When Are You? – Lucas’s Return
After being propelled by Vinnie up a slight incline—which was how the terrain existed at this geographic spot in the distant past—Lucas stumbled as he came out the other side of the time portal. The ground leveled unexpectedly as he stepped through, and he pitched forward with a miscalculated step.
He blew out his breath with a loud “oomph” when a man—no, two men—each grabbed one of his arms and hauled him along about a dozen steps.
Lucas winced with an exaggeration worthy of a bad actor in a B-movie as the jarring chaos of the surrounding crowd reverberated through him. Unlike the calm scene he’d just left—orderly despite the large number of people involved—this “atmosphere” all but pummeled him with gale-force winds in a mighty thunderstorm drilling his scalp with stinging rain. But no, the actual weather was mild, and the sun was shining, although lower in the sky than it had been just moments (and yet thousands of years) ago.
He hunched, and all thoughts of what Vinnie had told him to do after he made it through flew from his head. The men who’d hauled him across the path let go, and Lucas wrapped his freed arms around his torso. The lorn feelings of abandonment that had overtaken the early days of his one-year-long stretch living in the cave with the Elk People rushed back.
A sob escaped him. Although he’d spent only one of his eighteen years with them, it had been a year of intense enlightenment, and now they felt as much like family as his birth family did.
Here in the present—future?—on this side of the time rift, his parents and sister thought he’d died twenty years ago. Twenty. Years. Ago.
He’d become a stranger in this present time. Lucas pressed his hands against his ears to block out the screaming that seemed to come from every direction.
Were they yelling because Leo and Vinnie Bailey had disappeared into thin air going through the portal in the opposite direction a few minutes before Lucas had come out? Or were they afraid of him? He was obviously unarmed, wearing nothing but the leather loincloth and foot coverings the Elk People had provided for him. Well, that and a single feather stuck in the short ponytail tied at the back of his head. With his pale blond hair, he didn’t actually look like the Native American his wardrobe implied.
And the bag. “Oh, yeah.” Lucas stared down at the soft leather carrier bag hanging around his neck. That’s what he was supposed to do—give that thing to some guy with red hair named Danny. Danny was one of three men—Leo’s Special Forces buddies—who’d helped Vinnie and Leo prepare for their journey.
Vinnie’d promised they would be waiting near the rift and would help Lucas. Lucas drew in a deep breath and lowered his hands. A man who fit the description he’d been given was staring intently at him.
“Dude,” Lucas said. “You Danny?”
The man didn’t even blink. “Yeah. You Lucas?”
Vinnie had said that although he and Leo had been taken off guard when they’d first seen Lucas on the other side, in hindsight he wouldn’t be surprised if Leo’s three Special Forces buddies had done additional research and might have figured out, or at least suspected, what had happened to Lucas and that they probably wouldn’t be shocked when Lucas popped out of the rift.
“Yeah.” Lucas pulled off the bag and shoved it at Danny.
“Stay back!” Danny’s voice boomed loud and unyielding.
Lucas jumped, but the order hadn’t been directed at him. The loose circle of hollering people around them was closing in…or trying to. Lucas squeezed his eyes shut and buried his face in his hands but, no surprise, the cacophony didn’t lessen.
When he reopened his eyes, the rift had closed. Good riddance to it.
Most of the noise blurred together as if the words had been lost in the roar of a rockslide, but one shrill and forceful phrase leaked through. “Who put you guys in charge? If you three won’t restrain that Neanderthal wannabe, I will!”
Lucas shivered. “Fuck this shit,” he muttered. He swayed as the turmoil in his mind coalesced, and suddenly just a few more hours on top of the year he’d spent in the past was just too much ask.
It went against his instructions from Vinnie and Leo, which were to stay with Danny and the other two, meet the police when they arrived, and explain the situation to them. But his mind zeroed in on a single goal as renewed strength coursed through his muscles, and just like that, not a bucking bull at the rodeo, nor a direct order from the pope in Vatican City, let alone the assholes surrounding him, could have kept him there another moment.
Not when home was just a few blocks away. He curled his fingers into tight fists and with a sudden jolt, he took off running at full speed.
“Hey wait!” Danny’s voice didn’t have that assertive ring like it’d had with the directive he’d aimed at the unruly people around the rift. He probably knew as well as Lucas did that the police could track him down without any trouble.
Knowing who Lucas was, no doubt Danny could send some of the cops who would soon be converging on the park to Lucas’s family home. Which was fine. They would have to investigate.
Lucas didn’t even try to listen for footsteps trailing him. Fuck ’em. Unless they were a current track star, he could outrun them. He virtually flew down the park path, which hadn’t existed here twenty years ago, through the parking lot, which had been a gravel patch back in the day, and then he turned toward home.
Out on the street, people were going about their lives as if nothing untoward was going on in their sleepy little town. As if two men—Vinnie and Leo Bailey—hadn’t just stepped through a tear in the fabric of time in search of their young son, Oscar, who’d been swallowed up by an appearance of that rift just a week earlier. And as if Lucas, who’d been assumed kidnapped and murdered twenty years ago (from their perspective) at the age of seventeen hadn’t just reappeared looking only a single year older than when he’d left them.
The cheerful laughter of children playing on backyard swing sets filtered through Lucas’s tumultuous thoughts, and a tentative smile curled his lips. The mouthwatering aroma of burgers or steaks sizzling on someone’s grill reminded him that he’d left his freshly filled midday meal plate untouched when the “alarm” had been raised that the rift had opened.
A car drove by as he rounded a corner, seemingly without taking notice of him running along dressed like a primitive native. Possibly because he’d also just passed a group of children dressed like pirates going on a treasure hunt, taking advantage of the mild late-afternoon weather. Apparently, such antics weren’t entirely out of place. Not at a quick glance, anyway.
After another turn, Lucas glanced back. Nobody was following him. He’d lost any assholes who might’ve tried.
Lucas turned the final corner and slowed to a walk. He drew in a shuddered breath, came to a stop, and stared. The house looked much as it had when he’d left. It had vinyl siding now, but it was the same color. The trees and bushes had matured.
A teen, maybe fifteen or sixteen, with strawberry-blond hair that reminded him of Allison, his girlfriend at the time of his disappearance, was mowing the front lawn. Lucas bit his lip and shook out his hands. He was pretty sure his parents still lived in the house, so the teen was probably some kid from the neighborhood they paid to mow the yard.
Leo and Vinnie Bailey had been good friends with Lucas’s l’il sis, Miranda. She wouldn’t be the braces-wearing twelve-year-old he remembered and would now be thirty-two. Miranda no longer lived at home, but Vinnie had said he’d gotten the impression from things she’d said over the years that her parents still lived in the house where she’d grown up.
A puppy in the front yard of the neighbor’s house yipped at him. It was the house where his best friend, Anthony, had lived. Did Anthony’s parents still live there?
Lucas blinked as a clearer awareness of his surroundings permeated his scattered thoughts. The lawn mower was now silent, and the teen, who also had that same unique shade of blue eyes as Allison, stood rooted in place, mouth agape, staring at Lucas.
A shiver skittered across Lucas’s skin as a transient thought that this could be his own son momentarily froze his brain, before the realization that this kid was five years too young for that to be possible filtered through, and he expelled a relieved breath. He had enough on his plate without acquiring responsibility for a kid just a few years younger than himself. Probably just as much of a little shit as he’d been, too.
The kid was obviously some kind of relation to Allison’s family, though. Allison would be thirty-seven now. So would Anthony. Lucas shivered again. His “crew” had grown up without him. He had no one to pour his heart out to anymore—nobody to bitch to about parents that didn’t understand him, or to share his hopes and dreams for his future.
Lucas jumped and turned to the source of the sharply spoken word, which seemed louder than it actually was in the stillness of the street. A man had come onto the front porch of Anthony’s old house.
In fact, was that Anthony? He was about the right age, and his appearance was consistent with what the teen whom Lucas remembered might have grown into.
The man looked forebodingly at Lucas before turning to the strawberry-blond teen and hooking a finger at the kid. “In the house. Now.”
Then the man—Anthony. Lucas was sure of it—strode down the front porch steps toward Lucas. He stopped about six feet away and narrowed his eyes. “What the hell do you think you’re doing?”
Lucas blinked. “What?” Anthony had said his name. He’d recognized him. What the hell did Anthony think he was doing?
Two front doors opened. More than that, actually. The cutting severity of Anthony’s words carrying in the still, early evening air must’ve turned everyone’s heads, and subsequently spotting a teen on the sidewalk wearing nothing but a loincloth would get everyone out to gawk. But only two of those doors mattered.
Lucas’s breath hitched. A woman who looked suspiciously like Allison stepped out of the same house Anthony had emerged from, and Lucas’s parents came out onto their own front porch, their timeworn faces pinched full of suspicion, and their hair shot through with gray that hadn’t been there when Lucas had last seen them. The kid ignored Anthony’s directive and stood rooted next to the silent lawn mower. They all just stared at Lucas with brows scrunched in confusion and/or consternation.
The shaky breath Lucas had drawn in at the sight of his much-older parents expelled sharply when Anthony repeated, “What. The. Hell. Do. You. Think. You’re. Doing?” Anthony’s jaw clenched tightly as he bit out the words then cocked his head toward Lucas’s parents. “The Schmidt’s have been through enough, and nobody is going to stand by while another punk tries to pull some kind scam on them.”
Lucas gasped. “Scam?” Another punk?
Then he took a jerky step back as realization hit him. Anthony had not been talking to him when he’d said Lucas’s name. He’d been talking to the kid.
And Anthony had immediately jumped to “scam” because he clearly recognized that Lucas looked too much like the friend he remembered for Lucas to be loitering in front of his old house for any purpose other than some kind of con.
Lucas’s shoulders slumped. Of course, nobody was going to jump straight to thinking, ‘Gee, maybe Lucas stumbled through a time warp or something, but hey, welcome home!’ He should have stayed in the park. Should’ve let the police process him, then they could have come here with fingerprint and DNA reports to break the news to his family in a more orderly and believable fashion.
Nobody was likely to accept who Lucas was without question, not considering how his apparent age didn’t match up with what they would expect.
Sirens—multiple sirens—arose in the distance, getting closer. Probably converging on the park.
Anthony cocked an eyebrow. “Those for you, by any chance?”
“Dude, don’t be a dick.” Lucas frowned as he threw Anthony’s favorite line from the old days at him. Anthony used to say that was the perfect measuring stick for whether or not to do or say something.
Anthony froze and blinked before his jaw re-tightened.
Lucas shrugged. Fuck it. He had nothing to lose at this point by telling the truth. “But yeah, the sirens are probably for me. At least partly. They’re heading to the park because some kind of rip in the fabric of time just reopened. Vinnie and Leo Bailey, the parents of Oscar, the kid who disappeared a week ago, just went through it looking for him. I was able to get back through in the other direction right before it closed.”
Anthony snorted. “Right. Seriously, ‘dude,’ what’s your angle.”
“Exactly!” Lucas raised his voice. “This is a pretty fucking elaborate conspiracy, don’t you think? And for what? What could my end-game possibly be if this is some multi-layered con?” He looked up at his parents. “Sorry about the F-bomb.” Turning back to Anthony, Lucas added, “They’re not gazillionaires. There’s no motive here.”
“I don’t need to know your motive. That isn’t what makes your ridiculous claim unbelievable.” Anthony’s face reddened. “You want to pretend you’re Lucas Schmidt? Fine. I’ve got a question only Lucas and I know the answer to. You think you can answer it?”
Lucas’s brows drew together. “No idea what that could be, but sure, hit me with it.”
“The night Lucas disappeared—about ten minutes before—”
“Don’t be a dick.” Lucas tensed because with that clue, he’d figured out what the question was.
“—Lucas told me he was crushing on a certain someone. No one was within hearing distance, and I’ve never told anybody. Who was it?”
Lucas lifted his chin. “You know, I forgive you for marrying my girlfriend because you named your kid after me. That’s kinda sweet. But that question is a dick move.”
Anthony’s cheek twitched. “You don’t know the answer, do you?”
“Of course I know the answer. That’s how I know the question is a dick move.” He cast a quick glance at his parents’ and Allison’s stony faces. “And I’d like to remind you that I was drunk at the time, remember?”
Lucas gritted his teeth. Why had he felt it necessary to add that last bit?
The answer was Mr. Gardener, their English teacher, and Lucas had said it in a jokey way, feeling out Anthony to see how he would react to Lucas being bi-curious—but Lucas had since learned from Vinnie and Leo that same-sex couples could marry now. Marry! Vinnie and Leo were a married couple, and Lucas’s sister Miranda had been their friend and had occasionally babysat Oscar for them.
“Just admit you don’t know.”
Lucas straightened his back. Mr. Gardener had been famous for working extreme vocabulary words into otherwise normal conversation. Quite a few had stuck in Lucas’s memory, so instead of directly answering, he said, “That confession about a crush was debacchate, as I said, but since I’m all about politesse, I’ll simply say you might have been prefestinate in casting judgment on me.”
Anthony stood stock-still and stared. The sirens were louder, had stopped moving, and the noise was coming from the direction of the park.
Lucas cleared his throat. “I might’ve misused those words, but I think that answers your question. Right?”
Allison’s eyes widened. Clearly, she knew who Lucas was channeling.
“Anthony?” Mom’s hand hovered at her throat. “Did that mean anything to you?”
“Lucky guess,” Anthony said. “There’s no way he can really be—”
“Check the back of his head.” Dad tapped the back of his own.
“That can be faked—”
“A unique scar on my scalp can be faked?” Lucas put his arms out, palms up. “You know what? Hell if I know. Probably can be. Are there even any photos of it? Damn, dude, how deep does this supposed conspiracy go?”
“What you’re saying makes no sense! You’re the same age Lucas was when he disappeared! And you might look a lot like him, but he didn’t have muscle tone like you have.”
“I’m not the same age. I’m three hundred and eighty-eight days older than I was.” He turned back to look at his parents. “I counted. And I was living with a hunter-gatherer tribe. Dad, you’ll be happy to know that weekends didn’t exist thousands of years ago. I worked all day long, every single freaking day. I am so not the same ‘never going to amount to anything if I don’t get an attitude adjustment lazy punk’ I was the day I stumbled through that rift.” Lucas’s voice hitched. “And I’m so damned sorry you spent twenty years thinking those were the last words you’d ever say to me. I felt awful about that every day, because I know I totally goaded you into saying that, and I know you only wanted me to be the best I could be.”
Dad’s wrinkled face crumpled, and a tear slid down Lucas’s cheek.
“Oh, for the love of God.” Anthony stalked up behind Lucas, pulled out the ponytail, and began parting Lucas’s hair, looking for the scar.
Lucas knew the moment Anthony found it. Anthony froze, and he let out a soft gasp. He lightly scratched at it. “It’s not makeup,” Lucas said. “If my scar is part of that con you’re accusing me of,” Lucas said, “then planning it must’ve begun long enough ago for me to acquire an authentic scar.” Complete with staple dots surrounding the jagged gash in all the right places.
His parents crept down the front porch steps. “It’s there?” Mom asked.
Lucas missed Anthony’s non-verbal reply when he turned his face toward a single siren that was getting louder, apparently moving again, leaving the park and coming their way. When he looked back again, Mom was standing directly in front of him. She stared silently into his eyes as if studying his irises. She’d used to say he had the most beautiful pattern in his eyes. Her hand moved up to cover her mouth as if of its own volition and smothered a sob.
Lucas shook, reluctant to make the first move, lest it be misunderstood. Tears flowed freely down his face, and he choked. “I missed you every day. And not just when I was dreaming about your fried chicken every time I gnawed on a stringy squirrel or choked down that veggie-and-random-organs stew. I kept thinking about how you always said, ‘be careful, sweetie’ every time I left the house. You always said it like it really mattered to you, not like it was just a habit.” Lucas swallowed. “You said it in my thoughts every morning.”
Lucas’s mom opened her arms, and Lucas trembled and stepped into them. He buried his tear-streaked face in her neck and wrapped his arms around her while she patted his back and rocked. Fingers Lucas figured belonged to his dad sifted through his hair, searching for that unique scar.
“A cop car is coming down the road.” Anthony’s tone didn’t have the same sharp conviction it’d had earlier. It was more informative than accusatory. “You know they collected Lucas’s fingerprints off his stuff when he disappeared.”
Dad fingered the scar for a moment, then Lucas took a step away. “Good.” Lucas nodded idly as he watched the police vehicle approach. “They can run DNA tests, too.”
Lucas looked at his younger namesake and winked. “Your dad’s not really a total dick. He used to be pretty cool, and some of it’s still lurking under the surface.”
Anthony snorted. “Don’t be a dick. And if you’re the real Lucas Schmidt, you’re a bad influence who can stay away from my son.” The twinkle in Anthony’s eyes gave the lie to his words.
“Don’t be a dick yourself.” Lucas grinned. “You turned into an okay grownup despite my influence. And I’m sure you didn’t name the kid after me because I was such a loser.”
Anthony returned the grin and nodded. “Pass the scientific ID tests first, then don’t make me regret that name choice.”
“Dude, I just graduated from the most strenuous year-long let’s-toughen-this-kid-up program you could ever conceive.” Lucas smiled ear-to-ear as two police officers approached. “Bring it.”