Our enthusiasm waned somewhat when we reached the bottom of the stairs and heard a bloodcurdling cacophony of moaning, wailing and shrieking. Gretchen involuntarily clung to me. I would have felt very manly, except that I was clinging to her just as tightly, and shaking like a leaf. We pressed forward, holding onto each other for comfort like Hansel and Gretel in the forest.
Another path of glowing moonstones guided us through the darkness like a trail of breadcrumbs. This time, we had absolutely no desire to stray from it. I felt nothing but fear of the darkness that surrounded us, and yet I had a perverse desire to peer into it just the same. Dimly, I made out scenes of pain and misery.
I saw a naked man strapped to a flaming wheel, spinning slowly around and around like a pig on a spit. Another man was straining for an apple on a tree branch, but never reaching it. Yet another was rolling a boulder up a hill, and, just as it was about to reach the top, the boulder slipped out of his grasp and rolled back down again. And again. And again. And again.
I caught a glimpse of Harriet in the darkness, beckoning us to come to her. With trepidation, we stepped off the moonstone path and the darkness lifted like a black curtain on a stage. We found ourselves in windy field beneath slate grey skies. In the distance, a flock of sheep placidly grazed. It looked a lot like my grandmother’s description of her childhood home in Cornwall.
Harriet was in a circle of standing blue-grey stones, like Stonehenge, only much smaller. There were twelve stones in all, like the signs in the zodiac. In the middle of the circle, a long flat stone lay on the ground like an altar. And lying on the altar was a young man with blond hair wearing overalls and a battered old hat with a feather stuck in it. There were shiny silver chains and manacles binding his wrists and ankles to the stone. Something about him was familiar.
“Holy shit,” Gretchen said. “It’s you!”
It was true. Looking at his face was like looking into a mirror.
“Jack,” Harriet said. “Meet my grandpa. You two met once before, briefly.”
It was the old Jack, my predecessor. He had looked like an old man when I’d met him before. But I suppose in death everyone appeared as their ideal selves, even if chained to an altar stone. The other Jack beamed at me.
“Well, howdy do, Jack.”
“Hi,” I said. “I guess we should get you out of those chains.” I turned to Harriet. “Can you break them with the sword?”
“’Fraid not. Those chains are adamantine. There’s only one thing the Thursbane can’t cut, and that would be it.”
“Every lock has a key,” the other Jack winked. “Answer the riddle and set me free.”
I puzzled over this for a moment and then it hit me. There was a silver key under my shirt, hanging by a cord around my neck. Most of the time I only half-remembered it, like yesterday’s dream. I pulled it out and inserted it into the keyhole of one of the manacles. Click! The key worked like a charm. One hand sprang free. Then the other. Then one foot and the other. Jack leapt to his feet.
“Thanks, cousin! Now we best be on our way.”
Pop-eyed, I discerned a two-headed giant striding across the moor towards us. One of the giant’s heads had a fierce expression and long, scraggly red hair, while the other had dark hair and sad eyes. I remembered the giant well. It was the same one I had helped kill almost a year before. Now, in the land of the dead, the giant was back to repay the favor.
“Fee fie fo fen!” the giant bellowed. “I smell the blood of two Englishmen.”
“Open the dream gate,” the other Jack shouted. “Quick!”
I nodded and pointed the key towards the centre of the stone circle, but nothing happened. Then I realized what was missing. I turned to Gretchen, who was rooted to the spot, staring at the giant. “The book!” I yelled. “Read from the book!”
She came to her senses and whipped the Mother Goose out of her backpack. As it had before, the book sprang open in her hands, the pages fluttering of their own accord until they settled on the page she needed. Two ravens fluttered down from the heavens and alit on one of the standing stones. They watched us balefully with their midnight eyes. Gretchen incanted the spell.
“One is for sorrow,
Two is for mirth,
Open the gate
To take us to earth.”
A rip appeared in space itself, right above the altar stone where Jack had been chained. I grabbed Gretchen’s hand and we jumped through together, tumbling out the other side like Jack and Jill down the hill. We had emerged behind old Jack’s cabin in the Appalachian woods, right where we had begun our journey to the land of the dead. With vampiric agility, Harriet soared out of the rip, twirling like an acrobat, and landed on her feet. Jack hopped out a little less gracefully, and plopped to the ground.
The giant’s hand reached through the rip in space and grabbed hold of Jack’s ankle, trying to pull him back to the other side. Jack dug into the ground with his fingernails, but to no avail. In a blur of speed, Harriet drew the sword strapped to her back, and lopped off the giant’s hand. A terrifying howl of agony ensued, abruptly silenced as the rip in space drew together and sealed itself. There was a crackle of electricity and a thunderstorm smell to the air, but otherwise no trace remained of the dream gate. Oh, and also the twitching giant’s hand lying on the ground.
We didn’t linger in Fiddle Creak. Jack and Harriet were putting to sea at dawn, and it was over four hundred miles to the coast. But that was no challenge for a vampire’s driving. Harriet took the wheel of Gretchen’s Jetta, and covered the entire distance in less than four hours. Somehow she was able to sense cops from miles away, and evade them at every turn. We arrived at the beach in the small hours, before the first signs of dawn had even appeared on the horizon. A crescent moon hung over the black ocean, and a million stars twinkled in the sky. I saw a shooting star and made a wish. A whole universe of possibilities was spread out before us.
“Wait,” Gretchen said. “Didn’t you become Jack when the old Jack died? So which one of you is the Jack now?”
Jack and I looked at each other mischievously. Standing next to each other, we looked like twins, albeit separated at birth. With my leather jacket and black jeans, I was definitely the city mouse. And with his patched-up overalls and floppy brown hat, he was the country mouse.
I cupped my hand to his ear and whispered, “Whickedy whack, now we’re Jack!” Why did there have to be only one at a time?
I turned to Gretchen and grinned. “That’s for us to know and you to find out.”
She punched me in the arm. “You are so infuriating, Jack.”
Without our even noticing, a ship had materialized just offshore like an apparition. It was a three-masted sailing ship like a Blackbeard would have sailed, and absolutely utterly black. The sails were black, the masts were black, and the hull was black. A man wearing a tricorne hat and breeches stood on the deck, scowling at a map. Next to him was a cat wearing a red silk kimono and a samurai sword.
“There’s more than one way to get to the dreamlands,” Jack said. “I reckon dreams are big enough for the two of us.”
“See ya round, Jack,” Harriet said to me. “Take care of him for me,” she said to Gretchen. “He’s always getting into trouble. She stole one last kiss, her ice-cold lips reminding me of what I would be missing. But it was all for the best. It was time to enjoy more earthly pleasures.
A black skiff uncannily rowed itself to the beach to convey Jack and Harriet to the ship. In a few minutes they were standing on the deck. Jack slapped the man with the tricorne hat on the back, and they shared a laugh like old friends. And then, the mysterious black ship was gone. One moment it was there. I blinked and it was gone. Harriet and I were alone on the beach.
The sky began to pinken with the first stirrings of dawn. We sat in the sand, she and I, huddled together against the chill, and watched the sun come up on a new day. It was the first day of my seven years. Time to go back to Boston.
There was a very large bag of gold coins buried under a willow tree near Jamaica Pond. And only I knew where it was. The devil may be two steps behind me, but I was Jack with his hound and horn, who hunted the fox that lived in the thorn. I was ready to jump over any candlestick he lit for me.
~ finis ~