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Authors: Jason Mott

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The Choice

BOOK: The Choice
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The Choice
A Prequel to
The Returned
Jason Mott

In this short story by Jason Mott, author of
The Returned,
a man is forced to choose between the life he has now, and the one he thought was gone forever.…

Peter Galvin was just seventeen when Tracy Whitland—the love of his life—vanished without a trace. In the years after her death, he had finally moved on, gotten married, started a family. He is content with his life now—happy, even.… Until Tracy suddenly and inexplicably returns.

For weeks, Peter and his wife, Samantha, have been watching mysterious reports of people’s loved ones returning from beyond, the world spinning into uncertainty and chaos. But they never imagined it would happen to them. With Tracy’s unusual homecoming, Peter and Samantha must decide where they can possibly go from here, and whether their family can survive.…

Read more stories of the Returned in
The First
and
The Sparrow.
And don’t miss Jason Mott’s haunting debut novel,
The Returned,
a story of one family given an extraordinary second chance.

Nathaniel and Evelyn Whitland stood in the waning sunlight, staring off to the west as the thin plume of dust rose up. Nathaniel placed his arm around his wife and, though she could not stop trembling, she did not take her eyes off the approaching car. “Is it really her?” she asked her husband. Nathaniel did not reply; he only squeezed her a little tighter and held his breath and watched and waited.

The car was a long time coming, winding its way up the mountain, slowing now and again to navigate imperfections in the weathered road. It was a black sedan and Evelyn couldn’t help but think to herself how much it reminded her of the black sedans she saw in movies when people from the government went about whatever business governments go about.

“Is it really her?” she asked again.

“I suppose we’ll know shortly,” her husband replied.

It was almost completely dark when the car finally came to a stop in the front yard. The chill of early evening had crept into the air and the old couple was weary from standing on the hardwood porch, but they were too excited to sit. Too full of questions.

At last the dust settled and the Whitlands finally released one another when the back door of the car opened and there, somehow, was their daughter—who had died nearly twenty years ago. She looked not a day older than she had been the last time they had seen her.

“It’s her,” Nathaniel said, his voice faltering slightly.

Evelyn did not reply. Her body swayed a little, as if a hard wind had suddenly blown over her, but then she straightened herself and opened her arms wide and called her daughter’s name, reveling in the sound of her voice being answered back after all these years.

* * *

Lisa took her breakfast in front of the television while Peter and Samantha shuffled about in the kitchen. Whenever he could, Peter stole a peek into the living room to catch pieces of the news report.

For the past few weeks, all over the world, the dead had been returning. They appeared without warning or explanation, oftentimes far away from wherever they had once lived or died. And all they seemed to want was to reenter their lives…. But despite the miracle of their return, the world was beginning to slip into fear and confusion. There was an unease that was slowly building into chaos.

As the whole world was struggling to understand what was happening, a tension had begun creeping into Peter and Samantha’s lives. Each morning now they awoke and prepared for the day with only the basest of communication between them. They had become roommates, somehow. Roommates with a daughter caught in the middle.

“Don’t forget—Lisa’s got soccer today,” Samantha said. She stood at the sink, running her finger under a stream of cold water. She had burned it on the skillet while making bacon. It was the third time in the past two weeks. All the little things were going wrong lately.

“Do I ever forget?” Peter asked. He stood half in the kitchen and half in the living room, watching the television and watching Lisa all at once. The girl was entranced by the images of the Returned on the television.

“Yes,” Samantha responded. “Point of fact you do forget.” She turned off the faucet and dried her hand. “Where’s the aloe?”

“Wherever you put it,” Peter said, sipping his coffee.

Samantha looked out the window above the sink, exhaling slowly in the hopes of easing the flash of anger growing inside her. Next door the Johnsons were piling into their van—a cluster of chaos and franticness; their twin seven-year-old boys were grappling with one another, yet, somehow, they all seemed happy. “Did you book the reservations for dinner Saturday night?”

Peter grunted, but Samantha couldn’t be sure if it was an affirmation or if he was shrugging her off.

In the living room, Lisa sat in front of the television sucking her thumb. She was six now and Peter and Samantha were always telling her to keep her thumb out of her mouth. “Lisa, do you know where Mommy put the aloe?” Samantha called.

Her daughter did not reply.

“Lisa, honey,” Samantha said. “The aloe?”

“Mom, was the man on TV dead like Mr. Whiskers? Or was it a different kind of dead? Do people always come back? Will everybody come back?”

“Dear Lord,” Samantha groaned.

“You’re fighting a lost battle,” Peter replied. “She’s hypnotized by it. Try looking in her bedroom. That’s where everything ends up eventually.” He put his coffee down and patted himself, looking for something. “Have you seen my phone?”

“No. Last time I saw it was in the car last night. Lisa was playing some kind of game on it.”

Peter huffed and started for the garage.

“Peter?” Samantha called. She turned to face him and folded her arms over her chest. She looked exhausted. “The anniversary dinner Saturday…did you book it?”

“Yes,” he replied. He paused as if there was something more to say, but there was only silence and tension between them and nothing else came to fill the space, not even an explanation for how things had so suddenly come to this.

* * *

When he was outside in the wet morning air, Peter felt that he could finally breathe again. He walked with his hands behind his head and his face aimed up at the clouds, like a teenager taking stock of his place in the universe. He watched the Johnsons drive past, waving as they did. He waved back at them and listened to the sound of their two boys roughhousing in the backseat disappear down the block. One day those boys would probably wind up making eyes at his daughter.

When he got into the car, the smell of rotting fruit hit him. He coughed and put his shirt over his nose. Likely as not, Lisa had left something somewhere beneath one of the seats. The entire car was cluttered with books and candy wrappers and pages from coloring books in various stages of completion.

He sighed and, for a moment, stopped and marveled at the fact that he was now married, now a father. He saw himself from a distance, hunched over in a car that smelled of bad fruit and was littered with the flotsam of family life. He looked down at his hands. One of the fingernails on his left hand was colored a soft shade of purple. He stared at it for a moment, and then realized what it was: nail polish.

Sometime in the past couple of weeks Lisa had come home from school with a bottle of nail polish. And, somewhere along the line, she’d taken up the odd—yet endearing—habit of painting one of his toenails or fingernails while he was sleeping. It was usually something he never noticed until he was out in public somewhere. And, in spite of himself, he couldn’t help but chuckle.

Which is what he did now.

This was his life: a thirty-five-year-old father with nail polish on his finger. Wasn’t it just yesterday that he was a flustered, shaggy-haired kid picking up Tracy Whitland for their first date?

Tracy. Tracy Whitland.

They’d grown up together, in much the way Peter imagined Lisa would grow up with the Johnson boys next door. Almost every one of Peter’s memories of his childhood was punctuated by Tracy. When the Fall Festival came around each year, Tracy had gone with him. When he was eight years old and took Communion, so had Tracy. The time he got lost in the swamp near his house, it was Tracy who’d trudged alongside him through the mud and muck. It was Tracy who’d kept him from letting fear get the better of him. “It’ll be okay,” she’d said over and over again, and it had annoyed him at first, her repetition. But then it became an incantation, something that he eventually believed. So much so that, when they finally made their way out of the swamp, almost eight miles from home at nearly ten o’clock at night, with frightened and angry parents searching for the both of them, it was he who turned to her and said, “I told you it would be okay.”

When they were both twelve, she became his first kiss. And, a few years after that, the two of them fumbled over one another clumsily in the back of his father’s car and lost their virginity together.

It was one year later, when Peter had just turned seventeen and was certain that he would spend the rest of his life with Tracy, that she disappeared.

The entire town searched for her, and the police worked around the clock. Hours rolled into days, days into weeks, weeks into months. And she was never heard from again. She left behind two devastated parents—parents condemned to spend years searching the faces of others for their daughter—and one confused, guilt-ridden boy who loved her.

But that was over fifteen years ago. Closer to twenty when Peter really stopped to think about it. And, over the years, he had learned to forget. Learned not to think about her. Learned not to remember the way things had been, the way the two of them had imagined things would eventually be.

He stayed in touch with her parents. He had been as close with them as he had been with his own parents, and when Tracy disappeared, they’d clung to him as a way of clinging to her. They came to his high school graduation, then his college graduation. They sent him Christmas cards and, once in a while, he would visit them. Their faces would light up as he came through the door and the two of them would put their arms around him and Tracy’s mother would hold his face in her hands and kiss his cheeks and ask him to tell her all about his life.

Deep down inside, Peter knew that it was not him they were welcoming home but Tracy. His life was her life now. His successes her successes. His stories her stories.

But all of that had been manageable. All of that Peter had gotten used to. It didn’t bother him anymore. Didn’t keep him awake at night. Not until now, at least.

* * *

“Why didn’t I check here first?” Samantha asked herself as she entered Lisa’s bedroom. In the corner, next to Lisa’s stuffed animals, was the bottle of aloe. She couldn’t imagine what Lisa was doing with it—probably salving some imaginary burn to Paddington Bear. She rubbed the lotion on her finger and sighed as it began to cool. “Why does this keep happening?” she asked herself. She wasn’t the clumsy type. But now she and Peter were arguing all the time and it was infecting everything else and she wasn’t quite sure what was causing it.

She sat down on Lisa’s bed and thought about her husband. She replayed their arguments over the past few weeks, looking for patterns. He was distracted, that much she could identify, but by what, she couldn’t nail down. She didn’t think it was another woman—he never seemed like that type of guy—but she was getting close to being able to believe anything.

As she sat thinking, suddenly she felt one of Lisa’s stuffed animals begin vibrating. Samantha moved the animal aside and found Peter’s phone. The display on the incoming call read “Evelyn.”

Evelyn was the mother of the girl Peter had dated in high school. The girl he’d grown up with. The girl who disappeared all those years ago.

She called from time to time, and Peter usually took the calls in private. Mostly it was just catching up, talking about what he was up to these days. Samantha had never wanted to intrude, feeling, somehow, that this was something sacred to the woman, so she left Peter to his conversations.

Samantha couldn’t have said what caused her to answer the phone just then. She could have just as well let it go to voice mail, but some part of her forced her hand.

“Hi, Mrs. Whitland,” Samantha said. “This is Sam.” She felt a kick of adrenaline, but she wasn’t sure why. She had spoken to Evelyn before, but this time it seemed different.

“Oh, hello, darling,” Mrs. Whitland replied after a pause. She had obviously expected Peter to answer the call. “How have you been?”

“Busy,” Samantha replied. “Struggling to keep pace with a six-year-old. Children are a handful.”

“Yes they are.” Then: “Listen, is Peter there?”

“No,” Samantha answered without hesitation. She didn’t know why she’d lied. “Can I take a message? Is there anything I can help you with?”

“Oh,” she said. “Probably not. I just wanted to talk to him about…well, about something.”

“Yes.” Her heart beat faster. “This is all
something,
isn’t it?”

Evelyn let out a heavy, sudden breath. “Oh, thank goodness,” she said. “I wasn’t sure if you knew. I wasn’t sure if he would tell you. I mean, it’s all just so complicated.”

“Of course it is,” Samantha said. She hated herself just now. She wasn’t the type of person to take advantage of someone this way, but there was something going on here that she wasn’t aware of. There was a secret, and for as long as she had known Peter, she had never known him to keep a secret. “We’ll get this sorted out,” Samantha continued, hoping the reply was empty enough, yet valid enough, to keep Evelyn talking.

Just to be safe, Samantha stood and closed Lisa’s bedroom door.

Evelyn laughed uncomfortably. “I don’t think anybody knows how to deal with this. I can’t really believe any of it. But, at the same time, I haven’t got it in me to not believe it. I mean, I’ve got my daughter back. I’ve got my Tracy back!” She laughed again, as if she had only just said the words for the very first time.

There was silence on the line then. A long, harrowing silence. Somewhere in the midst of it, Evelyn must have realized her mistake. “Samantha?” she said softly. “Honey, he didn’t tell you, did he? He didn’t tell you Tracy had returned?”

There was not much left to the conversation after that. Samantha barely heard anything else the woman said. She rushed the call to an end and sat in her daughter’s bedroom, reeling.

When Samantha’s stomach betrayed her, it was only good fortune that she managed to find Lisa’s unicorn-bedazzled trash can in time. She bent in half and vomited the same way she had when Peter had proposed to her.

It was just the way her body reacted to her world changing.

* * *

That evening, after soccer practice was done and the evening mayhem of dinner and homework and all the other small matters of the household were resolved, Samantha asked Peter to join her in the garage. Immediately after Lisa was born, the two of them had made an agreement that they would never fight in front of their children. Samantha had grown up in a loud, dish-throwing household and, as much as anything, she blamed it for her bad nerves.

It was nearly midnight and here the two of them were: sitting in a parked car in the garage with the oldies station murmuring softly.

BOOK: The Choice
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