Luke stared at the payphone for a long time, making up his mind. He chose this time specifically because a school teacher would already be home from work, but children would likely still be playing outside. It was the perfect time for the call. Even so, he hesitated for a while longer. Finally, he lifted the receiver to his ear and dialed.
He closed his eyes.
In his mind’s eye he saw Laura Mance, tired, sad, but so unbreakably strong, standing in the kitchen, making a meal for her incomplete family. He finished dialling and heard the signals. She heard the phone ringing. She rubbed her hands on the apron. Luke restlessly wound his fingers around the receiver cord. Something stirred in him, and he knew David Mance was alive and well. And he was going home.
“David? David! Are you alright?!”
“Yes. Please, listen to me, Laura.” Luke opened his eyes and stared at the telephone, focusing on what he had rehearsed for hours in his mind. “This is not your husband speaking. David Mance is alive and well, but he is not currently himself. I’m sorry I had to take him from you and your children. I had no choice, but now I do, and I will return David to you as soon as possible. He is coming home within a week. He will not remember anything that happened, but I assure you he never meant to leave you, and as for my part, I did all I could to keep him safe and return him as fast as I could.”
“W-who are you? What’s happening?” Laura Mance was crying. She sounded frightened.
Luke felt sorry for her. But he knew more harm would come to the family if he left them guessing. “I am an extraterrestrial being currently in control of your husband. I know it sounds like nonsense to you, but I have proof. I will leave a note on your husband that explains just enough for you not to blame him for what happened. He was my victim as much as you were. Please know that I did not want this, and I wish you, David and your beautiful children only the best…” Luke found he was crying too. “I’m so sorry, Laura, I’ve seen you on the television, and I’ve wanted to bring David back all this time, but I didn’t know how. Now I finally do.” Luke smiled through his tears.
“David… stop it, please, what happened, why did you leave?” Laura was choking back tears. “When are you coming back?”
“He’ll be home in several days. I cannot be more precise on this, the traffic conditions are ever changing. But I can tell you a fact that will hopefully convince you that you are not speaking to your husband right now.” Luke got a hold of himself and wiped his tears with a sleeve. “On February 23, 1987, the light of a supernova will reach Earth after traveling approximately 170 light-years. It is in the area of the heavens that is known to humans as the Large Magellanic Cloud.”
“February 1987, a supernova in the Large Magellanic Cloud. I’ll leave the same note on your husband. Now, please, forgive me, but I have some matters to wrap up before I send David home to you. Also, please, do not be frightened, but the soup you are cooking is about to boil over.”
“Goodnight now, Laura. David will be back soon.”
“David, no, wait!”
Luke hung up. He didn’t expect her to believe him just like that, but luckily for him that supernova was going to clear things up soon enough.
Now he had a few final things to take care of before he sent David Mance on his way.
* * *
Luke found El sitting in one of the plastic chairs next to the pile, smoking a cigar. Normally it would be a domestic sight, but today it didn’t feel this way.
They looked at each other in silence. Luke was prepared to start explaining, but the sad smile on the other man’s face told him he didn’t have to. El beckoned to the empty chair, and Luke sat down in his usual spot.
“I hoped this moment wouldn’t come this soon,” said the small man in a big hat. “For all it’s worth, I hope our little fairytale ruse is not the cause of you leaving this world.” The Maya god attempted his usual joking grin, but it came out fainter than ever.
“No, not at all…” Luke studied him. El knew already. That would make things a little easier. “I enjoyed taking part in your fairytales. But I need to return. I was sent here with a purpose, and it has been fulfilled. To linger would draw disaster. And David Mance needs to return to his family.” Luke reached under his shirt and pulled out the bigger, allegedly more powerful talisman that was supposed to keep his ‘curse’ in check. He offered it to El. “Thanks for making me believe this worked.”
“Ah, look who’s seen through all the secrets now.” El chuckled. He took the talisman from Luke and regarded it for a moment. “I would normally offer you to keep it as a memento, but I guess you’re not taking anything with you where you are going, are you?”
“Just memories. At least I hope I will be able to keep them.”
“I do hope so as well.” El sighed. “And I know you must go, but I’m quite sure a few weeks, months or even years on Earth is a negligible amount of time on the cosmic scale of things… By which I mean to say that we would all love if you stayed here for a while longer.”
“I promised Laura Mance to return her husband in a week.”
“Right. Nothing to be done then. But I had to try. You know how it goes, we have to try to keep you from leaving three times.” El spread his hands helplessly and shook his head. ”Eh, you’re reliable to the very end though, aren’t you?”
Luke smiled guiltily. “I couldn’t leave her hanging, not after this long. But I resent leaving. I don’t want to.” The calm facade he’d been holding up since he remembered who he was faded for one short painful moment. “I don’t know what will happen. Will I remember this life? Will it matter to me? Will there even be a ‘me’?” Luke bent over and held his head in his hands. “For all I know, all I am right now is the echoes of a dead Amish boy called Luke imprinted on my inhuman mind.” That was long enough of a slip. Luke pulled himself together and cleared his throat. “What I mean is, I don’t know what will happen when I leave, but I will try to come back. If I can.”
Now that he said it out loud, he knew he didn’t want to go. Luke had wanted to go to the Amish and live their simple life, David Mance likely wanted nothing more than to return home, but he… he wanted to stay here with El and the others. But he hardly knew who he was anymore. Or what he could possibly be like when he would cast off this mortal vessel and return to the stars. Would the person he was now even exist? Was he himself now? Or was he just an amalgam of mortal experiences of all the people he’s unwittingly killed when he took over their bodies?
El cleared his throat. “You would be surprised how many of us down here have faced an identity crisis at one point or another. Often it’s caused by what people believe us to be. But as an outsider you are actually free from that influence. You can be who you want to be, shape your story the way you think it should go. So chin up and go for it. But just in case, for what it’s worth, all of us are still going to firmly believe that you’re just stepping outside for a little while, and that you will come back to us as soon as you can.”
Luke nodded. He sighed and stared at his feet for a while, hesitating, then said, “Scrap that week, I have to leave tonight, or I’m afraid I never will.”
“Did I just lose us six days of your stay?” El watched Luke fidget uncomfortably in his chair, then grinned. “Nah, don’t sweat it, just pulling your leg. I knew it would be tonight.”
“While I’m gone you can make Yen your fairytale hero.” Luke snorted. “If he can be made to cooperate that is. He does make a much better protagonist than me. Always looking for trouble.”
The small man shook his head again. “Nah. I can’t imagine it being just him. It was the mix of your approaches that provided that unique stroke of genius. Besides, you were the star of that show. I knew that the moment I picked you up in that alley.”
“And I’m very grateful that you did. The time I spent here with your people has finally given me a chance to appreciate life.” Luke smiled. “This world is as troubled as it is beautiful.”
“And you’ve just seen a tiny little bit of it. There’s so much more. But well, hopefully I can sleep calmly in my knowledge that at least I made you climb a Maya temple pyramid.” He winked. “Speaking of which… me and Jewel would like to apologize to you for the sleepless night you spent on the doorstep of that building.”
El touched the rim of his hat, and Luke’s eyes followed. Among the arrangement of fake fruit and real flowers, the ocellated turkey sat motionless as always. Until it didn’t. It stirred, rose, and confidently wobbled out from between the decorations, fluttering down on the ground at Luke’s feet and tilting its head up at him.
“I see.” Luke smiled. “A pleasure meeting you, Jewel.” He extended a hand and the bird put one leg into it. Luke shook it carefully. The turkey gurgled. Luke laughed.
“How official. He’s pleased to meet you as well.” El chuckled. He watched Luke and Jewel with a smile. “Well, I figure this is not the only meeting on your schedule before you leave, so we won’t be keeping you. Go where you feel you need to go, just remember to be back for supper at eight o’clock. A lot of people will want to see you before you go, and I’ll make sure they will all be there. Goodbyes are never easy, but the food’s gonna help.”
Luke smiled and nodded. “Thank you, El. For everything. I will not forget it. I will be back at eight.”
* * *
“Wow, yours is not a face I expected to see inside this house,” Yen said, looking bemused. He lay on the couch in Blaise’s living room.
Luke studied him and nodded to himself, Yen looked almost fully recovered. Surely, a day or two and he would be back on his feet.
“I came to say goodbye,” Luke said.
“Huh?” Yen sat up. “Where are you going?”
“Far away. You will never see me again. But I might see you.” Luke smiled sadly.
“You should be used to that by now.” Luke’s smile got a little less sad. “Stay safe, Yen. Pass greetings to Samut from me.”
“Sure… But where are you going?”
“North? To Canada?” Yen looked at him cluelessly.
Luke shrugged. “Maybe. Eventually.”
“Well, send me maple syrup. Or better a moose. You can use this address, I’m sure Dad will be thrilled. He can use the moose for parts. Then we can deliver them in packages, when you come back down South.”
Luke walked around the coffee table, crouched and hugged Yen.
“Hey, man, gross, you’re a hobo!” Yen tried to withdraw. “But hey, you’re not smelly. Are these clothes new?”
“Well, very mindful of you, I dig it.” Yen patted Luke on the back, let him go and withdrew.
“Fare well, Yen.”
“Farewell yourself, Skywalker.”
* * *
Luke found Xenia sitting in the same tree where he had first seen her. Back then she had laid sprawled among the green, relaxed and in her element. Now she sat stiffly on one of the bare branches, facing away from Luke and towards the water. He expected her to be swinging her legs at least, but she sat absolutely still, only her hair was moving slowly in the cold winter wind.
“Hey.” Luke stopped under the tree and looked up at her.
Xenia turned to him, surprised, then tried to look happy, but failed. Her expression fell, and she looked away. “Penny tricked me. I should have never gone to him for help.”
“I’m thankful that you did. Otherwise I could have hurt a lot more people before I remembered-”
“I don’t care about those people! We could have been happy together!” Xenia yelled at him with a miserable expression.
“Why are you so stubborn? I can see that you like me.” She slipped down the tree like the laws of physics were purely optional and walked up to Luke. She took his hands into hers. She was still wearing one glove and one mitten. It was charming in a way. Luke couldn’t help but feel guilty when he looked into her beautiful green eyes.
“Stay,” she said softly. “Stay with me.” She held his hands and slowly took a step back towards the river.
Luke followed her for a few steps, then stopped, suddenly realizing what exactly she was trying to do. He gently tried to withdraw his hands, but her grasp was steely.
“Xenia. You cannot make me stay by drowning me.”
“Who’s talking of drowning? We could just go for a swim.”
“In the freezing water?”
“It isn’t that cold.” She shrugged and tried to pull him after her, but this time Luke stood in place.
“No,” he said. “And please, don’t do that to others either. It’s… not nice.”
“Nonsense. You haven’t even tried, maybe it’s very nice.”
“No, Xenia, I am not going to stay with you. I need to return this body.” Luke freed his hands from her grasp.
She shook her fists in frustration. “It’s not fair! You don’t even know those people! Why does the Mance woman deserve happiness, and I don’t?!”
That question gave Luke pause. “You can’t have happiness at the cost of another.”
“Yet you’re doing that for her!”
Luke didn’t know what to say. But he knew what the right thing to do was, and he wasn’t going to change his mind now. “I’ll try to make it up to you,” he said apologetically. “I promise. But I cannot stay.”
Xenia teared up, gave him an angry look and sprang up the tree in a blur of colorful clothes and copper hair. When he looked up, she made a show of facing away from him and grumbled, “Go away then.”
Luke watched her for a moment, then left.
* * *
The last visit he paid before the farewell supper was to the junkyard. Evening was descending onto the city, and the heavy machinery behind the chainlink fence grew quieter and quieter and finally fell silent. The men trickled out, wearing their everyday clothes. Among them one stood out in his leather jacket with a colorful image on the back. He trailed behind, in no hurry to leave the place as he walked his motorbike over the bumpy road out of the junkyard and onto the more even asphalt of the main street.
Luke stood in front of him. Their eyes locked, and the biker stopped in his tracks.
Luke nodded to him, and for a while it seemed that the man would not reciprocate the gesture, but in the end he nodded back. They looked at each other in silence for a moment longer.
“I’m leaving,” Luke said.
The man snorted. “Good luck with that.”
“Do you have family or friends up there that you would like to pass a message to, ask for help?”
“It doesn’t matter.”
“What do you mean? Of course it matters.”
“It doesn’t matter because you’re not gonna get far, and they never wanted me anyway.”
That was strange to hear, especially the second part. “What about your guiding light?”
The comet glared at him. “Don’t you get it? There is nobody out there for me, there never was.”
Luke frowned. That made no sense. “I thought your kind always came in twos, by design.” Unless… this guy was never meant to exist… Oh…
“Nothing in my life has ever been by design,” the man said bitterly. “Now, I humored you for a minute here, but it’s getting old. I don’t know where you think you’re going, but you’re just as stuck here as I am. It’s probably about time you started to reconcile with it.”
“I wouldn’t mind being stuck here, actually. But I’m not. I was sent here with a mission, it’s done now, and I need to report back about it, but I intend to return. I found a new meaning here. Since you are, well, dead and unable to go back, maybe you can find a new purpose down here too.”
“You must have really hit hard. I wish I was this delusional. I don’t know what’s more insane, the talk about leaving or returning.” The man winced. “Though now that I think of it, maybe it’s the last sane part of you speaking, because on some level you do know that there is no escape.”
“No, seriously, I’m going back.”
“You know what, believe in your fairytales. You’re probably happier for it.” The biker turned away from Luke and got on his motorcycle.
“Is there really no way I can help you?”
The man turned to him and there was no light in his eyes. “Make me forget, like you did. Or better yet, destroy what’s left of me if you know how. It’s all you can do if you really want to help.”
Luke watched him sympathetic, but apprehensive.
“I thought so.” The man said bitterly. “Thanks for nothing.”
Luke tried to say something, to wish him well, but his words were drowned in the roar of the engine.
The dead comet rode away into the falling night.
* * *
The kitchen and main room of the tenement were crowded like never before. Nearly everyone Luke had ever met on his quests for El was there, except Yen, the policeman and Jewel, the bird, — though El had his hat on regardless. Unlike the previous uneasy supper he had shared with the actors and El’s people, this time around, despite the fact this was his final meal with them, Luke found his mood was light. As he smiled and laughed and talked to them, he was beginning to feel weightless. The others seemed to share his mood. The sad smiles turned a little less so whenever he looked at them, and when they were done with dinner, and only the tenants were left to clean up, it felt like just another dinner. Luke momentarily forgot about everything and thought only of the comfortable clean bed that waited for him in the apartment he shared with Penny.
But when he was done washing up, he discovered the others were still there. Alena, Anezka and Amalka stood together watching him sadly. Anezka, despite being neither the youngest, nor the oldest, proved to be the most sentimental and had to wipe a tear away. He did not realize it until just recently, but despite seeing her very little around the tenement, he knew her the best of all three from all the various roles she had played in the fairytales. Penny stood smiling beside the women with his hands in the pockets of his spacious coat. Neha was at the back, looking as grouchy as ever. El came from the main room then and offered Luke that they could all accompany him and make sure David Mance was well and sent home safely.
Luke thanked him, and so the entire group left the building and took a night bus to Bethlehem Park, which Luke had chosen as a fitting and convenient place to say their farewells.
There they found a quiet corner where there were neither passersby nor homeless, and Luke turned to El and the others to say his goodbyes. Suddenly, all the lightness and confidence were gone, and he felt a knot in his stomach and a lump in his throat.
He was about to speak when he saw a man in an expensive coat hurrying towards them. It was the same man that had approached him in the alley when he was guarding Jewel, the turkey.
“I’m so sorry, I’m glad I am not too late.” The man in the coat stopped next to the rest of the group and huffed.
Luke looked at him in mild confusion.
“It’s me,” the man said, grinning. “Jewel.” He offered Luke a hand.
“Ah.” Luke smiled, surprised, and shook his hand. He glanced towards El. The turkey had been missing from his hat all evening.
“I had to put my kids to sleep, they were being unusually rowdy,” Jewel explained.
“Oh, no problem,” Luke said. This was actually a good ice-breaker. At least now he could speak without bursting into tears. He turned to the others. “Is this everyone?”
“No, it’s not.” A voice came from above.
Luke looked up and saw Xenia sitting in one of the trees. She was crying and looking bitter. She made no move to get down to them.
“Now it is,” she said angrily and wiped her tears with a mitten. “But I’m not coming down to you. You are a heartless man.”
“Says a wench that drowns every lad she fancies!” Neha yelled.
Xenia stuck out her tongue at her.
Luke shook his head. He felt guilty about Xenia, but he felt much guiltier about Laura Mance. He turned to the others. “Thank you again for being my community. My… family. I will try my best to return to you. But it will not be through the reincarnation cycle. I know that much. But… you will know when I’m back.” Luke tried to put on a smile and hoped he succeeded.
Then he hugged them one by one, starting with El. When it was Neha’s turn, instead of letting Luke hug her, she gripped him in a steely embrace and lifted him off the ground for a moment. Then she set him down and withdrew, grumbling and bringing the edge of her pink shawl suspiciously close to her eyes.
Done with the group on the ground, Luke looked up at Xenia, but she turned away from him. Luke smiled apologetically and blew her a kiss. She turned around wide-eyed and caught something from the air. She stared at her half-open palm, stunned.
Luke left her to her own devices and faced the rest of the group.
“Goodbye, my friends. And hopefully, see you soon.” He walked over to a bench and sat down on it. “Penny, I count on you to keep your promise to deliver David Mance safely to his family.”
“Your wish is my command.” Penny bowed, smirking.
Luke shook his head, smiling, and looked at the lot of them. They were watching him with sadness, all but Xenia who was still staring at her palm in shock. Luke took a mental snapshot of the scene, then he closed David Mance’s eyes for the last time.
The man on the bench went limp.
A small twinkling light emerged from his forehead and began floating slowly upwards.
Before anyone else could react, Penny dashed to it, and, boosting himself from the bench, lept into the air, and caught the light in a glass jar. “Third time lucky!”
“Penny!” Everyone yelled in indignation.
“Finders keepers.” Penny tried to hide the jar under his coat.
“Do you want me to break your cloven foot? Because I will.” Neha offered angrily. “Let the boy out this instant!”
El just watched the devil and the star amused.
“Don’t be unreasonable!” Jewel exclaimed.
“Let him go!” Xenia cried.
“What will you offer me for his soul?” Penny grinned excitedly.
“Penny, come on you bastard!”
“Oh, but I promised Xenia, that Luke won’t leave permanently, and now he can’t!”
Xenia did not speak up in his defense. The rest of them did not look pleased either.
“Ok, ok, if that’s what everyone wants…” Penny rolled his eyes and opened the jar. The star flew out of it and made a quick circle around his head, then around the gathered group, a loop around Xenia and shot up into the sky. They watched it go.
The further it flew, the bigger it grew, so it never lost its brightness.
As most of them stood mesmerized, trying not to lose sight of the one significant bright dot in the night sky, Penny looked at the jar and shrugged. “Well, it was worth a try.” He crouched on the bench and brought the jar to David Mance’s face. The glass grew clouded with the man’s breath.
“Well, here I go then,” Penny said and got off the bench. He pulled David Mance to his feet and leaned him against himself. That way he dragged the unconscious man to the edge of the park where an empty taxi was waiting for them.
The group of tenants exchanged a few bittersweet words and also headed out of the park, walking back to the bus stop, and in Jewel’s case to his car.
Only Xenia was left in the park, speechless and unable to move, staring teary-eyed at the shining fern flower in her hand.
* * *
David Mance woke up in the back of a taxi. He gasped and looked around himself in a panic.
“Woah, easy there, buddy. Better go back to sleep, it’s a long trip.”
“Where am I? Where are you taking me?”
“You’re on the interstate, going home.”
“What am I doing here?” David Mance looked around wildly. When he went to bed it was late spring, and now it looked like the middle of winter outside. He was wearing unfamiliar clothes, his beard was gone, and there was something jabbing his side through the sweater.
The taxi driver answered with another vague triviality. But David hardly noticed. He pulled out a piece of paper and a photograph from the inside pocket of his unfamiliar jacket.
The letter was written in his own handwriting, but he had no memory of writing it.
I am so sorry for the pain and confusion I caused you and your family. I write this with your hand, but I am not in any way part of you. I was forced into your body by unfortunate circumstances outside of my control. If you are reading this, I was successful in leaving your body unharmed.
My story is my own. My problems are mine alone. To keep it this way, please, do not try to retrace my steps. You and your family should be safe from the likes of me from now on. Live your normal life without fear or worry of my return.
To prove to you and your loved ones that I am not a figment of your imagination, here are the celestial phenomena Earth astronomers will have the pleasure of observing in the next fifty Earth years…
What followed was a list of dates and events that included a supernova, a comet hitting Jupiter and a neutron star collision. David Mance gaped at the list for a while, then read the valediction.
With my sincerest apologies for the two years of life you lost,
Luke Sky Walker
There was also a polaroid included with the letter. That was what he had felt jab him through the sweater. It showed him, David, though somewhat skinnier than he remembered being, seemingly floating some twenty feet above ground on the background of an unfamiliar river, bridge and city. The man in the photograph was waving.
David Mance stared at the photograph in disbelief, then looked at his own face in the rearview mirror. He looked skinny and dishevelled, but not much aged. Two years. His heart sunk.
“Where are we exactly?” he asked the taxi driver anxiously.
David Mance did the math in his head. It was still a while before he got home. Something occurred to him. “Who told you where to go?”
“You did, sleeping beauty.” The driver laughed. “You said you can afford this. I hope it’s so. But then again, your wife’s been on TV, offering piles of cash to whoever brings you back, so I tend to believe you.”
“Please, stop at the nearest gas station, I need to make a phone call.”
“Sure, buddy. Not a problem.”
David Mance stared ahead of himself, feeling surreal. Then he read the letter again. And again.
And here’s a song for Luke and Nakhti both…
In a city of faces
That never look back
Where doors never open
And eyes never meet
Someone behind me was tracing my steps
As I ran
Through the fog down a cobblestone street
In a city of crossroads
That never lead home
Where secrets unravel
And fates intertwine
Someone was calling my name in the night
As I ran
From a voice that was echoing mine
The farther you run
The more you recall
The loss of your innocence
After the fall
The farther you run
The more you recall
After the fall
In a city of magic
That spins out of time
Where God has no image
And Man finds no grace
Something inside me was seeking itself
As I ran
From a shadow who’d stolen my face