THE MANDATORY SIX, Part Three: Robert Johnson 9/19 | 10:02 a.m.

Robert struggled to focus on I-40 West as it stretched ahead into the outskirts of Grants, New Mexico. He took another chug from the energy drink in the console, his palms sweaty, his heart slamming in his chest. He was getting close. She was waiting at a cheap motel a few miles from the next exit—or had been at the time of their phone call.

He glanced at himself in the rear-view mirror. Sixteen hours since he’d left St. Louis, and he hadn’t taken a full breath yet. His bloodshot brown eyes and rough dark skin aged him beyond his twenty-three years. It’d been days since he’d had a proper sleep or bothered with the skin care routine he’d been doing in Chicago. In some parallel dimension, he was looking like shit because he’d been out drinking with his friends the night before like a normal college student. Then again, if he was a normal college student, he’d already have his degree by now instead of having his studies delayed by a missing family.

Most of his friends had drifted, but it was his own fault for being so depressing. Adrenaline had fueled their efforts to help him in his search during the first couple of months, but no one could go on like that forever. They didn’t know what to say. All around him, the stench of tragedy hung in the air, emanating from the festering hole where the explanation should have been. His reality was a question mark, standing before him like a skyscraper. He had lived as a forgotten wanderer in its massive shadow, and now, after all this time, he was about to discover the truth. The only thing more frightening was the idea he never would.

A few nights ago, Mama had appeared on Aunt Tiffany’s doorstep in St. Louis. Tiffany had called, but by the time Robert made it there from Chicago, Mama was long gone, bolted out the door after overhearing Tiffany phoning the police from the bathroom.

“She wouldn’t even speak, Rob,” Tiffany said, crying. “I begged her to tell me where they were. She didn’t say a word.”

He’d stayed in St. Louis the next couple of nights, all his time spent driving around, unsure where to look. He’d eventually given up and curled up in a pathetic lump on Tiffany’s couch, where he stayed the next few days. She liked to watch the news, but the images of the massive earthquake in South America were too depressing for him to bear. Everything shook, rumbled, and fell. Including his phone when he’d realized the unknown number could be Mama. The thought crossed his mind every time someone called. This time, he’d been correct.

Mama had been quiet at first, but he’d recognized the sound of her breathing.

“I’m ready to tell you everything now, Robert,” she said. “I’m ready to tell.”

She’d given him her new location, and he’d left right away. Tiffany couldn’t take off work, but it was better this way. He wouldn’t have been able to take the car ride together, the unbearable silence as they both pondered the possibilities. Especially the one they were too afraid to ponder with clarity, the possibility that Jacob, somehow, was okay. Robert had put that sputtering hope out of its misery long ago, and it had now become the fog that floated around the back of his mind. He avoided it with everything he had as if acknowledgement would prevent it from ever coming true.

He took the exit and rolled down the road, passing hotels and fast-food restaurants despite his growling stomach. His GPS led him further from the recognizable chains and into a more remote area, where he spotted the sign for the Desert Lodge Motel, nearly invisible thanks to its display of faded gray letters against a dusty backdrop.

He pressed into the brakes, enduring a loud screech from his much-abused 2005 Mazda hatchback. It’d gotten him this far. Whatever happened from here didn’t matter as much.

He thought again about David Youngstone as he climbed from the car. The experience had remained fresh in mind over the years, at times giving him hope, other times making him laugh at his own baffling stupidity. Of course the kid hadn’t really been a time traveler. He was just a precocious young person. The water tower thing had just been a coincidence. It had to be. And that meant this whole thing could still be a bust.

Every screptch of his shoes against the dusty concrete walkway reminded him of that as he got closer.

He arrived at the door and knocked.

It opened to reveal Mama standing there. Thinner, older, and more vacant in the eyes, but Mama no question.

He’d envisioned this moment so many times. Prayed for it too. It didn’t feel like he’d expected. He could only tremble and stare.

“Mama?”

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Discover more of the story in BEYOND MY DYING MIND, available now on Amazon. Robert’s story will also be further explored in one of my future books.

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