Forever was a mighty long time.
Suddenly, he realized he was near tears. Jesus, he thought. Get a hold of yourself. People got divorced every single day. Most of their kids grew up happy and healthy. Maybe there were things they lost, but some of them — arguments, hostility, watching their parents cry — were no loss at all.
"Maybe I'm the one who needs a shrink," he said to himself.
An unhappy thought, but Thomas couldn't avoid it. No more than he could avoid the guilt that Nathan's nightmare had brought on. Despite the pain and anger it might enkindle — like poking a beehive with a stick — Thomas resolved to speak to Emily about counseling when he dropped Nathan off that afternoon.
As he washed the last of the dishes, the phone rang.
"Hi, it's Francesca."
"On a Sunday?" Thomas asked. "Who died?"
"Nobody died. I know it isn't work hours, but it is important," she said. "Got a call last night from Jorge at Fox, in response to a none too subtle query I made about Strangewood in live-action."
"And?" Thomas asked, excited already. For Francesca to do any business on the weekend broke one of her cardinal rules. Bad news would have waited for Monday, so it had to be really, really good news.
"How do you feel about an L.A. trip?" she asked.
L.A.? Not now, he thought. No way. Nathan had to come first.
"Tomorrow, 10:15 out of Kennedy," Francesca replied confidently. "I've already booked our flight."
"Whoa, camel," Thomas said. "What's the deal? They're interested, or are we on a fishing trip?"
Francesca sighed, her happy demeanor giving way to an almost reproachful tone.
"They love the idea of live-action, TJ," Francesca said, and for once he didn't correct her, just waited for the 'but.' "But . . . they need a little persuading. Jorge just doesn't have the imagination to see how certain of the more fantastical elements would be done convincingly in live action."
It was Thomas's turn to sigh now, and he did so loudly, and rolled his eyes.
"The whole damn thing is fantasy, Frankie," he barked. "What do they want to do, make them all human with some lame makeup effects?"
"Forget it," Thomas said. "It's all the way or nothing."
"Well, shit, Thomas, how long did it take for them to even consider doing Lord of the Rings in live-action? The world you've created is filled with impossible things," she said. "Give Jorge a break here. They want to deal, but you've got to give them some leeway."
"Fuck leeway," Thomas said. "I don't 'got' to do anything. Just ask them if they've ever seen The Neverending Story and remind them that movie was about a thousand years ago. Don't these people pay attention to tech advancements in their own industry?"
"Look, they like the idea, okay?" Francesca said. "We've just got to convince them it can be done, to show them what your vision is for the thing. And Jorge did have some points, honestly. I mean, let's say for instance you want to do the scene where Bob Longtooth attacks Mr. Tinklebum in the Land of Bells and Whistles, or the one where the Jackal Lantern enslaves the Forest Rangers for an attack on Strangewood . . . how the hell do you do those things credibly in live-action?"
Thomas was silent then. They were good examples, that was for sure. Creating a convincing Mr. Tinklebum was going to be difficult enough. The little guy was essentially a big colorful bell with arms and legs and a face, whose ringing matched his moods. And the Land of Bells and Whistles, the faraway part of Strangewood that he was from, would require some form of animation for sure. But computer animation could handle that. ILM and Pixel and Digital Domain had done much harder jobs.
"It'll be expensive, that's their concern," Thomas said, more to himself than to Francesca.
"Not their only concern," she argued. "Look, if you don't want to go, fine, but this was your idea."
Again, he didn't respond right away. His mind was stuck on the scene in which the evil Jackal Lantern, a thin, rangy doglike creature that stood on its rear paws and had a jack-o'-lantern for a head, hypnotized the Forest Rangers, a brigade of heroic walking trees, into attacking Feathertop and Laughing Boy and the others.
Even with the current tech, that was going to be difficult to pull off.
For a moment, he was tempted to say no. Strangewood was his baby, and he was extremely protective of that world and its characters. He had first conceived of most of them when he was only Nathan’s age, his imagination giving him another whole universe to explore, a lifetime's worth.
But he would dearly have loved to see his characters come alive, in a way that words on a page or animation on a screen could never accomplish. And he had Nathan to think of; not just now, but forever. Not to mention that perpetuating the future value of Strangewood as an intellectual property was half his job these days. This would up the profile of the material even further.
"I'll meet you at the airport," he said finally, reluctantly, feeling the guilt swirling around him, sucking him down. Now was the worst possible time for this to happen, but he wanted it so very badly. And more importantly, he needed to do it for the future.
That was helping Nathan too, wasn't it?
"You will?" Francesca asked, obviously expecting more of an argument. "Great! I'll E-mail Jorge and let him know to expect us. I really think this is going to take you to the next plateau, Thomas."
Thomas glanced out the window over the sink as Francesca continued to talk. Nathan had apparently wandered away from the sandbox, though he'd been told time and again to stay where his father could see him. At five, he was pretty good at following orders.
But the minds of children tended to wander, and their feet seemed always to follow.
Francesca started saying something about Strangewood mutating from current hot trend to timeless classic, but Thomas wasn't listening anymore. He went to the sliding glass door and scanned the backyard. No sign of Nathan.
He was gone.
"Frankie, I've gotta go," he said numbly. "See you in the morning."
"What? . . . oh, sure. I've got to go, too. My sister is having a . . ." she might have kept talking, but Thomas hung up the portable phone and opened the slider, growing more alarmed by the moment. His heart raced wildly, slamming against his rib cage, and he found himself barely able to catch a breath. It wasn't logical. It wasn't rational.
But there was no fear like the fear of losing a child. Nothing like it in the world, so primal and unreasoning. "You can't truly know love until you have been in love," he'd once told Emily. "And you can't truly know fear until you become a parent."
Nathan could be anywhere, Thomas knew. Even though he'd been told a million times to stay in sight of the slider, he could have wandered off. Children's minds wandered and their feet followed. It was only natural. But in the tiny dark corner of his mind — a corner already rife with guilt and fear where Nathan was concerned — a tiny image formed; an image of Nathan being picked up and carried away by a stranger.
Of Nathan following a ball into the street in front of an oncoming truck.
It was ridiculous, and he pushed it away, and he'd deny even to himself that he felt it — but in his mind, there was a picture of Nathan dead.
"Nathan!" he shouted, not panicked yet. No one would have heard that in his voice. Not unless they knew him very well. He hurried onto the deck, glancing around, then tromped down the four wooden steps.
"Nathan!" he called again. The boy was probably just around the side of the house, he told himself. No need to run around screaming like a fool, giving the neighbors a show.
"Nathan!" he yelled again, a bit more frantic.
His foot slipped on the grass. Slipped on something. Thomas kept walking but wiped his foot on the grass, thinking one of the neighbors' dogs had visited his yard again. He happened to glance down and saw that what he'd stepped in wasn't a pile of dog shit, but somebody else's muddy footprints. Mud? Or some kind of clay, Thomas thought, given the weird color and consistency of the . . .
"Nathan!" he shouted again, this time not worrying about looking like a fool. The muddy footprints came from the woods behind his house, then disappeared around the side, only to reappear and trail back into the woods again. "Oh, Jesus, Nathan!"
Bile rose in his throat and he almost threw up. His eyes burned and watered as tears of despair and terror tried to force themselves out. Thomas held it all in. He was a rational man, and he would not give in to some frenzied lunacy just because some local teenager or transient had splashed around in a mud puddle and then tromped across his lawn.
But in his mind's eye . . . the pictures.
He rounded the corner, fighting his fear, and almost fell on his face when he saw Nathan. Relief flooded over him at first, and he wanted to weep with the pleasure of it as he watched his little boy stretching his legs, carefully following in the muddy footsteps, getting the weird sticky clay on his sneakers. He looked as if he were walking a tightrope.
Then relief gave way to anger, and Thomas strode forward angrily.
"Nathan!" he snapped, and this time the boy did respond, probably to the stern tone in his father's voice. He spun to face Thomas, and Nathan lost his balance, and fell over onto the grass.
"What's wrong with you?" Thomas barked. "Didn't you hear me calling for you? Are you deaf? God you scared the hell out of me!"
Thomas regretted the words even as they left his mouth. Just raising his voice, using that accusatory tone, hurt Nathan. He could see it from the way the boy winced at first, then looked around, trying to find something else to focus on. It was the last thing he needed, Thomas knew. And just one more wound, one more stain on his son's innocence that Thomas would pay penance on for the rest of his life.
"I . . .” he stammered and knelt down to hold Nathan's skinny shoulders in his hands. "I'm sorry, buddy, but Daddy's told you not to leave the back yard when I'm not out here with you. And then I called for you, and you didn't answer, and I was afraid. I was so afraid for you."
Nathan still wouldn't meet his eyes; he'd always hated to look at either of his parents when they were angry.
"Sorry, Daddy," he said softly. "I didn't mean to make you afraid."
"That's okay, Nathan," Thomas said, voice quavering with emotion. "I just love you, and I don't want anything to happen to you. Please don't wander off where I can't see you, okay?"
"Okay," Nathan nodded, then rolled to his feet, stood, and started following the tracks again.
"Did you see anyone back here, in the yard?" Thomas asked, concerned once more by the obvious evidence of a trespasser.
"I didn't see him, Daddy, but he was looking in the window," Nathan answered, without turning around. "If I saw him, I'd run and find you anyway. You're the only one who could make him go away."
Thomas felt cold, despite the sun overhead. How many times had he heard a noise in the night and leaped from the bed he'd shared with Emily to search the house. He'd been ever-vigilant, protecting his family. Of course, there'd never been anyone there. Just house noises, same as everyone heard. But the fear of anything actually happening . . . those pictures in his head . . .
"What do you mean he was looking in the window?" Thomas asked. "If you didn't see him, how do you know that?"
Nathan laughed a little boy's laugh.
"You're silly, Daddy," he said. "The TV room window, over there," he added, and pointed further along the tracks.
Thomas walked briskly to the window where the muddy tracks led. There were some bees on the window, and he found that odd. They just milled about, flying off and landing again. Weird to see them clumped in one spot like that.
There was mud on the window too, where the trespasser had pressed his face. Mouth. Nose. Eyes. Bees crawling on the impression of the face, the muddy features staring back at Thomas Randall.
He knew that face. And then the other thing that Nathan had said came back to him. "You're the only one who could make him go away."
Not mud, of course. He smelled it now, should have smelled it when he first came outside. The bees loved it. Peanut butter.
It was the face of the Peanut Butter General.
Which was, of course, patently impossible. But that didn't mean the fear in him, the danger itself, wasn't real. Thomas grabbed Nathan up and hauled him into the house. They'd get cleaned up and then go to the park or the mall until it was time to bring him back to his mother's house.
Then Thomas would start to make a few phone calls: the cops, Francesca. Tomorrow morning, his publisher and editor. Somebody was playing a very sick kind of joke on him. But it wasn't funny. If he had some kind of bizarre . . . stalker, or something, he wanted to start trying to figure out who it might be. At least get the cops interested in driving past the house while he was in L.A.
* * * * *
"Joe, you've got to go," Emily said for the third time.
It wasn't a casual announcement this time, but an instruction.
"It's not even four o'clock," Joe observed, frowning. "Nathan won't be home until five thirty, right? What's your rush?"
"I just . . .” she began, then bit her lip. "Why are you making this difficult? You said you weren't going to do this."
"I don't want to intrude on the rest of your life," he said, "I just feel like you're too paranoid about it. It's not like we're all going to explode if we should accidentally cross paths. I'm not in any hurry to meet your ex-husband, but I also don't know why you're throwing me out an hour and a half before he's supposed to arrive. You said yourself he's always late."
Emily glared at him.
"It's my life," she said finally. "Mine. My choices. I want you to go now. If that's a problem for you, then maybe you shouldn't even be here in the first place."
Joe froze, seemed to hold his breath a moment, surprised at the vehemence in her tone. He shouldn't have been, she thought. After being so open and fair-minded, at least in theory, about separating their relationship from her "family" life, she hadn't expected him to act so selfishly.