weren't you someone's son
That Halloween is the most frightened Amy has been in her life. She practically sprints into the hospital, Jonathan right at her heels. Her heart only slows to its normal rate when she sees Greg sitting up in bed jabbering on excitedly to Wirt and some other vaguely familiar teenagers. He has a frog in his arms (why did they allow it into the hospital?), but he's okay. Wirt is too, though she has to force him to let the nurses look him over. They're both healthy, both safe and sound. The realization makes happy tears well up in her eyes.
It's over. It's all over.
Amy realizes the next day that while her boys aren't in any danger of drowning, it might not be quite as over as she thought. The relationship between her sons has changed—for the better, anyone can see that, but it's a reminder that they've been through an awful lot. Greg is as cheery as ever, but Wirt is quieter than normal, somber, though now he smiles rather than scowls at his brother's exuberance. She suggests to Jonathan that they could probably all benefit from some therapy, and he agrees straight away.
Greg is as enthusiastic as ever about the idea of therapy appointments. Wirt is decidedly less excited. He tries spinning excuses about how he's fine, really, but Amy puts her foot down. He's always bottled things up, but it's okay to need help sometimes.
Sighing, wearing the put-upon expression perfected by teenagers everywhere, Wirt agrees. It's too late in the day to schedule anything, so Amy makes a note in her planner to find someone on Monday.
Jason Funderberker (the frog, not the boy) becomes part of the family so quickly that it feels like he's always been there. He hops after Greg, following him everywhere except the bathroom and, usually, school (Amy and Jonathan learn very quickly to check their son's backpack for contraband amphibians, but there are still times that he manages to slip the frog past them). They get him an aquarium and a heat lamp and all the things a frog needs to be happy, but they put their feet down at Greg's suggestion of socks. "All the other frogs were dressed up nice," he tries to protest, but they're firm in their denial.
Thankfully, Jason doesn't seem to mind. He seems perfectly happy, cold feet or no.
Although it is kind of weird when they learn that their older boy (because Wirt is their boy regardless of what his birth certificate says) is apparently giving Jason piano lessons. He blushes darkly, fidgets there on the piano bench. His mouth works soundlessly before he mumbles, "Greg asked me to."
"Yeah," the boy in question confirms. "Wirt's a really good teacher, just like you, Dad!"
Jonathan stiffens, but Wirt doesn't comment on the comparison. Still, it's with caution that he asks, "And is Jason a good student?"
(A couple months later, Jonathan walks into the living room to see Jason Funderberker seated by himself on the piano bench, webbed fingers dancing over the keys. Greg is ringing the weird bell that Wirt had insisted on disinfecting four times and Wirt himself is playing on his clarinet. None of them notice him, which is good, because clearly he's hallucinating and should never use this particular brand of cough syrup ever again.
He gawks at them for a minute or so, then turns around and walks away.)
Life is good. Wirt and Greg are getting along famously, the family has a pet, and their therapist thinks that they can graduate soon. There's a few hiccups—nobody's quite certain why Wirt is suddenly a vegan and they still have no idea why a formerly-dead Christmas tree is currently flourishing in their backyard—but this is the happiest Amy has been in a long time.
Life is good, until it's not.
Wirt's been acting strange all week. They've all noticed it, though none of them know what's going on in his mind. Jonathan speculates that he's going to come out to them—as what, he's not quite certain, nor does he particularly care. Amy realizes intellectually that it's a good theory, but something tells her that it's not quite right.
"Then what do you think it is?" her husband asks, not confrontationally, just genuinely curious.
"I have no idea."
(In their defense, the truth turned out to be pretty unlikely.)
Sunday morning. It's almost time for church, but Amy hasn't seen her older boy anywhere. Maybe he's sleeping in? It's been awhile since he did that, but he is a teenager. Maybe he just forgot to set his alarm.
Amy knocks on the door to Wirt's room. "Wirt, we're leaving in five minutes."
No response. She tries again, rapping just a bit more loudly. Silence.
"Jonathan," Amy calls, "is Wirt downstairs?"
"No!" he yells back.
Amy's a little bit worried now, concerned that her son might be sick. She tries knocking one more time but, receiving no response, pushes open the door.
Wirt's bedroom is empty. The curtains are drawn, the bed made, paper envelopes placed neatly across the covers.
Amy's heart turns to ice. She jerks forward, tears open the missive with her name on it while screaming for her husband. Heavy footsteps pound up the stairs as she reads through the letter, searching desperately for any indication of where Wirt might be.
They don't make it to church that day.
The police bring dogs, a Belgian Malinois and a bloodhound. They snuffle at Wirt's laundry and begin the hunt.
"Between the dogs and the Amber Alert, we'll find him in no time," an officer assures the Whelans.
"I think Wirt's gone back to the Unknown," Greg announces.
The police tracker has just finished giving them her report. She frowns but reaches for her notepad. "You have a theory about where your brother's gone?"
"Yeah. The Unknown!"
"Greg, no." Amy cuts him off. Turning back to the officer, she explains, "The Unknown is an enchanted forest that Greg likes to make stories about."
"No it's not," Greg protests. "Jason comes from the Unknown, and you just said that your dogs could only get to the river. That's how we got into the Unknown last time."
The tracker ignores him. "Have either of you thought of any places he might be?"
"I tried calling his father," Amy replies, grimacing. "Mort hasn't seen any sign of him." Not that there was any chance of Wirt going to Mort in the first place. He'd always known that the man had never wanted children, never wanted him. "He did say, though, that Wirt had been trying to call and talk with him." To say goodbye, she knows now.
"Of course Wirt's not with that jerk," Greg pipes up. "I just told you, he's in the Unknown."
"Greg," suggests Jonathan, his jaw tight, "maybe you and Jason should go watch a movie."
The boy folds his arms, a mulish expression on his face. "Nuh-uh. You have to believe me. Wirt's in the Unknown!"
"Greg, sweetheart," Amy says, trying to remain patient, "sometimes people see strange things when they… when they—"
"When they almost die. I know." Greg nods, ignoring his parents' winces. "But Wirt and Jason saw it too, and—and we brought back the bell!"
Amy's patience is rapidly dwindling, but Greg's had a long day too, she reminds herself. "I think that you should listen to your father and go watch TV."
Jason croaks, nuzzling at his person's hand. The boy scowls but follows his frog out of the room.
(Sometimes, Amy finds herself half-believing her son's account of the amphibian's origins, if only because Jason is one ridiculously intelligent frog.)
They go back to the conversation, trying to figure out where Wirt might have gone that isn't a figment of his brother's imagination.
Ten minutes later, an officer escorts Greg and Jason back into the room. Apparently she'd caught them on their way to the cemetery.
Greg gets grounded for an entire week.
The days pass, and there's still no sign of Wirt.
They try everything they can think of. They make missing posters, talk to the neighbors, interrogate their relatives. They go on the news, they organize search parties, they put a video up on Jonathan's YouTube channel. They do everything they can think of, and it doesn't work.
Fortunately (or perhaps not), it soon becomes obvious to even the most skeptical cop that Wirt isn't a typical teenage runaway. This is good in that it keeps them in the news, which means more awareness, which means more people who might recognize Wirt if they see him. It's bad in that the police are baffled.
It's clear that Wirt didn't want to go. His letters are peppered with apologies and regret. His behavior, in retrospect, had all the hallmarks of someone saying goodbye. He felt like he had to leave, but he clearly hadn't wanted to.
Amy's always had an active imagination, so the first thing that leaps to mind is "he witnessed a horrific crime and is on the run for his life." She knows that that's (probably) not true, even if she can't think of any other good explanations.
(Greg, of course, insists that his brother is off on some mythical quest through an enchanted forest. Maybe that's his way of coping?)
Two days after Wirt left, Amy gets in contact with an old friend of hers who teaches English literature at a community college in Delaware. She's not exactly an expert at analyzing poetry, but she's willing to give it a shot. Amy scans Wirt's poetry book and sends it to her.
It's a long shot, but it's all she can think of.
Five days After, Amy and Jonathan are folding laundry in the family room when Greg and Jason enter. Jonathan mostly ignores them, assuming that his son is just here for a book or something.
It's the loudest croak Jonathan has ever heard. He looks up from the shirt he's folding to see… Jason standing on his hind legs, intelligence gleaming in his eyes.
The frog opens his mouth and begins to sing.
"When fair autumn turned to winter bleak
and the leaves were all covered in white,
a Pilgrim found a new edelwood
half-grown and growing in the night."
Jonathan turns to Amy. She too is slack-jawed and bug-eyed. Yeah, she's seeing—and hearing—the same thing he is.
"The Pilgrim wept, for he knew that tree:
He knew the face and the form within.
It was a boy known as Gregory,
his mother's son, his nearest kin."
Maybe he's going insane. Maybe the stress is just getting to him. Getting to them both at the same time. And now he's just hallucinating that the frog is singing about one of Greg's stories and it wasn't the cough syrup last time, good gravy.
"He and his bluebird companion-guide
tore at the tree's corrupted embrace,
but they could not tear the vines away
before the Beast returned to that place."
…wait. Isn't this one of the many stories where Greg had almost died?
"'Give me my Lantern,' he commanded,
but the Pilgrim and the bird said no.
They needed the Lantern's meager warmth,
their work was lit by Lantern-glow."
It was real. His son had almost been turned into a tree. He and Wirt had almost died. Repeatedly.
"The lying shadow spoke once again:
'Your brother is too weak to go free.
I'll put his spirit into those flames.
Just give the Dark Lantern to me.'"
(Greg mumbles something about paraphrasing.)
"The poor Pilgrim nearly took the bait
but then understood and firmly said,
'I know the truth. I can see it now.
You are the light. It dies, you're dead.'
"He raised the Dark Lantern to his lips
as the darkness danced all through the wood.
He blew out the flame and slew the Beast,
defeating the monster for good.
"And I was there on that fateful night.
I saw all these things with my own eyes.
The edelwood tree released its prey,
for Greg's life was his brother's prize."
"The Beast is dead, the Unknown is safe,
the bluebird became a human girl,
and Wirt and Gregory returned back here,
to their family, friends, and world."
"You have my word, I swear to you:
Every last word I've sung is true.
Every word is true."
Jonathan applauds automatically. His brain does not seem to be functioning correctly.
"So," says Greg. His hands are clasped behind his back, his chin high. "Remember how I told you that Jason Funderberker can actually sing really well because he's a magical frog from the Unknown? And then you didn't believe me because you thought the Unknown was just something I made up?"
His parents nod faintly. They remember.
"Do you believe me now?"
Amy paces like a caged animal. Four steps one way, four steps the other. Jonathan is still on the couch.
Greg and the magic singing frog have been acting out some of the boy's stories, though thankfully Jason hasn't composed songs about anything else. (He does, however, accompany Greg on "Potatoes and Molasses," and hums his new melody as the child relays his encounter with the Beast.) Amy is glad of that. She's still in shock from the first song.
"When the dog lady said that Wirt went to the river, I knew that he had to have actually gone back to the Unknown," Greg explains. "The police aren't gonna find him because they don't believe in the Unknown either. If we're going to find Wirt, we have to go in ourselves." A smile flits across his face. "It'll be like a camping vacation plus a scavenger hunt. Then, when we find Wirt, we can introduce you to Beatrice and Uncle Endicott and—"
"Wait." Amy halts, holds up a hand. "Wait, Greg. Just… wait."
A girl's entire family, transformed into bluebirds. A town full of living skeletons. A witch who wanted to stuff the boys' heads with wool. A young woman possessed by a flesh-eating spirit that had tried to eat them.
And the Beast. Amy's not quite certain if their world's labels apply to an eldritch horror of eternal darkness, but she thinks that he might be a sort of serial killer? From the way everybody feared him, he'd probably killed lots of people, lots of lost children just like her boys. Sure, edelwoods were technically still alive (probably. By this point, she honestly wouldn't be surprised by tree zombies), but they weren't animate, weren't conscious.
But what if they were conscious and they had to spend the rest of eternity trapped and frozen in a body not their own, unable to do anything but wait for the day that the monster who had transformed them came to finish the job, and that had almost happened to Wirt and Greg.
It was bad enough when she'd thought that they had just almost drowned. She doesn't even know how many near-death experiences they've had because Greg might be leaving things out and he tends to sugarcoat his stories, but now she wishes that they'd only nearly died once.
(The part of her which isn't gibbering in horror is fiercely, brightly proud. They didn't just survive, they came out stronger, closer, more capable than before. And the things they'd accomplished back in that other world! Greg saving a school and defeating the North Wind, Wirt rescuing that Lorna girl from slavery and ending a monster feared by everyone who had heard of him.
For the most part, though, she is horrified.)
"No," she declares aloud, her voice quavering.
"No what?" Greg asks.
"No, you are absolutely not going back to that place!"
"I'm not losing you both. I can't. I won't."
"You wouldn't be losing me if we all went together," Greg points out. "Plus we'd find Wirt."
"You aren't going," Jonathan confirms. "Just—Greg. Your mother and I need to talk about this."
"You're making a plan?"
"Yes. Yes, we're making a plan."
After they finish panicking.
There's one thing that Amy and Jonathan agree on right away: Greg is not going back to that place. It's too dangerous.
That leaves the question of whether either of them is going to try to go after Wirt (because Greg's right, he must be in the Unknown). It would have to be Amy, of course; Wirt has gotten along with Jonathan much better these past few months, but he's still more likely to listen to his mother.
Amy's first impulse is to say that yes, of course she'll go. Then her brain catches up and she realizes how difficult it would be to go into an unfamiliar forest world where she didn't know anything or anyone or have money. Heck, she might not be able to cross over. Maybe first-timers can only cross on Halloween. Maybe only children could pass. Or maybe Wirt had brought a little bit of the Unknown with him and that was how he had returned.
(She will try it anyways. The next day, she and Jonathan will drive down to the graveyard and try to enter the Unknown. They will not accomplish anything, but they will both get very cold and Jonathan will contract a nasty case of the sniffles.
They'll keep trying for almost a month before admitting to themselves that it's not going to work.)
"Do you think he's cursed somehow?" Amy wonders. A couple hours ago, the question would have been nonsense. Now it's a real—and horrifying—possibility.
"I don't know," Jonathan replies. "Do, do you think that the Beast might have done something to him when he died? That's a thing, right? Dying curses?"
"I think it is a thing. But, um." Amy forces a nervous laugh. "We shouldn't—there's no proof that he…." But she trails off, because maybe there is. "I know he hasn't been sleeping well lately, and do you think that him suddenly going vegan might have been a health thing?"
"And he's gone to find a cure to whatever's wrong with him. Assuming there is something wrong with him. That… I guess that would make sense. But… the letters…."
"I know." The letters were written by someone who didn't expect to come back. Maybe a person could only leave once and he'd been forced to choose between living in some weird enchanted forest far from everyone he loved and dying at home before his sixteenth birthday.
No. No, he's still alive, even if he was somehow cursed. Wirt's a smart boy.
He'll find a way out. He'll come home.
He has to.
With the realization that magic is real and her son is in another freaking dimension, Amy has almost forgotten about the poems she'd sent off to Mattie. She only remembers when her old friend calls.
"Sorry this took so long," she says, even though she really hasn't taken long at all.
"No, no, it's fine."
Sort of, but it wasn't something she could confess without Mattie fearing for her sanity. "Not really. Everyone is just confused. It feels like the more we learn about it, the weirder it gets." Because everything about the Unknown is weird, and crazy, and probably very very dangerous.
"I imagine," sighs Mattie. "Anyways, I sent you an email with my notes on the specific poems, but I thought I'd run over some of the generalizations with you in person."
"That's a good idea. Give me one minute to get my email open." The computer is nearby, and it takes her only a few seconds to get in. "Okay, found it."
"The first thing I noticed is that the poems' themes change over time. At first, they're kind of… well, there's a few about a girl, a couple about feeling isolated and misunderstood. Typical teenage stuff. Then, about halfway through the written portion of the book, the poems change. There's a poem that's all about escaping either death or fate or both, which he's personified and named 'the Beast.'"
Amy jerks involuntarily.
"I assume that Wirt wrote that one shortly after Halloween," Mattie continues, oblivious to her friend's self-recrimination. "He didn't date them, though, which is too bad. I'd like to get more of a timeline for his thought processes."
"So what happens after… the Beast?" Amy asks. Her mouth is dry.
"He breaks up with his girlfriend but is content to remain her friend."
"I know that. I remember." Her smile is sad. "Sara's a wonderful young woman. She got a bunch of her classmates to write down everything they could remember about Wirt's behavior in the last couple of weeks."
"What did she find?"
"That he'd been acting weird," she sighs.
"Oh. I probably should have expected that." Amy can almost hear Mattie's self-deprecating grin. "There's some more denial—he got quite vehement at points—and a lot of nature poetry. He came up with a magic forest called the Unknown—" Amy jerks again. "—that he seems to have mixed feelings about. On the one hand, he wants it and loves it. If it was a real place, I'd say that he missed it. Does he have any places that he always wanted to visit again? Anyplace he'd be homesick for?"
"That's too bad. Based on his poems, I'd say that you could probably find him there."
Amy beats down a sudden urge to laugh hysterically.
"On the other hand, there's a distinct element of fear and dread to the forest. Towards the end, though, they change into something between resignation and acceptance. If you can figure out what the Unknown is, I think you'll know where he's gone."
This assessment would have been a lot more helpful if Wirt had been in their dimension.
"The last two are very bittersweet. I think Wirt must have written them after he decided to leave. One is about acceptance. The other's about going home."
Home. Homesick. Does Wirt really consider the Unknown his home? She knows that he wasn't always happy here, but did he really like—love, even—the crazy magic forest that much?
"Based on what I read, Wirt wasn't running away from anything. Well, he was at first, but only metaphorically. He was running away by staying in Lakeville. When he left, he was heading towardssomething. Does that make sense?"
"I… I think so. I just don't know what it would be."
"Me neither," Mattie confesses. "What else, what else…. That's right. The second-to-last poem seems to be a sequel to one that was written quite a bit earlier, probably around the beginning of January, the one about the stag."
Amy blushes slightly. "I haven't actually read them," she admits sheepishly.
"Hey," says Mattie, sympathetic, "you've had a tough week. Busy, too, I'll bet."
"And—this is so stupid—but it feels like I'd be violating his privacy if I did. It shouldn't, because I sent them off to you, but, well, it does."
"Writing is like that," Mattie acknowledges.
"I guess. But back on topic. What's this about a stag?"
"One of Wirt's poems is about a stag that's fleeing something—he never specifies what—but its antlers get stuck. 'No crown of glory, these/ but cursed encumbering weight/ that tangle in the trees/ and bind him to his fate.' The ending is ambiguous. Reading just that one, you have no idea if the deer gets away or not. Then the second-to-last poem is about him coming to terms with his antlers. Learning to bear their weight and not get stuck, even taking pride in how they get bigger and grander every year. The language Wirt used implies that it's the same deer as in the other poem."
"So Wirt's the deer," Amy mutters, tapping her fingers against the table. Something her son hadn't wanted at first—something that had scared him, even—but possibly something he could learn to be happy with. At least he apparently has sense enough to realize that the Unknown is dangerous. "I have no idea what any of this means." It's even true. She can't imagine anything that fits all these criteria.
"I know that reading the poems feels like you're invading your son's privacy, but you know him better than I do. Try going through them. My notes in the email, too. Maybe you'll see something I don't."
"Yeah." She grimaces. "I'll do that. Thank you, Mattie. Thank you so much."
Her friend's voice is sympathetic. "Don't mention it, Amy. I just hope this helps. Let me know if there's anything else I can do for you, okay?"
"I will," she promises.
They exchange goodbyes and end the call. Amy leans back in her chair, staring at nothing for a long moment. Then she swallows hard, grits her teeth, and opens the email attachment. Time to see if she could figure out what Wirt had been thinking.
The news that their frog can talk merits a bit of adjustment. Not a lot—Jason had been perfectly content before—but now it isn't uncommon for Jonathan to come home to the frog making music. Jason is much better on the piano than someone with webbed fingers has any right to be.
The other big difference is the talking board, which isn't a board so much as a huge, stiff sheet of poster paper that Greg's been hiding beneath his bed. The left side of the paper is covered in the letters of the alphabet; the right has common words like and, the, can, and so forth. It's all printed in Wirt's neat, careful handwriting. "He got the idea from those Ouija board things," Greg explains.
The first thing Jonathan and Amy do (once they've recovered from the shock of a magic singing frog) is ask Jason if he knows anything about Wirt's disappearance. In retrospect, they needn't have bothered. Jason would have told Greg everything he knew, and Wirt, knowing about the frog's intelligence, had been careful to hide his plans from him.
As the days go by, Jason becomes their main source of knowledge about the Unknown. He confirms and corrects the details of Greg's stories, providing much-needed clarification. The boy is a good storyteller, especially for his age, but he tends sugarcoat and gloss over certain things, and he doesn't always fully understand all of what had happened. Jason, it turns out, is a teenager. He's old enough to completely comprehend their experiences.
Jason is the one who teaches them about the Beast, adding his own meager knowledge to Greg's tales. He doesn't know much about curses, either, but he shares what he's heard with them after Amy mentions her fear that Wirt might be cursed. He can't think of anything specific that might have befallen Wirt, but again, he doesn't know much about that sort of thing.
Time passes. Before Jonathan knows it, it's Wirt's sixteenth birthday.
They're both tense and morose as the hours pass. Amy keeps snatching glances at the door, hoping despite herself that Wirt might come home.
Jonathan gets a cake—just a little one, decorated with green leaves on its edges—from a bakery that sells vegan products. They don't put candles on it, but they each have a little slice after supper.
(Does time still pass more quickly in the Unknown? Wirt is sixteen here, but perhaps, over the garden wall, he has grandchildren who are dying of old age. It's a strange thought, one that Jonathan hopes with all his being isn't true.)
That night, he holds his wife close as she cries herself to sleep.
Amy hires a private investigator. She knows it's dumb, but—maybe he'll be able to see an explanation for Wirt leaving that doesn't involve a supernatural forest.
Greg tries to run away to the Unknown four times before he succeeds.
The first time is right after Wirt disappears. He's caught almost immediately by one of the officers who have been called in to investigate.
The second time is in late March. He walks right out of school into the cemetery, where he's apprehended by a quartet of siblings visiting their mother's grave.
The third time is a couple days after Wirt turned sixteen. He tries to sneak out of their house in the middle of the night but ends up tripping the burglar alarm.
The fourth time is in mid-May. They're at a restaurant when he suddenly sprints away, making a beeline for the old graveyard. Jonathan has to physically carry him back.
The fifth time, he makes it.
It's an ordinary day in June. Jonathan is out tutoring all morning, and Amy has a half-day shift. When they're done, they meet up to grab a few groceries before heading home.
The new babysitter is on their couch, a book on her lap. "Hey, Mr. Whelan, Mrs. Whelan. Greg's taking a nap. Do you need any help with the groceries?"
Dread ices Amy's blood. "Greg's taking a nap?" she repeats.
The babysitter can tell that something is wrong. "…yes?"
Greg doesn't take naps. He flat-out refuses, claiming that the world is too fun and interesting for him to waste time sleeping in the middle of the day.
"Maybe he's sick," Jonathan suggests weakly—but they're both already heading upstairs, groceries forgotten, the confused sitter at their heels.
Greg's room is empty.
"Oh, no," breathes the horrified babysitter.
"The graveyard," Amy chokes. They have to get there now, because what if Greg can't get back into the Unknown and drowns? What if he's already in a place where they can't reach him, can't protect him, a place that's magical and otherworldly and dangerous?
The drive to the graveyard, the sprint to the riverbed, it's all a blur. Amy remembers seeing Greg-sized footprints in the mud and running waist-deep into the river, shouting her baby's name. She remembers the frantic babysitter (who must have snagged a ride in their backseat, though she can't recall that either) on her cell phone, explaining the situation to 911 in a panicked tangle of words.
The police arrive, them and EMTs. The officers who have met the Whelans know about Greg's steadfast belief that his brother was in some sort of fairytale forest across the river, so they're quick to realize what's going on.
But they don't find anything. No little boys, no friendly frogs, no waterlogged corpses.
Greg and Jason made it. They didn't drown, they're in the Unknown again. They're alive.
At least for now.
The next few weeks are a haze of misery for both of them.
Their house, normally full of music and laughter, is empty, hollow. They eat at a table set for two. Their laundry basket contains only adult-sized clothing.
Friends and family and neighbors stop by, offering casseroles and condolences and offers of help, just like they did when Wirt left. The police visit frequently at first, then less and less often. They think that Greg must have drowned.
Amy wants to tell them otherwise, but she knows they'll never believe her. She feels so helpless, her children literally vanished from the face of the earth. All she can do is hope that they'll find each other and come home.
It's August. The days are hot and sticky and often followed by thunderstorms at night. School will start in a fortnight. Amy and Jonathan have chosen to be optimistic and register Greg up for second grade, but they don't register Wirt for junior year. If he ever does come back—it's looking less likely by the day—he'll probably have to repeat at least the second semester of his sophomore year.
Amy comes home from work exhausted, which is nothing new. It feels like she's always tired now. She trudges into her empty home thinking about what she should make for supper. Maybe they should just do leftovers….
Amy jumps almost out of her skin. She gapes, because—that's Greg, her Greg, right there, with Jason Funderberker by his side. He's brown from the sun, his hair shot through with highlights, a smattering of freckles dusting his nose.
She scoops him into the tightest hug she can manage before she fully comprehends what she's seeing.
"Remember how when you go to the Unknown, time doesn't pass here?" her son asks, completely blasé. "Well, this might be hard to believe because it looks like I've only been gone a couple of hours, but—"
"It's been almost two months!"
"What?" Greg goes rigid in her arms. "Here too?"
"Yes! Oh, Greg, we thought we'd lost you both forever. I thought…." She sniffles, fighting back tears.
"Oh, no," says Greg, distressed. "I'm, I'm sorry, Mom. I thought that time was going to be all wonky again, so me and Wirt and Beatrice—"
Hope, sudden and bright and almost painful in its intensity. "You found your brother?" She looks around the family room with teary eyes.
"He can't come home yet because of magic Caretaker stuff, but he sent a letter and some turtles," the boy informs her.
Amy sits down on the floor, mind racing. "But he's okay? And you, you're okay?"
"Everybody's fine, Mom," Greg assures her. "Promise."
"Okay. Okay. I need…." She needs to get her thoughts in order. She needs to hug him again and never let go. "I need to call your father." He's preparing for the resumption of his classes at the elementary school, but that can wait.
She scrambles the phone, dials her husband's number with shaking hands. He picks up on the second ring. "Hi—"
"Greg's back," she interrupts.
There's a sound like Jonathan has dropped the phone. It's followed by a couple moments of banging as he tries to pick it up. His voice is breathless. "Did I hear you right? Greg's home?"
"He's home," she confirms.
"Oh, thank God. Is he okay? Is Wirt back too? Is he okay? And Jason—"
"Wirt's still in the Unknown because—Greg, why is he still there?"
"He needs a bit longer on just the faceless stuff so he's strong enough to leave his forest without risking death," Greg explains matter-of-factly.
"What did he say?" Jonathan demands.
The boy waves a negligent hand. "Just tell Dad it's magic Caretaker stuff. It's all in the letter."
"Magic, apparently," Amy repeats. "Wirt sent a letter that apparently explains it. I haven't read it yet."
"Give me five minutes," Jonathan begs. In the background, his car's engine roars to life.
Greg is rummaging around in his backpack. He pulls out a bulging envelopes and a small, stiff folder. He opens it. "We had the frogs take a photo when we took the ferry to Adelaide's house."
Amy's blood runs cold. "Adelaide's house? You went back to Adelaide's house?"
"They what?" squawks Jonathan.
(If Amy was thinking, she'd put her husband on speaker and hand the phone to Greg. It would be a lot easier than repeating everything. In her defense, though, she has every reason to be frazzled.)
"Uh-huh. But Auntie Whispers took all her stuff, so we went to see her and Lorna instead."
Normally, Greg's inability to tell a coherent, linear story is endearing. Now, though, it very much is not.
"The talking board," Amy mumbles. They've been keeping it under Greg's bed since he and Jason left. If their past experience is anything to go by, they'll probably need the frog to clarify or elaborate. "We're going to need the talking board. Greg, come with—oh."
He's holding up the photo, the sepia-toned one that was apparently taken by magical ferryboat frogs. Both her sons are smiling up at her, them and Jason Funderberker and a freckled teenage girl who she suspects must be their friend Beatrice.
Wirt's gotten so tall. Skinny, too. Has he been eating enough? His frame is narrow, but there's no hollowness to his cheeks. Maybe he just has to put on weight after his recent growth spurt. She can't tell his exact height from just the photo, but he looks like he shot up like a weed.
Amy takes the photograph into her hand, a watery smile on her face. A coil deep inside her loosens, then dissipates entirely as Greg smiles shyly at her.
They're okay. They're both okay.
Jonathan is pretty sure that he's in shock.
First Greg and Jason come home without a word of warning. That's enough to stun him in and of itself. But they'd brought a letter from Wirt, an epistle filled with insane news.
"So… basically, Wirt's in charge of the entire forest's, um—" Jonathan looks at the relevant phrase "—magical wellbeing?"
"And that's why he can't come home," Amy adds.
"He thinks he'll be able to visit once in a while after he gets stronger," Greg reminds them. "And I bet we can think of ways to get you into the Unknown, too. You can meet Beatrice and the Woodsman and Enoch and everybody else. It'll be fun!"
Jonathan's not too sure about that, but he smiles and nods. "Maybe."
"And even if we can't," Greg continues, "we can still use the Wirt turts to send letters back and forth. Right, Attagirl Smithereens?"
The weird black turtle lifts her head and nods.
"So basically, all's well that ends well, right?"
"Right," Amy agrees, ruffling his hair. "But you're still grounded for running away."
Greg pouts. "Ah, beans."