April Fool's Day in Hadley-by-Hudson. Spring chill cutting sharp as a blade. Dusk descending. Musty smell of nearby river clotting my throat. Had enough sentence fragments? My English teacher said they were a weakness of mine. But that was nearly six months ago, when I was a senior at Hadley High School, leading a normal life. My biggest concerns then were chicks, flicks, and fast cars, roughly in that order.
Nothing normal about me now.
Parents gone. Friends lost. Old life vanished. Sense of security evaporated. Belief in the sanity of day-to-day existence drowned in the deep Atlantic.
But I still like sentence fragments. They generate pace. You want pace? Stick around.
Main street of Hadley. Six in the evening. People I know, or at least used to know, climbing in and out of cars. Buying groceries in the co-op. Picking up dry cleaning. Heading home to eat dinner with their families.
They pass me. Rub shoulders. None of them give me a second look. Don't you remember me? Jack Danielson? Straw-colored hair, piercing blue eyes, and above-average brain power, except when I do something really stupid. Once gained three hundred and forty yards in a school football game.
No, they don't remember.
Can't blame them. So much has changed.
Swore I'd never come back here. Too many memories. There's the Rec Center where I played hoops. The liquor store where weused to get Dan's older brother to buy us six-packs. The ice cream shop where P.J. and I would split double-chocolate cones with sprinkles.
P.J. Her house is three blocks from here. Do I dare? Yes, that's why I'm here. I tried my best to run away from this moment. Tried to pretend I could make a new life. Realize there's no explanation I can give that will satisfy her. She'll be furious at me for disappearing. Maybe we can never repair it. Never regain what we had.
Trust gone. Foundation of relationship caved in.
Doesn't matter. Have to try. Because I still love her. That's why I came back. Pure selfishness. Clinging to last possession. My love for P.J. is all I've got left.
Pass Mrs. Hayes. My third-grade teacher. Her eyes flick over me. And then away.
Not completely her fault she didn't recognize me. I've taken a few precautions. Wearing a cap, tilted low. Dark scarf, wound high. Grown a scraggly mustache, my first. Hair hasn't been cut in three months. It falls to my shoulders in straw-colored mop.
But I can't hide my eyes. Supposedly the windows to the soul. That's what Mrs. Hayes didn't recognize as she walked by me holding a sack with toilet paper and cat food peeking out the top.
New windows? Or is it a whole new soul? Did what happened to me change me to the point where I'm no longer myself? Or is this still me, walking away from the center of town, heading slowly up Elm Street?
No doubt my Firestorm adventure and the long journey home transformed me. I've been so lonely. Spent so many sleepless nights staring up at the stars, trying to figure things out. Why was I chosen? If there's a God, why did he or she let things get so messed up? Is our Earth really so fragile? If this is the Turning Point, can we save it? Do our lives have meaning, or is it all for nothing?
Many questions. No answers. But when you agonize longenough, it doesn't matter if you come up with answers. The questions and the pain change you.
I know I'm very different from the guy who drove P.J. home from the Hudson River make-out spot six months ago, his mind on sex and football. But is he still recognizably part of me? Is there any Jack Danielson left in me?
Only one way to find out. Last remaining touchstone. The ultimate litmus test. P.J.
Here's a sad but true definition of home: it's where you go to find out if you're still you, or if you've become somebody else.
Less than two blocks from P.J.'s house. I slow down. Scared out of my mind. This was a bad idea. Should have tried to make a go of it in England, where I landed after my Firestorm adventure. Or joined the crew of the tramp steamer that brought me back across the Atlantic to America. Could have stayed in Maine, in the small port city where it never stopped snowing. Might have hung longer in Boston, where I got a job stacking crates. Guy in the warehouse needed a roommate.
But I had to come home. A soft voice kept calling to me. Whispering across the months and the miles. "I'm still waiting for you. Come home, Bozo."
P.J.'s nickname for me. Not very respectful.
Less than one block from her house. I can see the outline of her roof against the evening sky. The walls. My God, she's inside there! She's been there for the last six months without me. Doing her homework. Eating cereal for breakfast. Talking to her friends. Dreaming her dreams.
Half a block. Her window. No light on. Maybe she's studying at the library. I should go check there first.
No, don't leave. If I chicken out now, I'll never come back. Better to be a man and tell her what happened.
Sure, just tell her the truth.
Hi, honey. Sorry. I didn't mean to disappear. But members of something called the Dark Army came one night and killed bothmy parents. It turns out they weren't my parents after all. They were just sheltering me.
I'm from a thousand years in the future, when things are pretty bleak. I was sent back to find something called Firestorm and save the oceans, thereby improving living conditions centuries hence. A telepathic dog and a beautiful shape-changing woman helped me. I did what they asked. I found Firestorm and I destroyed a giant trawler fleet. But then the dog and the woman blinked out, leaving me alone. And now I'm back. Sorry I didn't write or call. And how have you been the last six months, P.J.? Did you have a good Christmas? And how's the French Club?
I stop in my tracks. What the heck am I doing here? I can't tell her the truth. And I won't tell her a lie. So I can't tell her anything. I know in my heart I can't come back here. Don't belong anymore. Been away too long. Caused too much grief. Passed the point of no return.
I turn slowly, and take a half step away. Then a hand grips my arm. "Jack? Is that you?"