CHAPTER 1 THE RETURN
On a warm August morning, Jason Walker crouched behind a young batter and a little catcher, eyes intent on the invisible rectangle of the strike zone, a mask limiting his view. Some of the umpires in this league braved home plate without the mask, but Jason’s parents had insisted he wear one. Based on the symptoms Jason had described back in June, doctors had concluded that a concussion must have initiated the mysterious disappearance that ended when he showed up at a farmhouse in Iowa, claiming he had no recollection of the prior four months.
The small pitcher went into his stretch. He glanced at the runner on third, then at the runner on first. The pitcher was in a tight spot. It was the third round of the summer league playoffs. His team led by one run, this was the final inning, there were two outs, and the count was three balls, two strikes. The pudgy kid at the plate was the second-best hitter on the opposing team.
The runner on first was taking a huge lead. The pitcher stepped off the rubber and winged the ball to the first baseman. The runner dove to make it back to the bag, then asked for time so he could stand.
The pitcher got the ball back. Again the runner on first took a greedy lead. The pitcher threw to first again, but the first baseman dropped the ball. Although the baseball did not roll far, the runner on third dashed for home. The batter backed away.
“Throw home!” the pitcher yelled as the first baseman grabbed the ball.
The ball streaked through the air to the catcher, who had the runner beat. The runner dropped his shoulder, plowing into the catcher as he got tagged before stepping on home plate. The little catcher flopped backward into the dirt, the ball dropping from his mitt.
“You’re out,” Jason called, pumping his fist.
The players on the field cheered. The coach of the opposing team, a skinny man with a dark suntan and a darker mustache, charged over to Jason. The coach was already hollering before he reached home plate, eyes bulging, spittle flying from his chapped lips. “What’s wrong with you, ump? What kind of call was that? This is our season! Are you blind? He dropped the ball!”
Taking off his mask, Jason stared at the outraged coach. Within the past six months, Jason had confronted a giant bloodthirsty crab, outfoxed a brilliant chancellor, dueled a vengeful duke, and defied an evil emperor. He was not intimidated by Coach Leo. The coach kicked dust at him and gestured wildly. Veins stood out in his neck. Apparently he was emulating the tantrum of some major league manager he had seen on television.
Matt, the first base umpire, hurried over. He got between Jason and the furious coach. “Hey, settle down,” he insisted.
“It’s okay,” Jason said, stepping around his friend. “Look, do you want to listen to me or get banned from this league?”
The coach closed his mouth, hands on his hips, eyes smoldering. His expression warned that nothing Jason could say would appease him.
“The rules of this league demand that the runner slide for a close play at home.”
“What kind of rule is that?” The coach remained angry, but sounded less certain.
“A rule to prevent nine-year-old catchers from being hospitalized. If your runner had beaten the throw, I’d make an exception, but he was tagged and only made it home because he didn’t slide. Next season, learn the rules, then teach them to your players.”
“Ump’s right, Leo,” the scorekeeper drawled from behind the backstop.
The coach sneered but had no reply. He glanced around at the parents staring at him from the aluminum bleachers, then turned to glare at Jason, as if blaming him for the embarrassing display.
Jason raised his eyebrows.
The coach returned to his dugout.
“Good job,” Matt said, clapping Jason on the back. “Way to keep cool.”
“I have to remind myself these guys are just somebody’s dad, desperate to see their kid win. In a way it’s nice that they care.”
“Sports turn a lot of people into hotheads,” Matt said.
Jason took a deep breath, trying to dismiss the incident. “Should we get out of here?”
“Sure.” They started walking toward their bikes. The teams huddled up to shout cheers. “Are you coming to Tim’s party tonight?”
“The pool party? I don’t know. Maybe.”
“Come on,” Matt urged. “It’ll be fun. It won’t stay warm forever.”
“Which means no,” Matt sighed. “At some point you should consider rejoining the living.”
Jason was unsure how to respond. How could he explain what was really troubling him? His friends assumed that his reclusive behavior was due to his newfound infamy following the four months when he had dropped off the map. His disappearance had made the national news, as had his sudden reappearance after most had assumed he was dead. True, his absence had created some serious hassles. There had been dozens of interview requests. While some reporters were supportive, others had accused him of faking the incident, of deliberately hiding. Plus, the lost time had complicated his schooling. After counseling with his parents and teachers, Jason had spent much of the summer finishing packets of work that would enable him to advance to the next grade in the fall.
His real problem was not being able to tell anyone the truth. He had been to another world. He had made friends there, and enemies. He had risked his life and had accomplished great deeds. And he had returned home against his will, leaving behind tons of unfinished business. He had left a girl from Washington stranded there. And he knew a vital secret that would change how the heroes of that world tried to resist the emperor Maldor.
How could he explain any of this to Matt? To his parents? No matter what evidence he produced or details he supplied, nobody could possibly believe him. These burdens had to remain private. Although his experiences in Lyrian consumed his thoughts, if he tried to share what had really happened, he would wind up in a mental hospital!
Of all his friends, Matt had tried the hardest to be there for him. After returning from Lyrian, Jason had quit playing baseball. His prior goals as a pitcher had seemed insignificant compared to his new concerns. But he still loved the game, so he had volunteered during the summer as an umpire for a couple of the younger leagues. The volunteer gig carried little pressure and required much less time than actually playing and practicing. Matt had volunteered as well, just to hang out with him.
“I’m sorry,” Jason said. “I’m no fun anymore. I’ve warned you, my head is a mess. I wish I could explain.”
“Don’t worry about it,” Matt said, grabbing his bike. “Who wouldn’t feel a little different after all you’ve been though? Nobody minds. Nobody who matters. If you could just relax, you’d see that not so much has changed. Who cares whether you pitch or not? Everyone wants you around again.”
“Thanks,” Jason said, stuffing his umpire gear into a sports bag. “I’ll try to come.”
Matt studied him. “We could go together. Want me to swing by?”
Matt nodded knowingly. “How about some lunch? You hungry?”
“I’m good. Maybe I’ll see you tonight.”
Matt shrugged. “Have it your way. Catch you later.”
Matt pedaled away on his bike. Jason climbed onto his own bike and headed home. If he wasn’t careful, soon he’d have no friends left. Was he deliberately pushing everyone away? Having unfinished business in Lyrian did not guarantee he would find a way back there. Like it or not, he might need to start living an actual life in this world again. After all, school would resume in less than a month. A regular schedule would make it much tougher to behave like a hermit.
When Jason got home, he left his bike in the garage and looked out back for Shadow, his Labrador. He came up empty. Nobody was home. His parents had grown closer to the dog during Jason’s absence and had probably taken him for a walk.
Jason retreated to his room. He had spent a lot of time there lately. He went to his closet and got down a shoe box from the top shelf. From a drawer he collected a spiral notebook and a pen. Removing a pair of rubber bands, he opened the shoe box and took out a human hand. The severed wrist revealed a perfect cross section of bone, muscle, tendon, nerves, and blood vessels.
H-E-L-L-O. Jason traced the letters on the palm. He set the hand down and picked up his pen, ready to transcribe. Not now,
the hand spelled hastily in sign language.
Ferrin must be in some sort of trouble again. Jason had established contact with the displacer not long after returning from Iowa. He had taught Ferrin the sign language alphabet using a book from the public library. The tedious communication was his only link to Lyrian, and Jason had faithfully logged all of their conversations.
Jason felt grateful for the living hand. It represented his only tangible evidence of all that had happened. Without it, he wondered if he would eventually have come to believe his months in a parallel universe had been an elaborate delusion.
Back in June, soon after receiving word from their son, Jason’s parents had driven from Colorado to pick him up in Iowa. His father had good insurance, so not long after Jason related his story of a four-month blackout during which he had somehow traveled hundreds of mi...