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When their son Jacob, who died tragically at his eighth birthday party in 1966, arrives on their doorstep, still eight years old, Harold and Lucille Hargrave must navigate a strange new reality as chaos erupts around the world as people's loved ones are returned from beyond.
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Jason Mott holds a BA in fiction and an MFA in poetry and is the author of two poetry collections. His writing has appeared in numerous literary journals, and he was nominated for the 2009 Pushcart Prize. Jason lives in North Carolina.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Harold opened the door that day to find a dark-skinned man in a well-cut suit smiling at him. At first he thought of reaching for his shotgun, but then he remembered that Lucille had made him sell it years ago on account of an incident involving a traveling preacher and an argument having to do with hunting dogs.
"Can I help you?" Harold said, squinting in the sunlight- light which only made the dark-skinned man in the suit look darker.
"Mr. Hargrave?" the man said. "I suppose," Harold replied.
"Who is it, Harold?" Lucille called. She was in the living room being vexed by the television. The news announcer was talking about Edmund Blithe, the first of the Returned, and how his life had changed now that he was alive again.
"Better the second time around?" the announcer on the television asked, speaking directly into the camera, laying the burden of answering squarely on the shoulders of his viewers.
The wind rustled through the oak tree in the yard near the house, but the sun was low enough that it drove horizontally beneath the branches and into Harold's eyes. He held a hand over his eyes like a visor, but still, the dark-skinned man and the boy were little more than silhouettes plastered against a green-and-blue backdrop of pine trees beyond the open yard and cloudless sky out past the trees. The man was thin, but square-framed in his manicured suit. The boy was small for what Harold estimated to be about the age of eight or nine.
Harold blinked. His eyes adjusted more.
"Who is it, Harold?" Lucille called a second time, after realizing that no reply had come to her first inquiry.
Harold only stood in the doorway, blinking like a hazard light, looking down at the boy, who consumed more and more of his attention. Synapses kicked on in the recesses of his brain. They crackled to life and told him who the boy was standing next to the dark-skinned stranger. But Harold was sure his brain was wrong. He made his mind to do the math again, but it still came up with the same answer.
In the living room the television camera cut away to a cluster of waving fists and yelling mouths, people holding signs and shouting, then soldiers with guns standing statuesque as only men laden with authority and ammunition can. In the center was the small semidetached house of Edmund Blithe, the curtains drawn. That he was somewhere inside was all that was known.
Lucille shook her head. "Can you imagine it?" she said. Then: "Who is it at the door, Harold?"
Harold stood in the doorway taking in the sight of the boy: short, pale, freckled, with a shaggy mop of brown hair. He wore an old-style T-shirt, a pair of jeans and a great look of relief in his eyes-eyes that were not still and frozen, but trembling with life and rimmed with tears.
"What has four legs and goes 'Boooo'?" the boy asked in a shaky voice.
Harold cleared his throat-not certain just then of even that. "I don't know," he said. "A cow with a cold!"
Then the child had the old man by the waist, sobbing, "Daddy! Daddy!" before Harold could confirm or deny. Harold fell against the door frame-very nearly bowled over- and patted the child's head out of some long-dormant paternal instinct. "Shush," he whispered. "Shush."
"Harold?" Lucille called, finally looking away from the television, certain that some terror had darkened her door. "Harold, what's going on? Who is it?"
Harold licked his lips. "It's...it's..."
He wanted to say "Joseph."
"It's Jacob," he said, finally.
Thankfully for Lucille, the couch was there to catch her when she fainted.
Jacob William Hargrave died on August 15, 1966. On his eighth birthday, in fact. In the years that followed, townsfolk would talk about his death in the late hours of the night when they could not sleep. They would roll over to wake their spouses and begin whispered conversations about the uncertainty of the world and how blessings needed to be counted. Sometimes they would rise together from the bed to stand in the doorway of their children's bedroom to watch them sleep and to ponder silently on the nature of a God that would take a child so soon from this world. They were Southerners in a small town, after all: How could such a tragedy not lead them to God?
After Jacob's death, his mother, Lucille, would say that she'd known something terrible was going to happen that day on account of what had happened just the night before.
That night Lucille dreamed of her teeth falling out. Something her mother had told her long ago was an omen of death.
All throughout Jacob's birthday party Lucille had made a point to keep an eye on not only her son and the other children, but on all the other guests, as well. She flitted about like a nervous sparrow, asking how everyone was doing and if they'd had enough to eat and commenting on how much they'd slimmed down since last time she'd seen them or on how tall their children had gotten and, now and again, how beautiful the weather was. The sun was everywhere and everything was green that day.
Her unease made her a wonderful hostess. No child went unfed. No guest found themselves lacking conversation. She'd even managed to talk Mary Green into singing for them later in the evening. The woman had a voice silkier than sugar, and Jacob, if he was old enough to have a crush on someone, had a thing for her, something that Mary's husband, Fred, often ribbed the boy about. It was a good day, that day. A good day, until Jacob disappeared.
He slipped away unnoticed the way only children and other small mysteries can. It was sometime between three and three-thirty-as Harold and Lucille would later tell the police- when, for reasons only the boy and the earth itself knew, Jacob made his way over the south side of the yard, down past the pines, through the forest and on down to the river, where, without permission or apology, he drowned.
Just days before the man from the Bureau showed up at their door Harold and Lucille had been discussing what they might do ifJacob "turned up Returned."
"They're not people," Lucille said, wringing her hands. They were on the porch. All important happenings occurred on the porch.
"We couldn't just turn him away," Harold told his wife. He stamped his foot. The argument had turned very loud very quickly.
"They're just not people," she repeated.
"Well, if they're not people, then what are they? Vegetable? Mineral?" Harold's lips itched for a cigarette. Smoking always helped him get the upper hand in an argument with his wife which, he suspected, was the real reason she made such a fuss about the habit.
"Don't be flippant with me, Harold Nathaniel Hargrave. This is serious."
"Yes, flippant! You're always flippant! Always prone to flippancy!"
"I swear. Yesterday it was, what, 'loquacious'? So today it's 'flippant,' huh?"
"Don't mock me for trying to better myself. My mind is still as sharp as it always was, maybe even sharper. And don't you go trying to get off subject."
"Flippant." Harold smacked the word, hammering the final t at the end so hard a glistening bead of spittle cleared the porch railing. "Hmph."
Lucille let it pass. "I don't know what they are," she continued. She stood. Then sat again. "All I know is they're not like you and me. They're...they're..." She paused. She prepared the word in her mouth, putting it together carefully, brick by brick. "They're devils," she finally said. Then she recoiled, as if the word might turn and bite her. "They've just come here to kill us. Or tempt us! These are the end days. 'When the dead shall walk the earth.' It's in the Bible!"
Harold snorted, still hung up on "flippant." His hand went to his pocket. "Devils?" he said, his mind finding its train of thought as his hand found his cigarette lighter. "Devils are superstitions. Products of small minds and even smaller imaginations. There's one word that should be banned from the dictionary- devils. Ha! Now there's a flippant word. It's got nothing to do with the way things really are, nothing to do with these 'Returned' folks-and make no mistake about it, Lucille Abigail Daniels Hargrave, they are people. They can walk over and kiss you. I ain't never met a devil that could do that...although, before we were married, there was this one blonde girl over in Tulsa one Saturday night. Yeah, now she might have been the devil, or a devil at least."
"Hush up!" Lucille barked, so loudly she seemed to surprise herself. "I won't sit here and listen to you talk that way."
"Talk what way?"
"It wouldn't be our boy," she said, her words slowing as the seriousness of things came drifting back to her, like the memory of a lost son, perhaps. "Jacob's gone on to God," she said. Her hands had become thin, white fists in her lap.
A silence came.
Then it passed.
"Where is it?" Harold asked.
"In the Bible, where is it?"
"Where does it say 'the dead will walk the earth'?"
"Revelations!" Lucille opened her arms as she said the word, as if the question could not be any more addle-brained, as if she'd been asked about the flight patterns of pine trees. "It's right there in Revelations! 'The dead shall walk the earth'!" She was glad to see that her hands were still fists. She waved them at no one, the way people in movies sometimes did.
Harold laughed. "What part of Revelations? What chapter? What verse?"
"You hush up," she said. "That it's in there is all that matters. Now hush!"
"Yes, ma'am," Harold said. "Wouldn't want to be flippant."
But when the devil actually showed up at the front door- their own particular devil-small and wondrous as he had been all those years ago, his brown eyes slick with tears, joy and the sudden relief of a child who has been too long away from his parents, too long of a time spent in the company of strangers...well...Lucille, after she recovered from her fainting episode, melted like candle wax right there in front of the clean-cut, well-suited man from the Bureau. For his part, the Bureau man took it well enough. He smiled a practiced smile, no doubt having witnessed this exact scene more than a few times in recent weeks.
"There are support groups," the Bureau man said. "Support groups for the Returned. And support groups for the families of the Returned." He smiled.
"He was found," the man continued-he'd given them his name but both Harold and Lucille were already terrible at remembering people's names and having been reunited with their dead son didn't do much to help now, so they thought of him simply as the Man from the Bureau "-in a small fishing village outside Beijing, China. He was kneeling at the edge of a river, trying to catch fish or some such from what I've been told. The local people, none of whom spoke English well enough for him to understand, asked him his name in Mandarin, how he'd gotten there, where he was from, all those questions you ask when coming upon a lost child.
"When it was clear that language was something of a barrier, a group of women were able to calm him. He'd started crying-and why wouldn't he?" The man smiled again. "After all, he wasn't in Kansas anymore. But they settled him down.
Then they found an English-speaking official and, well..." He shrugged his shoulders beneath his dark suit, indicating the insignificance of the rest of the story. Then he added, "It's happening like this all over."
He paused again. He watched with a smile that was not disingenuous as Lucille fawned over the son who was suddenly no longer dead. She clutched him to her chest and kissed the crown of his head, then cupped his face in her hands and showered it with kisses and laughter and tears.
Jacob replied in kind, giggling and laughing, but not wiping away his mother's kisses even though he was at that particular point in youth when wiping away a mother's kisses was what seemed most appropriate to him.
"It's a unique time for everyone," the man from the Bureau said.
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