By Larry Ivkovich

They say first impressions are important. But I know now that they can also be misleading, dangerous, even inexplicable.

My first impression of Phillip was that he was blessed with ignorance. Simple enough, yes? But this was not your dictionary type of ignorance. This lack of knowledge, as it were, was something deeper, more…unknowable, not definable in any real-life terms. What then? What was it about this gentle soul that upset my and Amelia’s lives in such a monumental way? That made me angry and envious all at the same time? I couldn’t put my finger on it at first and I’m just as confused about it now—although I have a theory.

Did I say inexplicable? What else can describe what happened to us?

***

“Doug,” Amelia cried, running from the vegetable garden that June afternoon, a look of panic washing over her face. “Doug, come quick!”

I looked up from the flowerbed I had been working in to see my wife of thirty-five years stop and turn back around, her thin arms crossed at her breast. Her still-youthful body was trembling.

Alarmed, I got to my feet as quickly as my old, creaky knees would allow me and jogged to Amelia’s side. Our golden retriever, Gorgo, had already loped, barking, into the veggie patch. “What’s wrong?” I asked, gently grasping my wife by the hand. “What’s happened?”

“There’s someone in there,” Amelia said, never taking her eyes off our fenced-in plot. “He’s…” She finally turned to face me, her silver hair shining in the sun, her lined yet beautiful features reflecting a genuine puzzlement. “He’s…my god, Doug, he looks like Daniel.”

A prickle of apprehension formed in my gut. Not Daniel again. “Stay here,” I commanded as I strode toward the garden’s entrance gate, gripping my trowel like a dagger. Most likely it was nothing—Amelia had had her share of emotional false starts and imaginings since Daniel’s death. Nevertheless, though I was a sixty-seven year old retired computer analyst who couldn’t fight his way out of a paper bag, if there was someone in the garden who resembled our dead son (or even if he didn’t), it wouldn’t hurt to be too careful.

But there were no warning barks or growls from Gorgo. I didn’t know then what that comforting silence would eventually have in store for us.

“Halloo!” the young man with the long red hair, said, rising up from where he had been kneeling among the tomato plants. Tall and robust-looking and dressed in scruffy jeans, boots and an ill-fitting T-shirt, the youth we would come to know as Phillip was standing. Gorgo was busy sniffing the visitor, tail wagging enthusiastically. “Sorry about the intrusion, good sir, but I see you ‘ave ‘orses,” he continued, a big grin spreading over his freckled features, the same type of features that had graced our son. He nodded at the cornfield to my right. “They’ll be lovin’ that once it’s ripe, won’t they. And, oh yes, I’m ‘ere about the job.”

It’s true we needed some help around the place, neither of us being as young as we used to be. Our two horses, Lance and Guinny, deserved more care than we could give them. The flower beds and vegetable gardens that Amelia had so lovingly planted and cultivated through the years required more tending now than her arthritic hands could manage. The house we had restored on fifteen country acres for our retirement (and dubbed Caerleon-on-Usk by my Camelot-loving wife) needed some work.

So I had put an ad in the paper and put up signs for a hired hand, fully expecting one of the local university kids from nearby Morgantown to apply. But we got Phillip instead—a stranger who had never worked on a computer, never surfed the Internet, had never used a cell phone, who thought television was a “grand wonder, indeed,” and marveled at every aspect of our lives as if encountering them for the first time.

“Just for a while, Doug,” Amelia said to me as we both watched Phillip feed Lance and Guinny that day twelve months ago. Like a pup, Gorgo pranced back and forth at his side, perfectly at ease. “I know he’s a total stranger, but just for a couple of weeks. It’ll be nice to have a young person here again.”

“I don’t know, Amy,” I countered. “Where did he come from? And his clothes—they don’t even fit him—as if he just found them somewhere. He says he walked all the way out here, that he doesn’t even own a car. He could be…”

“Look at the horses,” Amelia replied, her arms folded against her slim body, ignoring my feeble protests. “And Gorgo. Look how they respond to him.” She turned that blue-eyed gaze back to me and her victory was assured as it always was whenever she speared me with that look. “Animals would know if there was something amiss. They have that sense.”

It was Daniel again, or the memory of him, blowing through her like a storm. Amelia had never gotten over his suicide two years ago. Since then, she had immersed herself in the ancient Celtic myths and tales of high fantasy and alternate worlds she had enjoyed as a girl. It was her way of coping, I guess, a way to get away from her cares. Her emotional health had always been fragile even before our son’s passing, but now it was even more precarious.

I didn’t want to upset that delicate balance. We had finally gotten to the point where we could talk about Daniel again without anger and bitterness. In my weakness and my love for her, I couldn’t bring myself to say no to my wife for anything. Not even for this.

And so, Phillip got the job and became our boarder. We paid him under the table and pretty much gave him the run of the place. He slept in the carriage house, did the work of three men, and did it happily.

Not that I gave in completely. I put out feelers on the Internet and watched the news, researched missing persons, checked for any recent crimes or abductions with the Morgantown police, that type of thing. No one turned up with Phillip’s description; nothing was unearthed that might apply to his sudden appearance here. I was trying to be careful. If only he didn’t look so much like Daniel.

***

“I’m from another world, you know, Doug.”

“Eh?” I looked at Phillip from across our front porch, the yard beyond aglow with moonlight. It was a beautiful late summer night. I had pulled the TV out on the porch where we watched (for the umpteenth time) a DVD of Excalibur. Amelia had gone inside for some more snacks and lemonade.

“Sure,” I said, taking my eyes off of the screen where two knights of old jousted vigorously with much blood being spilled. More and more, Phillip had been saying a lot of odd things, odder than the usual remarks about not hearing about this or having never seen that or not knowing what that was. It wasn’t just the ignorance I thought at first he was feigning. There was something not quite right now, something not quite normal. “England, yeah. I know that.”

Phillip never spoke much about his life or his past. He dropped little hints here and there, nothing really specific but enough to allow me, at first, to keep my distance and not be overly suspicious. He had been with us now for two months and my initial reluctance at hiring him had tempered. He was a good worker, an absolute wizard with the animals, and a perfect gentleman. Amelia’s mood had improved dramatically as a result. “Chivalrous,” she had called him.

I suppose I should have been grateful—and at first, I was—but lately, I had caught my wife and Phillip in more than one serious conversation. Secretive, almost furtive, their heads pressed together, huddling like conspirators. When I approached Amelia about it, she shrugged those instances off as nothing; they were just talking. Phillip had an interest in old folk tales and legends also, she said. But my unease increased.

“No, no,” Phillip said now in that accent of his, the one Amelia loved so much. He looked away, his profile backlit by the full moon’s light, the resemblance to Daniel almost frightening. “England, aye, once upon a time. But not anymore—it’s another place we all live now where time ‘as stood still, as it were. Not in the ‘ere and now, if you know wot I mean.”

We all live? “No,” I answered, my blood suddenly roaring in my ears. “I don’t know what you mean.”

Phillip’s eyes seemed to shift focus as if he were looking at something far, far away. “We’re allowed to leave every now and then,” he continued dreamily. “To return ‘ere to where we came from to see if it’s time yet.” He turned to look at me then. “But it’s not yet our moment to return. Our ‘shining moment,’ as your playwrights would say. Do you not understand?”

“Of course I don’t understand,” I said, starting to get angry. “What the hell are you talking about?”

“Amy didn’t think you would.” He smiled, a look of regret etching his freckled features. “At least, not yet. Still, perhaps you will, aye, maybe you will.”

Amy. He called her Amy. Before I could lose my temper and say or do something I would regret, Phillip turned back to the TV, an amused expression on his face. “Oh no, that’s not the way it was,” he murmured to himself, almost as if he were conversing with some unseen companion. And then aloud, laughing, “Pah! ‘Ave they got it all catty-wumpus! Merlin would never do that!”

“Look, Phillip, I think it’s time for some answers…”

Amelia returned with the lemonade at that moment, Gorgo in tow, my wife smiling and killing any momentum I had been building to question Phillip further. “Zounds, milord,” she said to the boy with a laugh. “’Tis only a movie.” I had never seen her so happy and comfortable, at least not since Daniel had died. It was why I had been so reluctant to intervene from the beginning. Phillip, with all his quirks and irritatingly mysterious ways, was filling in for our son.

***

It was the winter solstice that cold, snow-less December morning three months later, only a few days before Christmas, when I saw it. Standing on the back porch, I shaded my eyes from the flash of light that emanated from the clover field a quarter mile beyond the pine grove. No, not a flash—a lingering blue-white glow that started slowly, built to a bright, radiant aura, and then vanished.

Gorgo started barking and took off toward that direction—where only a short while ago Amelia and Phillip had been headed on what had become one of their routine morning walks.

I admit I had become more and more concerned. I had argued with Amelia the night before and had said some things I regretted—how we should let Phillip go, how his relationship with her had become too close. It was dangerous, I had said then in my jealous anger. We still don’t know enough about him, even after six months.

She had shaken her head vehemently and tried to tell me how important Phillip had become to her, as if I hadn’t seen that, as if I hadn’t noticed that special bond between them developing. She still loved me, she said, would always love me, but Phillip gave her something I couldn’t—something that was good for her soul and her sanity, something she desperately needed.

What? I had shouted then in my anger. What could he give you that I couldn’t? She had run from the bedroom crying and I, like the stubborn idiot that I am, hadn’t followed.

And now I ran too, this time after Gorgo, praying everything was all right; suspecting, somehow, that it wouldn’t be. We reached the spot I was sure the light had come from, me out of breath with my heart pounding in my old chicken chest.

There was nothing. No light, no Phillip, no Amelia.

Gorgo walked in circles, sniffing and whining. There was something there, on the ground—a folded piece of paper held in place by a rock. I picked it up, opened it with shaking hands, and began to read.

***

Tentatively, I stand here now in the same place several months later. The winter chill has given over to the warmth of summer at Caerleon-on-Usk, that fictional Camelot Amelia and I had created.  Though I’m dressed for the season and the backpack I’m wearing contains certain supplies I may need, the air is cold without my dear wife.

But the solstice has come just like it always does; like it did that fateful day a year ago when Phillip first entered our lives. And with it also, perhaps my salvation, my sanity—my entry to that other world—the one Amelia has always loved more than this one, the world of the King That Was and the King That Will Be. Will it be summer there also? I wonder; if the old tales are true, it’s always summer in Avalon.

But the rest of the real world isn’t so believing. The police conclude Amelia has skipped town with her “much younger lover.” The notices I placed in all the newspapers pleading for her to come back were in vain. And the private detective I hired to find her turned up nothing but dead ends. Only after I’d almost exhausted every mental, physical, emotional and financial resource I had did I finally realize that the letter Amelia had left for me wasn’t the product of a misguided imagination after all.

That other world of Phillip’s, parallel universe or whatever you want to call it—there are entrances to that alternate plane, gateways if you will. Why there should be such a thing here at our retirement property outside Morgantown is beyond my understanding. Maybe Amelia’s grief drew Phillip to us like a beacon from across some great celestial chasm—from the Vale of Avalon, where Arthur and his court wait to return to save us all from ourselves.

It’s crazy, I admit it, but for Amelia’s sake and my own, I pray I’m right.

I’ve got a friend to house-sit our place and take care of Lance and Guinny—going away for an extended trip, I said. Gorgo’s coming with me, though—I couldn’t leave him behind. He sits beside me patiently now, knowing something special is about to happen—must happen!

Maybe I am crazy. But I’m no longer afraid. After all, if a Connecticut Yankee can cross over, why can’t I? And, most importantly, I think I understand.

I know now why Amelia wouldn’t take me with her and Phillip. I wouldn’t have gone, not then. The utter disbelief, the proverbial fear of the unknown and all that. And I would have done anything in my power to stop her. But I’ve had plenty of time since then to think about what happened, to absorb the complete impossibility of it all. Will she be there waiting for me? Does she know I’ve figured it out? Did she really mean it when she said she still loved me? I have to know.

I’m ready now, though I’ll be the one blessed with ignorance in that “brave, old world” I hope I’m going to. Nervously I take a deep breath and wait. And wait.

Slowly the space in front of me starts to shimmer, to fold in on itself. Or does it? I blink, look again. Yes, there! A small glimmer of light appears in mid-air, spreading, growing like a diamond in flight. I look away, close my eyes, still not sure, still not believing what I hope and pray I’m seeing.

The smell of oiled chain-mail and roasting venison permeates the air around me. The laughter and shouting of children cascade like ringing bells. The approving roar of a joust’s appreciative crowd, the clash of forged steel upon steel, the happy bark of Gorgo as if greeting an old friend…

I open my eyes and look once more.

And smile.

Larry Ivkovich is an Information Technology professional who has been writing genre fiction for over twenty years. He has been published in the ezines AnotherRealm, Kenoma, Afterburn SF, M-Brane and Tower of Light Fantasy; has had print sales to the Canadian fiction magazine Storyteller, the short story anthology Triangulations, and has had a story featured in the Canadian genre anthology Twisted Cat Tales. He has also received two honorable mentions in L. Ron Hubbard’s Writers of the Future Contest.

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