Jack had spent the week in Nebraska, as you do, tracking down Robert Frost’s journal.
The Road Not Taken, or as Sammy called it in their briefing, The Worst Mistake You Never Made. The artifact has the power to change the universe, go back in time to fix something in your past – or go back and make your worst mistake have even graver consequences when it wasn’t used correctly.
The man in Nebraska had used it to go back in time to marry his childhood sweetheart instead of cheating on her – it had been sort of depressing, reversing that, but the rules of the universe call for such things.
The problem is that now that Jack and Lily had managed to get the journal back to the Warehouse, it’s on the fritz, and does not want to be relegated to a shelving unit for all time.
“Someone,” Lily pants as the book zips out of her hands and flies across the biography shelves, “Someone, catch that thing!”
“Why’s it doing this?” Jack asks, a little bewildered, but all Sammy does is shake his head and grab at the journal with his purple nylon gloves. He misses, and it zips through another shelf, pages rustling in the breeze it’s creating.
“It doesn’t want to be neutralized, it’s fighting back,” Sammy curses as he grasps it with his fingertips. It flies away again, and whirs past Ben’s head on the opposite side of the aisle.
“Jack,” Ben bats it away from his head and toward Jack, “Catch it!”
“With gloves!” Lily says sharply, lunging across the three feet of space between them to grab one of Jack’s hands. “This won’t be a joyride if you touch that thing!”
“Don’t you have to actually read it for it to work?” Ben asks as Sammy snaps on of the gloves onto Jack’s hand, fast and efficient but with his usual level of care. Sammy’s fingers twist around Jack’s for half a second, through both of their gloves, and Jack takes an extra moment to smile at him in thanks for the gesture.
“That’s the right way to do it, but there are a lot of wrong ways with worse results –”
The book flies at an unprecedented speed between Ben and Lily, directly at the back of Sammy’s head. Jack pushes him aside as quick and gentle as possible, and lunges with an arm outstretched in hopes of catching the goddamn thing.
Unfortunately, it whirs right past his gloved hand –
“Jack, watch out!”
Jack’s not sure who yelled – it might’ve been all three of them, the volume had been so intense – but the next thing he knows, the journal’s turned, and hit the back of his neck hard enough to knock him to the ground.
Everything goes sideways, and grey.
Jack tries to call out, but his throat isn’t working. There’s an awful buzzing sound in his ears, along with what sounds like a car siren. His vision goes entirely black, and he thinks he hears someone begin to shout his name, but they’re cut off –
Cut off by a sickening crunch in Jack’s chest, and the nothing.
There’s a divide in life for Warehouse Agents: who you were before you became to the Warehouse, and who you are after. The Regents mention it during their psych evals every year, and though Jack’s certain that it holds true for most agents, it’s never been quite that way for him.
Coming to the Warehouse changed his life, absolutely – but there’s already a divide in Jack’s life. Already a before and after.
Before the car crash, and after. After he sobered up – and before.
Jack’s life is split in two. The crash is the only thing separating him from the person he’d been the first twenty-six years of his life. Tangible, heavy, concrete – but singular.
Jack the drunk, Jack the loser, repressed and wild all at once, drinking in order to feel something, anything at all –
And then he all he could feel was a broken arm and a nasty cut on his forehead, and the unbearable guilt of the past eight years that he spent doing absolutely nothing with his life than making himself and everyone around him miserable.
After the car crash is who Jack is now. It started with throwing out all of his liquor, moving in with his sister, joining the CIA and doing something that mattered for a change.
Making amends, constant amends, mostly to himself. Struggling every day not to be that person ever again, the guy who almost wrapped his car around a tree.
And then the Warehouse. Every day with Lily. Emily, who relies on him. Ben, who looks up to him and wants to be just like him. Sammy – Sammy Stevens. God, Jack would do anything to make Sammy smile at him.
Before and after.
Jack is so, so glad that his friends are all a part of the after.
Jack wakes up to someone hitting his face, and none too gently.
“Lily?” Jack croaks out, groggy. She’s the only one who wouldn’t be careful with him, but even she wouldn’t hit this hard unless she was pissed. She might be. What did Jack – oh, right, the artifact flying through the air –
Shards of glass in his stomach, blood getting on the upholstery-
“He’s awake,” a sharp, feminine voice that Jack doesn’t recognize says, and he forces his eyes open.
The room comes into focus, but it’s not a room Jack recognizes – or at least, not one that looks correct.
He’s in Sammy’s office – the layout is the same, the shag carpeting, two desks on opposite sides of the room, a small door leading into what used to be Sammy’s bedroom.
It’s not the same, though.
Gone are Ben’s videogame set-up, Lucille Ball’s various toys and dishes, Sammy’s books. The two desks are neat and pristine, unlike Sammy and Ben’s, with papers stacked precisely in various piles on each of them. Instead of a soft golden hue, the room is cast in dark grey and black.
And the two people standing over him aren’t anyone he recognizes. There’s a pretty woman with curly blonde hair, in her early thirties at most, and a wiry man in his late twenties with short-cropped brown hair and yellow teeth.
And sitting in Sammy’s desk isn’t Sammy, but the slimy, well-groomed Steven Grisham. He’s leaning back in Sammy’s desk chair, frowning severely in Jack’s direction.
Jack realizes that he’s handcuffed.
“Grisham?” Jack says blankly, and the two other people in the office give each other confused looks. “What the hell are you doing here? Where’s everybody else? And who are these guys?”
“I think we’re doing the talking here,” the woman says, a little too pleased with the line. “What were you doing in our aisles? How did you even get in this building? You don’t have clearance.”
“I’m –” Jack blinks up at her, bewildered. “I’m Jack Wright? I’ve worked here for almost four years. Grisham knows me, we’ve met.”
Jack’s heart pounds in his chest –there’s no love lost between Grisham and any of the agents, but certainly he’ll tell them who Jack is, even if it’s reluctantly.
Grisham only raises an eyebrow, though. “I’ve never seen you in my life. How the hell did you get in this place?”
“I’ve always been here.” Now Jack’s annoyed. “You were one of the people who recruited me! Four years ago? You and Mary Jensen appeared in my apartment in the middle of the night and offered me –”
“Mary Jensen?” The woman cuts him off, shock and suspicion mingling in her voice. “How do you know that name?”
“Because I work here!” Jack isn’t panicking yet, but it’s a close thing. His head aches with the effort to try to reconcile what had happened –
Blood running down his face, falling into the crevices of his hand. He watches, horrified, sirens too far away –
“I’ve been here for four years, I think I’d remember you,” the man tells Jack, and prods him in the cheek obnoxiously with his pointer finger. Jack leans away, glaring at him.
“He’s obviously under the effect of something,” Grisham interrupts, eying Jack with curiosity, but definitely not the innocent kind. “Have you come into contact –”
“With an artifact?” Jack interrupts impatiently, and then realizes.
The journal hit him, hit his bare skin. It needs to be read in order to work correctly, but there are a million different ways that the artifact could go wrong. Instead of fixing a mistake, it could create a mistake.
He can’t move his arm. Can’t move his legs. Can’t move at all.
“Sammy,” Jack says, and they all practically jump when he says the name. Do they recognize it? God, Jack hopes so. “Sammy Stevens. He’s here, he has to be, call him right now.”
“You can’t just –” the woman glares before regaining her composure with a deep breath, “you can’t just call the Caretaker.”
Any hope that Jack has left drains out of his system, and he suddenly can’t get his mouth to form words.
This is a different world. Reality has realigned. Sammy’s the Caretaker. What mistake did Jack make –
“Look up my name,” Jack turns to Grisham, struggling to get a decent breath in. “Take my fingerprints, run me through your database, and tell me what happened to me.”
Jack already knows, of course he does. The man in Nebraska, he’d had dual memories in his head – the version of his life without the artifact, and the version with.
Jack doesn’t have a second version.
“Only because I was already planning on it,” Grisham turns to his computer. “Maggie, Pete, get a fingerprint.”
The woman – Maggie – grabs his right hand with too much fervor, but if it’ll get Jack answers…
“Jack Wright,” Grisham reads off of his screen that Jack can’t see. He feels as if he’s going to throw up already. “Of San Jose, California. Died in a drunk driving accident in 2009. Survived by his parents, his sister, yadda yadda, so on and so forth. The picture looks like you. Younger, but you. So – how about you explain to me why a dead man is sitting in my office?”
Jack’s mind reels. His biggest mistake. The car crash. He died in the car crash, and yet he’s also still here. That means he has a chance to fix the mistake again, reverse the damage. If he gets a hold of the artifact, will the universe just realign? Would he have to use it again to fix the mistake, go back in time?
Jack knows that voice.
That voice shouldn’t be so low and monotone. It should be bright, and cheerful, maybe a little tight and annoyed but never deadened and dark. Still, none of that matters in the end, because it’s still so recognizable – especially to Jack.
As if from nowhere, Sammy Stevens steps out from the shadows of the doorframe. Jack would know his face at the end of the world, but that doesn’t mean that the face in front of him isn’t painful to look at.
He’s gaunt. He’s always been pale, but he resembles more of a vampire than a person, spindly and too thin. His jacket practically hangs off of him, skin and bones. His hair isn’t curling around his shoulders, or pulled back on top of his head like usual. It’s cropped-short, and looks more dishwater than brown. Dark circles have formed around his eyes, and he barely blinks at he stares at Jack.
Without recognition. Of course, without recognition, because if Jack died when he was twenty-six, he never met Sammy.
And Sammy became the Caretaker.
“Sir,” Maggie says, casting a look between Jack and Sammy, “What do you mean?”
“That’s the only artifact I know of that can bring back the dead from that long ago,” Sammy’s voice remains gravelly. Is that just how it sounds now? Jack can’t tear his eyes away from Sammy. Just this morning, Sammy had made everyone French toast for breakfast and shoved some in Jack’s mouth with a laugh.
Jack had fixed his glasses.
This Sammy doesn’t wear glasses.
“It’s not that, it’s Robert Frost’s journal,” Jack tries to explain, but Sammy’s expression doesn’t change. “Road Not Taken. The universe readjusted itself – this isn’t reality. My reality, at least. I didn’t die in that car crash. I became a Warehouse agent. Please, you have to believe me.”
“The Warehouse doesn’t recruit alcoholics,” Grisham interrupts with a roll of his eyes.
“Please believe me, Sammy – Sammy, please,” Jack doesn’t care that he’s begging. Maybe that will make Sammy’s eyes look less deadened. “Just let me go back down and find the journal, and I can fix this, and everything will be okay again.”
“So in your version of events, you’re….a field agent here,” Sammy says slowly, and Jack nods, recognizing Sammy’s pragmatism but not the cold way in which he speaks. “You have to understand, that’s very difficult to believe. Only the top candidates in their fields are ever considered for Warehouse positions, and there is no application. You’re only chosen. And I can’t imagine why I would choose you.”
So you weren’t born perfect, Sammy kissed him in a dark parking lot lit up by one street lamp, leaning into his side. So warm. That’s alright. Gives you character.
“You did,” Jack says, and his voice comes out strangled. “I don’t – I can’t tell you why. But you did.”
Jack thinks of all the things no one knows about Sammy but him – but in this universe, where Sammy took the position of Caretaker, where Grisham’s sitting in this desk instead Ben, how much weight would that really hold?
Besides, Jack doesn’t want to shout from the rooftops that Sammy’s parents kicked him out at sixteen because he was gay. No version of Sammy deserves that, especially if –
If this world is permanent.
“I find it much more likely that you have a co-conspirator that helped bring you back to life, and had to learn a lot about the Warehouse in the process,” Sammy continues, too expressionless. Sammy’s never expressionless, not like this. His repression stops him from smiling all the time, but he’s always making a face of some sort. He’s got the cutest frown. “The laws of life and death are horrible – but they have to be obeyed.”
“Sammy,” Jack pleads, searching for anything he can say to make Sammy at least hear him out. “C’mon, I know you. I know you so well. And this – this isn’t you. Please, please just untie me. Let me talk to you alone and explain – we can go to Emily’s, maybe she –”
The expressionless blank slate of Sammy’s face suddenly spasms, turning from nothing into a thunderous anger that Jack has never once seen from Sammy in his entire life.
“Maggie, get Orpheus’s Lyre immediately,” Sammy’s voice is tight and horrific. “Use it, and he should disappear.”
And then Sammy disappears, without a noise to even indicate that he’s gone to wherever the Caretaker goes. Jack hadn’t even blinked, and he’s out of sight.
Herschel mostly uses his power to sneak up on people and make them jump out of their skin. People, mostly meaning Ben. He cackles in delight every time Ben shudders and runs to Sammy to tell him to stop Herschel doing that!
“Secure his bonds,” Maggie says, and strides out of the room.
The man, Pete, moves to Jack’s side, presumably to follow her order. Jack’s all too aware of Grisham’s eyes on him.
Jack’s not sure how Orpheus’s Lyre will affect him. He’s not dead, not really, but he’s also meant to be dead in this universe. He can’t take the chance that it’ll make him go away. No one else knows he’s alive, no one else can fix this and realign the universes if Jack’s gone.
He waits until Pete is inches away, and then slides his chair forward just enough to give him the leverage he needs to head-butt him.
Pete yowls, and Jack manages to knee him when he leans forward. He falls to the ground, and Jack steps on his stomach, which he thinks knocks the guy out. Grisham springs to his feet, but Jack had already noticed that no one had any weapons on them when he’d been brought in. They hadn’t considered him that much of a threat.
That’s always a mistake, and Jack takes a savage sort of pleasure in standing up, and though he’s not connected to the chair, he maneuvers it with him to pin Grisham to his desk with.
“Key,” Jack pants, and Grisham gasps out in pain. “Now, please.”
“Maggie will be back any minute –”
“Key, you sanctimonious bastard.”
Grisham, with some effort, opens the first desk drawer. Jack applies pressure even harder, and he can feel when Grisham passes out from the lack of oxygen.
“Sorry,” Jack tells the unconscious form as he leans backwards against the desk to grab the handcuff key, and maneuvers his fingers as quickly as they’ll go to try and unlock the cuffs. “But I just want you to know that if I accidentally killed you, my going back to reality is going to reverse it. So really, this is a favor for you.”
Jack unlocks the cuffs, and tosses them to the ground after a quick glance down at the aisles to see if Maggie heard anything. She’s not in sight, so Jack fishes around in Grisham’s pockets until he finds a set of car keys.
Jack pauses one last time on his way out – if Sammy’s the Caretaker, can he tell what happened inside the building just now?
“I’ll be back soon,” Jack whispers, just in case his not-boyfriend is listening, and then doesn’t look back again.
Jack thinks he drank a relatively normal amount as a teenager.
Of course it was still too much, but too much at fifteen is different than too much at twenty-five. It’s normal to drink when you’re a kid – you’re allowed to fuck up then. Jack didn’t get blackout drunk every night or anything, but he partied on the weekends. Everyone did. It was that kind of town.
It would’ve been fine if Jack had stopped there, but he hadn’t.
The drinking got unhealthy around the time Jack got engaged.
It made complete sense looking back. Jack had been nineteen years old, so closeted that he hadn’t consciously realized he had no interest in girls, and a blonde, bubbly fiancée who hadn’t noticed either. Jack was always good at pretending, especially with her.
She’d wanted to get married, so Jack had asked her. Of course that would make him miserable, with the knowledge he had of himself now. He’d been feeling pressured, and repressed, and utterly alone in the world. His parents egged him on, but Lily had stopped speaking to him, saying he’d be wasting his life with her.
She’d known. Lily had always known.
Jack hadn’t known anything. He just knew he was supposed to be happy and he wasn’t, and thought that was how the world worked. And so he drank. Alone and often.
By the time he broke things off with the girl, moved out of his hometown and into a big city, it was too late. Alcohol was his crutch – and now it was his crutch for meeting guys.
Jack would have to get hammered to even get a few words out around a guy he found attractive, let alone do anything with him. The gay scene of the early 2000s had been all about hooking up, a new freedom from the culture of fear surrounding the last couple of decades of the twentieth century.
And so that’s what Jack did, for five years. Drink and hook up and drink some more, because if he stopped drinking he’d have to start thinking about how much he hated himself.
No one ever brings up those years, nowadays. Not even Lily. Jack had told Sammy about his engagement, late at night in an ashamed whisper, and Sammy had curled around him and told him I’m really not jealous of a girl you knew fifteen years ago. Never introduce me, though.
Sammy always took everything he learned about Jack in his stride, no matter how messy. Sammy would barely flinch, always smile, and say Jack, I only care about who you are now.
Jack’s never felt like he deserved that.
Jack goes at least twenty miles over the speed limit, so it takes him less than ten minutes to get to the B&B. It’s easy to speed in the Badlands – rare is the sheriff’s car, and they’re really only watching the interstate anyway.
There’s a vehicle he doesn’t recognize in the driveway of his home– not Emily’s, but it very well could be in this universe. Jack doesn’t know how much he credence he puts in the Butterfly Effect, but he knows that if he’s dead and no one here has ever met him, there are going to be changes both major and tiny.
Sammy’s the Caretaker. Fuck, of course Sammy’s the Caretaker.
Lily isn’t here because she wasn’t recruited without Jack. They were a team, a matching set, and Jack was the one with paranormal vibes that got the Warehouse’s attention.
Vibes that aren’t helping him right now. God, he hopes they’re still intact in this world.
(The alcohol had turned them off, made them easier to ignore. He knew before he was going to get in the car that night that something horrible was going to happen, but that it was something that needed to happen –)
Ben must not have hacked into the Warehouse, or if he did, was dealt with in some other way. Jack’s sick at the thought, but he can look Ben up later. He has to see what Emily knows, because Emily predates Jack’s arrival to the Warehouse. She’s the Keeper, she has to be here, she’s attached.
Jack skids into the parking lot, and jumps out of the car. He knows he doesn’t have much time, and that once Maggie makes sure the others are okay, she’ll be after him. He needs to be out of here quick, if only he can convince Emily to follow him.
But the woman who stops him in his tracks in the doorway isn’t Emily.
“Who are you?”
The woman is maybe thirty, with long red hair tied back in a tight braid. She’s about half a foot shorter than Jack, which means she’s pretty tall for a woman. Emily is too, but this woman has square shoulders, visible biceps, and is dressed in utilitarian green combat gear instead of Emily’s usual sundress-filled wardrobe.
“My name’s Jack,” Jack tells her, figuring he might as well be honest if he’s going to get any answers. It doesn’t seem like she’s been altered to a possible intruder. Her eyes are suspicious, but she’s not holding herself as if she’s ready for a fight to begin. “Who are you? And what are you doing here?”
“My name’s Katie,” the woman says. She has a lightly southern lilt to her voice. “Katie Lynch. I’m the proprietor of this bed and breakfast. Now what are you doing here?”
Jack stares, and then glances back out at the sign on the road. He hadn’t noticed anything about it – but then again, it still says Emily’s, in peeling, faded letters.
“Emily Potter,” Jack turns back to her, something painful growing in his throat. “Emily Potter, she used to live here, her name’s on the sign – where is she?”
“Sir,” Katie’s eyes widen, and Jack’s heart stutters. “Emily Potter died two years ago.”
“I – I – what?”
Jack can’t breathe. The suspicion in the woman’s face melts slightly, and she reaches forward to grasp his shoulder with surprising strength.
“There was a shooting here,” Katie says quietly. “A stray bullet. We had a memorial service out back, the place is still named in her honor –”
A shooting. Two years ago.
The B&B had been under attack. His name was Beauregard, he had plenty of lackeys to do his bidding, and he was furious with them all for taking his artifact from him. He’d tracked them down. It had only lasted a day, but it was a day Jack and Emily spent locked in the kitchen, hiding in the space between the fridge and the freezer, waiting for the Regents to arrive.
Emily hadn’t been shot – but it had been close. And Jack had been with her the whole time.
Jack doesn’t realize he’s crying until a tear falls from his cheek.
“Katie,” Jack says, his voice strangled because he can’t even fucking think right now, “I – I need your help. I need to get out of here, and if I can, I can – save Emily, please, I can go back and –”
Katie takes a step backward, and removes her hand from Jack’s shoulder.
“You’re the dead man,” she says, matter-of-factly, not scared. She’s not immediately moving to incapacitate him, so that’s a good sign. “Look, I’m sorry for what’s happened to you. But you can’t bring people back to life. You can’t disrupt the balance of the world like that.”
“The world’s already out of balance, I’m trying to fix it,” Jack tells her, and he tries to sound intense and meanginful, but he knows it mainly seems like he’s about to sob. “Okay. Okay, Emily’s not here. What about Herschel? If Sammy’s the Caretaker –”
“Herschel Baumgardner?” Katie blinks at him, and oh, fuck, that soft expression is bad news for Jack. “He died six months ago. He’d been in a nursing home. You can’t bring him back either – he lived a good, long life. Just because he had regrets in the end –”
“Regrets?” Jack latches onto the word, and Katie shifts uncomfortably, biting her lip.
“The…the Caretaker,” Katie says, and Jack notices that she doesn’t say his name. “Look, we can’t be talking about this. You don’t have the clearance – and you’re dead. Look, I feel for you, but I need to take you back to the Warehouse –”
“Katie, I don’t wanna hurt you,” Jack says, taking a step backward. She raises an eyebrow. I’d like to see you try. Which is fair enough, she looks certifiably badass. “And I really don’t want you to hurt me. But I need to leave. Now. I promise that I’ll be back.”
Katie cocks her head at him, regarding him curiously. “I don’t know why you think I should believe you.”
“Because I know who Emily and Herschel are,” Jack says, desperately hoping for her to somehow see, for her to be attuned the way Emily is – was – no, is. “And I’m not a dead man. I’m alive, I’m just in the wrong timeline, a timeline that never was. Katie, I’m begging you. Let me go. Maggie and Grisham and the other guy – they might catch me either way. But at least give me a chance.”
Katie regards him for a moment, a neutral expression – and then she digs into the pocket of her jeans and tosses him a ring of keys.
Jack catches it, unsure of what it’s for.
“My car,” Katie explains, gesturing toward the parking lot where the unfamiliar car is parked. A small blue Mazda. “I’ll tell them you left on foot. You won’t make it far with Grisham’s.”
“Thank you,” Jack gapes. “I – I – why would you…”
“Because I can tell when someone is lying,” Katie tells him, eyes intent, “and you’re not. Get out of here. I know you’ll be back.”
“I can’t ever repay you for this,” Jack says, scrambling to get back toward the parking lot, but waving at Katie all the same. “Thank you so much.”
Katie just nods, tight-lipped. “Hurry. Just because I can tell when people are lying doesn’t mean I can get away with lying to Grisham’s face myself. Get out of here fast.”
Jack sprints to Katie’s car. The only way he’s going to get out of here in one piece without being tailed is if Grisham and Maggie don’t see the vehicle, if Katie can make up a lie about where her car is.
Jack starts driving, not sure where he’s heading until he hits the highway.
He has two choices, two members of his family who might hear him out.
Ben, who won’t recognize him. Lily, who’s living in a world where Jack is dead.
Jack drives to Rapid City, and heads to the nearest café with free Internet. He doesn’t know where either of them are in this universe, other than that they’re not here.
“Hello?” Betty Arnold picks up when Jack rings on the phone he borrowed from the barista. Hearing her voice makes Jack’s shoulders sag in relief, even if this Betty has never spent a Thanksgiving with him before.
“Betty? Um, hi, this is Jack, I’m a friend of Ben’s,” Jack starts, hoping he doesn’t sound too unbearably awkward. “From, uh, college. We sort of fell out of touch, and I can’t find him on Facebook, but I really wanted to catch up with him –”
Jesus, does he ever sound like Ben’s long lost lover. Then again, Betty’s an open-minded romantic, maybe she won’t mind.
“Oh,” Betty says, obviously a little surprised. “Benny hasn’t lived at home since he graduated. Got swooped up by a tech company in New York. I can give you his phone number – you said you knew him at Mines?”
Jack makes up a few details about classes he and Ben shared, and also makes up his own tech business that he wants to get Ben involved with so it doesn’t sound like he’s dramatically pining for him. He’s pretty sure Betty still thinks he is, though.
Jack doesn’t need to make a phone call for Lily. She’s on the state department website.
Lily’s in DC, and Ben’s in New York. Jack’s going east.