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"And maybe what growing up really means is knowing that you don't have to be just a character, going whichever way the story says. It's knowing you could be the author instead."

― Ava Dellaira, Love Letters to the Dead

JACKSON

Returning to Wyoming was a decision made on a whim — an instinctual impulse. Because when battered and broken, animal instinct predominates, driving the incessant urge to return to a place of comfort and security.

When Jackson emerged from the harbor, he knew he needed to seek refuge somewhere far removed from Virginia. Returning to the place where it all began just seemed fitting somehow. Poetic almost. For the beginning was also the end.

Of all the places he has lived over the course of the last seventeen years, this is the only place Jackson has ever considered to be home. As he crouches down in the tall grass behind his former home, he becomes enthralled with how quickly and slowly time can pass in the same instance. Saying goodbye to his childhood home seems like something that happened a lifetime ago to someone else, yet it happened only yesterday and is strikingly familiar.

Having risen from the dead once before, he knows that not finding his body in the harbor will put his pursuers on edge. Only a fool would accept his death as fact without a body at this point, and those who pursue him are not fools. With that being said, coming here was a risk, but his lack of confidence in his ability to manipulate video feed and hide his identity in larger crowds kept him from attending his parents' funeral.

As a child, he always dreaded attending funerals, oftentimes begging to stay home or to sit outside because he found them to be too unbearably sad and uncomfortable. But now, having been kept from attending the funerals of those closest to him, he has a greater appreciation for their purpose. Funerals aren't for the dead. They are for the living. He understands that now.

The circumstances surrounding their deaths prevented him from seeing their bodies. He wasn't there to watch their caskets being lowered into the ground, nor was he ever able to return to their home in Virginia, where he would have certainly been faced with blood-spattered walls and silence. Any or all of those things would have helped to ground him into the reality that they were really gone, and that he would never see them again. Ultimately, that is what he hoped to gain by coming here — closure. But as he settles in the tall grass behind his childhood home, all he feels is sorrow.

The Van De Kamps' former home hasn't changed all that much in their absence. The new owners have painted, changed up the landscaping, and added on a garage, but overall, the rustic farmhouse where he spent the first twelve years of his life has remained relatively untouched by the passage of time.

Jackson wishes he could say the same.

His early childhood was happy, carefree, and uncomplicated. Although they didn't live in a standard neighborhood, other families lived within a reasonable walking distance. The Brooks family, who owned the land adjacent to theirs, had two boys around his age — Ben and Zak. The three of them spent nearly every waking hour together in the summers. Collectively, their families owned a little over 6,000 acres of land, which, in turn, gave them quite a bit of terrain to roam and raise the kind of hell that only little boys are capable of concocting. Their more notable transgressions included but were not limited to: hitting a baseball onto a busy highway where it shattered the back window of a brand new four-door Chevy pickup, a magnifying glass mishap that escalated into the incidental burning of an entire wheat field, and poking a hibernating bear. Yes. You heard right. Poking an actual bear. Suffice it to say, the old saying 'don't poke the bear' holds an entirely different meaning to him now than it did before.

Poking of bears aside, the majority of his childhood, although interesting at times, was fairly unremarkable — until the day that it wasn't.

He was nine when it started.

Phase one came in the form of nightmares. Intense night terrors that propelled him out of his bed and sent him screaming into the night. Twice his parents found him in fields behind their home staring up into the sky with his heart racing, clothes soaked with sweat, and tears streaming down his face. When it occurred a second time, they installed latches at the top of all of the exterior doors, in fear that he would end up in the middle of the highway or in one of their irrigation wells before they could wake and calm him.

The doctors had assured his parents that it was only a phase, but when weeks turned into months and months turned into a year, it became apparent that what he was experiencing was more than just a phase. The drugs the doctors prescribed were successful in sedating him, but they did not curve the frequency, intensity, duration, or nature of his dreams.

Phase two began shortly after his tenth birthday. His hair and eyes had always been fair, but in January of 2011, he woke up to the reflection of a boy he didn't recognize. His blue eyes and sandy brown hair had disappeared overnight, transitioning into a deep charcoal brown. Nobody in the medical community had ever seen anything like it, nor could they explain how or why it had occurred. Test after test confirmed that he was healthy and otherwise unaffected, but a sense of unease filled their home nonetheless.

The night terrors and physical transformation each snapped something within him, unraveling him into a child no one recognized. Within a year, he transitioned from being the light-hearted, jokester with lots of friends into a fearful, shy, and awkward isolationist. It was as if he was a completely different person altogether — mentally and physically. The friendships he had developed within the first ten years of his life slowly dissolved. One by one, they all eased away until there was no one left. Then the bullying began.

First came the inquisitive stares and whispers, which were quickly followed by finely pointed questions that only rude children ask.

"What are you? Some kind of alien?"

It was fairly common knowledge that he was adopted, which only served to make matters worse.

"Jack wasn't born, he was hatched. That's why he can change his coloring like an iguana. What color will you make your hair and eyes tomorrow — Jack?"

"I hear that he hangs out in the fields a lot. He's probably waiting for the mothership."

The digs were endless, and he didn't cope with any of it well. At first, he cried a lot, but he learned very quickly that ten-year-old boys can't cry on playgrounds. Witnessed tears added a whole new layer to his misery. It was as if he had opened Pandora's Box to hell.

Jerry Marriott was the worst of the bunch. He coined the name Alien Jack — AJ for short, and it stuck. Soon, nobody other than the teachers called him by his given name.

Thankfully, summer arrived, providing him with a much-needed reprieve from hell.

His parents had hoped that the summer would bring Ben and Zak back, but it didn't. When he wasn't helping his father on the farm, Jackson would walk through the fields alone, which troubled his parents far more than it ever bothered him. The silence was far more favorable than the alternative. School had taught him that much.

Midsummer, his father returned home from an errand with a large box. Since it was the first time he had seen either of his parents genuinely smile in weeks, he knew immediately that whatever was in the mystery box was a much bigger deal than the new dirt bike they had given him for his birthday. They had been placating him for weeks. Making special meals, renting extra movies and video games …any and everything they could think of to try to lift the depressive fog that hung over him. But that day had been different, their smiles were confident and infectious, and when he opened the box, he understood why.

Inside the box was a small wiggling ball of energy. A chocolate lab puppy with large animated brown eyes and tan tipped paws. To this day, Jackson still refers to that moment as being the happiest moment of his life.

He named him Abe, after Abraham Lincoln, because he ended the period of misery and loneliness that had enslaved him by offering him true and unbridled friendship. For the first time in over a year, Jackson looked forward to getting up in the morning. His mood and overall outlook brightened considerably.

His mother's allergies had always prevented them from having pets, which was why Abe's sudden appearance had come as such a surprise. After his arrival, new kleenex boxes appeared in nearly every room. Her congestion and sneezing fits worsened as Abe aged, but she never once complained. Jackson never really thanked her enough for that. Kids are kind of assholes in that respect. They don't truly grasp the meaning of sacrifice.

Unfortunately, for his family, itchy, watery eyes, and nasal congestion would be on the low end of the totem pole in comparison to the sacrifices that would lie ahead.

Phase three was the most troubling for everyone except him. For him, phase three was the glorious redemption that typically only exists in a bullied preteen's dreams. It began with an excruciating headache and a low-grade fever that kept him in bed for nearly three days. When it waned, the world was different. He's since been asked by numerous medical and mental health professionals to describe it, and the best analogy he has been able to come up with is hibernation. When he woke up on that third day, he felt as if he had woken up for the very first time.

Initially, the difference was subtle — something he could sense but not entirely identify. As the days passed, however, the subtlety faded, and the awareness that he possessed unnatural abilities became more and more apparent. For example, he could gain access to people's innermost thoughts, secrets, and fears by merely making eye contact with them or by being in close proximity to them. He wouldn't call it mind-reading per se, because the information was far too pointed to be ramblings of the mind. No whispers, no visions… just infinite knowledge that would appear in his mind as if it had always been there. He would just know.

Ten-year-old boys aren't the coyest creatures on the planet, and Jackson had been no exception.

Returning to school following his summer reprieve had been difficult. The only thing that got him through each day was the knowledge that Abe would be sitting at the bus stop waiting for him, so the timing of his mysterious illness couldn't have been better… or worse, depending upon your perspective.

His ability to obtain sensitive information was a game-changer. As it turned out, Jerry Marriott had an irrational fear of clowns, slept with a night light and stuffed elephant named 'Snuffy,' and hated the father who abandoned him and his mother to go live with his boyfriend in Nevada.

It was at this juncture that Jackson's name transitioned from being Alien Jack to Alien Jackass.

While his tactics didn't win him any humanitarian of the year awards, it leveled the playing field and facilitated camaraderie. Jackson wasn't Jerry's only target. Lewis Weedin and Jessy Scott were also victims of Jerry's unrelenting treachery. Lewis ate every booger he could find, and Jessy rarely bathed properly, but they were both kind, troubled souls whose home lives were miserable. They made an awkward trio and didn't have a tremendous amount in common aside from their mutual hatred for Jerry. But the knowledge that Jessy's stepfather molested him and that Lewis's mother was a worthless drunk made Jackson all that much more determined to make their time at school more tolerable — and he did.

Exploitation worked for awhile. Instead of calling him names, tripping him in the halls, and smashing his lunch, his peers gave him a wide berth.

What Jackson hadn't anticipated was Jerry's resolve. Revealing Jerry's deepest secrets had taken the terror level down a few notches and given Jackson some breathing room, but beneath Jerry's seemingly calm and avoidant exterior, he was seething and biding his time. Alien Jack was child's play. Teasing him about being an alien, from Jerry's perspective, had always been just that — teasing. All in good fun.

Jerry kept his distance for months, leading Jackson to believe that it was over. It wasn't until Jerry ended up on his bus buddied up with Ben and Zak that he knew something was amiss, and he wasn't wrong.

It started as soon as the bus pulled away.

Abe had been waiting for him in his usual place with his body wiggling from head to toe in anticipation as the bus stopped.

"Nice dog, jackass."

Having already weaponized all the intel he had gathered from Jerry's psyche, there was little left for him to say that hadn't already been broadcasted. Ben and Zak remained silent at Jerry's side but looked rather pleased with themselves for acquiring a new and powerful friend. Abe, oblivious to their tone and intentions, had approached him with his typical after school enthusiasm — wiggling, jumping, and nudging along his side to be petted.

Jackson considered telling Jerry to bug off but thought better of it since he was still a good ten minutes away from home and outnumbered three to one. So instead of commenting, he regarded the three of them as if they were cockroaches and turned to walk away.

Neither he nor Abe saw the rock coming.

The jagged, medium-sized rock struck Abe in his hindquarters, causing him to stumble and yelp. The hurt, confused, and terrified look in Abe's sweet, gentle eyes filled Jackson with a sense of rage that he had never experienced before. And turning to find their snide, taunting smiles and hands filled with rocks only served to intensify that rage.

As he watched them chuckle and tauntingly toss the rocks up into the air, an eerie calm settled over him. In that moment, Jackson felt a lot of things but fear was not one of them.

"Time to see how fast you and your friend can run, jackass," Jerry said, giving Ben and Zak a slight nod before arching to hurl the second rock.

Abe, at this point, was no longer oblivious to their intentions and had begun to growl, but it didn't matter. Before the rock could leave Jerry's hand, he hit the ground — hard.

Ben and Zak immediately dropped their rocks and ran away in terror, leaving Jerry to gasp, sputter, and writhe around in the gravel along the side of the road alone.

Without batting an eye or taking a step in his direction, Jackson had sent Jerry hurling backward with such force that it knocked the wind out of him and broke three of his ribs.

"No," Jackson told him as he moved to stand over him, "you are the one who is going to run."

And Jerry did.

The jagged rock left a gash on Abe's hindquarters right along his hip that required several stitches. But true to his nature, Abe remained standing, wagging his tail and licking Jackson in the face as he knelt down, removed a layer of clothing, and cleaned up the wound as best he could before walking them both home.

The events that followed the bus stop brawl changed all of their lives forever. Within a year, Abe was gone, and his parents were forced to sell their farm, farmhouse, and a good portion of their possessions to avoid bankruptcy.

As he watches the sunset over the top of the trees, Jackson knows he has to get moving. He's already stayed longer than he intended, but it's taken more time than he anticipated to gather the courage to visit the very spot he traveled all this way to see. Rising from his obscured position in the tall grass along the tree line, he makes his way deeper into the woods that line the south side of the property.

Swallowing the lump in his throat, he approaches the clearing where he and his father had laid his one and only true friend to rest. Getting down on his hands and knees, Jackson brushes aside layers of leaves until he finds the flat stone that marks Abe's resting place.

Abe was a true light. The year he spent with Abe was the happiest time of his life. Abe's eyes had always been gentle, loving, and hungry for adventure. Even after all of this time, Jackson can still feel the coldness of his nose, the sloppiness of his kisses, and the sharpness of his toenails. It's been nearly six years, but the emptiness, sorrow, and furry that filled him following Abe's death has never truly waned.

He doesn't stop the tears that stream down his face as he traces the outline of Abe's name chiseled into the stone. His tears aren't for just Abe. He can feel his parents here too. Abe's death took something out of all of them. It was like being struck by lightning: nothing was the same afterward.

In the years that followed their move, he allowed vengeance to drive and shape him, destroying everyone and everything around him. Being powerful is cool, until the day that it isn't. Now, as he kneels in half-frozen leaves overlooking a grave, he realizes that the one ability he longs for the most is one that he doesn't possess. He can't turn back time. If he could, he would rewind to the day he lost Abe with the knowledge that he has today. If he could do that, he wouldn't be kneeling over Abe's grave in the forest. He would be sitting at the kitchen table inside their farmhouse ordering graduation invitations with Abe snoring at his feet.

At the time of their deaths, he wasn't who they deserved.

Now, all that is left of them in this world are their graves and the imprints they've left on him.

His parents had been sweet, gentle, and loving people, who despite everything, never once resented him. They gave him everything they had, and in return, all he had given them was trouble and heartache. And Abe… Abe was just Abe. Always loving. Always happy. Always looking to him to lead, because where Jackson was — was exactly where Abe wanted to be.

Wiping at his tears, he makes a promise to each of them, one he should have made years ago. From this day forward, he's going to be the one they deserved. They may be gone, but they will not be lost for their imprints will now fall on him.

Moving the leaves back to cover Abe's resting place, Jackson blankets his one and only true friend with as much warmth as the environment will allow, comforted by the fact that he will no longer be buried there alone.

 


 

Moonlight guides him alongside the highway. The night is silent except for the distinct jingle of tags and clicking of nails against the asphalt. Should somebody happen upon him tonight, they will find a quick friend in a lively chocolate lab with tan tipped paws, a green collar, soulful eyes, and a smile that begs for adventure. What they won't see is a troubled teenage boy or a monster.

Cloaked in a true spirit of light, William heads due south in search of the man who is referred to in his visions only as Praise.