1875, North Carolina
Miles away from the Tucks, in an inn somewhere in the state of North Carolina, a middle-aged man donned his yellow jacket and prepared for another day of searching. It was early summer and the fair for which he served as a barker was on the move again, touring the country from town to town, covering as many as they could manage in the three months they had before the season ended. Another day, another town, and another opportunity to find the answer he was searching for. The answer that would make him rich. The answer that would keep him alive forever. The answer that would put to rest any number of questions he'd carried throughout his life.
The answer to the mysterious immortality of the family in the story his grandmother had told him.
The mysterious immortality that's already coming too late, he thought, not for the first time that day. He had just gotten the letter from his sister a couple of days ago. His mother was dead. The consumption she'd been fighting for weeks had finally got the better of her, it seemed. The man sighed, tightening his black cravat. He was too far away. Even if he left this moment, he'd never make it back home in time for the funeral. Besides, he had schedules to keep and contracts to abide by. It was simply impossible.
Still, though, impossible though it was, he'd wished he could be there. Alone in his caravan the night he got the letter, he'd drowned himself in rye and cried like a young schoolboy. The man could count the amount of people he could honestly say he loved on one hand, and the first person he would count would always be his mother. She would be missed like no mother had ever been before. Hers had been the first face he could recall in his earliest memory, bending over his cradle; hers had been the last face he'd seen when he left Atlanta after the war to seek out a new life with a traveling fair, standing behind the fence with its peeling paint in her brown, ruined, weed-filled yard, waving goodbye as tears streamed down her cheeks and calling out to him not to forget to write. Although she didn't approve of his career, she had still supported him and encouraged him, and throughout his life had been his most constant source of love. He couldn't believe she was gone.
He'd have saved her. After he'd discovered the secret, before moving any further with the process of selling eternal life to the public, he'd have come back to Georgia himself to personally give her the Antidote to Death and watch as her body became immune to all harm.
He'd have had a job convincing her to take it. For some reason, the concept of immortality had always had an odd effect on his mother. As long as the man lived, he'd never forget how Mama had always hated it when Granny told stories about the family who never grew old. Oh, she'd never said anything to her, at least not as far as he knew. She'd just left the room every time the story started and let Granny rattle on and on and on about immortality; if she hadn't approved when her friend and her children came to stay with them and taught him the melody to a music box that would probably play forever, at least she hadn't stopped them; although she did forbid him from singing the song after they left. Yet the look that had appeared on her face every time the topic arose had given away all her true feelings. Her eyebrows narrowed, her lips pursed, her very eyes seemed to grow darker with fear, with confusion, with utter and complete hatred… and somehow, something else, something completely different. Sadness, possibly, or regret? He wasn't sure.
All he knew was that as much as he'd loved the stories, as fully as he had come to build his life around them, the memory of his mother's face when they were told would always haunt him, would always provoke shudders down his spine. It had always horrified him, somehow, knowing that there was something in his mother's life that couldn't be fixed, something that the stories reminded her of. Whatever the stories had to do with her life before the Jeffers family, before their farm, before Georgia, those stories related to the girl she used to be, and they reminded her that now she was incomplete.
He'd followed her out onto the front porch of their farmhouse, once, as a little boy of perhaps four or five, just when Granny was about to begin the story. He could see her now as if he were still there. She stood near the stairs, leaning against the railing, hugging her arms against her chest and staring into the distance at the tobacco fields, her face the same knot of fear, anger and regret.
"Mama," he'd asked as she jumped in startled surprise. "Mama, why'd you go outside? You're gonna miss all the fun!"
She'd gasped, her hand over her heart. "Travis! You startled me."
He'd looked down at his shoes then, blushing. "Sorry. But Granny's about to tell us a story!"
She had shaken her head. "I think I've heard enough stories for one day, Love. You go back inside, now. I'll be in in a few minutes."
"But it's a really good one," he'd whined, rocking back and forth on his heels in childish excitement. "She's going to tell us the story about the family who could live forever! Isn't that exciting?" He'd beamed at the mere thought of nothing being able to hurt him, of being able to do whatever he wanted, of never having to worry about dying or growing old. "Wouldn't that be wonderful, Mama? Being able to live forever, and never having to die? Wouldn't that be the greatest thing? I sure would like to be able to do that. Wouldn't you? I think I'd do just about anything-"
"Travis," she'd cried, wheeling around to face him. "Now you stop that! You stop that right this minute! You don't know what you're saying!" He'd gasped, startled and shocked, all the words scared out of his mouth. This had been the first time his mother had ever raised her voice to him, and it sent tremors of fear down his spine.
Looking back, he supposed his fear had shown on his face, for his mother had turned away from him, taken a few deep breaths, then turned back, looking him square in the face and breathing heavily. "I want you to listen to me, Travis, and I want you to listen well, you hear? Take your Granny's stories with a grain of salt. Don't go chasing after ridiculous things like unending life. It isn't an honor; it isn't a blessing; it's a curse. It will ruin your own life and those of everyone around you."
She'd knelt in front of him, her eyes boring into his as she gently clasped his hands between her own. "I know what I'm saying. Once, a long time ago, I knew someone who went looking for eternal life, who wanted to live forever just like the family in the story. A boy who always wanted to go on adventures, a reckless boy with his head stuck in the trees who never wanted to grow old. He went after eternal life, might have even found it for all I could tell- he never seemed to grow any older. The entire town pulled away from him, Travis. They were scared of him. They hated him. For all I know, he was seriously hurt because of it; it certainly seemed likely to come to that, before we fell out of each other's lives. Searching for a life longer than is natural is dangerous, my boy, and very sinful. The only eternal life anyone is ever supposed to have is with our Father in Heaven. Do not forget that."
Their Father in Heaven. Jesus, the Son of God. The Angels. The Man in the Yellow Suit had had many other conversations with his mother about the Stories over the course of his life, and it had always ended that way, with his mother talking of religion and Heaven, and how no one should seek a life longer than what God had offered them.
Her Christian faith had been his mother's greatest source of solace, and she had always sought to share it with her children. Oftentimes as she went about her work, she sang hymns; you might walk onto the porch at noontime and hear her humming "All Things Bright and Beautiful" while watering her geraniums and picking flowers from the magnolia tree to spread on the dining table, in the afternoon she'd be sitting in the parlor and stitching at her latest piece of embroidery with "Rock of Ages" on her lips, at night, after the sun went down she'd hush her youngest to sleep with "Nearer, my God, to Thee." Sometimes, she sang ballads from her grandmother's native Scotland- whoever Travis's mother's family had been, at least one of her parents had been a Scot; her very name, Una, was Scottish- sometimes, she hummed snippets of popular songs and war melodies from the Revolution, but usually, if Mrs. Jeffers was singing, it was a song of praise to her Lord.
Her dedication went further. After Granny's stories of immortal families, Mama would sometimes take out her Bible and try to counter her by reading the story of Adam and Eve. She taught her children to read as soon as they expressed interest and encouraged them more when they read the Bible than any other book. Once they had mastered it, she challenged them to memorize verses from various psalms and Bible stories; she would reward them with pennies or ginger knots when they could finally repeat a verse back to her with no mistakes. Of course, every Sunday, if you were one of Una Jeffers's children, unless you were so sick you couldn't leave your bed, church was mandatory. It didn't matter if your father never went to church- if you were Mrs. Jeffers's child, you attended and you paid attention to the pastor. It was the most important thing Mama asked of you, and it was vital you obeyed.
That had been the one point of friction between the Man in the Yellow Suit and his mother. No matter what Mama did when he was a boy, he would always find ways to play hooky from Sunday school, to get out of doing his catechism, to pay attention to everything but the pastor in church. Once he'd reached manhood, he never set foot in a church again. He just couldn't bring himself to do so.
Although he'd never told his mother this, knowing full well how it would upset her, the Man in the Yellow Suit was an atheist. As far as he was concerned, you were born by chance, you lived a while, and then you died. That was that. There was nothing before life and nothing beyond, and no use pretending otherwise. However much his mother may have talked of Heaven and angels, no matter how many hymns she sang or catechisms she cajoled her children into memorizing, the Man in the Yellow Suit was as sure as he was standing there that the only place she was was in her grave, a headstone above her, grass soon to cover the mound.
If there had been a God, he was sure, He would not have allowed what had happened to his family. He would have kept his father away from gin and whiskey, and would never have allowed him to lose his way. A true God would have spared the man's granny all the heartache she went through, losing her husband and every child she ever had except that one bad-apple of a son. His youngest sister would not have been stillborn if God was there, nor would his brother have died just a few weeks shy of his second birthday. Most importantly of all, He would never have allowed what became of his mother.
His mother. His beautiful mother with her gently waving, light ruddy-brown hair, hair that was still soft even after it went grey; her eyes as blue as ice, her sugar-drop smile. His sweet mother who petted and cooed to her cat like another, eternal baby; who made a genuine effort to have a polite word for everyone she met, however rudely they may have treated her; who would rather have doted on and spent time with her beloved children than do anything else in the world. His brave mother who raised three children- would have raised five, if his younger brother and youngest sister had survived- mostly by herself; who did whatever it took to make sure their father never laid a hand on them when he was angry or in his cups; who tried her best to hide all her pain from her children and, up to a point, succeeded. His long-suffering mother with her blackened eyes and bruised arms, with her colds and her fevers that lasted for days; his mother who sometimes excused herself from company when the group discussed the past or odd happenings under the guise of seeing about something in the kitchen, only to collapse in a chair and cry when she thought no one could see her, holding her skirts in a white-knuckled grip and singing the tune to the music box from Granny's stories- the same tune she'd forbidden her children to sing- under her breath.
His mother had been his first love, his guiding light, his favorite person in the world and, to this day, one of a great few women ever to be really worth his time. She'd deserved much better than what she'd gotten. She didn't deserve a family that essentially frightened her away from home. She didn't deserve to lose everything, little though it was, to the Yankees during the War. Least of all did she deserve a constantly-drunken lecher of a husband, no matter how carelessly she'd thrown herself into the marriage, nor the disgusting way his father had treated her. She didn't deserve to be insulted, belittled, bullied, taken advantage of, and eventually, beaten black and blue.
Many times as a boy, he'd asked her why on Earth she had married him. On this front she hadn't offered much information. "I was frightened and alone, and he was the only suitor I had left. I couldn't stay with my family anymore, it was too dangerous, no relatives could help me, and I was too scared to go it alone- the world is a horrible, mean place to young ladies, Travis. He was always a bit rough but I thought surely, he couldn't be so bad."
She'd smiled then, a smile too wide, too forced to be real. "And I was right, wasn't I? He wasn't so bad, was he?"
He still hated himself for how long it took him to figure out that when his mother said "he wasn't so bad, was he," what she really thought was "at least I'm breathing," "I suppose it could be worse," or "at least I'm not back there." When she gave her forced smile, what she was really trying to do was to hide a wince as best she could. Mama might have tripped and fell as much as any other woman, but she wasn't particularly clumsy, and she never had nearly enough accidents to cause all the bruises he'd eventually seen her constantly arranging her sleeves and necklines to hide.
Ever since he'd found out about the full extent of his father's actions, the Man in the Yellow Suit had wanted to kill him. His father had deserved to be removed from existence, and it was just as well that he finally was without his son's help. His mother hadn't, though. She didn't deserve to be packed away under the ground like a bone some dog didn't want to chew on anymore, erased from the world, her life snuffed out like a candle.
Someone as precious, as beloved as in his eyes, his mother had been, deserved nothing less than a beautiful life that never had to end. He'd have given that to her. He'd have proven to her that immortality wasn't frightening, that it wasn't bad, but glorious… no, more than glorious. It would be golden. Golden like the sun, like a brand-new day shining through the sky. Golden like opportunity, the ultimate opportunity.
It was opportunity that she would have had if he had only stumbled on the secret to eternal life by now.
Somehow, he swore, he would have convinced her of that. He had brought some of the stingiest customers he could have imagined into freak show tents, onto rides, and towards the money box to buy all sorts of carnival food, souvenirs they would never need or even use, and quack medicines that would only be good for getting them drunk in the end. After his success as a barker, his mother might have been his biggest challenge yet, but he'd have swayed her eventually. If not, he would have found some way to use the cure to make her immortal on the sly. She would have forgiven him soon enough; the dear lady had never been able to stay mad at her firstborn for long, and soon, she would have seen it for the wonderful present it was.
She would have been so happy; he would have seen to that. They would have been a Sultan and Sultana; they would have had kingdoms of their very own. If you could put a price on eternal life, he knew, anyone with sense would pay anything he asked them to. He would never have wanted for anything ever again, and he would have given his family the world, especially his beloved mother. Instead of her run-down farmstead, she would have had a plantation bigger and better than any she had ever heard of before the war. Instead of an abusive drunkard, she could've married a king- or no one at all, she'd have had enough money that she'd never have had to worry about a husband's support again if she hadn't wanted to. She would have had beautiful dresses and jewelry, and every precious thing she could ever want. He'd have given her anything on Earth that she wanted, he'd have dedicated forever to making her happy, because it was she that he loved most in all the world. And now she was gone.
Now that she was gone, there was no one but himself to find the secret for. Now that she was gone for good, with no way that he would ever see her again, he would find the secret and make money by any means necessary. It was too late for her, but it wasn't for him. Now, he would find out what it was she was so desperate to hide. Perhaps he would even stumble upon the trail today, he mused, as he looked at the clock on the wall of his room. Time to go out on the town to drum up business for tonight's fair. Grabbing his walking stick and hat from beside his bed, he sauntered to the door, ready for business.
I'll find that secret, Mama, he thought, closing the door behind him. And when I do, I'll prove it's nothing to be afraid of. I only wish that you could have been able to see it. You never would have been afraid again. Now, you'll never even know.
Ah, well. I'll just live my life enough for the both of us. After all, I'll have forever!