Notes: I spent last night, from when I got home from work to when I went to bed, pumping out and cleaning up a 300 gallon cistern after shock-chlorinating our well. The mud inside was an inch deep, and I don’t think my man’s shop vac will ever be the same after this. On the plus side, we might have potable water once the bleach dissipates, so…that was my Monday. I hope yours was better. More Love Letters! I’m getting weirdly meta here, but it all makes sense in my headJ
PS--I really wish I was a better artist, I’d love to be able to share the cover I describe like I see it in my head. I’ll do a Janie and the Phantom pic at some point, even if it’s bad, and post it here.
Title: Love Letters
Part Thirty-Five: A Phantom Quest
The package arrived about a week later, flat and rectangular and liberally covered with bubble wrap. Ben opened it at his dining room table, picking hopelessly at the tape that surrounded the thing before he finally gave in and very carefully cut through the wrapping with a knife. Inside it all was the newest issue of Janie and the Phantom. It smelled delicious, like fresh ink, and Ben shut his eyes and just inhaled for a moment before pulling the book closer. The cover was a painting of Janie from behind, silhouetted by a bright white light emerging from the cave in front of her. All around was darkness, fangs and eyes gleaming in the shadows, but Janie had beaten through them with sword and shield, and finally reached her ultimate destination.
At least, Ben had thought it would be her ultimate destination. Janie’s quest had begun with a nudge from the Phantom, and ever since then she’d been finding her way toward him, confronting and eventually conquering all sorts of mythological stumbling blocks on her journey. It was a familiar path, the heroine confronting challenges from within and without to finally accomplish her goal, which Ben assumed was finding and freeing the Phantom from his cage of solitude. Everything had been building to this, and Ben was ready to see Janie succeed. He turned the pages slowly, recognizing some of the paintings from what he’d seen in Concord.
Janie made her way through the labyrinth that surrounded the Phantom’s cage with the help of every piece of magic she’d acquired on her journey, using them up as she went. Her shield protected her from the sleeping dragon’s firey breath, but she had to leave it wedged in his mouth to make it all the way across his lair. Her sword pinned the Minotaur in place but didn’t kill him, and she had to leave it thrust through his chest to keep him from coming after her. She used the last of Athena’s goodwill to help her answer a riddle from a sphinx, and her beautiful mechanical bird, into which she’d set the compass that had helped her escape from her dark and lifeless city in the first place, finally ran out of steam just outside the doorway to the Phantom’s cage.
Janie tried the door without much hope, but to her surprise it was unlocked. She let herself in to the cage and inside it was a lake, and in the middle of the lake was a rock, and on that rock sat a man. Ben remembered a painting like this, one that Ryan had been working on during Ben’s visit to Boston. That one hadn’t had the peaceful feeling that this one did, though. That one had been a study in isolation, while this one seemed more…companionable, if that word could really apply to a painting.
A boat was moored at the base of a small stone staircase beside the door, and Janie lowered herself into it and rowed out to the Phantom, almost drifting away when the images she saw in the lake distracted her. There were hundreds of different faces and different lives, strange places and exotic creatures, and when she looked at them Janie could feel what they were going through, the pains and the loves and the challenges, and it was all she could do not to get lost in someone else’s life.
When she finally got to the Phantom, instead of looking triumphant, Janie seemed confused. “I’m here to…to rescue you,” she said finally.
The Phantom looked amused. “Are you sure about that?”
“No,” Janie confessed. “I thought I was, but now I don’t know. You led me here, though. Isn’t this what you want?”
“I gave you a quest, Janie. You shaped it yourself.”
“I don’t understand.”
“You needed to be free from the chains that held you in stasis, unchanged and unhappy. I gave you a way. It was you who decided to make me your quest, though.”
“Did I make a mistake?” Janie asked, fear evident on her face.
“That depends on whether or not you got anything out of your journey,” the Phantom said. “Your quest was never really about reaching the end. It was about everything you did along the way. You’ve gained so much.”
“But now I’ve lost it all,” Janie protested. “I had to leave everything I won behind in the labyrinth.”
“And yet here you stand with legs and arms and breath and a heartbeat,” the Phantom replied. “It seems to me like you’ve still got the most important things.”
“But what am I supposed to do now?” Janie said. “I thought I was supposed to save you! I don’t know how to do this if you’re not going to be with me, and I don’t want to go back out there alone. What happens next?”
“You aren’t asking the right questions yet,” the Phantom told her. “You get three chances. Ask, and I’ll answer. By the end of them, you’ll know what the next step will be.”
Janie stared at him, serious and still a little afraid, clearly unsure of her next move.
And then it ended. It…just ended. Wait, what?
Ben was on the phone before he knew what he was doing. “Hello?” Ryan asked cautiously.
“How could you end it like that?”
“Oh great, you got the book!” Ryan said. “Wow, I didn’t think it would make you call, though. Hi.”
“Hi.” Now that he took a moment to collect himself, Ben realized how glad he was to hear Ryan’s voice. “Thank you for sending it to me, I love it, but…the ending. I thought for sure Janie’d be freeing the Phantom from his cage and they’d go on to Elysium together.”
“I thought so too at first, but then I realized that Elysium isn’t the place for them. I’m not even sure that it exists.”
“But Janie’s been wanting to go there ever since book two.”
Ryan sighed. “Yeah, I know. Believe me, I’m getting all sorts of shit for this, but in the end I couldn’t do it the other way. Riding off into the sunset just wasn’t the right move for Janie, or for the Phantom. More than half of the feedback has been positive, mostly because fans know I’m going to have to write at least one more volume to tie everything up now, but there are plenty of people out there who feel…” Ryan paused for a moment. “—betrayed in every way, you horrible person,” he said, sounding as if he were reading from something. “How dare you do this to us? How could you lead your readers on like this? If I don’t get an HEA I’m going to hunt you down and break your knees.”
“Holy shit,” Ben said faintly. “That’s terrible.”
“Eh, it’s fandom, terrible sometimes goes with the territory,” Ryan replied, pretty much unperturbed. “People who make threats are blocked from the forums and Jasmine keeps a list of them, just in case something actually happens.”
“And I thought the New York Times could be a harsh critic.”
Ryan laughed. “Now you know. I generally leave the social media monitoring to Jasmine, if I didn’t I’d go crazy reading reviews. A few of these made her swear so bad that I had to check them out, though. It’s only been out for a few weeks and it’s already my bestselling book, though, so I must be doing something right.”
“I like it,” Ben reassured him. “I was surprised by it, but I think it’s more interesting than Janie getting her ending here.”
“Thanks,” Ryan replied, sounding a little shy. “I’m glad you do.”
The silence that followed was just a little awkward, not bad considering they hadn’t talked in over three months. They’d been texting steadily for the past week, but it was a different thing to hear Ryan’s voice in his ear. “How’s your family?” Ben asked at last.
“They’re really good. You know Molly and Joey are back in school, right? Joey’s doing so much better now, it’s amazing. Melissa got Uncle Bill to hand over the trust, and there’s a lot more in it than Mom thought, so that’s good. Melissa’s also getting the new DA to look into allegations of fraud and intimidation concerning Bill’s law firm, which is even better. Cheryl got back from the rehab clinic this week and she’s doing a lot better, going to AA meetings and volunteering to organize the police fundraiser this Halloween…it’s really good. So much better. Except Jasmine and I had to let our apartment go in Boston, but that’s okay. Lennie and Grant are pregnant so they’re looking for something just for them and the baby now anyway.”
“Big changes,” Ben commented. “So Jasmine’s still with you in Concord, then?”
“Yeah, she’s pretty much made herself at home. I’d hand the phone over so she could say hi but she’s actually out on a date right now.”
“How long do you think you’ll stay there?”
“Probably through Christmas,” Ryan said, and Ben was glad Ryan could actually give a time, even if it was distant. It meant he was thinking about it, at least. “After that, I’m not sure what I’ll do.”
“I have it on good authority that Africa is a great place to work through a personal crisis.”
“I hope I don’t have to go quite that far to work things out,” Ryan chuckled, and Ben found an offer for Ryan to come to Denver on the tip of his tongue. He didn’t say it, although he desperately wanted to. It was still too early.
Instead he said, “Tell everyone hi from me, okay?”
“I will. So…is calling each other back on the books, then?”
“I’d say so,” Ben replied, trying not to sound too eager. Calling Ryan had been a reflex, but not one he regretted.
“Then I’ll call you tomorrow.”
“Good.” Ben cleared his throat. “So, as one of your voracious fans, I have to ask: what happens in the next book?”
“You’re just going to have to wait and see,” Ryan replied loftily, and hung up before Ben could grill him anymore. He called right back, though. “Bye. I meant to say bye first,” he added sheepishly.
“Bye.” There was silence for a long moment, then Ryan laughed. “Okay, I can’t be the one to hang up this time, I already feel like an idiot for the first time around.”
“Goodbye,” Ben said, then hung up the phone. He set it aside and looked down at the last page of the book, then turned back to the beginning and started reading it all over.