TWICE: the serial

 

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Colleen woke early the next morning—missing Dusty. She was not quite comfortable sharing his bed in Thom and Anna’s house. Not before they were married. So they’d taken separate rooms, and her sleep had not been very restful, what with all the storm noise, and disturbing dreams of strangers in bizarre masks creeping through the house. Hardly surprising, she supposed.

It still seemed too surreal that anyone she actually knew—much less her soon-to-be father-in-law—had been through anything so…straight off a tabloid cover: ‘Batboy Murders Father With Exploding Cigar! Fiancé’s Father Kidnapped For Three Years By Masked Men!’ …Which no one thought to mention to her for two years?

She understood why now, of course. They’d explained it very well. But, never to have sensed the smallest hint… She was marrying this man—and, in a way, his family too. She had liked them from the start, immensely. But what else did she not guess about these people? Did she know even Dusty as well as she’d assumed?

She turned over, pulling the blankets further up around her.

The topic of those mysterious letters and Matt’s email had seemed almost anticlimactic when they’d finally gotten around to discussing it.

After wandering through all the not-quite-decipherable facts, Thom had finally helped everyone—especially Dusty—focus on the fact that none of them had actually been threatened. Whoever had written those letters clearly meant Matt no harm. The guy at Ricky’s had said he’d never bother Dusty again. And Matt, himself, obviously meant no harm to either Dusty or Anna. All anyone had actually done so far, Thom had pointed out, was search, perhaps a bit invasively, for Matt’s old friends, and urged them to help deliver an odd letter.

Yes, the fact that ‘they’ were so concerned about reaching Matt with such exaggerated secrecy was disturbing, as was Matt’s reference to ‘risks’ if Anna and Dusty didn’t back away. “But disturbing to whom?” Thom had asked.

Matt, obviously. His unsettling email had made that clear as well. Whatever ‘they’ were hiding, and/or hiding from, did not seem to concern Anna or Dusty in any direct way, so why all the concern about protection? “Protection from what exactly?” Thom had asked them. And, as if by magic, no one had been able to produce an answer.

It seemed Dusty had been right to suppose that Thom would be best equipped to think this through. Because of what he had been through? Because he felt less involved or threatened than the others? Colleen wasn’t sure. Dusty clearly believed it was just because Thom was so well put together. “That’s what makes him such a great life coach,” he had murmured to her as they’d gone upstairs to retire for the night. “He sees things so damn clearly. Knows how to break them down and sort them out. I’d still be a slag heap if not for him and Anna.”

Tired of stewing in bed, Colleen got up at last, and was delighted to find the plug-in nightlight in her bathroom shining brightly.

A few minutes later, down in the living room, she stopped before an electric clock, its second hand now spinning laps again. Some quick math suggested that the power had come on around four a.m. Rain still pelted down outside, but the wind seemed spent at last. In the kitchen, Colleen hummed happily as she brewed some coffee. She could see no reason now not to go back to her apartment after breakfast. When her cup was filled, and she’d found the cream, she took her coffee out to the dining table and set up her laptop, doubting that a damaged admin tower would delay the due date for her paper any.

She’d been at work for less than twenty minutes when Anna came downstairs in black sweats and a dark blue cut-off T-shirt, looking tousled and fabulous. “The power’s on!” she cheered quietly.

Colleen grinned. “Happy anniversary!”

“Is that coffee I smell?” Anna started toward the kitchen door with a bemused smile. “You wouldn’t happen to be interested in living here full-time, would you?” 

“Thanks, but I’m probably better in small doses.”

“That’s not what Dusty’s told me,” Anna parried as she vanished through the doorway.

Colleen smiled and went back to her paper until Anna returned a moment later with a steaming cup, to hover by the table.

“Shall I leave you to work?”

Colleen shook her head and closed the laptop. “I’m just keeping busy.”

“You and I are the only early risers around here,” Anna said. “I’m sure we won’t see either of the guys before ten o’clock.”

That gave them at least an hour and a half. “You know what, Anna? I’d love to make you and Thom a really nice breakfast. Would you happen to have a cast iron skillet, some lemons and a box of powdered sugar?”

“In fact, I do…” Anna looked charmed. “What’ve you got in mind?”

“Ever had a Dutch Baby?”

“Ooh!” Anna’s eyes lit up. “Yes I have! You know how to do that?”

“It’s pretty simple, really. Permission to run wild in your kitchen for a while?”

“Of course. Dusty’s such a lucky boy,” Anna chortled as they headed for the kitchen.

They were just measuring ingredients for the batter, and deciding what else to serve with breakfast when Dusty suddenly appeared in the kitchen doorway.

“Dusty!” both women exclaimed at once, then faced each other, and began to laugh.

“What are you doing up so early?” Anna asked when they’d finished giggling.

“Yeah, well, I got up to use the bathroom, and decided to check my email before going back to bed.” He seemed strangely subdued. “Have you checked yours this morning, Anna?”

“As soon as I got up.” The mirth drained from Anna’s face. “There was nothing but a note about canceled classes next week. …I take it that’s not what this is about.”

“Did you give Matt my email address?” Dusty asked her.

“Of course not.”

“Well, someone did.”

So this wasn’t over, Colleen thought. Not even in the middle of this storm.

Anna raised a hand to massage her forehead. “I did mention you in my reply to him. Told him we’d adopted you, and about your studies at the university.” She bit her lip. “Could that have been enough to help him find you?”

Dusty shrugged unhappily. “Depends on how good a hacker he’s become. I guess he could’ve found my email in some departmental database or university directory.”

“What did he send you?” Colleen asked.

“Another note. And an attachment. He cc’d you, Anna.” Dusty’s sardonic expression sent Colleen and Anna right up to her study, with Dusty close behind.

As they tiptoed past Thom and Anna’s bedroom, Anna pushed the door carefully ajar and peeked inside, then pulled it softly shut again. “Might as well let him sleep,” she whispered, as they moved on. “No need to ruin everybody’s morning.”

In her study, Anna refreshed her browser page, and there it was. The subject line read, ‘Coming clean.’ As Anna clicked it open, Colleen leaned in at her shoulder to read along:

Dear Anna and Dusty,
I’ve heard that Native American warriors going into battle would tell each other, “It is a good day to die.” I begin to understand what they meant.

Anna turned back to Dusty with a look of alarm. “Tell me this isn’t a suicide note.”

“Oh, no. It’s…much stranger than that.”

Anna’s expression shifted from alarm to irritation as she turned back and continued reading.

Colleen was already near the end.

The attached document contains everything I could never imagine how to tell you. It won’t take you long to see why. 
“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” Shakespeare wrote that, and I have come to know how true it is. Though I doubt even he could have believed the smallest part of my tale.
After we were separated, I felt such an unbearable need to tell someone the truth about myself. But there is no way to explain such things—to anyone. I finally wrote it all down anyway, just to get it out of me. Every impossible thing laid out as rationally as I knew how, explained as clearly and persuasively as possible—for some imaginary audience who might, in some impossible world, somewhere, someday, believe me. 
I even briefly entertained the notion that you and Dusty, at least, might still trust me enough to believe, somehow, that everything you know about the world is wrong, and impossible things might not be after all. But as I read through what I’d written, I could not pretend there was any conceivable point in sending it to either of you—ever—unless to sever whatever might remain of our friendship. Yet I never brought myself to delete the file either. 
I have no more hope today than I did then that you’ll think me anything but crazy, but wherever this may leave us, I will know now that I did, finally, try to tell you both the truth—for whatever good or harm it will have done. I apologize for all the stuff in there about yourselves. As I’ve said, I wasn’t writing this for anyone specific when I started, and there’s no time now to go back and edit out the things you will already know. I can hardly assume you’ll keep reading far enough for that to matter anyway.
Though I must assume this is goodbye, know that I will never cease to be grateful for you both.
Love—really, deeply, and forever,
Matt

 

Anna scrolled down to the attached Word doc. “Have you opened this?” she asked Dusty.

“Like I could resist? My laptop didn’t scream and die. The file seems safe.”

Anna drew a startled breath. “Two megs?! …That’s—”

“Over three hundred pages,” Dusty said, flatly. “Are you going to open it?”

Anna clicked the attachment, and when the download finished, clicked again.

As the document’s first page opened on-screen, Colleen’s mouth dropped open. “The Night I Died?” Both she and Anna turned to stare at Dusty again, as if he might explain it. “What does that mean?”

“Keep reading,” he said quietly, gazing down now, like a man bound for the gallows. A sense of dread twined slowly around Colleen’s belly as Anna began reading aloud, as if Matt’s surreal letter could only be absorbed by sharing it with them.

“‘There’s no graceful way into this. So I’ll just say it. One way or another, I’m pretty sure I died on the night of my fiftieth birthday.

‘I wonder which part of that people will find harder to accept, my claim to have died, or to have been fifty when it happened? Either way, you’d better brace yourselves for worse. Things just get even weirder from here.’

Colleen had been watching Dusty grow more strangely still with every word. “What’s wrong?” she asked him.

He looked up at her, seeming more startled by her question than by Matt’s nonsense. “What’s wrong?” He looked at Anna, as if expecting her to understand whatever Colleen was missing. “He’s completely mental, Anna.” He spoke just above a whisper now—as if afraid of being overheard by someone. “I’ve…read further. …He’s as delusional as they come.”

Colleen saw concern bloom on Anna’s face too—and not for Matt.

“And?” Anna asked.

Nothing changed on Dusty’s face. He didn’t move. His eyes just welled up suddenly, and overflowed. “And whose fault do you think that is?”