By six o'clock, the cookout in the Reed's backyard was winding down. Aunt Florence and Uncle Grover debated with Aunt Jill and Uncle Alex over the merits of clean coal technology. Cousins Michael and Dave battled out their millionth game of horseshoes. The twins were fast asleep in their playpen. Grandma and Grandpa Owens played team Canasta against Tony and Fran, and Aunt Gretchen was helping herself to her third plateful of macaroni salad.
The shadows in the yard grew longer with each passing minute and so did Jason's face. Clearly unimpressed with the conversations, the food and the company, he sat alone on the cement steps that lead up to the back door. Head in his hands, elbows on his knees, he daydreamed, longing for the opportunity to slip away unnoticed to finish his book.
As his mother approached him from the yard carrying an empty casserole pan, she stopped and mussed his hair.
“You're over this aren't you?” she offered.
Barely looking up, he nodded in resignation.
“You want to go finish your book, don't you?”
He could see where this was going and instantly knew that the next few seconds needed to be handled very delicately. He was on the verge of being left off the hook and if memory served him, looking up with only his eyes and not his entire head, would seal the deal. So like a scorned puppy, he met her sympathetic gaze using just the slightest bit of raised eyebrow. “It's okay,” he baited.
If experience had taught him anything it was that, at this point, the next person who speaks loses. So with as much discipline as he could muster he sat in silence, leaving his mother to dangle on her own conscience.
“Well, why don't you go say goodnight to everyone and tell them you have to go do your homework,” his mother offered as she climbed the steps.
He hopped to his feet and opened the screen door for her, then made his rounds to his extended family, bidding them all farewell. Seconds later he was in his bedroom retrieving his book, bolting down the stairs three at a time and dashing out the front door. He sprinted across the front lawn, crossed the road and tore through the wheat field. After a minute or two, he was out of breath and slowed his pace to a brisk walk the rest of the way to his personal hideout.
As he squeezed between the eight foot tall, padlocked chain link gates, he could feel himself begin to relax. There was something about this place that made him more content than any other place in the world. Maybe it was the solitude. Maybe it was the privacy, or the simple beauty of the trees and bushes that surround the fence. Perhaps it was the panoramic view from the catwalk on top. He never analyzed it, but because of his time here over the months, he became aware of the concept of refuge. Things even smelled better here. Maybe it was the way the tower and the cluster of trees and shrubs at its base shielded the ground from the rays of the sun. He didn't care. All he knew was that this was an oasis in the middle of a flat and barren life.
Alone in the cool, moist afternoon sanctuary, he stood for a moment, silent, eyes closed, and inhaled deeply. As he released the breath of the outside world, a family of gray partridges, recognizing him, crept out from their home under the Chokeberry bushes and resumed scratching about the ground. He smile down at them and wondered if he would ever feel this at ease with the likes of Aunt Gretchen or Cousin Dave. He knew, however that he mustn't dwell on such ridiculous things. If he did, it would only mean another night of feeling stupid, lame and different. And tonight, there was no way he would allow himself to go anywhere ugly.
So with his book stuffed inside the waist of his blue jeans, and the partridges cheering him on, he began his ascent. The pale green metal of the ladder was cool and welcoming, and within a matter of seconds he was popping out from the treetop canopy into the warmth of the late afternoon sun. He climbed on until he reached the catwalk and then planted himself in his usual spot. With his back against the warm metal water tank, he surveyed the countryside beneath and beyond him. Off to his left he spied his house and watched as the visitors all hugged one another then packed themselves into their cars and drove away.
He opened the book to the page where he had left off then closed it and gazed into the sunset, calculating that he had just enough time to finish before nightfall. When he opened the book once more, the stream of golden light beamed forth from the pages like a thousand suns, and he was again under the spell. His eyes, feverishly scanning the lines, reflected the intensity of the glow from within the book.
The pages turned more quickly than ever. Of course they always do toward the end of a great saga. But today the words, and the time itself, elapsed so rapidly that he seemed to be absorbing the story rather than reading it. Beads of sweat broke out upon his brow as the strain of such osmosis ravaged his innocent soul. His body began to quake with exhilaration as the suspense of the final two pages came to light.
As firmly a hold as he had on the hourglass, Cassandra was still able to snatch it from his grasp. He closed his eyes for a moment and recalled the words that Neltha had spoken, “Let go of time and you shall fly.” He repeated it to himself over and over as he watched Cassandra hold the hourglass out to the monster by the boulder. For a split second he thought it was all over, that she was giving up and handing over everything to the giant toad. Their backs forced to the cliff's edge, they had no way out. But just as the toad looked up, Cassandra turned the hourglass upside down, and the monster began helplessly moving backward, plucking a grub from his mouth and shoving it back into the ground. They watched for a few seconds before Cassandra turned the hourglass upright once again.
The toad screamed for her to hand it over, but she upended it once more, sending him a few seconds backward in time.
Cassandra turned to him and said, “We've got to erase everything we've done here.”
Battle weary and wise, he nodded and replied, “Then let go of time. And fly?”
He smiled at his friend, took her hand and the two of them inched backward until they reached the very edge of the Earth. He took the hourglass from Cassandra and lowered it to the ground, again turning it slowly upside down before setting it on the ground. He watched for a moment as everything, birds, clouds, people and even sounds reversed themselves and ran in the opposite direction of time.
Somewhere in his soul he knew that it was all a dream, that he and Cassandra would do the right thing in this world and come out unscathed in the next. After all, if there‟s a talking toad, a thousand year old witch and time travel, how real could it be? He knew that his friend felt the same way. So, with almost no trepidation they turned to face the sky before them and the gorge below. The eerie sound of time undoing itself behind them blended with the raging waterfall below.
“Don‟t look down,” he told his friend, just before they both did. They held on to one another, and to the hope that reality would scoop them up somewhere between the edge of the cliff and the jagged boulders on the canyon floor.
Cassandra turned to him one last time and said, “Let go of time and you shall fly?”
They nodded together, tightened their grip and closed their eyes, leaning ever so slightly into the cool and comforting breeze wafting up from below.
Jason Reed's broken little body was found the next morning by a township maintenance worker at the foot of the water tower, a gray partridge cooing at his feet. Completely intact, the book, The Keeper of the Key lay undiscovered in the thicket of a Chokeberry bush.