moment, he was on his feet and wrapped in her arms. "I'm so sorry": she kept saying it as if it were her mantra. He could only hold her tighter with each utterance. When they finally released, he noticed that she wiped her eyes. They had all been so close. How had he forgotten that?

"How did you hear?"

"Joe. He sent me a letter."

"And you just got it?"

"Yeah. It was a bit delayed."

"The postal system has really gone to…"

"No," he said with a slight frown, "this was all my fault." He motioned to the chair across from his and they both took a seat. "Joe mentioned in his letter how often you visited with Tom. I just want to thank you. He needed a friend and you've always been a good one."

"I...I did what I could."

"Still, thank you." He shook his head and looked away. "I can't believe he's gone. And from some sort of animal attack."

"Well, that's what they say."

Chris turned back. "You have your doubts?"

Maggie leaned in. "The wound wasn't that extensive: just a couple of bite marks. But it was enough to keep him a coma for weeks and then kill him suddenly, opening up and draining him of blood. That's so weird, right?"

"It is. What else do you know?"

"Not much more. But I'll tell you everything I know," she added. "I could give you some hints on who else to contact too."

"That would be great." He cast a couple of furtive glances toward the door. "Do you know when the proprietor will be back?"

"Mr. Wells had something urgent come up. He'll be gone for the night." She perked up a bit and added, "But if you need a place, I've got a room. In fact, I wouldn't mind the company. It's been a little lonely lately."

"Sam won't mind?"

Her smile slipped away. "About that: Pop…," she began as tears began to well up.

"Don't say another word." Chris reached out and grabbed her hand. "Let's leave...if you can, that is. It'll be better to go over all of this somewhere private."

* * *

Maggie lent him use of her car for the day. It was nice but he knew that he needed something of his own if he was going to stick around town for long. He had flipped through the day's paper and found something he'd be able to afford. He didn't want to abuse her hospitality, not after she had offered so much.

Chris rose early. A quick shower, a couple of cups of coffee, and he was off. Bits and pieces of the town were awake as well: sailors to their boats, small storefront owners to their shops, children off to school. A few people recognized him, waving out greetings that he was hesitant to return. He couldn't be too friendly. There was no need to pretend that his presence was something anyone should welcome or get used to.

It wasn't long before he was turning down a familiar, winding path. There was already another car in the parking lot. He saw its occupants leave for the cemetery dressed in black and with flowers in hand. That was what he had forgotten! He couldn't help but laugh. He had finally arrived, just with none of the trappings. His presence alone would have to be good enough.

He stood before two graves at Eagle Hill Cemetery. The name Jennings stood out against the dark stones. "Well," he said, lowering into a crouch, "I'm back. It's not like you wanted. None of it ever was. And I'm sorry about that. I always wanted to be better and, after a certain point, I failed you every step of the way.

"I'm sorry. I'm almost sorry I can't stop saying those words," he said as a nervous laugh crept through. "But it was never your fault. You were always so good to me. You always tried to understand. If you're still out there, wherever you are, I want you to know that."

His next stop was further away. He scanned the tombstones as he walked the aisles, looking for one particular name. Suddenly, he stopped and stared ahead: Tom Jennings.

"I don't know what to tell you," he said. "You were a rock. You held together after some horrible things. And you did it with no help from me. And now you're gone. I...I almost wish it was me. I love you and I...I miss you. I've missed you all for so long."

He leaned down and said, "But I won't let this rest. Someone isn't being honest about this and I'm going to get to the bottom of this. I won't let them get away with this, whatever it turns out to be."

Chris backed away, unready to leave his family behind again. He stopped and pulled a small notepad from his coat. There were a good seven names to investigate. He put it away and started to walk away from the cemetery.

He looked up to the sky just feet from the car. Dark clouds had begun to roll in. He smirked and continued forward. There was rough business ahead. There was no reason for the weather not to reflect that.