Not Jack

Long Short Story by E. Farrell

Not Jack

“I don’t believe in God.”

That’s the first thing Jack Reed says in class. Not surprising really, Mickey Powell thinks. Most years there is someone, more often a guy than a girl, who wants to define the terms of engagement on the first day, to get the battle, so to speak, onto ground he felt safe on. And what do kids know about God, anyway? What does anyone know? You just learn to deal with it.

“That’s interesting, Jack. But when you say that, exactly what is it that you’re not believing in?” Powell asks. He is the chaplain and a humanities instructor at the Seven Springs Academy, a small boarding school an hour and a half north of Concord, New Hampshire.

“Come on.” The question was apparently not what Jack was expecting. “You know.”

“Maybe I do, Jack. But I’m interested in what you know.”

Reed is flustered now, wishing, Powell guesses, that he had not spoken. “You know, some kind of cosmic superhero or something, zapping people and judging them.”

“Well, there’s something for us to agree on. I don’t believe in that God either.” Some laughter from the class though not from Jack Reed. Sensing a teachable moment, Mickey goes on. “Do you think it matters to him, Jack?”

“Does what matter to who?” Jack is slumped low in his chair, as if trying to get out of the line of fire.

“The god you were talking about – lots of folks do believe in a god like that, right?"

“I guess.” Reed slides up in his seat, looking confused but interested.

“If we’re right, they just believe in a fantasy. But let’s assume that they’re right and we’re wrong. What effect does our unbelief have on God?”

Jack wears a suspicious look now, like a mark at a carnival who knows he’s being had but doesn’t know how. “I don’t get it.”

Mickey goes on. “So a month ago I could have said, ‘There is no Jackson Reed as far as I know,’ and that would have been true, yes?”

A quick nod for an answer.

“Would that have made any difference to your being? Would you have ceased to be?”

“No.” A well-concealed trace of a smile there now, just a flicker in Jack’s eyes.

“You all see my point? Being is independent of belief. What is, is. What is not, is not. Doesn’t matter what we believe – the first lesson of ontology.” Now ontology goes on the board. “And that, thanks to Mr. Reed, brings us to our first writing assignment. Notebooks, please.”

A general shuffling and grumbling ensues. “Ready? Two questions: What is? and How do you know?” Powell scribbles them on the board while the class exchanges bewildered looks. “Ontology and epistemology. Write, write.”

And so it begins again, education, the hope of the old that young minds can be induced to think, rather than glancing lightly from impression to impression. Did you have to make us this way? Powell prays silently. No answer. Jackson Reed, he notes, is writing.

Jack catches his eye again the next morning at School Meeting. Though it is an Episcopal school, Seven Springs has borrowed this form from the Quakers: to gather each day before classes to share announcements, a thought, a song or sometimes only silence though, Mickey notes, silence is not something they’re good at. Today he spots Jack at the corner of the meeting hall where the arching windows give way to a gallery. In twos and threes students and teachers are filtering in but Jack is already there, by himself, head down, sweatshirt hood as low across his forehead as a monk’s cowl, playing with some kind of necklace that protrudes from its neckline. Powell moves to him and squats like a catcher behind the plate.

“Hey, Jack. Good morning.”

Eyes flicker up for a moment, then down again. “Hey.”

“You okay?”

“Fine.” He does not look up this time. “Why wouldn’t I be?”

No point in pushing, at least not here, Mickey thinks. He asks only, “Got a study hall this morning?”

“Yeah. Second block.”

“Drop by and see me.”

“Why?” His eyes, up now, hold apprehension rather than curiosity.

“No reason.”

“Do I have to?”

“Nope. But do it anyway.” Powell stands then and leaves him but Jack does not leave his mind.

He shows up. Mickey is marking papers and Jack appears in the corner of his eye in the doorway, hands in his pockets, and his hood still up. Powell pretends he does not see him for a moment, leaving him to wait as he scrawls comments in green ink across blue-lined paper. When Powell turns, Jack is watching intently.

“Hey, Jack. What’s up?”

“Those ours?” Jack tips his head, uses his chin as an indicator. Very cool.

“Yep.”

“Read mine yet?”

“Not yet. Should I?”

He shrugs. “Sure. If you want.”

“Okay. Have a seat.” Jack is moving to an easy chair as Mickey turns back to the desk, thumbs the short stack of papers, and pulls Reed’s out from near the bottom. He’s written a lot on the second question, the one on knowing, mostly about his own experience, what his senses tell him, and so on. But after the first question only one word. What is?

Nothing.

This, Powell knows, is what Jack wanted him to see, an adolescent gauntlet thrown down before the whole world, and further knows that this is where high school teaching is like a martial art. When you get a push, it’s important not to push back but to use the momentum for your own purpose. He says, “A little limited on the knowing question. But in a way your answer to the what is question is on the money. Could you say more about what you were thinking?”

“Just what I said – nothing. Maybe there isn’t anything. Maybe it’s all just a dream. We can’t know for sure.” There’s a little fire in his tone; somehow this means something to him.

“We can’t know everything, maybe. But that’s not to say that we can’t know anything.”

“That’s just words. You’re just playing with words.”

“Perhaps.” Powell smiles to himself. It’s a common accusation. They make it sound like playing with words is a crime against humanity. “But words are about all we’ve got. You try to reach some common understanding about anything, anything – war, peace, good, bad – you’re probably gonna have to do it with words. Better use them well.”

Jack says nothing but his lips twist in a kind of corkscrew motion that suggests thought. If so, good, Mickey thinks; if not, not much lost anyway. He goes on: “You, for instance. You say there’s nothing but I don’t think you really mean it. I mean if there’s really just nothing, why did you get out of bed?”

“What’s that got to do with – ”

“No, I’m curious, Jack.” Powell cuts him off, puts a little demand in his tone. “Why did you get out of bed this morning?”

“I don’t know.” An edge of impatience in his voice. “I was hungry. I wanted to get up here for breakfast.”

“Do you hear what you’re saying?” Powell watches eyes that are watching his. Jack doesn’t look away. “Now there’s not just nothing. Even if reality is just a dream, it’s a dream with content, in this case with hunger and with food, right? And it’s dynamic content – if not, you’d still be in bed.”

Jack’ gaze pensive now. “But you said I was right.”

“In a way you are, just not that way. Very hard to make a case that there’s literally nothing – but look at the word. Think about it as no thing. Now be particular – ask yourself whether any particular thing exists in itself. There might be some truth around the answer to that.”

“What is it? The answer to that, I mean?”

Powell shakes his head. “That’s too easy. Think about it a while and we’ll talk again, okay?”

Jack nods and turns to go, pushing his hood down off his head as he leaves. Just outside the door, he turns back. “Why did you get out of bed this morning?”

Deadpan reply. “I had to pee.”

Smiling, Jack Reed shakes his head and disappears.

Without knowing what he might be looking for, Mickey checks Jack’s file. It’s at the back of the middle drawer of the beige double-walled fireproof cabinet just outside the Dean of Students’ door – Reed, Jackson between Randall, Jennifer and Robertson, Andy. From Sackets Harbor, New York; attended school there at Sackets Harbor Central, good grades – A’s and B’s – through the middle of his sophomore year, then a slight decline followed by a serious plunge in 11th grade. Parents divorced; his mother, Ellen, a real estate agent; his father, John, a judge. One teacher said of his parents, “difficult divorce but both seem to want what’s best for him even if they don’t agree on it.” Powell considers this and wonders whatever had happened to “until death do us part?” But there are all kinds of death. He sighs, keeps the file and closes the drawer.

Wednesday morning, class time: Jack, seated at the corner of the square of tables, tucks his necklace into his tee shirt and speaks as soon as Powell comes in, even before the buzzer sounds: “Things exist.”

He’s loud enough to quiet the pre-class shuffling. Mickey asks, “In themselves?”

“Yep.” Reed is grinning, liking both the challenge and the spotlight for the moment.

“Like say a Jackson Reed? Something with that designation exists as a particular, separate entity.”

“Yep.”

“So you’re backing off your nothing answer?”

“Yep. Things exist.”

“Then the buzzer sounds, three seconds of a gratingly loud hum. “Hold that thought,” Powell tells him, and goes into the beginning-of-class routine, passing papers back, doing a quick syllabus check, greeting each student by name, then bringing them up to speed on Jack’s comment.

“Jack’s answering the ontological question – the what is one. His original answer was “nothing,” which I think may have some subtle truth, but now he’s asserting that things, particular things, exist in themselves – including one called a Jackson Reed. Agree or disagree?”

There is general agreement. Particular things do exist. Jack Reed is one of them. Mickey turns and writes on the board, IS JACK on the left side and NOT JACK on the right. “So if what you’re saying is true, we should be able to rigorously establish the boundary between Is Jack and Not Jack, right?”

Again general agreement. “Okay, so that’s the homework. For next time answer this: What happens if we completely separate Is Jack from Not Jack? Got it? Write it down.”

Powell watches them scribble and notes Jack’s attentiveness to the task.

At lunch, Mickey sees Jack Reed sitting by himself at a table just right of the center aisle in the Dining Hall. By custom, faculty sit to the left of the room, but he approaches Jack’s spot after he comes through the cafeteria line with beef stew, a biscuit, iced tea, and an apple.

“Can I join you?” He begins unloading his tray without waiting for an answer. Jack merely shrugs.

“First week going okay?” It’s a sincere question but Powell doesn’t really expect an answer. The code for adolescent boys, he knows, makes it nearly impossible to ever admit a problem, especially to an adult. Now Jack follows the code.

“Fine,” he says.

Powell nods and keeps the conversation, if it can be called that, going. “So tell me where you’re from? Upstate New York someplace, right?”

“A town no one ever heard of. Sackets Harbor.”

“On the contrary. There were two battles there, weren’t there? War of 1812?”

“Yeah.” He looks genuinely surprised. “How did you know that?”

Powell breaks his biscuit in two, dips half in the stew gravy. “Honest answer? I’m kind of a nerd. I just like to know things so I read a lot. For instance, I’m pretty sure U.S. Grant was stationed at Sackets Harbor at one time. Started wrestling with his drinking problems there. And if I’m not mistaken, Zebulon Pike is buried there.”

“Zeppelin Pike? Who’s he?”

“Zebulon. The guy who discovered Pike’s Peak. Military guy, explorer, spy. His old man served with Washington and pushed young Zeb into the army when he was fourteen. Interestingly enough he outranked his dad by the time he was killed – attacking Toronto if you can believe that, though it was called something else then. He was thirty-four. Wonder what his father thought when he was standing at the grave.”

Mickey realizes he’s rattling on but Jack is taking it in, fingering the chain around his neck. He catches half a smile at the thought of Pike having rank over his father so he heads in that direction. “What’s your dad do, Jack?”

“He’s a judge.”

“Must be tough in a small town having your father be the law.”

“Not too bad. Probably be fine if he wasn’t a fuc – if he wasn’t a local hero.”

“What’d he do? Save somebody?”

“War thing. Silver Star for something in Grenada. But locally he’ll always be the guy who made the winning shot at the buzzer the only time my old school ever beat Watertown High.”

Powell chuckles. “I imagine that is big. You play?”

“Yeah.” Jack chews for a moment then adds, “The only thing my father didn’t like about this school was that there’re no hoops.”

“That bother you?”

“Not really. I’d rather snowboard anyway.” Jack takes an interest in his salad, and Melissa and Heather join the table, complaining about epistemology first and then about the coming weekend when there will be “‘like, y’know, nothing to do.” Powell offers that their perception is skewed by their fear, their total terror really, of doing anything that anyone would consider weird. Like, say, reading a good book. Heather disagrees vehemently but Melissa sees some truth there. Mickey assures them that one of the best aspects of aging is that you care less and less about what other people think, which permits you to be weird or do weird things. Jack shuffles things on his tray, stands to go.

“Did Grant really have a drinking problem?” he asks.

“Yeah. Big time.” Powell observes that the girls are looking at both of them like they just got off a flying saucer. Jack disappears into the dish room.

In the chapel, he cannot chase Jackson Reed from his mind. While he sits on a meditation cushion, legs crossed, hands together, wrists resting on his thighs, Jack is lurking in the back of his consciousness like a shadow moving in a forest. Across from Powell, four students sit in a rough semi-circle with two lit candles on brass stands as focal points; blue and red and violet light filters through the room’s one, high, stained glass window. Powell has given the others in breathing and meditation technique but today he cannot follow his own direction. Just as his brain begins to find a quiet depth, Jack splashes in unseen and pulls it back to its surface. When the buzzer sounds, Mickey bows to the students and, while they put their shoes on, extinguishes the candles and wonders what it is about Jack that’s caught him.

In class again on Friday after lunch – the last block of the week. Usually Powell finds that the students are almost dead in their seats by this point, but today the class still has some energy. He writes IS JACK and NOT JACK on the board again and says, “Okay, folks, ontology time. Jack, you be the recorder.”

Jack steps up and reluctantly takes the sweet-smelling marker. “So we’ll limit our What Is question to What Is Jack? Anybody?”

“His body,” Charles offers from the left side of the rectangle.

“No shoes? No shirt?” Don’t we say Jack’s shoes and Jack’s shirt the same way we say Jack’s hand or Jack’s foot.”

“Yeah,” Bob, next to Charles, says, “but we mean he owns them, not that they’re part of him.”

“Okay, so clothes go under NOT JACK. But when we talk about Jack’s body we mean something different than when we talk about Jack’s clothes?”

“Yeah, ‘cause that is him,” Jessie chimes in from the right. “You know, like it’s connected.”

“Could we define that a little better? If there’s a tick feeding on the back of his leg, it’s connected, right? Is that part of him?”

“No way. That’s something else.” Jessie sniffs a little bit as if it’s obvious that Powell is cheating.

“So how do we differentiate?”

“DNA.” That’s from Dan, the class goth with the mohawk.

“Okay, DNA. Cells with Jack’s DNA are Jack and cells without it are something else. Is that it?

Lots of nods and affirmative sounding noises. Powell continues. “So Mr. Tick fills up and drops off Jack’s leg and scurries away. He’s not Jack. But the blood in his digestive track has Jack’s DNA. So that is Jack, right?”

“No, it’s gotta be attached.” From Larry who spits a little when he speaks.

“Okay, it’s attached tissue with his DNA?”

“Yeah.”

“So if he gets a heart transplant, the heart is not Jack?”

The class divides noisily on this one. Jack himself stands bemused at the board, unsure of which column a transplanted heart would go in. Mickey directs them to pair up and work on this heart question for five minutes, keeping in mind the original question: What happens if we separate Is Jack from Not Jack? He sits on the windowsill and listens to them haggling and bickering, enjoying the autumn sunlight on his back as well as the vocation of making people think. At the end of five minutes the majority have the heart under Is Jack but a handful, including Jack Reed, aren’t sure.

“Think about it this way,” Powell suggests. “What happens if we take the heart out?”

Jack dies. They all agree on that.

It is not. Or not quite.

“So the heart appears to be essential to Jack, yes?”

Yes.

“So here’s the ontology lesson. At the cellular level, at the molecular level, at these levels way below our consciousness, these transplants happen all the time. Stuff is coming and going all the time – oxygen and carbon and whatever else we need. If it did not, we would cease to live just as surely as Jack would cease if he did not have that heart. Even our DNA molecules are dynamic in this way, not static. No one thing exists alone. No thing. Nothing.”

The buzzer sounds. Jack, chewing his lip a bit, exits behind Melissa.

Friday night, 9:30, Big Duty. Powell’s task, actually called Duty Captain, is to supervise the weekend residential staff and to handle whatever comes up. On a good weekend it’s not hard but with a hundred plus adolescents you never know. By custom, the faculty called it Big Duty, the kids Big Doody. Usually he’d be based in McClure, the main campus building but tonight he’s sitting in Rice, the older boys’ dorm because Larry, the Rice dorm head is running a Chevy Chase film fest in McClure’s Meeting Hall.

It’s quiet. Less than a dozen of the thirty-six boys who live there are around, Jackson Reed among them. When Mickey looks in on them, Jack’s in the lounge with a couple of other guys, playing a gruesome video game on a PlayStation. Powell bones up on Kant for philosophy class and listens to the sounds the dorm makes – hip-hop music from upstairs somewhere, voices now and then, someone tunelessly strumming a guitar, the plumbing whooshing and groaning. Then pandemonium – shouting, crashing, glass breaking. A boy appears at the top of the stairs, shouts his name, disappears before he can see who it is.

“GODDAM IT! FUCKING GODDAM IT!” He hears the words before he’s even in the hall. There are six or seven guys outside a room, Jack’s room, looking in. “GODDAM IT!”

Something is thrown, then pounding, then more glass breaking. Powell shoulders his way through the crowd to the doorway. The room is trashed, both upper and lower panes of one window are shattered, and Jack is pounding at the lower pane of the other, bleeding badly from his right arm.

“Knock it off, Jack.” Powell steps over a tumbled speaker into the center of the room. Jack Reed stops pounding, considers the intruder, turns to swing at the window again. Pivoting on his left foot, Powell grabs Jack’s shirt with his left hand and, pulling him back slightly, slides his right under the boy’s right arm, looping his own arm behind Jack’s head while sweeping his left foot with his own right. They go down hard on the bed, luckily hitting the mattress and not the foot rail.

“Go get Larry now,” Mickey calls to the boys at the door.

“GODDAM IT!” Jack tries to squirm free but Powell has his left hand now, twisting it up behind his back. “GET THE FUCK OFF ME!”

“Not gonna happen, Jack, until you are completely calm. Which will either be now or when you run out of blood.” He’s still struggling but less intensely now. “Someone get me a towel.”

Mickey is aware of a wall of faces behind him in the doorway as Jack’s resistance stops. He sees a towel being waved and says, “Toss that over here and shut the door.”

The towel hits his shoulder and the faces disappear. He speaks quietly to Jack now, almost whispering. “I’m going to let you go now, Jack. We have to get to the hospital to deal with the bleeding. But if you get wild at all, I’m going to have to knock you out. I mean that. Understood?”

“Yeah,” is all Jack says.

Mickey releases Jack carefully and grasps his right arm. It’s cut in several places and blood is oozing – not spurting – all along his forearm, covering his hand. Which means no arterial cuts – a lucky break. There’s a red mark on his right palm, as if something sharp had been pressed there – but what? Nothing obvious in sight. He winds the towel tightly around Jack’s right arm and places the boy’s left hand on the loose end. Jack avoids looking at him. “Hold that up over your head and keep pressure on it."

Mickey helps Jack up and guides him into the hall passing the other guys who are silent and staring. Larry comes in out of breath from McClure. “I’m taking Jack to the ER,” Powell tells him. “Fax his med forms over there. Start an incident report. And don’t let anyone into his room until we can get the blood cleaned up.”

The hospital is less than ten minutes away and the emergency room is not crowded. When asked, Jack tells the admitting nurse that he was goofing around with some other guys and accidentally broke a window. Powell lets the lie go and the emergency room paramedic comes out to take him in. Mickey phones Larry while he’s gone and learns that Jack had just taken a call when the incident occurred. “See if you can find his phone,” Mickey says, “and plan on having him on your couch tonight.”

In forty-five minutes or so, the nurse re-emerges with Jack, arm wrapped and taped in white, holding a pink sheet of discharge instructions and an orange bottle with two Vicodins. The nurse goes over the discharge instructions efficiently, collects Powell’s autograph, and releases Mr. Reed (as she calls him) to Powell’s care.

“So what was all that about, Jack?” They’re in Powell’s car.

Jack looks out the passenger window. “Like I said, it was an accident.”

“I was there, Jack.” Powell keeps his voice even. “You need a better story.”

“Whatever.”

They take the interstate bypass across the ridge over the top of the town and exit on Mt. Gilman Road. When they’re on the steep pitch past the streetlights Jack says, “Hey? Mickey?”

“Hmmm.” This time it’s Powell who stares straight ahead.

“You took me down pretty quick tonight.”

“I guess.”

“Where’d you learn to do that?”

“The army. You don’t really forget.”

“But aren’t you a priest?”

“Yeah. The army was before that.”

Jack doesn’t say anything else. At the dorm, Mickey picks up the incident report and turns over Jack, the discharge instructions, and the pills. Larry says simply, “It’s on your desk,” and Jack, dulled a bit by Vicodin, does not ask what he’s talking about. When they’ve left him, Powell wanders back up to McClure, now darkened for the night, and fumbles his way into his office. A cell phone smaller than a deck of cards waits with an envelope next to his coffee mug. Flipping it open, he presses buttons and jots on his blotter the numbers that come up on the blue lit screen. Digging in the Out-basket yields Jack’s file and in it Mickey finds an entrance information form, which quickly confirms a hunch. At 9:33, Jack had received a call from his mother’s number; at 9:37 he had placed a call to his father’s. Now picking up the envelope, Powell notes Larry’s scrawl: On the bed, thought you might want to see. Inside a blood-spattered dog tag and a broken chain, Army issue, serial number and a name – John Reed. The mark on Jack’s hand, Powell thinks. He finishes the report, drops it in the dean’s mailbox, locks first the office, then the building, and heads toward home, a small cottage just below the summit of a steep hill overlooking the campus. Knocking around his kitchen and living room restlessly, he resists the impulse to pour himself a scotch, thinks of Jack, of Zebulon Pike, and of Fred Grant who, Powell dimly remembers, went to war with his father at the age of twelve. He sits in a Queen Anne wingback chair, lets the thoughts roll quietly until their energy is dispersed, and is almost dozing when the ancient proverb wells up from some seminary class long before: “The fathers have eaten sour grapes and the sons’ teeth are set on edge.” Not supposed to be that way, he thinks, as sleep overtakes him.

It’s a Julia thing, Powell knows. The Dean of Students always has to process the incidents – collect information, decide what really happened, propose a response to the Head of School who would make the final call. Usually the chaplain was out of that loop and glad of it but this time he can’t quite let go. He meets her to debrief after lunch on Saturday morning, filling in the details that the spare language of the written report omits. When he’s finished, he asks, “What’s the prognosis?”

“He goes home.” Julia Rouday exudes calm. Of the deans Powell has served with she is the best at collecting the facts, considering similar cases, and looking for a fair and helpful outcome. “Suspension at least, for breaking the window. Maybe dismissal. Pretty hard to ignore that level of anger. And that’s without thinking about self-harm.”

“What did the parents say?”

“What you’d expect. He’s never done anything like that before but they understand that it’s unacceptable.”

“Did you ask then about the phone calls?”

“Both of them say the same thing – they were just weekly check-in calls. The parents didn’t pick up any red flags.”

“Did you believe them?”

Julia does not answer immediately. She meets his gaze for a long moment, unblinking, then vaguely shakes her head. “On the face of it there’s no reason not to. But something about Anne, the mother?” She rolls her blue eyes up now as if looking for an answer on her ceiling. “For one thing she used almost exactly the same words that his dad did but they came out funny – unevenly, you know? Like maybe she wasn’t too sure of her lines? Just a feeling, though.”

“What about Jack? What’s he say?”

“Same as with you – not much of anything. Just says he lost it.”

“What’s the timetable?”

“Sam’s out of town until late tonight.” Sam is Sam Robeson, the Head of School. “I told his parents to expect calls tomorrow.”

“There’s something that we’re not hearing,” Powell says. Julia nods thoughtfully and they sit without speaking, the quiet of the office broken by a faint R&B backbeat leaching through the walls from a boombox in the lobby. Mickey considers what a funny thing caring is. A kid’s around only a week – ten days if you counted orientation – and already this web of care was spun around him. Irrational, really, unless you believed that caring was what humans were built for. “If you don’t mind,” he says, “I’d like to take another shot at him this afternoon. Okay?”

“Sure, Mick. What have you got in mind?”

“I don’t know. Get him out of here, I think. Can you get Big Duty covered for me?”

“Yep – whatever you need.”

Whatever you need. And what, Powell wonders, would that be? He’s crossing the parking lot, heading toward Rice in the crisp September sunshine. What did he need? What did Jack need? Or anyone for that matter? Not just the basics – food and drink, shelter and clothing. They were enough to keep the body alive maybe but was that really living? Powell looks up at the bright blue sky and shook his head, smiling. Always willing to give us questions, aren’t you? But how about some answers?

As soon as he opens the door, the unmistakable smell of the boys’ dorm greets him – dirty socks, flatulence, and stale pizza. Even brought in blindfolded he would know exactly where on the planet he was. The sounds are typical for a Saturday – a dryer thumping arrhythmically in the basement, the unceasing bleat of a forgotten alarm, TV noise from the lounge down the hall, indistinct voices from the second floor. Mickey ducks into the stairwell, two-at-a-times the steps up, and dodges through a hallway stickball game to Jack’s room at the far end. The door is cracked open an inch. Powell knocks but pushes it open without waiting for a reply. With the broken windows now boarded, the room is gloomy. Jack, in jeans and a grey tee shirt, is sitting at his PC playing computer solitaire, his right forearm wrapped in white almost to the elbow. He half turns, sees Powell, turns back.

“Hey, Jack.”

No response. Jack clicks the mouse and three more electric cards flip, a queen of clubs on top.

Powell steps up behind him, reaches down for the surge protector plug in the wall socket, and pulls it. Jack Reed spins off his chair and stands.

“Fuck you.”

Powell makes no reply, waits a beat, lets the silence build, then says, “That really what you wanted to tell me?”

“Okay, right, you know so much.” Jack tries to hold onto his defiance but his sarcasm is forced and his left foot slides back an inch or two. “What should I have said?”

“Maybe ‘thank you’ would have been a good beginning.”

Head down now, thumbs thrust in his jeans pockets as if trying to find something to hold onto.

“You got hiking boots, Jack?”

A nod, no words.

“Put ‘em on. We’re going for a walk.”

“What is this, a prison? You can’t make me do that.” Jack puffing himself again like a small fish in front of a barracuda. What fear does, Powell thinks.

Mickey scratches his right ear and sighs. “Mind if I sit down?”

No answer. Powell sits on the edge of a rumpled bed. “You’re right.” He tries to keep his tone matter of fact. “I can’t make you. And, no, this is not a prison. In jail, you can’t leave. Here the question is whether you can stay.”

Standing again, moving to the door. “I’ll be back in fifteen minutes. If Sackets Harbor is looking good to you . . . well, no hard feelings. If not, have your boots on.”

When he returns, the boots are on and laced up. He slides into Powell’s Subaru without speaking. Does not speak on the winding ride through Bethlehem and Twin Mountain, says nothing on the gravel road that bridges the Ammonoosuc and climbs a mile to a trailhead parking lot by a brook, where he stands wordlessly as Powell straps on a small fanny pack with clear water bottles in its holsters. Mickey considers the stream, emerald green in the sunshine and running low with lots of rock exposed at its banks. From where they are, its waters wound down to the river, flowed thirty or so miles to the Connecticut at Woodsville, then three hundred more to Long Island Sound give or take a few.

All streams run to the sea but the sea is not full. Ecclesiastes, he recalls.

“C’mon.” The path drops down from the roadway to the edge of the brook. Powell waits at the water and is pleased to find Jack only a few steps behind. He stoops to grasp a smooth granite melon, passes it to Jack who cradles it awkwardly against his left side with his unbandaged arm, lifts another up to his own gut.

“What’re these for?” Jack’s first words since his room.

Powell gives him a look that he hopes appears puzzled. “Man, this is an easy hike. The rocks are what makes it a challenge.”

“Are you kidding? This thing is heavy.”

“You saying you can’t do it?” There is no immediate reply and Powell does not wait for one. For the first quarter mile or so the trail runs along the stream, and Powell uses that mostly flat stretch to play with his rock, finally finding that cradling it like a football works best, his left hand and forearm snugging it to his side just below the rib cage. That’s where it’s resting when the trail breaks away from the water and begins to climb, first across a weedy snowmobile track and then more steeply up into the woods. Jackson Reed follows without speaking for the next quarter mile, but just as they pass two huge lichened erratics Powell hears a thud and turns to find Jack panting and empty-handed.

“Fuck this.” Sweat is beaded out on Jack’s forehead, and he is flexing and shaking his left arm. Powell steps off the path, sits on a boulder, carefully sets his own rock down, eases a water bottle out of its holster, and hands it to Jack, who drinks, breathes a little, drinks again.

“This is stupid, man. I’m going back.”

Powell nods, takes a drink from the other bottle. “Do what you need to do,” he says. “I’ll wait here.”

Apparently not the answer Jack had expected. “I’m not doing this.”

Mickey shrugs. “That’s something we don’t agree on then, because I think you are. But in any case I’m not going back until I’ve been to the top, and I’m not going there without you and your rock.”

The boy is flustered, Powell sees; agitated, maybe a little scared now clenching his hands, now wiping his face. “I don’t want to do this.”

Nodding again, waiting, finally pointing at the bigger of the two erratics, a rock as big as a dump truck. “You see that? A glacier moved that here, a couple hundred miles at least. You think it wanted to come?”

Jack wide-eyed, incredulous. “It’s a rock, man.”

“You think that matters? You think it wouldn’t have moved you?”

“That’s dumb. I woulda got out of there.”

“Then you’d still be moved.”

Flushed and angry, Jack throws the water bottle back at Powell. “You’re crazy,” he says. But he picks up his rock and stalks up the trail. He does not stop – not at the plank bog bridge, not on the stone steps up to the shoulder, not on the steep climb to the col, not until the trail junction marker.

“Which way?” He is out of breath and red-faced but looks less grim now. Powell offers water and he takes the bottle eagerly reaching with his bandaged right arm, still clinging to the rock with his left. After a long gulp he says again, “Which way?” Mickey points left and Jack sets out again, still at a good clip but somewhat more slowly than before. Maybe something is sinking in there, Powell thinks, letting Reed go on a bit before following, his own rock still cradled in an aching arm.

The sun-dappled forest in the col is evergreen, and the scent of the trees perfumes the air. Powell lets his eyes wander through the woods as he walks, noticing only an occasional hemlock among the predominant black spruce and balsam fir. Signs of poor soil, he remembers, marveling a bit that even without much nutrient, creatures of such surpassing beauty could take root and grow. Ahead of him Jack is now out of sight but he can faintly hear footfalls, boots on rock, working their way up the trail.

Mickey catches up with him again at the foot of a twenty-foot ladder just below the summit. Jack is looking up, still breathing hard, still clutching his stone.

“Am I going up that with this?”

Powell shakes his head, bending to set his own rock at the side of the trail. “Probably not a good idea. I have a question for you, though.”

“What?” With surprising care Jack sets his stone next to Powell’s.

“Is that rock Jack or Not Jack?”

Jack eyes him uncertainly, wavering it seems between laughing and spitting, finally shaking his head. “Man, you are crazy.”

“Think about it.” Powell shakes his forearm and hand, glad to be rid of the weight. “I’ll ask you again when we come down.” He turns and climbs the ladder, hears Jack’s boots on the rungs below him.

At the top, the narrow trail runs ten yards between stubby, wind-gnarled spruce and low-lying laurel bushes before opening onto a sunlit granite dome.

“Wow!” Jack says as he steps up in the sunlight beside Mickey and lets his eyes run up the forested expanse of the Zealand River’s valley towards Mount Tom and into the endless blue sky beyond. It is the reaction that Powell had hoped for, the involuntary wonder of moving from a small space into an infinitely larger one. They stand without speaking for a moment, drinking the view in, turning to trace the silhouette of the Presidential Range rising toward Mount Washington in the crisp, limpid air.

“Do you want to sit for a minute?”

Jack, still staring out over the mountains, simply nods. Powell leads him across the face of the summit to a spot out of the wind just below a misshapen boulder which serves as both heat reflector and backrest when they sit down. He sneaks peeks at Jack as he lets the time pass – five minutes, then ten, then fifteen, all in a quiet absorption that Powell knows he will soon be breaking up. How do I ask? Before he can formulate a plan, another voice echoes in his mind. Do not be anxious what you will say.

“Your father drinks, doesn’t he, Jack?”

Reed’s jaw tenses but he does not look at Powell. “What makes you say that?”

“Grant. You asked me about his drinking problem. Not what most people want to know about.”

Jack says nothing. He’s looking down now, tracing circles on the stone with the index finger of his bandaged hand. Powell pictures words on a form. Difficult divorce.

“And when he drinks he hits you and your mom, doesn’t he?”

Now Reed’s head snaps up. He stares at Powell for a moment, then drops his gaze again. “How did you know that? Did she tell you?”

Powell sees a glistening at the corner of Jack’s eye. “No, she didn’t. You just did.”

Jack doesn’t look up and doesn’t speak. Listening to the sound of the breeze soughing through the forest below them, Mickey watches three chick-adees dart and hop on the stone face a few yards downslope from their seats, feels the warmth of the sunshine on his forearm. In quietness will be our strength. Wasn’t there a prayer like that? Finally he softly says, “Remember a few minutes ago when we came up here out of the woods?”

A quick glance and nod from Jack.

“Can you tell me how it felt?”

Jack nods again, wipes his eye with the back of his hand. “It was cool – like I was big, y’know? Like I was really alive.”

“That’s it. The wow moment.” Powell hears the echo of a text – I came that they might have life and have it abundantly. “Wholeness, that’s what it is. Sometimes we get to see that we are parts of a great big whole. Wholeness. Or holiness. It’s the same root.”

“You mean like God.”

“Yeah, like that. Whatever God is, it’s not something that’s over there while we’re over here. It’s where we are and what we are – or what we could be anyway. You, me, your mother, your father – all of us are parts of it. But only if we say yes to it. All of it – even the parts that hurt.”

“No, no.” Jack is shaking his head as his voice rises. “I’m not saying yes to anything that includes him.”

“Okay. I can’t say that I blame you.” Powell sits quietly with Jack’s anger, watches the landscape, sees a heron rise over the river. “But don’t kid yourself. You do care about him.”

Quick searing fury. “Not any more. I’ve got nothing to do with him and he’s got nothing to do with me.”

The bird is flying up the valley to where the road ends, its legs trailing behind, ungainly and graceful at once. Like all of us, Mickey thinks. He asks evenly, “Nothing to do with you? Whose blood was that last night?”

“You don’t know anything about it!”

Against the backdrop of the trees, the heron has disappeared. “I don’t know much, Jack. But I do know that you wear his dog tag. You may hate what he does, you may want him to be different – but you care. And that’s a good thing, even if it hurts.”

No response. Jack Reed pulls his knees up to his chest, encircles them with his arms, and rests his brow on his bandaged wrist, concealing his expression. Powell lets the sunlight warm him as a psalm comes to mind: How long will you hide your face from me? What we say to God all the time, he thinks, when it’s us doing the hiding. As if we could. At last he says, “That’s a pretty big mess to be handling alone, isn’t it?”

Jack lifts his chin, looks out over the woods and up the valley, says, “Can we go now?”

Without speaking they stand, cross the bald granite dome, find the path, and descend the ladder. Turning round at the ladder’s foot, Powell is surprised to see Reed lifting his rock. Squatting next to his own, he runs his hand over its smooth, cool surface. “What did you decide? Jack or Not Jack?”

“It’s Jack, right?” He is cradling the ovoid stone as if it were alive.

“I think it is – and your mother and father and me, too.” Jack’s eyes on Powell, probing and searching. “Now the question is what are you going to do with it?”

“Whaddya mean?”

Powell pats the rock in front of him. “We all get at least one, Jack. Some folks just lug it around, let it slow them down. Some carve it into something beautiful if they have the talent. Some make it a part of the foundation of the life they build. But you gotta put it down for that, figure out where it fits, maybe get some help from a stonemason.”

He watches as the young man moves to the foot of the ladder, watches him inspect it bottom to top, watches him turn with his rock to sit on the third rung to carefully consider the stone. For a long moment there is only the quiet of the wind before he speaks.

“If this is Jack,” he says, “what’s Not Jack?”

“Hmmm.” Powell shakes his head and Jack tucks the rock back close against himself. “I’m not sure. Could be that each of us is part of everything and vice versa.”

Now nothing but the shift of the shadows as the treetops sway in the wind until Jack turns suddenly, calls out to Powell to wait for him and begins an awkward climb, one hand on the ladder, one still cradling the rock. Mickey lets him reach the top before he follows. Just as he clears the ladder he can see Jack Reed silhouetted in sunlight at the place where the trees open onto the dome. As he approaches, Jack bends, carefully sits his rock down, and stands again, surveying the wooded valley and the mountains rising beyond it.

“This is where it needs to be,” he says, looking out over the landscape once more, then turning back to Powell. “We can go now.”

Jack brushes by and Mickey Powell casts a glance over the scene. In a way not much, he thinks. Only a stone on a stone. But not nothing either. Yes. Not nothing.

About the Author

E. Farrell

E. Farrell lives in South Hadley, Massachusetts and has been writing fiction and off and on for forty years. Over that span of time, his short fiction has appeared in numerous literary journals. His first novel, White Angel, was published by Dark Ink Press in 2018. At times he has also served as a ditch digger, retail manager, salesperson, sheet metal worker, international executive, teacher, chaplain, student, consultant, security guard, orderly, parent, partner, poet, and singer, with something learned at every stop.