Charlie was not entirely sure where he was, or even when he was. As he stood up, it became immediately clear that he could very well be dead. All around him, strands of thin red thread spun silently through the air, intertwining with each other as if they were weaving themselves together, then apart, then together again. Watching them do this slowly and peacefully brought an uneasy calm to his heart.
“And so you are here at last,” said an old male voice.
Charlie spun around to see a man standing behind him dressed in a brown sweater vest and slacks. He wore a brown fedora and had a scraggly white beard. He was plump and gave Charlie the impression that this might be what Santa Claus might look like in his off season.
“And where exactly is here?” asked Charlie.
“Why, inside the backpack of course,” said the man. “You did crawl into it after all. A wise choice given that otherwise you would have gone splat on the ground, but one I would not recommend repeating. Being in here too long…does things to one’s mind. Irreparable things. Do it enough and you’ll no longer be able to tell the difference between this world and the real one. I should know. This place and my obsession with it is what eventually ended my life.
Charlie felt his breath leave him with the realization of who was standing before him. He shook his head in disbelief as a single tear rolled down his face. “Grandpa?” he asked in a whisper.
“The one and only,” said the old man with a smile. “My how you’ve grown. Little Charlie Cole. The last time I saw you, you were so little.”
“Well whose fault is that?” asked Charlie, wiping the tear from his face, not wanting to give this man who had abandoned him and his mother the satisfaction of seeing him cry.
“It is very much mine,” said Arthur. “A lot of things are,” he said in a much quieter voice. He turned and looked at the threads spinning all around them. “When I discovered the backpack, I was so sure I had found the answer. The answer to everything. I was sure I was going to change the world. I was going to show it to the greatest minds out there and together we were going to fix everything. We were going to solve world hunger, end global warming, stop wars for good. But then…” he shook his head, “I realized that for every ounce of good the backpack could do, it could also do incredible evil. Being able to make anything your mind can fathom is quite a powerful ability, and were it to get into the wrong hands…”
He turned back to Charlie. “So I created a place where it could be protected. Not only by a vast labyrinth of dungeons filled with all sorts of monsters, but also by a building, filled with people who had proven that they could do good with just one small piece of its power.”
“You mean…” started Charlie, trying to sort out everything he was being told. “You made it all? I mean I knew you made the building and the relics, but the catacombs too? The monsters?”
“I made it all,” said Arthur. “And into every piece of it, I built a system that would test someone. Someone like you. And should they pass they test, only then would they be worthy of the backpack. The real backpack.”
The words seemed to echo off the walls.
“But…I have the backpack,” said Charlie. “I’ve had it since the day I walked into that place.”
“No. What you have is just another relic. A very strong one, mind you. The strongest even. You have an echo of the original backpack. One that makes you earn every piece of its power. The original backpack could create anything from nothing. It was more powerful than any one person could ever hope to handle. But I used it all the same to create the place you now live. And then I put my design to the test.”
“After you were already dead,” said Charlie.
Arthur sighed. “No. I put it to the test once while I was still living. I let someone playtest the little game I had created. And it all went so wrong. There was already so much anger in her heart. So much impatience. I had failed her, and when faced with the power of the backpack you now hold, even that was too much for her. So I had used the original backpack one last time. To erase the memory of it and Darkmoon Drive from her memory. Then I made sure she never came to find me or it, and I hid the original backpack behind the strongest door, in the deepest room of the catacombs, never to be found again until someone finally came along that was worthy. Someone like you, Charlie.”
Charlie’s hand went to his mouth as a sob escaped him. “It was Mom. You tested this whole thing out on her. And she failed so you tossed her away like a piece of garbage.”
“I fancy myself a very creative man,” said Arthur. “A man with a brain that is always working. But I have never once considered myself a good man. I failed your mother. In every possible way.” He took a deep breath. “When I took her memories of the power of the backpack, something…broke inside her. It was like a light went out inside her.”
“You sucked out her soul,” said Charlie. “And then you abandoned her.”
Arthur stared at him for a long moment before nodding. “Yes, I suppose I did.”
Charlie shook his head angrily.
“But she can never find that place or the backpack again, Charlie. The knowledge of it would break her. Mentally, she wouldn’t be able to handle the overlap of memories that would start to occur in her. What I did was wrong, but had I tried to bring her back in, it would have killed her. And if you try to show her the world you’ve found now, she will surely die.”
“Then I’ll find another way,” said Charlie. “I’ll find a way to make her whole again.”
“I truly hope you do,” said Arthur. “But to do that you will need the original backpack. The Celestial Bag, or so it was called by the ancients of this world. You hold the last true relic of its making. You are the only one capable of passing the tests that await you and fighting your way down into the depths of the Catacombs to retrieve it. Only then can you make right what has been wronged.”
“Why are you telling me all of this?” asked Charlie.
Arthur shook his head. “I suppose like all old men who have failed in our lives. In the end, all we want is for those who come after us to do better.” Arthur motioned to the threads around them. “The world out there would have you believe that it’s quite complicated. Race, religion, politics, love, loss, good, evil. It can feel so overwhelming. And it can make someone like yourself feel so powerless. I imagine that’s why you planned to jump off a bridge one cold night not so long ago. To escape all the noise.”
Charlie looked away, ashamed that his grandfather knew he had wanted so badly to end his own life.
“It is a cruel joke that the hardest part of life is simply living it.”
“So then what’s the point?” asked Charlie. “If it’s all so fucked up and complicated and difficult, why do it?”
“The point isn’t just to do it, but to find a reason worthy of doing it. Passion, love, purpose. The point is finding a reason to wake up every morning. And maybe somedays that’s as simple as being able to feel the sun on your skin. And others, maybe it’s the chance to save the world. You hold every option in the palm of your hand every single day.”
Arthur walked over to Charlie and grabbed his hands, cupping them in his own. “So jump, Charlie. But don’t jump out of this life. Jump in. Jump deep inside this world and feel absolutely everything it has to offer. Plant the seeds of tomorrow. Build the friendships that will last until your old and grey. Kiss the ones you love. Build. Explore. Make every day one that is worth fighting for.”
Tears streamed freely down his face now. He swallowed down the lump in his throat. “What if I can’t?”
“Oh my boy. The question you should be asking yourself is what if you can?”
Charlie coughed as another sob escaped him. Slowly, he pulled himself together. “I’m not going to see you again, am I?”
“As I said, this should be the last time you ever come here. The energy within the relics is too chaotic. Spend even a second too long here and it will tear you apart. And unfortunately, our time is almost up.” Arthur reached under Charlie’s chin and raised it so that they stared eye to eye. “But, and I know this is an incredible cliche, I will always be with you.”
Charlie hugged his grandfather. Despite the resentment he still felt for him. Despite the pain that he had never been able to know the man in life. Despite the revelations of what Arthur had done to his own daughter, Charlie’s mother, he hugged him because it was the one and only chance he would ever get to do so.
“Now go back out into the world, and give it everything you’ve got.”
CONTINUE TO CHAPTER THIRTY-EIGHT
Thank you for waiting patiently for this chapter! With my Mom visiting from out of town this past week I got a bit behind on posting!
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