Jason sat huddled in blankets in the huge easy chair at his dad's house, the grandfather clock ticking into the silence. For the first time since returning to consciousness, he felt at ease. After two weeks in the hospital, they'd brought him home yesterday. It had been hard, settling in through all the pain, and it still hurt to move; he tried not to, if at all possible.
There had been so much commotion yesterday, with all the people coming over to visit. He was glad beyond words to see all those familiar faces, but it had exhausted him.
Part of him longed to be up and moving again, hated to be trapped in this pain-wracked body. Sometimes, though, it was good to just sit, in the still of the silence, and relax. Breathe.
Especially now, when the painkillers were working, and he had a book to read. It was even quieter in the house than normal, since his father was out running errands. Though Jason would have liked his dad to be around all the time, he was glad he was getting out of the house; Whit had been almost constantly at his side all through his stay at the hospital. Connie had been there a lot too, and she had, he'd learned, given him some of her own blood.
Once he was awake, he'd had many other visitors from around town. He was glad to see them, but part of him was afraid that they'd ask him questions. He wasn't even sure how much they knew; he hadn't told anyone anything, beyond giving the police his statement. Of course they knew of his injuries. It was a miracle he'd escaped with his life. Besides the gunshot wound, he'd had a broken nose, a deep cut in his shoulder, the same shoulder dislocated, a collapsed lung, two broken ribs, multiple burns, bruises, lacerations, cuts; infection, dehydration, a fingernail torn off, and two puncture wounds that went straight through his left hand.
It's amazing I was able to get out of the hospital so soon, he thought. He didn't anticipate the long recovery…and he knew there were other wounds he was avoiding that went much deeper.
He didn't want to think about what had happened, so at the hospital, when he didn't have visitors, he'd watched TV shows all day, even soap operas, in order to shut off the voices clamoring in his head.
There was no TV at his dad's house; he could have watched a video on his computer, but he thought that it would be better to read, in order to sharpen his mind.
He settled in to read his dad's copy of Till We Have Faces by CS Lewis. For some reason, though he'd read most of Lewis's books, he hadn't read this one yet. By the time his father walked through the door, he had reached the middle of chapter five.
"Dad!" said Jason, relieved to see him. For some reason—he hadn't even realized this—but he was afraid to be alone. To be trapped. Someone could easily creep in and take him down without a fight--
"Are you all right, son?" Whit walked inside, set a package down on the counter.
"I'm fine. Just reading the book you gave me."
"How is it?"
"Good, so far."
Whit nodded. He sat down in the chair beside Jason, holding an envelope in his hands.
"I stopped by the police station to tie up some loose ends. They had something for you there."
He handed Jason the envelope. Jason set the book facedown in his lap, and took it with his good hand.
Jason Whittaker was written across it in careful cursive.
"Before the NSA took Nadira into custody," said Whit, "she wrote that and left it at the police station for you."
Jason ripped open the envelope with his thumb.
Covering a single sheet of note paper ran the same careful script as on the outside. Now that he'd opened it, he wasn't sure he wanted to read it. It was too soon to face the memories that he knew would rush in on him, overwhelm him.
Despite his misgivings, he read:
I can't begin to say how sorry I am for what I have done to you. If I hadn't been bent on revenge, none of this would have happened. I didn't even see how the mysterious man I partnered with was manipulating me, and I didn't think to ask what his motives were—I only wanted to hurt you for what you'd done to Noor.
I was wrong. After I saw you and got to know you, I knew you were no ruthless killer. You made mistakes, like everyone does, but you are good at heart. That makes it all the harder to face what I did to you.
All I know is that you have given me a second chance at life. I will try with all my heart to make the most of it.
Right now, I'm not sure about what my future will be; the NSA is going to take me for questioning about the man who calls himself Will. I know next to nothing about him. Maybe they will torture me. That would be a fitting punishment.
If they let me go, I will ask them to let me take Akim's body back with me. He deserves more than an unmarked grave. All he did, he did out of loyalty for me. I hope you can forgive him for that.
Jason, most of all, I keep thinking about the conversation we had. You said you would sacrifice yourself for me, and I didn't believe you. But when it came down to it, you stepped in front of Gray, and got shot in my place. I know what I would have done; I would never have traded my life for yours. I'm not even sure if I'd have traded my life for my own father's, as Noor did, Allah forgive me.
It makes me think of what was going through Noor's mind when it happened. She let go of her own life—she counted it as nothing—for someone she loved.
I may have to take a look at the Christian Bible, and see what else it says. If it gives you the strength to love your enemies, well--I used to think all Christians were hypocrites, but after my sister, and now you—
Her Bible is still at home, hidden somewhere in the house. If I ever get home, I will read it. And remember your sacrifice.
I don't think we will ever speak again. I just wanted to let you know I could never thank you enough for what you've done. And I wish for you a wonderful life to the end of your days.
Jason sat back and set the letter down on the book. Tears slipped from his eyes.
"Are you okay?" said his father.
"No," he said, more tears spilling onto his shirt, not caring because his dad was the one person in the world who would not hold his weakness against him.
His father pulled his chair close to his, laid his hand gently on his shoulder—as close as a hug as he could get without hurting him.
"I—don't know what to do, Dad," he said. His breath hitched; a sharp pain jabbed his chest. I'll tear myself apart if I cry much, he thought, trying to shut his mind off from what had happened. He'd thought his death would be the end of it. But he was still on Earth, wrestling with continuous stabs of pain and ever-present aches, struggling to keep the memories from overwhelming his mind with darkness.
Nadira—he harbored no hard feelings toward her. But Gray—horror stabbed him whenever he so much as thought of his name.
"I wish I could just hold you in my arms," said his father, "like when you were a kid, and tell you everything would be all right. But I'm having a hard time with this, Jason. Whenever I see your injuries, I think of them hurting you. I hate that the son that I love had to go through this at all. And how it's my fault that it happened in the first place."
"How could it be your fault?"
"If I hadn't made the computer program that Will wanted, he would have never come after you."
"You can't blame yourself, Dad. You couldn't have known."
"I should have known better than to create a program that was basically a virus. It went beyond ethical and moral limits."
"At least…it didn't kill anyone."
"But it could have."
"I'd have deserved it. I didn't tell you this before, and then I wasn't up to it, but now--
"I…implied what had happened; after all, you warned me of getting lost in the labyrinth. But I didn't want anyone to know how far I went. The worst part was, it wasn't just out of necessity. I began to enjoy it." Disgust gripped him as it began to come back to him—creating the web of deception, immersing himself in it. And he told his father about everything, all its sordid details—from its inception in Australia, to the finale in Singapore, when he knew, under different circumstances, he would have taken revenge on Grote, and reveled in its taste as much as the agent he'd been working with.
It was in that moment, he'd realized he'd gone too far. He knew he had to step back, recover, remember the visage of truth—and that meant returning to Odyssey.
But he could not just step out of it and recover. No, he had to pay for a compromise that had worked in practice, until its consequences had caught up with him and nearly destroyed him.
"Even though I don't ever know how I can forgive Gray," said Jason, "part of me thinks that I deserved what happened to me. Part of me thinks that I should have died, after what happened to Noor. A life for a life." Pain twisted in his heart that had nothing to do with the shrapnel embedded in the tissue near it, which he'd probably bear for the rest of his life.
"Don't talk like that."
"I'm sorry. It's selfish of me to think that way. You've already lost one son…but I'm a poor substitute." He made an attempt at a smile.
"No, you aren't, Jason. If Jerry could see you today, I know he'd be proud of you. Like I am."
Jason shook his head, unable to speak for fear of more tears.
They sat there in silence for a few minutes. Then Jason picked up the letter. He handed it to his father, who read it.
Tears fell from his father's eyes. "I didn't know that's how you were shot."
"Well, I wasn't about to advertise it or anything."
"You saved her life."
"I couldn't have done it without God's help. I couldn't have even…I gave into him, to Gray." He nearly choked, thinking of it. "I would have given him more…God is the only way I didn't."
"And he spared your life for a reason. Nadira's too. Even Gray's."
"I can't even think of him without…panicking."
Whit nodded, brow furrowed. "It's not going to be easy for you to get through this."
"I still think it would have been easier just to…well, much nicer to be in Heaven now."
"I've been thinking that of myself lately. But if there's still some good I can do, someone I can help, someone I can lead to God, then I will make that sacrifice. It's not all the darkness of evil, either—God made the world good, and that still shines through. It's just hard to see sometimes."
"Right now, I'm not sure if I can see much good at all."
Whit pursed his lips, then rose from his chair. He picked up the package from the counter that he'd brought in, and sat back down.
"I'll open it for you," he said. Jason nodded gratefully. "I was going to give this to you later, when you moved back to your apartment, but here. I found it in the attic last week."
Jason took it in his right hand. It was a faded print from the 70's, everyone in their family wearing bellbottoms, the splendor of the Grand Canyon in the background. Jana, arms crossed, glaring down at Jason, who scowled back at her. Jerry holding Jason's shoulders, grinning like a superstar. Jenny beside him, smiling rather coquettishly into the camera, her eyes so like Jerry's.
"Remember that day?" said his dad.
Jason nodded. "We'd just hiked all the way back up the Grand Canyon in the 100 degree heat. We were miserable." He smiled; laughing would have hurt.
"Even though it was miserable, I hold onto that memory. That trip was the last time we were all together as a family."
"The last time, before…the war changed everything."
"What happened…wasn't easy for any of us. But just like back then, we have to remember that someday, all this will be swept away, and we'll be reunited with the ones we love, and there will be no more sorrow, or pain, or tears."
Whit touched his shoulder, their understanding of a hug which they'd developed in the days following the surgery.
Jason knew he would have a long road to recovery. But his dad was right; there was light in the world, as well as darkness. He just had to cling to the truth that something beautiful that he couldn't yet comprehend could be born out of the darkness and ugliness that he'd been immersed in for what seemed like so long.
He set the picture on the lampstand beside him, and sat back to read his book, while his dad went into the kitchen to fix them both some supper.