He couldn’t keep track of his thoughts any longer. Felt sleep spreading through his body like good whisky, warming him. And let go, finally, wondering what he might say to his father. If . . .
A MAN TO DO A MAN’S JOB
December 8, 1980
GAIL ABERNATHY provided a quick but solid supper of spaghetti with meatballs, salad, garlic bread, and—after a quick, penetrating look at Bree—a bottle of wine, despite Brianna’s protests.
“You’re spending the night here,” Gail said, in a tone brooking no opposition, and pointed at the bottle. “And you’re drinking that. I don’t know what you’ve been doing to yourself, girl, and you don’t need to tell me—but you need to stop doing it.”
“I wish I could.” But her heart had risen the moment she walked through the familiar door, and her sense of agitation did subside—though it was far from disappearing. The wine helped, though.
The Abernathys helped more. Just the sense of being with friends, of not being alone with the kids and the fear and uncertainty. She went from wanting to cry to wanting to laugh and back again in the space of seconds, and felt that if Gail and Joe had not been there, she might have had no choice but to go into the bathroom, turn on the shower, and scream into a folded bath towel—her only safety valve in the last few days.
But now there was at least someone to talk to. She didn’t know whether Joe could offer anything beyond a sympathetic ear, but at the moment that was worth more to her than anything.
Conversation over dinner was light and kid-oriented, Gail asking Mandy whether she liked Barbies and whether her Barbie had a car, and Joe talking soccer versus baseball—Jem was a hard-core Red Sox fan, being allowed to stay up to ungodly hours to listen to rare radio broadcasts with his mother. Brianna contributed nothing more than the occasional smile and felt the tension slowly leave her neck and shoulders.
It came back, though with less force, when dinner was over and Mandy—half-asleep with her arm in her plate—was carried off to bed by Gail, humming “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” in a voice like a cello. Bree rose to pick up the dirty plates, but Joe waved her back, rising from his chair.
“Leave them, darlin’. Come talk to me in the den. Bring the rest of the wine,” he added, then smiled at Jem. “Jem, whyn’t you go up and ask Gail can you watch TV in the bedroom?”
Jem had a smudge of spaghetti sauce at the corner of his mouth, and his hair was sticking up on one side in porcupine spikes. He was a little pale from the journey, but the food had restored him and his eyes were bright, alert.
“No, sir,” he said respectfully, and pushed back his own chair. “I’ll stay with my mam.”
“You don’t need to do that, honey,” she said. “Uncle Joe and I have grown-up things we need to talk about. You—”
She gave him a hard look, but recognized instantly, with a combination of horror and fascination, a Fraser male with his mind made up.
His lower lip was trembling, just a little. He shut his mouth hard to stop it and looked soberly from her to Joe, then back.
“Dad’s not here,” he said, and swallowed. “And neither is Grandda. I’m . . . I’m staying.”
She couldn’t speak. Joe nodded, though, as soberly as Jem, took a can of Coke from the refrigerator, and led the way to the den. She followed them, clutching the wine bottle and two glasses.
“Bree, darlin’?” Joe turned back for a moment. “Get another bottle from the cupboard over the stove. This is gonna take some talking.”
It did. Jemmy was on his second Coke—the question of his going to bed, let alone to sleep, was clearly academic—and the second bottle of wine was one-third down before she’d finished describing the situation—all the situations—and what she thought of doing about them.
“Okay,” Joe said, quite casually. “I don’t believe I’m saying this, but you need to decide whether to go through some rocks in North Carolina or in Scotland and end up in the eighteenth century either way, is that it?”
“That’s . . . most of it.” She took a swallow of wine; it seemed to steady her. “But that’s the first thing, yes. See, I know where Mama and Da are—were—at the end of 1778, and that’s the year we’d go back to, if everything works the way it seems to have worked before. They’ll either be back on Fraser’s Ridge or on their way there.”
Jem’s face lightened a little at that, but he didn’t say anything. She met his eyes directly.
“I was going to take you and Mandy through the stones on Ocracoke—where we came through before, you remember? On the island?”
“Vroom,” he said very softly, and broke into a sudden grin, reliving his first exposure to automobiles.
“Yes,” she said, smiling back despite herself. “Then we could go to the Ridge, and I was going to leave you with Grannie and Grandda while I went to Scotland to find Daddy.”
Jem’s smile faded, and his red brows drew together.
“Pardon my pointing out the obvious,” Joe said. “But wasn’t there a war going on in 1778?”
“There was,” she said tersely. “And, yes, it might be a little bit difficult to get a ship from North Carolina to Scotland, but believe you me, I could do it.”
“Oh, I do,” he assured her. “It would be easier—and safer, I reckon—than going through in Scotland and searching for Roger with Jem and Mandy to look after at the same time, but—”
“I don’t need looking after!”
“Maybe not,” Joe told him, “but you got about six years, sixty pounds, and another two feet to grow before you can look after your mama. ’Til you get big enough that nobody can just pick you up and carry you off, she’s got to worry about you.”
Jem looked as if he wanted to argue the point, but he was at the age where logic did sometimes prevail, and happily this was one of those times. He made a small “mmphm” sound in his throat, which startled Bree, and sat back on the ottoman, still frowning.
“But you can’t go to where Grannie and Grandda are,” he pointed out. “ ’Cuz Dad’s not where—I mean when—you thought. He’s not in the same time they are.”
“Bingo,” she said briefly, and, reaching into the pocket of her sweater, carefully withdrew the plastic bag protecting Roger’s letter. She handed it to Joe. “Read that.”
He whipped his reading glasses out of his own pocket and, with them perched on his nose, read the letter carefully, looked up at her, wide-eyed, then bent his head and read it again. After which he sat quite still for several minutes, staring into space, the letter open on his knee.
At last, he heaved a sigh, folded the letter carefully, and handed it back to her.
“So now it’s space and time,” he said. “You ever watch Doctor Who on PBS?”
“All the time,” she said dryly, “on the BBC. And don’t think I wouldn’t sell my soul for a TARDIS.”
Jem made the little Scottish noise again, and Brianna looked sideways at him.
“Are you doing that on purpose?”
He looked up at her, surprised. “Doing what?”
“Never mind. When you are fifteen, I’m locking you in the cellar.”
“What? Why?” he demanded indignantly.
“Because that’s when your father and grandfather started getting into real trouble, and evidently you’re going to be just like them.”
“Oh.” He seemed pleased to hear this, and subsided.
“Well, putting aside the possibility of getting hold of a working TARDIS . . .” Joe leaned forward, topping up both glasses of wine. “It’s possible to travel farther than you thought, because Roger and this Buck guy just did it. So you think you could do it, too?”
“I’ve got to,” she said simply. “He won’t try to come back without Jem, so I have to go find him.”
“Do you know how he did it? You told me it took gemstones to do it. Did he have, like, a special kind of gem?”
“No.” She frowned, remembering the effort of using the kitchen shears to snip apart the old brooch with its scatter of chip-like diamonds. “They each had a few tiny little diamonds—but Roger went through before with a single biggish diamond. He said it was like the other times we know about; it exploded or vaporized or something—just a smear of soot in his pocket.”
“Mmm.” Joe took a sip of wine and held it meditatively in his mouth for a moment before swallowing. “Hypothesis one, then: number is more important than size—i.e., you can go farther if you have more stones in your pocket.”
She stared at him for a moment, somewhat taken aback.
“I hadn’t thought of that,” she said slowly. “The first time he tried it, though . . . he had his mother’s locket; that had garnets on it. Definitely garnets, plural. But he didn’t get through—he was thrown back, on fire.” She shuddered briefly, the sudden vision of Mandy flung on the ground, burning . . . She gulped wine and coughed. “So—so we don’t know whether he might have gone farther if he had gone through.”
“It’s just a thought,” Joe said mildly, watching her. “Now . . . Roger’s mentioning Jeremiah here, and it sounds like he means there’s somebody besides Jemmy who’s got that name. Do you know what he means?”
“I do.” A skitter of something between fear and excitement ran down her back with icy little feet, and she took another swallow of wine and a deep breath before telling him about Jerry MacKenzie. The circumstances of his disappearance—and what her mother had told Roger.
“She thought he was very likely an accidental traveler. One who—who couldn’t get back.” She took another quick sip.
“That’s my other grandda?” Jemmy asked. His face flushed a little at the thought and he sat forward, hands clutched between his thighs. “If we go where Dad is, will we get to meet him, too?”
“I can’t even think about that,” she told him honestly, though the suggestion made her insides curl up. Among the million alarming contingencies of the current situation, the possibility of meeting her deceased father-in-law face-to-face was about 999,999th on the list of Things to Be Worried About—but apparently it was on the list.
“But what did Roger mean about seeking Jeremiah?” Joe asked, clinging stubbornly to the point.
“We think that’s how you . . . steer,” Brianna said. “Focusing your thoughts on a particular person who’s in the time you want to go to. We don’t know that for sure, though,” she added, and stifled a small belch. “Each time we—or Mama—did it, it was always two hundred and two years. And it was when Mama went back the first time—though come to think of it,” she added, frowning, “she thought it might have been because Black Jack Randall—Daddy’s ancestor—was there. He was the first person she met when she came through the stones. She said he looked a lot like Daddy.”
“Uh-huh.” Joe poured another half glass and stared at it for a moment, as though hypnotized by the soft reddish light glowing in its bowl. “But.” He stopped, marshaling his thoughts. “But other people did go farther. This Geillis your mother mentioned, and Buck? Did he—never mind. Roger and Buck did do it this time, for sure. So it’s possible; we just don’t know how.”
“I was forgetting Geillis,” Bree said slowly. She’d seen the woman only once, and very briefly. A tall, slender figure, fair hair flying in the wind of a murderous fire, her shadow thrown onto one of the standing stones, enormous, elongated.
“Now that I think, though . . . I don’t believe she had gemstones when she went back. She thought it took . . . er . . . sacrifice.” She glanced at Jem, then looked at Joe, lowering her brows with a meaningful look that said, “Don’t ask.” “And fire. And she never came back the other way, though she planned to, with stones.” And suddenly a penny that she hadn’t known was there dropped. “She told Mama about using stones—not the other way around. So somebody . . . somebody else told her.”
Joe digested that one for a moment, but then shook his head, dismissing the distraction.
“Huh. Okay, Hypothesis two: focusing your thoughts on a particular person helps you go to where they are. That make sense to you, Jem?” he asked, turning to Jemmy, who nodded.
“Sure. If it’s somebody you know.”
“Okay. Then—” Joe stopped abruptly, looking at Jem. “If it’s somebody you know?”
The icy centipede came rippling up Bree’s backbone and into her hair, making her scalp contract.
“Jem.” Her voice sounded odd to her own ears, husky and half breathless. “Mandy says she can hear you—in her head. Can you . . . hear her?” She swallowed, hard, and her voice came clearer. “Can you hear Daddy that way?”
The small red brows drew together in a puzzled frown.
“Sure. Can’t you?”
THE DEEP LINE between Uncle Joe’s eyebrows hadn’t gone away since the night before, Jem saw. He still looked friendly; he nodded at Jem and pushed a cup of hot chocolate across the counter to him, but his eyes kept going back to Mam, and every time they did, the line got deeper.
Mam was buttering Mandy’s toast. Jem thought she wasn’t as worried as she had been, and felt a little better himself. He’d slept all night, for the first time in a long time, and he thought maybe Mam had, too. No matter how tired he was, he usually woke up every couple of hours, listening out for noises, and then listening harder to be sure Mandy and Mam were still breathing. He had nightmares where they weren’t.