Read The First Online

Authors: Jason Mott

The First

The First

A Prequel to
The Returned

Jason Mott

In Jason Mott’s haunting and unforgettable
debut novel,
The Returned,
an impossible miracle is occurring all across the globe. Read
how it all begins in this short story,
The
First.

It’s been just over a year since Edmund Blithe died, and just
over a month since his fiancée, Emily, stopped wearing her engagement ring.
Emily has finally begun to move on... Until Edmund mysteriously and inexplicably
returns, sending the world—and Emily—into a tailspin.

Edmund is only just the beginning. Around the world, people’s
loved ones are returning from beyond, seeking only to reenter the lives they
left behind. As the world dives deep into uncertainty, Emily and Edmund are
determined to find their way back to one another...even if it means risking
everything.

The reappearances continue in
The Sparrow,
and look for
The Returned
from
Harlequin MIRA, a moving tale of a family given a second chance at life and
a world where nothing—not even death—is certain.

 

It was just over a year since Edmund died, and just over a month since Emily stopped wearing her engagement ring. She removed it late one night in a fit of insomnia during which the voices of all of her friends and family seemed to come crashing down on her at once, all of them telling her that it was time to let Edmund go. She still carried it with her, tucked away beneath her shirt on the small gold necklace her grandmother had given her when she turned sixteen. Not long after that, her grandmother passed away and Emily hadn’t taken off the necklace since.

She had never been one for letting go.

The discolored band around Emily’s finger was finally starting to vanish, and with it the heartache that was left behind by a fiancé she would never get the chance to marry. And now, without explanation or provocation, Edmund was not dead anymore. He was alive somehow, and on the television, standing among a scrum of reporters in front of his office building, looking overwhelmed and confused and afraid.

“Can you believe it?” Emily’s mother asked through the phone. She had called Emily in a panic, yelling for her to stop what she was doing and turn on the television. “It’s a miracle,” she said, over and over again, almost to the point of hysteria. “It’s one of God’s greatest miracles.”

When Emily switched on the television, there he was—lanky as ever, his hair combed straight and low over his forehead, his lip turned at that familiar awkward angle it found when he was nervous. It was the same expression he wore on the day he proposed to her.

Emily’s chest tightened and her legs went weak. She collapsed onto her knees in front of the television, her entire body trembling. She clutched the engagement ring that hung from her neck. “This isn’t real,” she said. “It can’t be.”

“They say he just showed up at work this morning,” her mother said. “Can you believe it? Dead and buried over a year ago and then he just shows up at work again.” On the screen, Edmund was being led away from his office building by a handful of policemen and a group of men in very official-looking suits.

“It’s a joke,” Emily said. “Some kind of hoax. That can’t be Edmund.”

They both grew silent as they watched in amazement at the impossible scene unfolding on the television. “Just look at him,” Emily’s mother said, her voice laced with confusion and wonder. “Just look at that shaggy mop of hair, his eyes. That’s Edmund....”

But Emily did not hear her mother. The telephone had fallen to the floor at her knees and she could not take her eyes off the television. She was clutching the ring in her fist so tightly that her hand began to cramp. Her heart thumped inside her chest.

It was Edmund. Her eyes told her and her heart confirmed it as the tears rolled down her cheeks and dropped softly to the floor.

But how could that be? How could he be alive?

Hadn’t she, just a month ago, finally succeeded in letting him go?

* * *

He had been dead for just over a year—the poor victim of a bus accident on his way to work—and now, through some method or magic, Edmund Blithe was no longer dead. And Emily, the woman who had loved him and almost married him, was still trying to understand what it all meant.

She spent too much time thinking back to their last day together. It haunted her. They had only just moved in together—both of them still living out of boxes and promising that one of these weekends they would properly unpack and, finally, have something they could call home. They spent their last full day together knocking around a hardware store, picking paint swatches and faucets. He had been anxious all day, distracted to the point of nervousness. And when Emily asked him what was the matter, he would only grin—with his lip at that familiar, awkward angle—and lie to her and say “Nothing.”

She considered calling him on it, but decided against it. He was a terrible liar—something she discovered before her birthday when she found out about the surprise party he was organizing. She still felt a little guilty about that, so she decided she would let him keep his secret. For now at least.

They were in the paint aisle, a detail she would never forget. He was standing behind the shopping cart, smirking at her. Three times now she had put him to a decision over whether Magnum Green or Monarch Green was a better color for the living room and, three times now, his reply had simply been “Yes.”

“We’ll have to live with this,” she exclaimed, waving the swatches in front of him. “We have to make a decision.”

“Are we marrying it?” he asked. His face went flush.

“What?” Emily replied. She wondered what was wrong with Edmund, why he was so flustered. Then he began fumbling in his pocket.

“What are you doing?” Emily asked. “What are you up to?”

“I’m making a decision,” Edmund said, getting down on one knee.

“Edmund...”

He withdrew a small, antique-looking ring from his pocket. He cleared his throat. “Emily Hawthorne,” he said, his voice cracking, “will you, and either Magnum or Monarch Green, marry me?” Then he held his breath and waited, his hands trembling just a little.

Everyone around them in the hardware store stopped to watch, as if they were the ones being proposed to. Emily would remember each of their faces for the rest of her life, the way they were suspended, phone conversations put on hold, debates over high—or semigloss paint postponed, all of them waiting to hear Emily’s decision.

She wasn’t sure how long the moment lasted, but it must have been longer than she planned because, all of a sudden, there was a small elderly woman standing at her side. She smiled up at Emily. “I’d go with the Monarch Green,” she said.

And then she laughed and the spell was broken and, finally, Emily exclaimed, “Yes!”

“Is that to the paint or to me?” Edmund asked, still on his knee, still offering her the ring.

“Just put it on my finger,” she said, fighting back tears.

And then the ring was on her finger and he was on his feet, kissing her, and everyone in the hardware store was applauding.

That night, they ate dinner on the floor of her art gallery and they talked about what the future would hold for them. They talked about children, houses in the country, where they would spend their holidays.

The next day, on his lunch break, he was hit by a bus and died. That was a year ago. Now, without explanation, he was alive again.

* * *

On the morning of Edmund’s return, he arrived at work just as he had countless times before. The walk in had been laden with fog—burying the small North Carolina town beneath one large soggy white pillow. The morning chill was harsher than usual, but Edmund was hopeful that the day would improve. He got into the elevator, thinking of nothing other than the complicated account that had been giving him trouble for the past few weeks—a once-famous movie star who was diligently going about the business of spending the entirety of her fortune.

A Muzak version of “In the Hall of the Mountain King” played, tinny and hollow, in the elevator, just as it did most mornings. Edmund hardly noticed.

But when he got to his cubicle, he saw that all of his belongings had been moved, and someone else had obviously taken over his desk. He looked around, but it was early still and hardly anyone else had come in yet—only a couple of people on the far end of the office.

For a moment Edmund thought that he had somehow wound up at the wrong desk. It had happened once before. He’d come in one day and sat down at a desk when he realized that the family photograph on the desk was that of Robert Jenkins. He and Robert had a good laugh about the incident, and now and again, Robert would still bring it up in conversation—usually when the two of them were in the elevator, during that awkward silence that sometimes manifests itself among coworkers.

Surely this was all that was happening now.

Just then the elevator chimed its soft resonating
ding.
“In the Hall of the Mountain King” spilled out. Shortly thereafter someone screamed.

Startled, Edmund turned just in time to see Melanie Johnson collapse on the floor. She was an older woman, known mainly for her friendliness and for the rum balls she brought to the office each holiday. Her eyes were locked on Edmund, her thick red hair framing her terrified face like a halo.

Edmund looked around. Far off, at the opposite end of the office, people were staring at him. “Call a doctor!” he shouted, pointing near the elevator where she had fallen. He fanned her face with a magazine he found on a nearby desk. “Melanie, wake up, dear,” he cried nervously. He looked around for a blanket or jacket to put over her.

Just then the elevator chimed once more. The doors opened, and inside the elevator were a host of Edmund’s coworkers. “I think she’s just fainted,” Edmund said.

One woman in the elevator covered her mouth, her face slowly transforming from that of surprise to an expression of outright horror. “It’s okay,” Edmund said, still kneeling beside Melanie. “We’ve called for a doctor. Just give me a hand. Can I borrow your jacket to cover her with?” He extended a hand.

Seconds passed and still no one moved. The elevator doors tried to close, but someone standing frozen in the doorway caused them to reopen. “Well, don’t just stand there,” Edmund said. “Help me!”

Just then the woman who had been covering her mouth issued a bloodcurdling scream.

* * *

In the first couple of hours it had been considered little more than a hoax. It was assumed that Edmund had faked his death in order to gain some strange type of fame. But then people from the hospital began to come forward, telling their stories of how Edmund William Blithe had been utterly and irrevocably deceased, his body so broken and crushed in the bus accident that there was no possibility of a hoax. They had dental records, and the morticians and funeral staff came forward to confirm that Edmund Blithe was dead, his earthly body drained, embalmed and interred.

Still, somehow, almost exactly one year later, Edmund showed up for work at the accounting firm that had employed him for the past seven years.

It was those initial images of him—standing outside his office building among the scrum of reporters and policemen and confused coworkers—that tormented Emily the most. Edmund looked overwhelmed. Like a child caught in the middle of a stampede, hoping simply for something or someone to hold on to.

Emily spent that first day making phone calls and getting bounced from one unhelpful person to another. It went the same way every time: she called, she asked for information, they asked if she was Edmund’s wife, she said no, they apologized for not being able to help her any further. It was a script she knew by heart.

She saw on the news that he was being held somewhere outside D.C. Why they’d taken him out of North Carolina without even allowing him the chance to contact his loved ones Emily struggled to understand. A spokesman for the local police on the television said that Edmund was being moved “for the safety of everyone involved.”

“What does he mean ‘For the safety of everyone involved’ ?” Emily asked her mother over the phone. She paced back and forth in her apartment, in front of the television.

“I’m sure it’s nothing,” her mother said. She was one of those vintage Southern women, the kind who refused, as a matter of decorum, ever to admit that anything was out of hand.

On the television the news announcer seemed to be grappling with the very same question. She looked offscreen to her cohost and asked what the government meant by the statement. “People are afraid out there,” her cohost said. He was a well-tanned, dark-haired fellow with a hard jawline. “People don’t know what to make of any of this.”

“What’s he trying to say?” Emily asked her mother.

“I think he’s saying that something very special is happening,” her mother said. “Something extraordinary.”

“You really believe that, Mom?”

Emily’s mother hesitated. “Of course I do.”

“And if it wasn’t Edmund?” Emily asked. “If it was someone else? Some stranger?”

“I’d...” She hesitated again. “I’d probably think it was a hoax,” she replied. “And, after that, after I found out it wasn’t a hoax...well, I’d probably be a little afraid.”

On the screen flashed a photograph of Edmund standing outside his office on the day of his return. Beneath the picture the headline read Is This the Beginning? Then the news cut to a breaking report out of Serbia, a video of a large crowd of people, chanting and shouting. Everything was shaking and shifting in and out of focus. The video was from a cell phone—grainy and blurred. There was a body being lifted out of the crowd, a man dressed in torn and tattered clothes. The man was lifeless and limp, and a swath of red started at his head and ran down across his chest.

“You don’t suppose he’s dead, do you?” Emily’s mother said through the phone. Her voice trembled.

The story unfolded and Emily watched in confused silence. The man had died several days ago in a nearby village. He was given a burial, but then, one day later, he arrived on the back of a truck on its way from a neighboring village, and he asked to be taken home.

When the people of his village saw him, they called him a demon. Not long after that, the crowd mobbed and killed him. Someone had recorded it all, and now the whole world was watching.

“Dear Lord,” Emily said. “This won’t happen to Edmund, will it?”

“Of course not,” her mother replied. “Don’t you worry about Edmund. He’ll take care of himself. He’ll get back to you somehow. You just have to believe. You have to have faith.”

But Emily did not hear her. She heard only the echoes of the television, sounding a lot like the whole world was sliding into madness.

* * *

“What’s the first thing you remember, Mr. Blithe?”

Her name was Helen, and she was from some branch of the government. She was thin with short dark hair, and she sat across the table, wearing a blue suit that looked sharp and new.

“Edmund?” Helen said, and he snapped to attention. “What is the first thing you remember?”

Edmund and Helen sat in a small drab room with featureless walls somewhere near D.C. He didn’t know exactly where. A large rectangle of fluorescent lighting hummed overhead. “When do I get to make a phone call? When do I get to speak to Emily?” Edmund asked.

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