Yesterday Lies Ahead

 

Back in 2012 when The Traveler’s [K] Night was released, many readers asked for a sequel. They wanted Ali Kharan and Virginia Volstaad to have a second chance as the book closed with their parting, and against their will. I did, too. However, as the circumstances leading to their separation were so unusual I was not sure I could do it. We all know how sequels go; rarely is a sequel as good as the previous story, etc. Besides, I am not a sci-fi author and the task of reuniting my two main characters, entertainably and  believably (as believably as a work of fiction can be) so, appeared impossible at first. I saw no way of building that sequel without loading it with sci-fi material, and that I did not want. I told myself it was best to leave it alone; there was no way around the mess I had created for that poor couple. Besides, two new writing projects were taking shape and I had scribbled one of the drafts already. But the emails and comments from readers stuck with me.

Looking back now I don’t recall what exactly made me postpone those two new projects and embrace my first attempt to a sequel – it was not a split-second decision, I don’t think; rather a decision –making process. But Ali and Virginia got their second chance and The Traveler’s [K] Night‘s sequel – Yesterday Lies Aheadwas recently finalized. If everything goes as planned, it should be released in paperback and Kindle around October, available at Amazon.com. Contrary to my initial fears, I ended up having fun as the story moved on. Hope the readers will not be disappointed; in particular those who wanted the sequel…

Here’s an excerpt:

________________

“Is this real?” he asked, as if to himself, only to remember what he had just read. Everything you will hear is true. That was his father’s handwriting on a document ten centuries old. The copy of a document ten centuries old, according to Eric’s video. And then the echo of Sebby Pereira’s voice in the car. It’s all true. But how could it be?

“Sorry to keep you in the dark about all this for so long,” Virginia had shaken his hand with an assertiveness Ben was not prepared to find. For the first time in many years, Eric Volstaad’s daughter did not appear ill, weak and surrounded by the ocean of sadness that seemed to involve each little thing she did, from a simple smile to the way she moved.

Sebby had vanished into the depths of the family room, claimed by the Volstaad kids. He could hear their shrieks and laughter. They were having fun with Sebby, who seemed to operate as grandfather number two. Virginia had just returned from the kitchen with a freshly brewed cup of coffee as Ben was in no mood for dinner.

“If this is a copy, where is the original?”

Across from them, fake flames danced in the handsome gas fireplace, flanked by two walls covered with book shelves, floor to ceiling.

“In an air-tight chamber, at NuVida, along with Ali’s original journal,” she answered as if that was the most commonplace fact ever. Ben looked at her astonished; she spoke of his dad as if he was an acquaintance who had just sent her a book. “It was given to me two years ago.”

The two paragraph note had a much too familiar signature on it. Even more confusing was the looks of the document; a very real and convincing parchment, like something from a museum display, much older than the oldest copy of the U.S. Constitution Ben had once seen in a commemorative exhibit in Philadelphia, with his brother and dad.

Dear Ben and Jeff,

                                         It’s been a long time since I last saw you and I miss you both very much.

                                         Be patient with the person handing you this message. It may be Virginia Volstaad or someone appointed by her, her father, or a member of the Volstaad family. In any case, I hope it is Virginia because she better than anyone knows what happened. Everything you will hear is true.   And if by any chance the person delivering this to you is a stranger, who cannot provide a logical explanation, then all you’ll ever need to know is how proud I‘ve always been of the two of you and how much I love you both.

                                                       Your father

Ali Kharan

                                                       Vereuela Abbey, Zaragoza, September 1150.

“We developed this synthetic material at NuVida, imitating the original parchment on which he wrote, wrinkle by wrinkle, matching even the tiniest discoloration. We believe museums and libraries all around the word will be buying from us once we can produce it in large scale.   It’s not impossible once you master the technology to parallel even human skin tissue… For the prosthetic limbs we built, I mean,” she added so matter-of-factly Ben found nothing to say. Eric’s daughter was sounding more and more like her dad.

“You mentioned you received this two years ago,” Ben insisted. He couldn’t help but being skeptical. “From whom?”

“From him; Ali. There was a letter to me as well, explaining how he managed to reach us.”

“You know my father,” Ben commented after a long and chagrin silence. Besides the letter, the briefcase sent by Eric contained a mini DVD player with footage filmed before he had been hospitalized plus a pair of thick notebooks, overused and abused, covered with Eric’s small and precise handwriting; all caps and no punctuation as if the man’s brain never paused. Drawings, formulas, graphs, equations. Ben had yet to investigate their meaning and relevance to the fact Ali Kharan had been closer to the Volstaads than he ever suspected. “ I thought the only time you and Dad saw one another was when he drove me to the internship interview with Eric and we were in the lobby, the three of us, for, maybe a couple of minutes.”

“It was a long time ago.”

“Everything about my dad is a long time ago.” Ben’s voice sounded harsh but he did not seem to realize or did not care. “Mom got married one exact year after dad’s file was archived by the police. Jeff and I knew how miserable our parents’ marriage was. We avoided being with them together – it was agonizing. Her new husband is a businessman in Florida. We are not close, but she is all smiles all the time, even over the phone.  They are very wealthy,  always traveling and entertaining in Coral Gables. There’s nothing left from her first marriage, except for Jeff and me. We lost contact with Dad’s colleagues at the university too. It feels like my father never existed.”

The words poured out of Ben Kharan and he did know whether it was because he needed to find something to talk about or because he had finally found a chance to vent the frustration accumulated through more than a decade.

“And yet, I did not think he would leave us without an explanation. As miserable as they both felt in that marriage, it was not Dad’s style just to disappear. I knew something serious had happened; outside his control. All the lessons he pounded on about responsibility and ethics…. He wouldn’t just leave.” Ben stood up and touched his own forehead. The skin was moist. “Why would he send you, not us, the letter and the journal Eric described?”

Virginia shifted on the couch.

“Because I had been there with him.”

“Where?”

“In Jutland. Actually Denmark. Year 1111. We met Niels there.”

Sweat trickled down Ben’s temples and cheeks.

“Your husband, Niels Dane?”

“You are not comfortable. I’ll lower the heat; my apologies. Give me you jacket,” Virginia said, helping him off the garment. She hung it on the coat tree by the front door, just peripherally registering the coffee stain on the lapel. While she was dressed in jeans and a T-shirt with long sleeves, Ben had preferred his day-to-day formality – suit and tie. The dancing flames in the fire place decreased as soon as she pressed a key on the wall.

“I can tell you how we lived in Niels’s castle since day one; since our arrival. What we ate, the people we met… Or you can ask me questions. I don’t really know where to start as Eric was supposed to be having this initial conversation with you…”

“How’s Eric?” Ben managed to ask, absent-minded, out of his habitual politeness.

“He is…slower. You will see it by yourself on Tuesday. Would you like a soda, cold water?”

“I want a drink. Something with alcohol in it, if you don’t mind. Lots of it.”

Virginia busied herself preparing a gin and tonic away from Ben, by the kitchen island that led into the dining area. The table had been set for two; a large tray of lasagna remained in the oven, green salad in the fridge. She poured in more gin than tonic, thinking of how Niels had enjoyed all kinds of liquor while he lived in the house. She handed Ben the tall glass with a napkin, quietly, knowing the worst was yet to come.

“Jeff wished our dad had vanished out of irresponsibility. He said that a thousand times. That he hoped dad had found a happier life somewhere, because the alternative was too painful to accept; that he had been the victim of some random cruelty, kidnapped… murdered. Not many people liked his ideas about small government and total freedom of speech, inside and outside academia. Mom used to say he spoke too much and would get himself in trouble one day. Serious trouble.”

“You father was a bright man.”

Ben took a large gulp of his gin tonic and collapsed on the couch. His knees were wobbling; his legs giving up the way he used to feel after running the second mile alongside Ali.

“What’s in the journal?”

“Everything about your father’s life ten centuries ago. Until… very close to the day he passed. “

“Did you and Eric read it all?”

“Each paragraph. I have a full copy of his journal, done with the same technology employed to reproduce the letter. We call it NuSkin.” Virginia tapped a TV remote and a door slid open at the bottom of the book shelf; slowly and silently. The secret chamber had been perfectly disguised. She kneeled down on the thick rug and produced a huge volume, so heavy she used both hands to handle it, with difficulty. “We had this one especially made for you and your brother.”

Virginia placed the heavy book by his side on the couch and took a seat on the chair across from him, by the fire place.

“How did you obtain a journal from my dad, written ten centuries ago? Ben asked, unable to touch the journal. “No, wait, you answered that already. What I really mean is, how did you end up there with him in the first place?”

“That you will have to ask Eric. I cannot give you a decent account of what his experiments involved.”

“He sent you and my dad one thousand years into the past on purpose?”

“By accident. He had no control over his own technology. We were not supposed to transfer in time.”

“Why did he want to go back in time?”

“He didn’t. Actually he was trying to bring someone from the past.”

Ben took another large gulp of his drink, waiting.

“My mom. She got ill and died when I was little. Dad wanted to bring her back and treat her. He had been working on this since after she passed…. That’s what NuVida is most about; medical technology. Volstaad’s medical division grew enough to be a sole company. We do make state-of-the-art prosthetic limbs and organs, especially for military veterans. Not everyone can pay for our products though. But that’s what you see. The NuVida you don’t see is my dad’s life since before you met him. As for the journal, Ali wrote such a detailed description you’ll feel as if you were there with him,” she finished, motioning to the huge book with leathery pages worn out around the edges. It looked each day of its ten-century long life and then some.

“The night he brought me back,” Virginia continued after a while, “Niels came along instead of Ali. Niels had been wounded by his uncle and Ali walked away momentarily. I stayed with Niels, in the same room. Do you remember all those boxes that had been shipped to the plant back then? I still remember Sebby telling me Dad was getting help from the new interns to open up and assemble those things. There were huge boxes all over the halls. ..

“I remember,” Ben confirmed. “We never had a clue of what those things were and Eric was not talking; he would answer no questions.” The more things change the more they remain the same.

             “He would not eat or sleep either. Lived on cigarettes, coffee and snacks from the vending machines. I knew something big was coming. Sebby may have known more. I believe Dad made him swear he would not say a word. The magnitude of the storm overwhelmed his systems. Everything got out of control, he panicked…”

Since Ben could remember, Virginia had seemed delicate, almost frail, and sad. Tonight, despite the family tragedy she was going through, none of that fragility remained. She was still too skinny and pale, however the determination in her voice and assurance of her manners made Ben think of her father’s vitality. Most of all, he could not get over the way she kept referring to his father, casually and intimately as Ali, like a friend, as if ignoring the one decade gap since his disappearance.

“All this time I hoped for an explanation for his absence…. and you and Eric had all the answers from the beginning.”

“I wish this letter could have reached us before. Without the letter and the journal, all our explanations to you would have sounded too fantastic for any credibility.”

Ben leaned back in the couch and closed his eyes.

“Why did Eric record a video instead of talking to me?”

“I didn’t know about the video until he went to the hospital on Thursday. You saw the date on the bottom of the screen. Two years ago, a few days after I received the package from Ali.”

“You make it sound as if my dad couriered you a parcel, from overseas; not century twelve Denmark. How did he manage to send you a package from the past? Do you realize how absurd this sounds?”

“As I said, there is another letter, from your father to me. Maybe you should read it too, later on. Things will look clearer then. As for the video, Dad did it because he had been feeling ill, complaining about chest pains again. If anything happened to him, unexpectedly, before he was ready to talk to you, he wanted to be sure you would hear most of it from him one way or the other. At the hospital, as soon as he was lucid again, he instructed me to get that suit case and invite you for dinner so we could talk in private. He was afraid he was not going to survive. Everything you saw and heard in the video, he planned to explain to you in person. That’s why he asked you to come from Florida and stay for one month. And ended having to ask Sebby to call you and cancel the meeting on Monday when Niels… when we heard about the accident. After that first meeting, he was taking you to NuVida, to show you everything. The video was just…insurance. As it turned, I’m glad he took precautions.”

Ben opened his eyes startled and jumped in the couch. The copy of Ali Kharan’s letter fell from his knees on the rug as Eric Volstaad, the younger one, passed running behind him, screeching and laughing, followed by his sister, and both of them pursued by Sebby. Hard to say who was having more fun. Virginia interrupted the chase.

“Eric, Ali, come say hello to Ben. He works with Grandpa, you know.”

They both halted to a sudden stop, crimson cheeks and panting, and circled the couch. Ben shook hands with them.

“I remember you now,” said Eric, picking up the letter from the floor and placing it on the table, carefully. “Cool book! Pirate stories?”

But his sister was not interested in ancient looking volumes.

“Are you sleeping over too, with Sebby?” Ali asked. “We have two guest rooms now that –“Ali interrupted herself and looked at her mother for guidance.

“It’s all right, Ali. Ben is here on business. However, he’s welcome to spend the night if our discussion extends for too long. I know you guys will force poor Sebby into camping in the family room as usual. I left the sleeping bags out already. Ben can have the guest room.”

“Can we watch a horror movie? Please?” begged Eric, addressing Sebby. Ali rolled her eyes.

“No horror movies; you’ll have night terrors and I want a good night of sleep,” was Selby’s response, carrying Eric away over his shoulder, as if the boy was a sack of potatoes, triggering more giggles.

“How are they doing?” Ben asked after their voices faded away.

“Eric refuses to eat and Ali cried for two days in a row. Sebby’s presence is a blessing; it’s the first time I hear them laughing since Thursday. Not sure they will be ready for school tomorrow. Thank you for asking.”

Virginia stood up and walked around the coffee table, uneasy.

“Dad will tell you more about the night he brought me back, along with Niels, and Ali stayed behind. I thought I could do it myself but I’d prefer Dad to go over it with you. I tend to get too… emotional. I have another issue to discuss with you…. Not an issue per se; it is not a problem. Although a rather personal matter -”

Virginia was now clearly embarrassed; as lost as Ben had felt all evening long. The handsome clock over the fire place marked almost nine. He had no idea where time went since Sebby Pereira had picked him at his hotel near the Philadelphia International Airport at four thirty.

“This other… issue has to do with something…Actually, not something but someone,” Virginia explained, hugging herself, uncertain on how to continue. Her voice was barely audible when she corrected herself. “Two persons. I’m so sorry, Ben, to drag you into this so sudden.” Virginia was struggling with the words and her nervousness only made him more apprehensive. “My kids, well, you know them already. Eric, my adoptive son. And Ali, she is thirteen…. Ali is not adopted. I had her when I was about your age. She always said she wanted to have older brothers. I think she has the same premonition skills her dad seemed to have. She is your sister.”

Ben kept staring at Virginia as if waiting for further information to come. He had not quite registered her last sentence. Before he could say anything, the smart phone in the pocket of his jacket rang and Ben rushed to the entry hall to retrieve it.

“Nancy! Hi…. I’m always glad to hear your voice… Where am I now? I’m in Bryn Mawr…. Yes, at her place. How do you know – Why am I here? With Eric in the hospital we had some business to –“

And that was the last thing Ben Kharan said for a period that felt too long to Virginia. When he walked back into the living room there was confusion stamped all over his face.

“She just hung up on me,” he complained, in a hurt tone, astonished.

“Your wife? Ben, what happened?”

“She was in tears, then screaming like a mad woman… Someone called her saying you and I have been having an affair for years and that Ali Volstaad is actually my daughter. Whoever called Nancy told her I was here with you tonight.”

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