As teenagers, David, Miranda, and Cameron discovered something that changed their lives forever. Now, twenty-three years later, Cameron is dead, and David and Miranda must unravel the mystery of his death–before they are next.
It was almost noon when they passed the town limit sign, and he knew already he was cutting it close; but he had to stop for a moment anyway. There was a wide dirt turnaround behind the sign, where he pulled over and put the rented sedan in park. He asked Miranda to wait, and left the car idling while he walked back along the shoulder. Shielding his eyes, he turned and looked up at the sign. “Welcome to Henderson” was written in large letters across the top; underneath, and smaller, was the admonition to “Respect Our Children” and “Drive Safely”.
He shook his head, bemused; the sign had never been changed, as long as he could remember. In fact…his fingers probed the bottom third of the sign, until they found two small depressions, full of grey road dust. Pellet gun shots, dating back a good twenty years. For a moment, he considered fixing them—it would be easy—but then he dismissed the idea. Some things never change. Some never should.
Back in the car, he sat a moment, lost in thought, before putting it in drive. She respected his silence; they had both been gone a long time, and coming back carried weight for both of them. No one else had passed by while he stopped—the quiet in Henderson was another thing that never changed, and never would—but they were still running late. So, pushing the past away, he pulled out and headed into town, to the one place he least wanted to go.
24 hours earlier:
“David?” Miranda was coming out the back door, cell phone in hand. “Phone for you, David.” She sounded anxious, but that was no indication of the caller’s identity; she was always anxious.
David put down the wrench and stood up. Turning, he grabbed his t-shirt from the porch step and wiped his face with it. “Good, I need a break. This mower is a piece of junk anyway.” He reached for the phone. “Who is it?”
“I…don’t know.” She frowned at the uncertainty in her own voice; she could always recognize it even if she couldn’t help it. “She said she was calling from Henderson.”
David’s face grew serious at that. They rarely went back home, and had distanced themselves from most of that life; a call from Henderson was probably not good. “This is David.” He listened for a moment; then abruptly, he turned to sit on the steps. Through his tan, his face went white; Miranda must have noticed—not always a sure thing—because she came to sit beside him. “I understand,” he said at length. “It’s…wow. Hard to believe. But I…” he paused. “Yeah, we’ll be there. Such short notice?” Another pause. “I suppose so. It’s the way he did things all the time. Just get it done, you know? Okay, we’re on our way. See you tomorrow.” He ended the call, then handed the phone back.
In a rare gesture of understanding, Miranda took his hand. “What’s wrong?”
He sat silent for a long minute, staring out over the half-mowed yard, toward the mountains that were just visible in the distance. “Cam’s dead,” he said at last.
Miranda seemed to mull that over. “How?”
“Cancer. Of all things.” David shook his head. “Lung cancer, even though he never smoked a day in his life. It was fast, too. Six months.”
“But…why didn’t they tell you? Or me? We never knew.”
“That was Erica on the phone—his mom? You remember.” Of course she knew, but sometimes she forgot things, even things she had known for years. “She said that he gave specific instructions not to tell me until after he was gone. She said his last request was for things to go on between us like they always have.”
“But we didn’t get to say goodbye.”
“He didn’t want to. And you know that’s just like him. Anyway, it’s too late now.” He stood up and draped the shirt over his shoulder. “You should pack a bag, I guess. Take something to wear to the funeral. I’m going to clean up, and then book us a flight.” He started into the house. “The funeral is tomorrow at noon.”
The funeral, as it turned out, was delayed half an hour. There was time before it started to mingle with the other mourners; to talk to Erica, who greeted them both—as always—with a kiss on the cheek. Before they could get up to the casket, David’s parents came in, and David and Miranda found themselves caught up in the hellos and the how-have-you-beens (not to mention a few “you-should-call-mores”). They spent a few minutes catching up on the situation at home, and on the local gossip, and on why—still yet—David and Miranda hadn’t turned their parents into grandparents.
Five minutes before the service, David excused himself and made his way to the front, where the mourners were beginning to disperse to their seats. He stood at the casket, gazing down at the still form of his best and oldest friend, thinking, as people always do, that Cam looked nothing like himself. The boy who had run around every corner of this town with David, who had lived as much at David’s house as at his own…that boy was nowhere to be seen. Cameron looked gaunt now, wasted by the disease that had eventually claimed him, with the marks of IV bruises peeking out from the edges of his cuffs…his hair had never completely fallen out, but it was thin and patchy, and he bore wrinkles beyond his years. In a word, old. “I guess we never really know, do we?” he murmured. “I’ll miss you, Cam.”
One thing remained. David glanced around to make sure no one was watching—although, of course, they wouldn’t notice anything odd even if they were. Seeing no one close by, he reached down and touched Cam’s cold right hand….
An absence. That was the only way to describe what he felt. The thing he was looking for, that crucial difference, was gone, leaving behind no trace of its existence. He thought for a moment about trying to call it up, to bring it back—to fix Cam, just as he had thought of fixing the town limit sign. That thought, he didn’t just dismiss; he banished it, a chill running down his spine, running from the temptation. Glancing over his shoulder at Miranda, he remembered giving in to that same temptation, and shivered again.
Per Cam’s orders prior to his death, David was spared from being a pallbearer, although he would have gladly done it; rather, Cam had ordered that David, Miranda, and David’s parents be seated on the front row, with his own family, and acknowledged as guests of honor. They found their seats just as the soloist—an old high school friend named Jeannette—stood up to sing “Amazing Grace”. Miranda didn’t cry during the solo, but she lost it during the eulogy, delivered by the pastor of the church where they had grown up; her tears almost took David over with them, but he managed to restrain himself. He thought at that time that one didn’t cry for those one really loved, if only because tears couldn’t suffice. But it was a struggle.
There was a long line, then, of people standing up to say what they remembered and loved about Cameron Dawson. He was both well-loved and well-known in town, and the words of praise went on for longer than the eulogy itself. David didn’t know what he would say until he stood up; in the end, he told a few stories about their childhood exploits, which were legendary in town anyway, and drew a few laughs on top of the tears already flowing in the room. Erica stood up afterward, and talked about the day she brought Cameron—she was the only one who had ever routinely called him Cameron—home from the hospital, and the day she took him back—for his first chemotherapy. No one else had anything to say after that.
David and Miranda rode in silence to the cemetery, a mile and a half down the street, where the earth was already turned and the pavilion was assembled. They were offered front-row seats again, but David declined; he was feeling too much like the center of attention already. So, letting Miranda sit with his parents, he stood at the back of the pavilion and listened as the minister delivered his final speech. A final blessing, and the casket was lowered into the dark earth; and just like that, Cameron Dawson was truly gone.
Later, they sat around Erica’s kitchen table, drinking coffee and ignoring the piles of food dropped off by well-wishers; no one felt like eating. Erica herself bustled around the kitchen, opening and closing cabinets, cleaning little things that didn’t need cleaning, until at last she gave a sigh and flopped into a chair. “I feel like I should be doing something, you know,” she said, looking lost. “The last six months, there was always something to do. He took a lot of care, here at the end.” For a moment she looked as though she would cry again, but nothing happened. David imagined that she was cried out for the moment; she had done her share during the funeral. “But now…I just don’t know what to do with myself.”
“You’ll be fine,” David said, reaching over to pat her hand. He smiled. “You’re the happiest person on Earth. This won’t stop you for long.”
“That’s exactly what Cameron said when Bill passed away,” she said, referring to her late husband—Cam’s stepfather; his father had died very young, when Cam was an infant. “I guess he was right. He usually was. But right now—“and here her voice cracked “—it doesn’t feel that way.”
There was nothing to say to that, really. “I miss him, too,” David ventured at last.
“Well.” She sipped her coffee, then set the cup down. “Of course he missed you too, David. And you too, Miranda. I tried so many times to get him to fly out to Colorado and see you; I know he had the money, but I would have given it to him if he didn’t. But he always just smiled at me, and said…” she faltered.
“What?” Miranda prompted after a moment.
“Oh…it’s strange. He would just say that he didn’t need to see you to be your friend. It sounded so cold, but I know he didn’t mean it that way…Then he said something sentimental, but it was even stranger. He would say that some friendships were like fine china, too special to take out every day, but more important because of that.” She frowned. “I guess that’s not really a “guy” thing to say, is it? But that’s what he would say.”
“We understand what he meant,” David said. “And it was the right thing to say. Besides, we talked a lot.”
She nodded. “I know you did. And I know that that was enough for the three of you. But just so you know that I tried.” She pierced them both with an intense look. “But one thing has to be eating at you both. I know it would bother me. You must want to know why he didn’t tell you.”
It was Miranda who answered. “I would, anyway.”
Erica nodded. “Well…I can’t really explain it. But I think that it may have been for the most human reason of all: He didn’t want you to see him that way.”
“Are you saying he wanted to spare us?” Miranda said. “But we could have been there for him. We could have…”
“Done what?” She shook her head. “Honey, there’s nothing anybody could do. We tried everything. And what you don’t know is, you were there for him. Every time you called, every email he got from you, he felt better afterward. Just for a while, but a little while was enough. He clung to those calls and emails like a lifeline. He talked a lot near the end about how he was glad to have you two to carry on after…well, you know. Now, how could anybody see that and not let him make that decision the way he wanted to?”
David surprised himself, then. “It’s what I would have done, too.” The words hung in the air.
Finally, Erica spoke again. “I knew that, I think. You two boys were more alike than twins sometimes, even if you did have different hair and different faces. There was always something special about you two when you got together.” She glanced at Miranda. “And you too, Miranda, don’t think I’m leaving you out. But it was just a little different with the boys.”
They talked then about the reading of the will, which would be held in two days, as per Cam’s directions. He was adamant that David and Miranda be there, although they knew he possessed very little to pass on; money—he was good at making money, even in a small town—that would likely go to Erica, but very little personal property. He had done without much in the way of belongings, not because he had to, but because he preferred it that way. That was one way in which he and David had differed; although David was far from rich, he had made sure that they lived comfortably.
The sun slipped below the horizon as they talked; and finally, David and Miranda stood to go. Erica walked them to the door, gave them the obligatory peck on the cheek, and then caught herself. “Oh! I almost forgot. Wait right here.” She left the room, and came back shortly, holding out a key. “Here. This is the key to Cam’s apartment—you know, he paid it up ahead for the whole year just so it wouldn’t be a problem during his…decline. I haven’t been in there for weeks, myself. He spent two weeks in the hospital, and then the last two weeks here, with hospice coming in. But he insisted that I give this to you, David, and he said he left something there for you. He was very secretive, he wouldn’t tell me what it was. But he said that you would know how to find it. What do you think he meant by that?”
He made Miranda wait in the car again. She didn’t complain; she knew the reason why. As she settled in with a book, he mounted the steps to Cam’s fourth-floor apartment, cursing for a moment his friend’s sense of economy that kept him from taking a place on the more expensive ground floor. It was 9:30 on a school night, and the halls were quiet; no one was there to see as he turned the key in the lock; yet he made sure to lock the door behind him. It wouldn’t do to have someone wander in now.
He turned on only one light, just enough to keep from tripping over the rugs in the living room. This search would be easier in darkness. He paused a moment, though, to survey Cam’s apartment, cramped as it was. Here his friend had chosen to live, to write the books that paid his way through a life that had proven to be far too short. He waited, hoping to feel some sign of Cam’s presence, even in his imagination; but there was nothing. The place felt sterile now, uninhabited, already ready for a new occupant.
But Erica had said there was something here for him.
Cam’s possessions were Spartan, but still, there were enough things here that he would never know what Cam had left if he only used his eyes. No, something more was in order; it was why he had made Miranda stay behind. He didn’t dare do this close to her. Sighing, he closed his eyes—not necessary, but helpful—and reached out with his mind. As always, the image that came to him was one of raising his hand to tap a shimmering wall with one finger, although he didn’t move physically. In his mind, he tapped the wall…and the portal opened onto iridescent light.
It always seemed that the light was liquid, in some sense that he couldn’t explain. He called out a single drop of it, letting it settle like a pearl into his palm; released, the portal in his mind faded and closed. When he opened his eyes, the pearl of light glimmered in his real palm. He concentrated, focusing on thoughts of Cam, of what Erica had said—then he cast the pearl away from him, into the living room.
It flashed to the center of the room, above the coffee table; then it flared bright, and was transformed. David blinked; when his vision cleared, it was no longer a pearl, but a ball of flame, as wide as his hand, flickering white and yellow in the air. No heat radiated from it; the flames weren’t real, just the image that his creation gave off. He nodded at the ball of flame. “Go.”
The ball took off as if launched, streaking through the apartment’s four rooms, seemingly at random. It flashed through closed cabinets without touching them; wove under the kitchen table; once, it went through the television, leaving a glowing afterimage. It explored the bathroom, found nothing, then darted into the bedroom; and there it stayed.
David followed it in, to find it hovering over a covered stand in the corner. Leaving the ball in place for the illumination, he pulled off the cover, and found a steel safe, a little smaller than an end table. He didn’t know the combination, but…another drop of light fell into his hand. This one, he pressed into the keyhole beside the combination dial; then he made a turning gesture with his hand. The lock clicked, and the light in the keyhole winked out.
Inside the safe was a shoebox, taped shut with what looked to be an entire roll of packing tape. Taped to the top was a manila envelope with only one word on it, in Cam’s ragged script: David.
It was late, and the Webb house was quiet. “Did Mom go to bed?” David said as his father entered the room. Jake Webb was in his late fifties now, but he still carried himself with strength; his years as a mechanic and laborer had refined him rather than beaten him down, as so often happened. He joined David at the kitchen table, pouring himself a cup of coffee before he did.
“She’s out for the night,” Jake said. “She has to work in the morning. She wanted to take the day off, but it was too late in the week. I guess Miranda went on up, too.” It was not really a question.
“Yeah. I think the flight did her in, and then the funeral and all…” Any kind of stress at all was more than Miranda could handle, really; they had known it for years. “Thanks for letting us stay here, Dad.”
Jake shook his head. “What a crazy thing to say. When have you ever not been welcome here, Dave?” Jake was the only one who had ever called him Dave; it was David to everyone else. “It’s still your home, too.”
“Well…thanks just the same.” David took a sip from his own coffee mug. “I’m sorry we haven’t been around much in a while. And even sorrier that it has to be like this.”
“It’s never good when you have to come back for a burial. I’d say any reason to see you two is a good one, but…well, you know.”
“Yeah. And speaking of knowing: I guess you knew about this before?”
Jake nodded. “I’m sorry I didn’t tell you about it. But Cam wanted it kept a secret. As soon as he found out, he came around talked to us about it. I think he must have had that talk with everybody that you might talk to.” He shrugged. “I’m sorry, Dave, but…you know Cam. He could usually make a person see things his way.”
“I know. I don’t really blame you.” He fell silent for a moment.
“So,” Jake said after a minute, “How long do you want to stay? I mean, you’re welcome as long as you need.”
“I don’t know yet,” David said. “We need to be here for the reading, the day after tomorrow. But I took the whole week off…I never use my vacation time, anyway, so I had plenty to spare. We might stay.” He left the most important part out—that they would stay until it got too uncomfortable.
“Whatever you choose is fine,” Jake said. He knew without being told.
David set the mug aside with a frown. “Speaking of the reading…I think Cam left us something else, besides whatever comes up in the reading. “ He reached into the next seat and picked up the shoebox and the envelope. “He had this waiting in the apartment for us. Any idea what it might be?”
“No,” Jake said. “Never seen it before. Open it, let’s find out.” He pulled a folding knife from his pocket, opened it, and offered it to David.
David slit the thick layers of tape, working around the edges of the box until the lid came free. Leaving the envelope still taped to the top, he gazed into the box. “Wow.”
Half of the box was filled to capacity with tightly bound stacks of bills. David pulled one from the box and thumbed through it. “All hundreds. There must be a quarter of a million dollars in here! What was he doing with all this cash?”
“Leaving it for you, apparently,” Jake said. He took the bundle from David’s hand, rubbing it between his fingers as if he couldn’t believe it was real. “I’ve never seen so much in one place.”
“Neither have I,” David said. “Cam just tripled my savings, maybe more. I mean, I knew he was successful, but like this?” He took the bundle back and put it back in its place. “Erica should have this, not us.”
“Oh, you can bet that he’s taken good care of her too,” Jake said. “Hold off on that decision until the reading, Dave. There’s got to be a reason why he did this in cash, and didn’t tell anybody.”
“Don’t worry about that,” David said. “I might be in shock, but I’m not stupid.” He reached into the other half of the box and started pulling out items. A ring of keys was on top of the pile; some appeared to be house keys, some car keys—at least one was a plastic fob of the type that newer vehicles used—and some were unidentifiable. One was heavy and larger by far than all the others; David, an architect, recognized it as a brand commonly used by prisons in their cell doors. He said as much. “I can’t imagine Cam having anything to do with a jail, but if he was using this kind of lock for anything else…well, it’s a lot of security.” He set the keys aside and dug into the box again. This time, he pulled out a round medallion, formed from a multicolored crystal, with a hole in the center and lines spiraling around it. The crystal was set in a hoop of gold, with a chain that was sized too small for David to wear; he thought it might fit Miranda’s neck, though the stone would ride high if she wore it. “Strange. I don’t have any idea what this is.” He set it aside with the keys.
Three more items filled the bottom of the box, and they gave David a chill as he pulled them out. One was a handgun—nine millimeter, from the look of it; and the second item, a box of ammunition, confirmed it. The last item was a small, black journal, unlabeled; it was filled from cover to cover with Cam’s handwriting. He glanced at the first page; it had a date approximately a year earlier.
“What in the world was Cam into?” Jake said. “Stuff like this…you’d think he was doing something criminal. Drugs or something.”
“No, I can’t see that,” David said. “I know there’s a drug problem in this town, but…not Cam. He wouldn’t do that.”
“Maybe you’d better read that letter. Let’s see if he explained any of this.” He offered the knife again. Wordlessly, David took it and slit the tape over the envelope, then pulled a pair of folded, printed pages from it. He smoothed them on the tabletop, and began to read aloud.
I’ve thought for a long time about what I want to say in this letter. Since, if Mom follows my instructions, you won’t be reading this until after I’m gone, I guess this is my final word to you…and now I don’t know what to say. Hmm, I spent my whole life writing; I never thought I would be at a loss for words.
First things first. You’ve been a brother to me for as long as I can remember, David, and so I don’t want to end on a bad note of any kind. So, let me apologize for keeping my illness a secret from you and Miranda. I wish I could tell you why, buddy, but I really can’t; I just…I don’t know…I can’t tell you about it. Maybe it’s because I want you to remember the good times, not this mess I’m in now. Maybe it’s because I don’t really want anyone to carry this load for me, I want to do it myself. Or maybe, just maybe…David, you two are my closest, oldest, best friends. Maybe I just want to spare you the pain of watching this happen to me.
No. That’s not it, or at least not all of it. What I want to spare you is the temptation to do something about it. Don’t tell me the thought hasn’t crossed your mind, either. I know you would want to try, and buddy, I can’t let you do that. You know what happened last time…you live with the result every day of your life. In my own way, I do too. Besides, I don’t think you could do it alone, even if it would work—and who’s going to help you? Miranda can’t, and I…well, you know, I tried. It doesn’t work. You can’t use it on yourself. I guess you know that anyway, but I did try.
So I wanted you to stay away while this happened, and I hope you can forgive me for it. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want to die! I’m fighting it every way I can. But if I fail, bro, don’t hold it against me that I kept this from you. You already make me stronger in more ways than you know.
It’s been really hard. I’ve been through all the stages—the denial, the anger, the bargaining…acceptance, well, that took a while. There’s so much pain, though the drugs keep it under control pretty well. I don’t know how I’ll take it if it gets any worse…but I promise you this, I won’t give up. When have I ever? Not now, either.
Now comes the hard part of this. I know you’ve opened the box by now, and you have to be wondering what all that is about. So let’s start with the easiest part—the money. That’s my gift to you and Miranda, David. You know I’ve been successful at what I do, but it’s strange; you never asked me how successful. It’s nice to know it didn’t matter to you, but now, you deserve to know. That box contains three hundred thousand dollars in nice, shiny new hundred dollar bills. I gave it to you in cash so that you don’t have to be taxed on it, but if you have an attack of conscience and decide to report it anyway, well, it’s yours.
The keys. First, there’s another key to my apartment on there. I want you…how can I explain this? Alright, let me back up. David, this will be hard to explain, but…I have pretty good reason to think that you’ll be spending more time here in Henderson than you expect, maybe a lot more. You’ll need a place to stay. Mom may have told you that it was paid up for a year; I did that six months ago, right after my diagnosis. She didn’t know, though, that I’ve gone back and paid it up for the second year; and the landlord has instructions to transfer it to you with no additional fee, as soon as you say the word. Also, you’ll see a car key on there; no reason for you to have to keep renting a car or borrowing one. My lawyer has one waiting for you; he has all the paperwork you need to have it transferred into your name if you want it. Everything is paid for; even the insurance, I’ve arranged for that to be paid as soon as it’s in your name. Even if I’m wrong and you don’t stay here this year, the car is yours. Consider it another gift.
The other keys…well, I can’t tell you now. I’m sorry for that. I know you have to be wondering, especially, about that large one, and I can tell you about that, anyway; it fits the place where this all started. I took the liberty of protecting the place, as much as I could. That key will get you inside if you ever need to go back there; I don’t know that you will, but better safe than sorry. The rest of them…you’ll have to wait and find out.
The gun and the ammo. It’s registered in my name, but the lawyer can transfer that to you, as well. I know you have a permit already; how could you grow up here and not? It’s another thing that I hope you’ll never need, but I expect that you will. Call it another insurance policy, if you like. Keep it away from Miranda, though. It’s not that I don’t trust her; but the law won’t allow her to have it, with her condition. I guess you already know that too.
And last…the journal. It will tell you everything you need to know. I know, I’m being mysterious…it frustrates me just as much as it does you, bro. But it will make more sense when you’ve read the journal. Don’t read it all at once; you have time. But don’t wait forever, either. It’s important.
What can I say, David? It’s so strange…I feel like I need to apologize to you. Maybe I should. After all, I have some idea of what’s coming, and you…you have no clue. I’ve done what I can to prepare you, as you’ll see. Beyond that, everything you need is already in you, and in Miranda. And while I’m on the subject: take care of her, David. I know we settled the issue a long time ago, but don’t forget that I loved her too. I don’t want to see anything happen to her, any more than you do. Besides, we owe it to her for what we did. Tell her I love her. She’ll understand.
You’re the best friend I ever had, David. I miss you already. I’m not good at goodbyes, so let me say a couple of useful things, instead. First, the well: be careful how you use it. It’s not infinite. We always knew that, but it’s more important than ever that you remember it now. Don’t waste it. And second…
…cancer might have killed me, but there was nothing natural about it.
Read the journal. You’ll understand.
Until we meet again, my friend.
“I think he raised more questions than he answered,” Jake said.
“I know,” David said, setting the letter down. “It doesn’t sit right. In all the years since…you know…none of us have ever put anything in writing about the well, or any of it. Now he just spells it out. What if someone else had found this letter first?”
“I wouldn’t worry too much about that. It’s pretty vague if you don’t already know.” Jake knew; but, aside from David, Cameron, and Miranda, he was the only one. At least, David assumed no one else knew; but it seemed now that Cam had been doing a lot of things that he kept to himself. If he had told anyone, there would be no way to know.
“That’s true, I guess.” He picked up the crystal medallion. “He didn’t explain about this.” They regarded the crystal for a moment, dangling at the end of its chain, but it remained as mysterious as at first glance. “Maybe the diary will say something about it.”
Well, one thing is clear,” Jake said. “He thought his cancer was no accident. But I don’t see how that could be. I mean, it’s cancer. It happens for a reason, but, you know, it just happens.”
David didn’t agree, but he kept it to himself. There were plenty of ways someone could make someone else sick… “I don’t know what he meant by that.” He started to repack the box, but he kept the journal out. “But if the answers are anywhere, they’re in here. And I owe it to him to find out.”
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