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“What do you mean?” I said, my voice sounded strange, deeper, somehow more full. My tongue felt weird in my mouth.
“You can still change into a… a…” Julio paused still regaining his breath.
“A Conva? A Double-O?”
“No. What ever it is you are… a monster or something.”
My heart sank. I tried to get at my phone but my fingers were too big for my pockets or my pockets had gotten too small. I looked at my legs and saw my jeans clinging to my legs like spandex and my feet several inches below the bottom of my pants. Even my sneakers looked tight on my feet.
Slowly Julio sat up and groaned again.
“Are you OK?” I asked, immediately frustrated with my voice still sounding weird. “WHY AREN’T I CHANGING BACK?!?”
“It’s OK, Jacob—your adrenaline is still racing through your system. Just take some deep breaths and relax. Remember Little Jacob. He’s still inside of you.”
I immediately felt something change.
“There you go.”
I looked at my hands again and they seemed different from the last time I looked at them but I couldn’t tell you how. I stared at them to see if I could see them changing. Maybe I wasn’t waiting enough time because I was too anxious, I don’t know. I looked back to Julio, who had climbed to his feet and crouched down next to me. He put his hand to my face. “Jacob, I want to help you, but I need you to listen to me closely. Can you do that?”
I nodded hesitantly.
“Thank you,” He steadying himself and took a deep breath.
“Fish. Worry. Touch. Remember.” Julio paused as those last four words echoed in my head as though I had heard them before–and I had. They were in the dreams I had after finding the worry stone when I went home for Dad’s funeral. Julio spoke again, repeating one word and adding another: “Remember yourself.”
For what seemed like a very long time, I got lost in those two words. I felt like I could see the sound waves that the words were made of. They were red colored but as the words completed in my mind, they turned slowly to purple, then to blue, then to black and then were gone.
“You see that? You’re fine,” Julio said. I looked at my hands and they looked bruised, but completely normal. Length, shape, even the shade of brown they were seemed right. I felt my face and the eyes were the normal size and shape.
“I’m fine…?” I looked at Julio. “How did you know how to do that?”
He helped me to my feet as he ‘explained’. “Saw it in that one Avengers movie, man. You never saw that movie?”
“No, come on, Hu. How did you know?” He tried to help me down the alley but I stopped him, pushing him away and barely keeping myself up without his support.
“You come on, Little Jacob–I need to get you back to your sister.”
“Nope. Tell me how you knew those words.”
He inhaled deeply and let it out slowly. Then he inhaled again and exhaled slowly again. Then he inhaled deeply AGAIN and I couldn’t take it anymore. “DAMN IT, JULIO! I COULD HAVE KILLED YOU!”
Julio looked at me surprised, as though the thought hadn’t occurred to him. I could see his jaw muscles clenching. I could see little wrinkles forming in his brow. “Let’s just go, Jake.”
Julio turned away from me and started to walk back to the street but quickly stopped.
“I can’t do this,” he said so softly I just barely heard it.
“Can’t do what, Julio?” Jill said from the opening of the alley. I shifted to my right and could see her, beyond Julio, on the sidewalk. She began walking toward him and after a few moments, he started to back toward me. After several steps he turned back in my direction and froze as he saw me. “Please. Don’t make me… I can’t… Jacob, you don’t understand what I’ve done, what I did, what I would do to keep you both safe. I’m in too deep with them. I’m in too deep with all of them.”
Jill spoke with a voice that was cold and piercing. “Julio. You have to tell us.”
He looked at the ground and then nodded as he sat down on in, like he was about to do some meditation or something. He immediately started chanting: “I can’t I can’t I can’t I can’t…”
“YES YOU CAN!” I yelled, approaching him. Then I repeated myself, but crouched down next to him and said it softly. “Yes, you can.”
“I can’t I can’t I can’t I can’t,” came his reply. Then Jill sat down next to him and spoke very softly.
“Yes, Julio, you can do this. You can do this–to keep us safe.”
I put my arms around him and hugged him tightly. He stopped chanting. Then Jill followed by doing the same. We stayed like that for a bit. For that time it felt so much like the old days. Like we were a family. As we finally ended our three-way hug, I dared think at that moment, that perhaps we could be a family, like we had been, again.
“I thought I could always keep you safe. Even after the massacre, I thought we’d manage to survive it mostly unscathed. I even left to Trade. Cut all ties, moved away from this city, convinced your parents to do the same, and left you both the hell alone. I thought that would be the best thing–the best thing for both of you–for me to no longer be a part of your life.”
I glanced over to Jill who looked more sad than I’d ever seen her. Julio was now sitting with his head hung low. I didn’t want to look at his face because I didn’t want to see him in such pain.
“When the Department contacted me, they made it sound like I was there only hope. They said they’d taken the taken the technology as far as they could and that there were lives in danger. They said terrorists were in play and we needed to stop them. That was enough to get me to say yes. My dad always hated me for not volunteering, so I thought this was my chance to do something for my country. But it didn’t take me long to discover I was in over my head. Even with my years of experience with exo-tech and hyper-tech, back in the day, I couldn’t solve these guys’ problems. They were going to kick me off of the project unless I made progress. I told them I couldn’t and they told me I had to because getting kicked off the project meant more than just getting fired. That’s when I contacted your sister.”
“So, they threatened your life,” Jill said.
“So you risked m-m-mine.”
“I thought I could protect you from them. Believe me, Jill! I thought I could. Hell, I thought I could up until a couple of weeks ago!”
“How long have you known about our friends from another dimension?” Jill asked.
“I found out after we brought you in. Just after. I tried to tell you, but you were too in love with the tech. It felt like I’d just given a recovering addict a lifetime supply of hits. I couldn’t get you out by then, mainly because I knew you, Jill. I knew you would never let me get you out.”
Jill wiped a tear from her eye but was otherwise unemotional, which is her way.
“Then, I guess, you found out about our friends and bailed anyway. Damn it, Jill! I was so afraid they’d go after you!”
“I tried to find you on my own, but, by then, I was working for both sides by then and was feeling pulled pretty thin. I should have known you could take care of yourself. You and Jacob were always so strong. You are what my grandfather would have called El Durazno.”
“What the hell does that mean?” I asked.
“Doesn’t it m-mean p-peach in Spanish?”
“He told me that, as a child in Puerto Rico, there was this peach tree in his backyard. One day, there was a very bad storm. It took most of his neighborhood apart, but the peach tree was still there and even grew more peaches. Ever since then he called people who could withstand anything El Durazno!” He put his arms around us and pulled us tight. “You two are like that to me. Any storm that comes your way, you can survive it!”
I couldn’t help but tear up and even start sobbing a bit.
“Then, when I saw Little Jacob back in the picture, I thought things could change. I thought he would lead me to you and then we could work things out. But then… then…”
“Then?” I asked.
“Then things got complicated with the Double-O factions and then my people at the Department started to disagree and then…”. Julio stopped talking, shoved both of us away from him and stood up.
“We can’t talk about this here. Take me to your hideout.”
“Our ‘hideout’?” Jill asked getting to her feet.
“Yeah, your HQ,” he said. “Where you guys plan things. Your B.O.O.”
“Our B.O.O.?” I asked climbing to my feet, as well.
“Your Base Of Operations.”
“Ohhhh,” I said.
Minutes later we were in a secluded area on the far-westside, almost to the Hudson, under overpasses and aside highways. Jill motioned for us to stand by a wall and then pulled out her smart phone. She held it up like a torch in some old monster movie (or in a modern-day Nazi rally, I guess) and, as the display on her phone started flashing like a strobe light, she stepped toward a CCTV camera that was aimed away from us. She was moving the strobing from her phone just close enough so the camera could see it. Then, right by us, we saw a blue flash and KJ was standing there with the Accessory in his hands. “S’up guys! Everything go ok–?”
He realized that Julio was with us as we approached him. “Are we kidnapping your guys’ uncle?”
“No, he’s c-c-coming with us.”
KJ leaned toward Jill and spoke. “Is that a good idea?”
“It is. He’s willing to talk and the only way in or out of NH is with an Accessory and even with one, you need to know the c-c-coordinates of NH.”
“NH? OH yeah. N.H. Got it. Well, reach out, touch me!” he said. Jill touch his left forearm, Julio his right and I grabbed him from behind by the shoulders and massaged said shoulders. “Oh, yeah, that’s nice,” he said as we disappeared in a flash of blue.
Today’s writing is dedicated to Harlan Ellison who passed away in his sleep last night but is immortal through his work and influence on all the artists who have been and who ever will be exposed to it. I’ve always counted Ellison’s work as an influence on me. I had the luck of having a telephone conversation with him many years ago, in which I made him laugh. That would have been enough for me, but before the conversation was finished, he called me a peach. 🙂