Thomas stood frozen in the foyer. His face betrayed no emotion at all; but his heart pounded ... and, for just an instant, out of empathy, if nothing else, his resolve wavered.
Miguel's smile faded. He knit his eyebrows together, shifting from joy to concern. "Thomas?"
Thomas inhaled deeply ... and without saying a word, turned, made a beeline for the entrance, and pulled on the handle for the rightmost door. It rattled in place, unmoving, locked tight. Thomas pawed at the left door, discovering that it, too, remained locked.
Miguel, still holding the tray: "Thomas? What's wrong, love?"
Thomas cursed under his breath, fiddling with the latches and knobs until he could finally wrench the door open and step out into the surprising cold. He pulled the door firmly shut behind him, crossed the rustic porch, and started making his way along the gravel path toward the lone car parked there.
Behind him, he heard a clatter -- a tray being dropped? -- and the door to the cabin being opened again. "Thomas! What are you doing?" A beat. "Have I done something wrong?"
*Stay focused. Get to Ed's house. People are depending on you.*
He fumbled in his pocket for the car keys. The fob, large and unwieldy, was attached to one key and one over-sized plastic case containing a hand-written note: the make, year, and color of the car. *A rental car?* His hands shaking -- why was he so cold? -- he thumbed the unlock button on the fob and jumped in the unfamiliar vehicle.
Once in the driver's seat, he punched the ignition switch. The dashboard pinged; indicators blinked; the car hummed to life. As he reached to put the car into gear, he caught the view through the windshield for the very first time.
High above him, the dome of the sky remained dark as night, studded with dozens of gleaming points of light. Beneath this, the black velvet gave way to graduated shades of violet, navy blue, and, along the horizon, bright yellow. Snow-capped mountains, their crests tinted bright orange by the oncoming dawn, surrounded him in all directions.
Only the cabin interrupted this view, with its glass-walled a-frame dusted with frost, rising into the morning sky. From the open front doors, golden illumination spilled out across the wide porch. And on it stood Miguel, naked except for the ridiculously flimsy apron, his arms crossed against the chill, looking small and confused and alone.
When Thomas spoke, his words turned to steam in the frosty air. "Where am I?"
"You're just off U.S. Highway 40," the car replied. "In Granby, Colorado."
Miguel crept gingerly down the steps from the porch, minced his way along the gravel path, and pecked on the car's driver-side window. Inside the vehicle, Thomas sat forward, resting his head on the steering wheel.
Miguel gently lifted the latch handle, opening the door. "Thomas? Whatever it is, my love, I can help you. Just tell me what's going on. But -- maybe -- come inside and tell me? Because I'm freezing my ass off out here."
Thomas, unmoving, his head still against the steering wheel: "How far am I from Lake Lanier in Georgia?"
Miguel shook his head. "Thomas, I don't--"
"By the fastest route," the car replied, "twenty-two hours and twenty minutes. Please be aware this route includes toll roads, and that your destination is in a different time zone."
Thomas still didn't move. "How far to a big airport?"
"Denver International Airport is one hour and fifty-five minutes away, via Highway 40 and I-70."
Miguel put a gentle hand on Thomas' shoulder. "Please come inside. Whatever is going on, we can talk about it, as we always do. But please. You're scaring me, and I just want to help you."
Slowly, slowly, Thomas got out of the car.
Back in the cabin, Thomas let himself be guided through the foyer to one of the leather chairs in front of the fire. On the way, they passed the remnants of breakfast: the tray upside down on the floor, pancakes and eggs mixed with shattered cups and plates.
"I'm sorry," Thomas sighed.
"Shhh," Miguel said. "It's nothing. I put the tray down on the buffet too quickly, and it teetered over. Sit, sit. Wait here a minute."
Miguel withdrew, and Thomas sat before the fire, his head whirling. Through the window wall, he could see the sun creeping higher into the sky. Mist curled up from the manicured slopes of the yard, and, in the distance, mule deer grazed on the grass.
Miguel returned, wrapped in a bathrobe. He passed Thomas a steaming mug of coffee, and Thomas curled his fingers around it, letting its warmth seep into his fingers.
"Better now?" Miguel asked.
Thomas shook his head. "It's complicated."
"Can you talk about it?"
*Let's see. I'm not who you think I am. I jumped here this morning from another tangent universe. Oh -- and in less than twenty-four hours, this whole world will implode because of me.*
Again, Thomas just shook his head.
After a few seconds of silence: "Thomas, please don't be angry with me. Are you off your medications, maybe?"
Thomas looked up. "I don't take medications."
Miguel eased a prescription bottle out of his housecoat pocket and balanced it on the arm of Thomas' chair. "Remember these? They just help you focus a little. They keep your head from spinning around and around. Sometimes, when you get like this, they're useful."
Thomas picked up the bottle and squinted at the label. "Adderall?"
"Maybe just one?"
Thomas opened the bottle and dumped a few pills into his hand. The gel capsules, filled with liquid the color of blood, shimmered like oblong jewels.
In Thomas' head, Davina's voice: *Ten minutes after you take it, you'll feel good. The best you've ever felt. And then ... you'll go to sleep ... and never wake up.
Thomas dropped the pills and the bottle as though stung. Red gel caps scattered in all directions, and the plastic bottle danced around on the hardwood floor. "I'm not taking those."
Miguel picked up one pill and held it up to the light. "Actually, I do remember these were orange tablets before. Not like this." He looked at Thomas, concerned. "Did they give you the wrong prescription?"
Thomas sat back in his chair and put a hand over his eyes. "I don't have time for this. Look, you're being wonderful, all things considered. Better than I deserve. But for reasons I can't explain, I've got to get out of here. That way, even if I fail to do what I was supposed to do, I've given it my best try."
Miguel put the pills aside. "I hear you. What is it that you are supposed to do?"
"I know how crazy this sounds."
Miguel, his hands up: "Just tell me. What's the goal?"
"I have to be at a house on Lake Lanier in about two hours from now."
Miguel raised his bushy eyebrows, but otherwise seemed unfazed. "Okay. Now, we're in Colorado, and two hours from the airport, so that's not going to happen. That's reality. We have to think about what we can do to meet your goal within the boundaries of reality. This meeting of yours: can you be a bit late?"
"Yes. Maybe. I don't really know. I hadn't planned on any of this."
"Let's say you cannot be there. What is the worst case scenario? What will happen?"
Thomas considered this. "I'll be disappointed. I'll feel like a failure, like I've broken a promise." He hesitated. "But worst case? Tonight at midnight, everything will be resolved, one way or the other."
"At midnight!" Miguel repeated. "That's interesting. But I hear you saying that, in the worst case, things aren't great, but they will work out. Now: best case, given our reality. What would that be?"
"Getting there late, I guess, but --"
Miguel lifted his phone. "When is the next flight from Denver to Atlanta?"
"The next flight from Denver to Atlanta is at 9:42 a.m. with one stop in Houston," the phone said. "It arrives at 7:24 p.m. Eastern Time. The next non-stop flight is at 10:00 a.m., arriving at 3:00 p.m. Eastern Time."
Miguel peered at the upper corner of the phone, where the time was displayed. "We can't make either of those. What is the first non-stop flight we could take after eleven a.m.?"
"There is a non-stop flight at 12:17 p.m., arriving in Atlanta at 5:05 p.m. Eastern Time."
"There," Miguel said. "That's reality. If we pack and leave now, we can make this flight. We'll be back to Atlanta later than you'd like, but we can be there by five this afternoon. Will that still help you?"
Thomas fidgeted a moment. "I guess, but--"
Miguel tapped his phone. "Buy two first-class tickets for this flight. One for me, one for Thomas Arnold."
"Two first-class tickets for Delta Flight 730, departing at 12:17 p.m. today," the phone replied. "Please double-tap to complete payment of $1,875."
Miguel tapped the phone twice.
"Done," the phone said. "Your ticket is in your wallet."
"Okay," Miguel said. "You see? Our flight delay yesterday got us here too late and too tired to unpack. Now, that works to our benefit; we're packed and ready to go. For everything, there is a reason."
Thomas struggled for words. "I can't believe you'd do this for me."
Miguel shrugged. "I love you. What else would there be for me to do?"
"That was ... really expensive."
"One of the blessings of my doing what I do," Miguel said. "We never have to worry about money."
"I know this isn't exactly the tenth anniversary you must have planned."
Miguel put his hands on Thomas' shoulders, pulled him forward, and kissed him gently on the forehead. "It is the one we have. Now, let's not waste time on shoulds or could-have-beens. You need to be at this lake house? We have a lake house to get to."
Thomas grabbed Miguel and hugged him, hard. As he did so, the phone in his own pocket vibrated and chimed.
"Probably your ticket coming in," Miguel said.
Thomas dug for the phone in his jeans, pulled it out, and looked down at the display.
The incoming call, from a 323 area code, was identified as coming from Anna Denise.