Chapter 11 of The Stone of Tantalus is live!

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Here’s the first scene…

Please, God, let him still be here, Phil thought. Maybe this time he’ll listen. He lifted the tailgate of the new truck and pushed it closed with a satisfying clang. Maybe this time I’ll actually do more than just give up.

He heaved the loaded backpack over his shoulders and walked to the edge of the woods. Standing at the boundary of the road’s shoulder and the trees, he sighed as he thought of the trek ahead. The old guy sporting goods store told him to look for a game trail near a large boulder at this mile marker, and even though Phil wasn’t much of a woodsman, he found it easily enough. He pulled the straps of the pack tighter, distributing the weight as best as he could, took one last look at the truck he was abandoning, and started up the trail.

The Phil in this reality seemed to take his health a bit more seriously than he ever had in his others, and right now he was thankful. What he wasn’t glad for, though, was the full beard this Phil was partial to. He spent most of his time relatively clean-shaven—or at least what passed for it in his life—and he couldn’t imagine what would possess him to grow such a thing. He could have shaved it off, but he liked to make as few changes as possible when wearing another man’s suit. Just common courtesy, after all. I don’t like it when the other guys mess with my shit, either.

There were a lot of miles to cover on foot before he stopped to make camp. At almost any other time of the year he would have taken the dirt road all the way up to the cabin, but this was the rainy season and he was told the unpaved roads on the mountain were washed out. It was also the closest he had come in nearly six years of looking, and he didn’t want the boy to go rabbit on him at the sight of a truck pulling up. The last meeting was a disastrous failure all those years ago, and he didn’t want a repeat of that. Better to quietly approach and knock on the door.

Twenty yards into the woods, and the sounds from the road below faded into silence. The air was cool and clear, and the smells he associated with hunting pushed away the odors of blacktop and gasoline. Trees towered over him, while the ground cover remained sparse enough that it didn’t hinder his progress, and light filtered in through the branches above. It was a good day for a hike, and Phil set a leisurely pace for a time as he enjoyed the nature walk. The boy’s got good taste in hideouts, that’s for sure. He set his eyes on the trail ahead, and thought, But this time I’ll find him before he crosses over. I have to.

Jason’s random jumps had always been one or two steps ahead of him—compounded by the fact that the two men might be hundreds of miles apart in the new reality—and each time it meant Phil had to search out the fading veil to find the next direction.

“Would be a hell of a lot easier if the damn things were colored blue with a name-card attached to ‘em,” he grumbled to the trees and the birds in them.

And that was the problem. What Jason only suspected, Phil knew with certainty—people slipped through the wall all the time, and each passing left a veil that faded over time; and while each one had its own “flavor,” it wasn’t always easy to tell them apart. He had followed the wrong path more than a few times, each time having to backtrack and find the correct one. The upshot was that each time he wandered down the wrong trail, by the time he figured it out and returned to the previous point, the correct veil had faded to barely a whisper. Six years ago, he was sure he was hopelessly lost in the web, not knowing if he was following the correct Jason, when he found the strongest signal since that first one. Jason—the right one—was there. The meeting between the two hadn’t gone as planned. Understatement of the century, he thought. He remembered leaving the boy there, angry and hurt, vowing in his heart to check back in a week or two to see if he had calmed down.

That proved to be a terrible mistake. A few days after their reunion, Jason slipped through again, jumping randomly, but leaving a strong signal behind. Granted, Phil had to jump in a damn lake to find the transfer point where the veil survived, but there were worse things that could happen to a man. Before he found him, though, Jason jumped yet again, and it took Phil weeks to find the next veil. This happened many more times in quick succession, almost as if the boy were running from him. Phil knew that wasn’t possible, though, since he never had the chance to teach Jason how.

He couldn’t spend all his time searching, however. Some time had to be devoted to raising Jay. It took years, off and on, to finally find the correct sequence of jumps leading here, and he was behind Jason by only a couple of weeks. His nephew’s parents, still alive in this universe, assured him the boy was headed up into the mountains of Colorado to “find himself.” It was bullshit, he knew. Jason was opting out. Trying to stay away from anyone he cared about, or cared about him, to keep the pain levels down when he made the inevitable next transition. Phil, himself, had opted out a couple of times. The last being not long before he met this Jason.

He chuckled lightly, in spite of the effort of hiking the uneven ground. “Gonna have to invent a new grammar to deal with describing this crap.”

The cabin he searched for, he was told, was only a few miles away, but far enough up the mountain that the climb grew steeper as he went. He was lucky it wasn’t yet winter, as the snow would have reached all the way to the road instead of just the peak past the tree line. The cabin was situated well below that point according to the map he carried, but it was going to get a bit chilly for the Texan nonetheless. Still, the going was slow, and he knew he would have to make camp for the night rather than work his way up to the cabin. He had no desire to stomp around the woods in the dark.

Though growing up in what he lovingly referred to as “Flatland”, Phil preferred the mountains—at least when traveling over them in a car as a kid. He wasn’t stupid enough to believe he knew what he was doing up here, but he was confident he wouldn’t kill himself, either. Find your landmarks, keep your wits, and follow your compass. Simple rules for the wilderness—as well as life.

The sun was already running to hide behind the mountain, and though he was over halfway to his goal, he decided to stop for the night. Far enough up the mountain where he could no longer see even a hint of civilization through the trees, the air grew still and silent. It was the kind of silence that beat against a man’s eardrums like a fist. If he didn’t make a noise now and then, he would think he had lost his hearing entirely.

He found an area as flat and level as he could, set up his one-man tent and sleeping bag, and then gathered stones for a small fire ring. It had been a dry summer, so there was no point in taking chances on a fire getting out of control. After he gathered a supply of wood, he snapped smaller branches for kindling and soon had a small campfire burning. The weatherman on the morning news show in town said the temperatures on the mountain wouldn’t get too low tonight, but what was comfortable to these people would damn near freeze a Texan from the Gulf Coast.

There was a time when little Jay would have loved this outing. The boy once loved to camp, hunt, and fish. Once. That time was long gone, though. As the boy grew, and the Jason he knew as his father withdrew from the world after the death of Kathy, things had not gone well. It didn’t help that the Jason inhabiting the body of the boy’s father changed with alarming regularity. Phil didn’t understand why, but he could see it clear on the man’s face. Every new Jason was different in little ways—almost inconsequential—but a boy needed consistency, especially after losing the only parent he had ever known. Phil did what he could to help out, but the battle seemed lost before it began, and the last seven years was hard on both father and son. Just in the past six months, Officer Cole had picked the boy up for multiple cases of vandalism, fighting, and petty theft.

This Jason, on the other hand, knew nothing about any of that. Phil struggled for a long time with what to tell him, but in the end decided not to say anything. It was another Jason’s problems, after all, and would only serve to hurt this one. At the very least, it would be a distraction—and Phil couldn’t afford any distractions from the task in front of him.

As the last bit of daylight faded behind the mountain, Phil was left with the little fire and his thoughts. After so long, he wasn’t sure how Jason would handle his uncle walking back into his life, but he needed to teach the boy how to move through the wall and back, how to spot and follow a veil, and most importantly, tell him what he had learned about the explosion that killed Jason’s parents and the mother of his son.

Phil’s eyes narrowed at that last thought, remembering the smug asshole’s picture in the paper that very morning back in his own reality, and he tossed another branch on the fire. “That boy and me’s got some huntin’ to do.”


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