“Thank you,” said Jack-o quietly. Temron didn’t respond right away, just sat there, staring out into the sun watching it fall below the horizon.
“You know,” he finally said without shifting his gaze. “The sunsets aren’t like this in my world anymore. The people who live below watch pre-recorded ones to keep their internal clocks on a social norm, but us who live up top. We see the real thing. So many of the Earth’s natural resources are depleted, all the gasses gone, when the sun goes down it just kind of,” he raised his right fist, “poof,” he said opening all of his fingers straight out before letting his hand fall back into his lap. Jack-o knew this about the Earth of Into Gold but couldn’t really imagine it. “Like someone turning out a light,” said Temron. Jack-o wished he could tell the man next to him all he knew, and that it would be okay in the end. But the truth was, he didn’t know that for sure himself anymore. It seemed Jack-o’s presence in the book had changed the course of the story, there was no telling what would come next.
“I woulda never left you there,” said Temron, still not taking his gaze away from the setting sun. “I mean, don’t get me wrong, I would and will leave you behind in a world if I have to. I don’t really care what kind of world it is either, nice, mean, gross, take your pick. But not one of those broken places. I wouldn’t leave anyone there.”
“Why was it like that?” Jack-o asked. Puffy white clouds were now fully stained with rich oranges and vibrant pinks. This was the sky that every artist tried to portray in their paintings, the boy thought.
“Because of the Destroyer. At least, that’s what I call him,” Jack-o could hear the hate in Temron’s voice as he spat the words. In his pocket, the rock began to grow warm and his stomach sank. The boy didn’t know why he knew, but he knew exactly who the Destroyer was.
“Does he wear a red cloak?” Jack-o said almost choking on the words. Finally, Temron turned his head to look at the boy.
“You’ve seen him?” Jack-o reached into his bag and pulled out the picture of his parents handing it to the man face down.
“He took my parents, and I think he’s the reason I ended up here,” there was emotion in his voice that Temron recognized, it was a jumble of anger, sadness, loss, revenge, fear; it was the way his own voice had probably sounded when he decided to become an outlier. The man stared down at the picture, a perfectly happy, normal looking couple with their smiling little boy looked back.
“I’m gonna kill him,” said Jack-o harshly staring into the distance. Butterflies beat their wings rapidly in his stomach when he heard the words come out of his mouth and his hand clenched the warm green rock in his pocket. It wasn’t that he didn’t mean it, the boy had been thinking about the man in red since all this began and had decided when he was with Rona that he wanted to find him and make him pay for what he’d done. But, by saying the words aloud it somehow felt real, and very, very daunting.
Temron looked at Jack-o but didn’t see the same little boy who stared up at him from the picture. Next to him, the child’s face seemed harder and tired, as if someone was playing a practical joke and put a man in a boy’s body.
“You’re not gonna kill him, if he is really a him at all,” said Temron handing the wooden frame back to the boy.
“Think what you want,” said Jack-o coolly, taking the picture and averting his eyes until he had it flipped upside down again. He wasn’t ready to see his parent’s faces, not yet. “I’m going to find that thing, make him fix my world and send my mom and dad home, then, I’m going to make sure he can never hurt another person again.” Temron laughed as Jack-o finished speaking. The boy’s anger flared and he stood up grabbing his bag.
“I don’t need you,” said Jack-o turning to look for a way down toward the town.
“Kid, sit down,” he wasn’t laughing anymore. “I didn’t mean to laugh at you. It’s more that, I’ve seen what this thing does to entire worlds. I know you’re mad, but don’t be stupid.” Jack-o turned back to Temron and sat slowly on the grass.
“If you know so much, what would you do then?” asked Jack-o spitefully.
“The same thing I always do when I come across a place like that. Run. Stay as far ahead of that thing as possible. It’s not my problem and it shouldn’t be yours either. Look,” Temron paused and turned to face Jack-o mimicking the crossed legs the boy already had. “I don’t know where this thing comes from, I don’t know what it wants other than to destroy everything in its path. So I stay out of its path.
I have to find a way to repair my world, to save everything I have ever known and loved from the stupidity of humanity and the destruction we’ve already managed to cause ourselves. Nobody else can do it but me. I saw the thing in the red cloak one time, and I managed to escape by the skin of my teeth. So my advice to you, find a path without the Destroyer on it.” Temron stood up and stretched his arms high letting out a big yawn.
Jack-o didn’t move, he just stared at the man as the last rays of sunlight were dipping below the horizon in a deep red. He knew more about Temron than the man probably knew about himself, but the last thing he wanted to do was tell him about the books and how he’d actually ended up in Into Gold. Jack-o was afraid if he knew about the green rock and the last book he carried in his bag he may try something tricky. What? The boy couldn’t say, but this was a desperate man who had questionable morals at more than one time in his life.
“My world was destroyed, my parents were taken, I’ve been to who knows where in however many days, months, or years it’s been, and all because of the man in the red cloak,” the rock burnt his leg in his pocket as hotly as his anger burnt the insides of his body. Jack-o took a deep breath, trying to control his emotions and cool the rock before continuing. “He’s all I have left. And I’ll hunt every nook, of every world until I find him and get home.” The words felt powerful as they came across his lips yet something about them seemed, false. The boy meant every word but they felt strange. Like a lie one tells themselves so many times they can’t remember whether or not it’s true after a while.
“Whatever kid,” said the man finishing another large stretch and looking at his wrist. “I’m leaving come if you want, or don’t. Now that I know your ‘mission’” he said the word making quotation marks in the air with his fingers. “Feel free to stay in the next beat up world we find.” Temron turned and started walking away, “But as long as you’re with me, keep up,” the last words were much more serious than the rest, “I won’t wait for you again.” Jack-o stood to his feet to follow the barely visible shadow of Temron into the night. The boy didn’t know where exactly this adventure would take him, but he always had his last book and the green rock, and with any luck, Temron would take him exactly where he needed to go.