Chapter seventeen of Unknown North, a novel that will be published chapter-by-chapter until it’s done. All chapters so far: Unknown North.
John Fobell (who was to have been Johannes Fobell, after Kepler, save that his mother thought it sounded “too Dutch or something”—one of the many points in their marriage Howard had not argued) was worried. His father had gone for a walk in the woods before breakfast, but had not returned. It was not unusual for him to take long walks, even doze off under some shade tree or other, but this morning he had explicitly said he was just taking a quick stroll to the creek and back, because he and John were going to take a lengthy hike after breakfast. And now Howard’s breakfast was cold and John was left playing with the remnants of scrambled egg and home fries on his own plate, worried about his father.
It had been a year and a half since the divorce. Why it had taken his mother over seventeen years to decide she couldn’t put up with her husband’s work schedule confounded John, but his dad, as usual, had seemed to understand. Privately, he had let slip a few tears and said to his son, “I’m sorry that I let our perfect life slip away.” John, then sixteen, hadn’t the slightest idea how he was supposed to react.
For his mom’s part, John came to understand that his father’s work was really just the excuse. What she actually had come to despise was his long walks, constant talk of dreams, and his “attempts to communicate with that God damn light bulb in the garage.” In short, she felt he was going slowly mad and she didn’t want to be around when he snapped. But that, John felt, was just another candy-coated truth—perhaps closer to the heart, though still not the kill shot.
It was his dad’s work, and it was that his work seemed mad to outsiders, and it was that, now John was grown, Howard had begun to concentrate more on the work (or the madness) than his family. The divorce papers had been a cry for attention, and though Howard had heard it, he couldn’t help himself. That’s when the tears had come, and the strange comment, followed by the equally strange promise, “I’m almost there, Johnny. As soon as I can break through, everything will be all right again.”
Fortunately, John knew his dad wasn’t talking to any “God damn light bulb.” It was better described as a prism that whirred and flickered as his father meditated, and it had everything to do with his dad’s work. He wasn’t mad, he was living proof of why hermits are, by necessity, solitary people. When his wandering in the desert was over and the hermitage closed, John was sure their perfect lives would resume. Sometimes, that belief was all that kept him going.
“Where is he?” Carlos suddenly cried, storming into the kitchen.
John leaped to his feet, his face blanched, and managed to squeak a surprised noise.
“Your dad—where is he?”
“He went for a walk… I… I don’t know.”
Carlos glanced at the untouched breakfast plate on the table across from John, then stared thoughtfully at the frightened young man.
“I’m sorry for bursting in,” Carlos whispered. “I had a vision. I think he’s been kidnapped.”
“What?” John started for the door, but Carlos grabbed his arm and turned him back.
“No use blindly running out there, John. Besides, I know who took him and where they’re going. Don’t worry—he’s perfectly fine. They need him alive.”
“Who does?” John barked, shaking defiantly free of Carlos’s grasp.
Carlos’s lips twitched around a smirk, “Uncle Sam.”
He had specifically used the word “kidnapped” to inspire a sense of decisive action, but in reality, he knew that Howard had been met in the woods by two men who had alerted him of a Very Important Meeting at his old lab, as well as a carefully worded loophole in the contract he thought he had voided. Consequently, Howard had followed them of his own free will. He was even allowed to use the phone in the car on the way to the airport to call his son and explain this to him, and John’s phone buzzed even as Carlos grinned.
“How did you get here so fast?” John asked suspiciously, then saw the caller ID and snapped the phone to his ear. “Dad? Dad! Where are you?”
“I’m in the back of a limo,” Howard responded, the smirk in his voice obvious even through the tinny connection. He sounded confident, but John could imagine him nervously adjusting his glasses. “My old boss needed to see me right away. I’m sorry, John…”
John huffed heavily, then sucked in a deep breath. He felt like he’d grown a lot since the divorce, and now that he was a legal adult, he felt compelled to try and act more like one. Or, at least, how he thought one should act: Not like mom, he admitted to himself.
“Isn’t that weird, though?” John checked. “Can’t they just call you and set up an appointment like normal people?”
Shit—I do sound like Mom!
“There was no time,” Howard said gently. “It’s related to the Mars mission. I had to, Johnny…”
He wasn’t particularly thrilled at cutting their trip short, but he also knew that, for the time being, this was still par for the course, and in the end he had chosen to support his father, instead of divorcing him as well.
“Why don’t you meet me back at Bransen Labs tomorrow?” his dad’s voice digitally wavered over the phone. “They said Carlos was coming to pick you up.”
John glanced at Carlos but tried to keep a poker face.
“Yeah—he’s here. He said you’d been kidnapped.”
“Well, visions are kind of a muddy business,” Carlos mumbled.
“Oh, he was probably kidding around,” Howard chuckled.
“But if I go back, won’t that just be me sitting around in a strange place, waiting for you to get off work?” John wondered. It had happened to him so many times before that it had become somewhat of an inside joke… except it still wasn’t funny.
“No, no—it’s a very open environment. I’m sorry to cut our weekend away short, Johnny. It’ll be nice to have you around. I think we could use you, actually.”
“Sure… I hear you’re doing some good work…”
John smiled widely and turned away from Carlos. When he hung up, Carlos apologized for scaring him, explaining that in his vision, he simply had seen Howard getting into a car with an expression of duress on his face—although he admitted now that it could have been thoughtful concern.
John said he understood, but as he packed his bags he mulled over the incident. Perhaps it was the sharp stillness of Carlos’s eyes, or the way his jaw held firm as he made his explanations, or perhaps it was the way he held his hands—all subconscious cues to something for which John couldn’t form conscious thoughts. They were the unexpressed details that left John with an odd feeling about the mystical Carlos Resua, and as they drove back to Bransen Labs, John found himself going through the motions of escape should Carlos end up being the true kidnapper.