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art by Justine McGreevy

The Call

Erin M. Hartshorn is a desert rat (native Nevadan) transplanted to a humid climate. Her fiction has appeared both online and in print; this story marks her third SFWA-qualifying short story sale. She blogs a few times a week at erinmhartshorn.com/blog.

I sat on the green bench watching the kids at the playground. Not mine. Never mine. But my niece and my two nephews ran up slides and jumped down stairs and raced across bridges and climbed up the outside of equipment that had surely never been meant for that.
"I don't know how you manage," I said softly to Geena, my sister-in-law.
"I knew your family could hear the Call. Knew it when I married Ash. It didn't surprise me when he got up and walked out in the middle of dinner. I just hope he's all right, wherever he is."
He wasn't. Just as surely as we were bound to hear the Call of Adventure, so was our family bound to feel our kin. I knew when Ash died, just as we'd both felt our father die years before. Geena didn't want to hear it, though, and I didn't bother telling her again. The afternoon was too pleasant to spoil with a fight.
Nodding toward the kids, I asked, "And them? Are you ready for them to hear the Call?"
Only silence greeted my question. Turning, I caught the haunted expression on her face. Her voice was barely a whisper. "I'm afraid they already do--Liam, at least, has this way of cocking his head as if he's listening to someone I can't see. When Kenzie does it, I don't know whether she hears anything or if she's just copying him."
I knew the look she meant. Ash had had it early, too. Me, I hadn't even heard stirrings until I'd been off at college, far from my family, who would have understood. It's not a good way to pass calculus, stopping in the middle of a test, straining to hear something not from this world. Somehow, I managed not to flunk out of school, but I still moved back home after graduation.
The Call was fainter when I was surrounded by family, fading from just on the edge of hearing to something I imagined in my sleep. More fitting people to talk to, I suppose. Fine with me. I got to have a normal life.
Except I knew what I was missing. I'd heard the siren song growing, and that part of me had risen to answer it. Ash vanished and returned several times before settling down with Geena, and I was jealous.
I wanted to hear it again... but I knew that everyone who heard it wound up with one last adventure, one they'd never return from. I wasn't ready for that.
What is it about a statement like that? It taunts fate, like saying, "At least things can't get worse." At that moment, I heard the strings of harps, the blare of bugles as for a hunt, and the single word, "Come."
My head snapped around. I had to know where it came from. The Call had never been so clear before, and a diamond flower bloomed in my heart, telling me this is what I had waited my whole life to hear.
I was half-standing, stepping away from the bench across the mulch without conscious direction. I saw it that time, a glistening in the air, the shimmering of a mirage that Ash had told me about, the portal that would take me to adventure.
Geena's shriek stopped me in my tracks. "Liam, no!"
Eight-year-old Liam sprinted toward the portal, his brother Sean running after him in an attempt to tackle his older brother. Sean missed, and Liam sped up, crying, "I'm coming, Daddy!"
My heart wrenched. He was too young.
I veered from the portal to cut Liam off and caught him in my arms mere yards from it. He kicked and screamed. His tears soaked my shirt as I pressed him against me. I held him until Geena reached us, then passed him over to her.
Sean and Kenzie joined the family huddle, and Geena sat down on the ground, pulling them all onto her lap.
Liam sobbed. "I heard Daddy. I have to go."
I tousled his hair. "It's not your job, sport. You stay here and look after your Mom for me, okay?" I took a step back, fixing them in my memory. "I'll bring him back for you."
With the voice of the Call broken, I could have walked away. Part of me wanted to, more than anything, but I had to do this for them.
Geena's eyes met mine, and I saw then what she'd managed to hide from me before, that she knew the truth about Ash. "Bring yourself back first."
"I will." I hoped. I spun, ran, and dove through the vanishing shimmer, the voice in my head singing in response to the call, eager to learn what my first adventure would be. At the same time, I knew the best adventure was the one I was leaving behind. I hoped the kids didn't grow too much while I was gone.
The End
This story was first published on Monday, May 14th, 2012

Author Comments

The idea for this story came to me while sitting on a bench watching my own children play at a playground, fighting invisible dragons and making up their own stories about where they were.

- Erin M. Hartshorn
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