It wasn’t until seven months after his disappearance that Joan began to suspect that her brother had been crazy.

The case was still open, and publicly the police had expressed confidence in a number of leads. Privately, though, the chief had told Joan and her parents that, barring a miracle, things looked grim. Her parents had balked at first, but Joan had dated the chief’s son in high school, before she had left town for school and work in the city.

Her parents’ certainty had waned with each passing day, until Joan found herself driving up for the ultimate concession that her brother was gone for good—selling his house. It had been their parents’ house, originally, but after they converted to snowbirds and fled south, Gil had kept it up and lived there. He had always been devoted to the place, and kept it in good shape; selling it was the final step in moving on.

Joan found herself upstairs, cleaning out her brother’s room. It was hard, and her cheeks often glistened with tears as she boxed up Gil’s cherished mementos—that silly junior karate medal from 3rd grade, the plastic Pinewood Derby trophy from the scouts whose size belied its modest standing of 4th place.

Worst of all were the mounds and mounds of paper. Gil had fancied himself a writer, and his desk, closet and dresser were crammed with sheets ranging from handwriting on notebook paper to computer printouts. Throwing it all away would have been like throwing him away, and Joan had a vague idea that she could edit some of it into a usable form to publish as a memorial tribute. But that meant looking over every scrap, sorting them into piles, and feeling the enormity of Gil’s absence with each word.

“Oh, Gil, Gil, Gil,” Joan said to no one in particular. “Why couldn’t you ever finish anything?”

In her perusal, she had found incomplete drafts of half a dozen novels, one running to over a hundred handwritten pages. There was a poem Gil had written when he started shaving, “Ode to an Electric Razor,” that cut off in mid-stanza where the author couldn’t think of anything that rhymed with “month.” And there were no less than three journals, each of which started strongly with daily entries before devolving into thin and desperate summaries of months or even years.

But it was the final piece Joan found that gave her pause. It had been apart from the others, tucked between Gil’s unkempt sheets, written in an unsteady hand and dated shortly before he had vanished.

The soft pencil writing was deeply smudged; Joan had to smooth it out on the newly-cleared desk and turn the lamp to its highest setting to make out what was there:

“Yesterday, I ripped a hole in the membrane of existence. No problem at all; just held up my hand, got a firm grip on the cosmos, and tugged. And do you know what I saw?”

“Galaxies alight with a billion fires, washing over me like a breaking wave. A city carved from the trunks of trees whose purple branches scraped the moons. A rusted-out gas station sign in a language I can’t read, attended on all sides by a vast sea of sand dunes. The corner of Upham and Stroesser downtown.”

“So I decided to step out—just for a little while. There’s something to be said for the paper-thin fabric of the mundane that ties everything up for us in a neat brown package, for perceiving only what you can see.”

“But for the time being, I’m content to dance among planetary rings in the spiral arm of a distant galaxy, to skate across the molten surface of a world consumed in solar fire, to break like a wave across far-distant Pacific shores thrilling with every undulation.”

“I’m stepping out. I may be back, but I will never be the same.”

Joan set the paper down, and lowered herself into Gil’s office chair. “That doesn’t even sound like him,” she said, glancing at the paper through which she had been sorting. “It’s his handwriting, but…that doesn’t make any sense.” She chewed her lip. Gil had always been a little strange, a little out there, even when they were children playing in the old barn out back. Could that have come roaring back with a vengeance, bearing her brother away on a tide of madness?

The doorbell rang downstairs, and Joan started, almost falling into—and knocking over—her carefully sorted piles.

“Could you get that?” Joan’s mother called from the basement, where she was packing up family heirlooms and antiques. “I think it’s the mailman. Ask him for a mail forwarding form!”

Joan folded Gil’s strange note and slipped into her hip pocket before charging down the stairs to the front door. The rhythm was the same as it had been years before, having stair-races with Gil: two stairs at a time until the landing, then three quick thumps to cover the last five stairs. The two-three shuffle, Gil had called it.

Sure enough, the mailman was at the old ornate oak door, waving and holding up an envelope. It wasn’t Mr. MacReedy, who had been the mailman for years, but rather a younger and more familiar face, possibly the older brother of someone Joan had gone to school with. That was the constant with her hometown, the thing that had driven her to the city—even though people died and retired as always, you still knew them all.

The mailman flashed a flirtatious grin, but Joan wasn’t in the mood. “We are selling this house soon,” she said. “Can I have a mail forwarding form?”

“I’m sorry about what happened to Gil,” the mailman said, ignoring the question. “This package is actually for him.”

“Who’d send him something? Everyone knows he’s gone.”

“He sent it.” The mailman held up the package, which had Gil’s name as the return address. “It was send on a wild goose chase, bouncing from place to place until finally being kicked back. Here, you need to sign for it”

Sure enough, the package was covered with exotic stamps, including one in Spanish and one in what looked like Chinese, and six “return to sender” labels.

Joan signed and took it, closing the door on the mailman before he could make the rest of his delivery (and before she could ask for another mail forwarding form). She made a beeline for the kitchen table, and sawed Gil’s package open with a serrated bread knife. A thick bundle of paper, wrapped in tissue and thoroughly rubberbanded, lay inside. There was no title, no cover page, only Gil’s name and block upon block of neatly printed text.

Glancing over it, Joan thought about calling her parents up but decided to read the pages herself. If they were an extension of the crazy ravings she had found upstairs, into the barbecue pit with them—the family had suffered enough without the fresh burden of insanity.

She pulled up a chair, and began to read.

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