THE NIGHTCROSSER

By John Thomas Tuft

(opening of chapter two of my next novel about second chances)

It is the smell, always the smell. Rick sat on his cabin porch, inhaling all the telltale smells that made him love this place the way he did. The old wood of the walls, even the furniture, held a fragrant mix of memories of moldy nights and sundrenched days from his childhood. He remembered coming here back then, wondering what the haze that clouded the mountains in lazy drifts smelled like. The grass, the woods, the earth, the lake—all had their distinctive smells. And whenever his mother made chocolate chip cookies for them, well that was simply what heaven smells like.

Rick stretched and got up from the rocking chair. The combination of Blue Tick hound and beagle who answered to Jake, or the sound of any can being opened, slumped to his feet to follow the tall, lean man down the dirt path to the dock. As they passed underneath the canopy of leaves and kudzu, Rick inhaled deeply.

“Can you smell that, Jake?” He opened his arms wide as though gathering all the olfactory input to himself that he could hope to manage. “That is life. Real life.”

Jake gave a kind of chuffing sound and ambled on toward the old dock. The lake shimmered with the sunlight and the old dock smelled like warm wood and sea grass with mildew. “I feel like I’ve been here forever, old boy,” Rick exclaimed, looking out over the water to the Blue Ridge in the distance. The lake was nearly three miles wide at this point, far enough that the far shore was beyond sight.

Suddenly Jake alerted, then began to bark in his mournful way. The old dog acted like a kid filled with nervous excitement, loping to the end of the dock to bark across the water, then returning to Rick’s side to make circles around him, bumping against his legs with abandon.

“What is it, Jake?” Rick knelt in front of the dog and scratched his ears. “You’re always with me, aren’t you, boy? Good boy.”

Jake broke away from him and ran to the end of the dock, barking a furious greeting. When Rick turned around to check on him he was startled to see a large double-masted sailboat, looking for all the world like an old windjammer, about a quarter mile off the shore. “What the…where did that come from?”

The westerly breeze pushed the boat ever closer. As the main sail dropped a figure appeared on the forecastle of the ship, walked to the railing and hailed Rick.

“Ahoy, I’m here for the nightcrossing.”

Rick shaded his eyes with one hand. “What? Where did you come from?”

The man pointed across the water. “Out there, the beyond.”

Rick studied the man as the ship drew closer and hove to. Something about him seemed so familiar but he could not place exactly how he could possibly know this stranger. “Are you lost?” he called back.

The man chuckled. “No more than usual. How long have you been waiting?”

The question puzzled Rick. As the anchor bit into the bottom and the ship came round the man came more fully into view. “Waiting? I’m not waiting for anything.”

“You don’t want to work your way back?” said the man.

“Back? Back where?” Rick peered at the man, noting his long, Army surplus winter greatcoat that nearly touched the deck. “Do I know you?”

“How long have you been here?” asked the man.

Rick tried to pin it down in his mind, but time seemed so elusive for some reason. “Been here? I’ve always been here.”

“You came here as a boy.” The man said it as a statement, not a guess. “There are things that are better not remembered, but this, this place stays with you, does it not?”

Rick stared. “Who are you?”

“I’m called Paraclete. I was there when that pain you hide in the pit of your heart was first formed. You don’t even remember what started it, I suppose. That’s what this place is for. Moving on or moving back and trying again.” Paraclete laughed and ran his fingers through his salt and pepper beard, his dark skin crinkling at the corners of his eyes.

“I don’t understand,” Rick admitted, feeling something tugging at the bottom of his heart but not able to quite pin it down. “What are you doing here?”

“I’m here for you.” Paraclete stood still and watched Rick for the longest time. Finally, as the breezes picked up, he grabbed a handful of line. “I’m giving you a chance. A new chance, if you’ll take it. I’m asking if you want to be a nightcrosser.”

“What’s a nightcrosser?” Rick noticed that Jake was sitting very still, attentive to this strange…what? Pirate? He looked around. The familiar cabin still sat there on the knoll, the rocking chair waiting. The air still smelled the same, the dock, the trees, the water. Why did it feel like some door was opening though? He shook his head. How long had he been here?

“You have been here ever since,” said Paraclete in a soft voice.

“Ever since when?”

“Ever since you wanted to be here. Now you have to choose whether to move on or go back and try again. This is the path to choosing.”