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The Matter of Abbygale Neely

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The Matter of Abbygale Neely

a novel

 

Written By D. Lane Sharp

 

Published by D. Lane Sharp at Shakespir

 

Copyright 2015 D. Lane Sharp

 

 

Thank you for downloading this ebook. This book remains the copyrighted property of the author, and my not be redistributed to others for commercial or non-commercial purposes. If you enjoy this book, please encourage your friends to download their own copy from their favorite authorized retailer. Thank you for your support.

 

Table of Contents

 

Part I—Present

Chapters 1–26

 

Part II—6 years ago

Chapters 27–52

 

Part III—Present

Chapters 28–79

 

 

 

 

The Matter of Abbygale Neely was solely written by D. Lane Sharp. It is a work of fiction. The events, characters, corporate entities, and all names are products of the author’s imaginations. Any similarities to any persons, living or dead; corporations, past or present, evil or not evil; are purely coincidental.

All artwork is the product of D. Lane Sharp with the one exception of the artist’s graphic extrapolation of the Southern Pinwheel Galaxy in the maw of the Baku on the front cover. The original photo is entitled Spiral Galaxy M83 and was taken by the Hubble Space Telescope. The original image can be found on hubblesite.org.

Find more information on Lane Sharp, including current and future projects, at www.cumulonebulous.com.

Part I—In which we meet Abbygale Neely. The events that follow occur in one week’s time.

 

 

Chapter 1

 

I misjudged the first step, which caused me to stumble and trip on the second. I thought for sure I’d left the porch light on; apparently, I hadn’t. Forgetting wasn’t like me.

Darkness wrapped itself around the stoop, slowly constricting it to blackness before swallowing it whole. So dark was it, I couldn’t make out my front door.

I righted myself and looked over my shoulder. The street was quiet. Eerily quiet. No wind. No street noise. No cars or pedestrians. No sound at all except for my own breathing which came high and heavy, crashing and receding in my head. My fingers tingled, and my heart pounded.

I took the last step, and there it was—my door. It waited for me, slightly ajar, a sideways whispered word of warning. With my arm extended, I pushed against it, and it swung inward.

Hadn’t I locked the door, or at the very least, closed it? First the porch light now the door? Common sense told me to stop, to turn around, and not go in.

I went in.

I saw the shadow of a man, his back turned to me. He had ransacked my living room and now was rummaging through my bookshelves. Casting off books, looking in decorative boxes, and then throwing them aside. He had made his way through most of the items on the bookcase. Maybe a third of them remained on the shelves. The rest lay scattered, discarded, or trampled under his burnished leather wingtips.

“What are you doing?” I said.

The man turned to face me, and it was then that I noticed it was Ben.

“There you are,” he said.

“What are you doing?” I said again. This time I yelled it. The fear I felt upon seeing the form of a strange man in my house turned to outrage now that I knew it was Ben.

“What do you think I’m doing? I’m looking for it!” he yelled back at me. He was furious. I could tell by the way he carried himself, the tension in his shoulders, the jerkiness of his movements, the way he clenched his jaw so tight the muscles rose up like jug handles on the sides of his neck.

“What are you looking for?”

He searched through the remaining contents of my shelves before turning his swirling, destructive attention to my desk.

“Oh, come on now,” he said. “Let’s not be obtuse. You know what I’m looking for.”

“No, I don’t,” I said.

“Look,” he said. “I’m not interested in playing your little mind games, Abbygale. Tell me where it is.”

“I’m not playing mind games. I don’t have any idea what you’re looking for.”

He looked up from rifling through the contents of a desk drawer that he had pulled all the way out and overturned on top of the desk.

“Still a bitch, I see,” he said.

“Get out! Get out!”

“I’m not going anywhere, Abby. You have it. I know you do. It’s mine, and I want it back.”

“I don’t have anything of yours!” I screamed.

“Where would you keep it? Somewhere precious? Where I wouldn’t think to look? It won’t help,” he said. “I know all your precious places.”

He crossed over to the wall of photos my father had taken of me when I was a little girl. I had matted and framed them and hung them on my wall. They meant more to me than anything. They were the only things I had left of him aside from the pair of work boots he wore the day he died. Those I kept in the back of a closet because I couldn’t bear to know they existed.

Ben lifted a picture off the wall, the one where I had my arm around our old, red dog, grinning, my two front teeth missing, pigtails and freckles, squinting into the sun. He raised the framed picture dramatically over his head and brought it down across his knee, breaking the glass, bending the print and the matting. He pulled the matting off the back, and made a show of looking into what remained of the mangled picture frame, as if anything could be hidden there, before tossing the picture and broken frame to the floor.

“Nope,” he said. “Not there. Maybe this one?”

He plucked another picture off the wall. This one was of my dad and me. My dad had taken it with his tripod. We were laughing. He’d probably told a joke right before the shutter closed that would have been just like him.

Ben raised the picture, preparing for the knee smash.

“No!” I yelled.

I rushed at him, reaching for the picture. Ben changed up his swing mid-motion and instead of bringing the frame down on his knee; he swung it, baseball bat style, and struck me across the side of the head with it.

The force of the blow knocked me over, I tried to regain my balance but I couldn’t. I managed to cover my head with my arms before I fell into the TV. The TV fell with me down the wall. We landed with a bang and a thud on the floor.

I looked up at Ben from my position on the floor. I was about to ask him what the hell had gotten into him, when he hit me across the face with the broken frame he was still holding.

“Where is it, Abby?” he said and hit me again. He’d dropped the picture frame, so this time it was with his fist.

He’d never hit me with his fist before.

“Stop!” I cried. My hand immediately went to my cheek where his blow had landed. Hot and painful, my cheek felt as if it had exploded. I scrabbled to my feet. The animal in me knew I needed to get on my feet and stay on them. Once upright, I wavered, unsteady and rattled, but I managed to stay vertical.

He shook his head as if to clear it. He took a couple steps backward. He looked dismayed, but I wasn’t fooled.

“I’m sorry,” he said softly. His words were gentle now, “You need to tell me where it is.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I said. “Really, I don’t—”

“Stop lying!” he roared. His face snapped back to rage. He paced back and forth in front of me. A lion. A predator. I sidled along the wall, trying to get between him and the front door.

“I don’t know why you’re lying to me,” he muttered.

“I’m not lying,” I said. My cheek throbbed. I was surprised at how badly it hurt. Was it broken? “You hurt me. You really hurt me this time, Ben.”

“YOU HURT ME, ABBYGALE!” he roared. He wheeled on me. I thought he might hit me again—or worse. He didn’t, not at that moment anyway. He shook his head again, “I’m done here, Abby. I’m not going to play your stupid games. Send me back.”

“Send you back? What are you talking about?”

“You have something of mine. I need it. Either give it to me, or send me back,” he demanded.

I crept, little step by little step, until I had a clear shot to the front door. When I did, I turned and ran for it.

As it turned out, I hadn’t crept far enough.

He lunged for me, knocking me face down on the floor. He fell on top of me. Flipping me over, he straddled my upper body with his legs on the outside of my upper arms. I wiggled and tried to get out from beneath him. I tried to buck, kick, and hit, but he had me pinned in such a way I couldn’t move.

He grabbed either side of my head with both of his large hands, lifted it up, and banged the back of my head into the floor. My teeth rattled. White-hot pain flared so intense I could smell it in my nose and taste it in my mouth. It smelled and tasted like metal.

“Wake up!” he yelled.

Bang.

“Please. Please, stop!” I pleaded.

“Wake up!” he yelled again, this time only inches from my face.

He banged my head into the floor for the third time.

“Wake up!”

Bang.

Bang.

Bang.

 

 

Chapter 2—August 15

 

Knocking at the door. One loud thundering bang after another. Just not stopping. For all that I had slept—days maybe. How long had it been? I felt completely unrested.

Bang.

Bang.

Bang.

Next came the yelling.

“Abbygale, if you don’t open the door, I‘m going to call the police. This is not a joke. I‘m not fucking with you. Open the goddamn door if you’re in there!”

I opened my eyes. I saw the ceiling above me, my very familiar ceiling, and I tried to sit up. A heavy weight pressed down on me, and I couldn’t move. I was a tiny speck inside a giant, unmoving body. I was eyes and nothing else. My head pounded.

“Wait. I‘m coming,” was what I tried to say but couldn’t.

“Abbygale, I have my phone here. I’m dialing 911 right now. Right fucking now.” He was angry. “Please.” He was worried.

Get up, I willed myself. Get up! The weight on my chest began to ease. I could feel fingers, toes, and all the other parts of my body shrink back to wrap snug around my eyes.

“Coming.” This time there was sound. “I’m coming,” I said louder.

I pulled myself into an upright position, and with great effort, swung my legs over the edge of the bed. Walk, walk, walk, one plodding foot in front of the other until I was at the door. Unlatch, unbolt, slide the sliding-lock-thing, turn knob, and open.

“Jesus, Abbygale. You look like hell,” Jason said. He stood on the other side of my door. True to his word his cell phone was in his hand mid-dial. He stepped through the door, and with a sweep of his foot, he kicked in a pile of newspapers, take-out menus, magazines, and other whatnot that had piled on my doorstep. “I thought you were dead.”

I didn’t know what to say, or if I could even say anything reliably. My tongue filled my mouth, thick, dry, and foreign.

Jason held a stack of mail in front of my face. “Mail,” he said and dropped it on the coffee table. “Yours.”

He turned to face me, hands on his hips, “I really was going to call the police. I really did think that you were dead, and then I’d have to be the one to find you dead, and that would just ruin my whole day.”

“I’m sorry that you would have been the one to find me dead,” I forced my tongue to say, and with as much effort as I could muster, I smiled. It must have been a lousy smile. He grimaced.

“Good news though. I’m not,” I said. “Ta da.”

“You look like hell.”

“Yes, you mentioned that. I feel like hell. I don’t know what’s wrong with me. I just feel fifty percent asleep, fifty percent sicker than sick, and half dead.”

“Oh, Abby,” he said. His face softened, and he dropped onto the couch in a wide-legged sprawl. “Is there room in your lousy math for one hundred percent needing a shower?”

I glared, “Yes, and there is also room in my math for one hundred percent getting new friends.”

He said, “Game plan. First you shower. Second we get coffee, and third, hunt you a new friend willing to not only find you dead, but cover your shifts and keep your sorry ass employed.”

 

Chapter 3

 

I wish I could say that the shower helped. I scrubbed and scrubbed, all the effort left me breathless, but the shower just didn’t take. I was clean—hot, shiny, and clean—for only a moment, before a thick, sheen of sweat covered my face, neck, and chest. My arms felt filled with cement. So heavy were they to lift, I had to pause several times mid-shampoo and let them rest. My legs trembled with the effort to stand, and the back of my head thrummed in pain.

I had never in my whole life felt so poorly. I was sick. It was nothing in particular I could put my finger on—more everything in general. I felt completely not right in every way.

 

After my shower, Jason took me to Porkchops Rest Area. Porkchops Rest Area was a charming, hole in the wall coffee shop clenched tightly in the fist of an artsy, slacker Portland neighborhood. Every morning, a line extended out the door and down the street. Our artsy, slacker neighbors were loyal. Fiercely loyal. Aggressively, fiercely loyal. Coffee was the fuel we ran on. At least I know it was my primary source of motivation to get out of bed in the morning, especially during the winter when the rain in Portland seemed endless, and the days lined up like one gray domino after another.

Jason owned Porkchops Rest Area. The story behind the name began with late night drinking, pork chops grilled to perfection topped with pineapple habanera sauce, and ended with a dare—typical Jason decision making. He got a kick out of the irony of serving vegan cupcakes and green smoothies to the health conscience yoga-la-la’s (his word not mine), plus someone told him that a coffee shop named Porkchops would never get off the ground. Aptly the logo was a flying pig with a halo poised over his smug, little piggy face.

Jason allowed me to be his part-time coffee jerk, at least one of them. I was an above average barista witch, if I do say so myself. I could make anyone’s coffee dreams come true—within reason of course. Portlanders had disproportionately high expectations when it came to coffee.

Not only was I a part-time barista, I was also the part-time baker. I got the job because I was Jason’s friend and needed supplemental income. I kept the job because as it turns out I was a pretty good baker. I had a knack. The hours were awful. I was up at 3am and had to be at Porkchops by 3:30am to start baking. I baked Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays, spelling the full time baker, Barlow, who worked all the rest of the days of the week.

Baking was a solitary job, and Barlow was perfectly suited to it as he wasn’t much of a people person. To put it plainly, he was an insufferable ass. I liked baking too. I found it to be meditative, and I didn’t mind the solitary nature of it. I wondered what that said about me. I liked to think that Barlow and I were completely opposite in every way.

Working at Porkchops helped keep me afloat with my schedule loose for my photography. I picked up extra shifts here and there when money was tight, which if I was being honest, was happening more and more lately. My mom told me constantly, at least once every time I talked to her, that I was getting too old for this pie in the sky dream of becoming a famous photographer. She would also say that it was high time that I get a real job making real money, and just getting by was for other people, not for me. I was twenty-eight years old for Christ’s sake.

I could care less about being famous, just fed, clothed, and sheltered from the proceeds of my photography alone. That would be nice. Once I told my mom as much, she made a bug-eyed, dry heaving motion I took to mean disapproval.

Porkchops was about as big as a large walk in closet. A blue velvet couch occupied the entire length of one wall, while a couple of table and chair groupings huddled in the middle. The walls were adorned with local art—photos, paintings, sculptures, and a giant crystal and fork chandelier, tinkling and twinkling, hung from the ceiling.

Jason sat in one corner of the blue couch, and I sat in the other drinking an Italiano. We small talked. Well, he small-talked at me. I was less talking and more trying to ignore my pounding headache.

“So did I tell you what Cindy said?” he asked.

“No,” I said and sipped. The usually smooth and delicious brew tasted like tar and cigarette ash on my tongue. I sighed and sipped again.

Cindy taught yoga at the studio a few doors down. She looked like a fairy—a fairytale fairy—minus the wings. Her smile was just as enchanting as any smile I could imagine. I thought I spied a hint of wickedness at the corners of that smile, but I could be wrong about that. Jason hearted Cindy. Big time.

“Zambi told me yesterday that Cindy’s nickname for me is Medium T-shirt. Can you freaking believe that?” He looked at his arms. Flexed. “I’m not that skinny.”

“Medium T-shirt, huh? What size t-shirt do you wear?”

“I’m a human being. I would like to be judged on the quality of my character and not the size of my t-shirt.”

“Medium,” I said, “I thought you would at least wear a large. If I was buying you a t-shirt for a gift, I would totally buy you a large.”

“Ha,” he said. He ran his hands through his curly, unruly hair, and dragged his palms down the sides of his face. He wore a healthy scruff today. I could hear his whiskers as he rubbed them. He looked up at his forky chandelier before looking at me, “Another one? Hot?” he asked indicating my empty mug with a raised eyebrow.

“Please.”

I was cold, and it wasn’t cold. In fact, it was hot outside. Portland was knee deep in an extended heat wave. We were on day eight, and everyone was cranky. Usually, I would be cranky too, but at the moment, I wished I had worn a coat. I had what felt like permanent goose bumps raised up on my arms, they hurt. I rubbed my arms to make them go away. It didn’t help.

Jason stood and scooped up my mug returning a few minutes later with it hot and filled to the top.

“Do you need to see a doctor?” he asked before amending it to—“You need to see a doctor. I’ll take you. Do you want me to take you?”

“I’m feeling better. If I feel worse, I’ll go.”

“You’ve been MIA for a week. You look like you have lost twenty pounds, twenty pounds you didn’t have to lose. You have huge circles under your eyes. I know you don’t have insurance. I can help, if—”

I looked at him in the eyes and shook my head. He closed his mouth mid-sentence, biting off the rest of what he had to say.

“I’ll be fine. I’m feeling better. Really. I’m sure it’s just some terrible virus. I’m coming out the other side. I can feel it. The worst part of this whole thing was I had a slew of terrible fever dreams. Some of them were so real. It was weird.”

“Okay,” his mouth said, but his facial expression, specifically his eyes, had not joined Team OK. “Will you be here tomorrow to bake?”

“Yep. You bet.”

“Sure?”

“Of course.”

“It’s just that you don’t look good,” he said. “And I get that you’re proud and all that, but I’m here if you need me. Y’know. Whatever.”

I took a long swallow of coffee. I looked at him over my mug, making my best flirty eyes at him, which was always good for a laugh. “MMMmmm. Good. Best ever.”

He smiled and sighed, “Glad you like. We aim to please.”

Some customers walked in, single-file, bleary eyed, coffee zombies in need of their caffeine fix. Jason to the rescue. He jumped up from the couch, his curls flopping in his eyes. With both hands on the counter top, he vaulted effortlessly over the little swinging door to the back—the one that all the rest of us just walk through. At Porkchops Rest Area, the coffee might cost an arm and a leg, but the Jason show was always por gratis.

I nursed my second cup of coffee as customers came and went, basking in the normalcy of Porkchops and the heat from the window. The door was propped open, and fans blew hot air around the shop. I was tired, so tired I could just close my eyes and fall asleep, but for maybe the first time in the last week, I didn’t give in. I forced my eyes to stay open. They felt hot, swollen, and gritty and closing them felt so good—amazing really, but still I didn’t give in.

“Hey, hey, Sugar baby,” Zack sashayed through the door.

Today the color theme was purple. He wore a purple hooded sweatshirt, purple jeans, purple everything pretty much. Zack ran the hair salon next door, and one look at him could convince even the most stalwart Homosexuality is Choice propagandist that being gay was something you were born.

“Haven’t seen you in a while, Freckles.”

I smiled, “Hey, Zack.”

“Eeek! I just saw me a ghost, lordy lordy. Merciful heavens, are you half dead?” His eyes were full of real concern.

“Apparently I look it, huh?”

“I heard you weren’t feeling well, but lady you look like a sad photocopy of your hot self.”

“I’m feeling better, thanks.”

“You need anything, Abby, just ask,” he spoke softly and sincerely to me. Then much louder and for all to hear, “And speaking of needing something, I am slam about to fall asleep. I need a regular and stat. Miss Candy is under the dryer, and I need to be getting back. Jason? Jason, you hear me? You be taking your sweet time. If Miss Candy’s hair breaks off at the roots, it will be on your slow, coffee-making ass.”

We all knew there was no Miss Candy. “Miss Candy” was an affectation. She stood for all of Zack’s clients in general and none of them specifically. Miss Candy was always in some sort of predicament. Once she cut her own bangs “with hedge trimmers no less. Lawd, you should see her!” Another time, she died her hair with Kool-Aid. Zack shook his head, “I know this is Portland and all y’all want to do your own thing and be unique like everybody else, but Kool-Aid? Kool-Aid is not a color found in nature. It’s not even a drink found in nature. Have mercy!”

Zack was a Portland transplant. He grew up in a small town in Georgia. He never talked about where he was from or his childhood. I had a feeling that growing up wasn’t easy for him. He had cultivated a fine Steel Magnolias personality that left him a one-dimensional cliché—which, truth be told, probably suited him just fine.

“Thank you,” Zack said and plucked the coffee drink out of Jason’s hands, and with a “Good Day y’all” and a “Miss Candy be a-waiting”, he was gone in a purple blur.

Chapter 4

 

Having been released from Jason’s scrutiny, I walked back to my place. The air radiated up from the pavement, hot like a sauna. It felt good against my skin, warming my cold hands and feet. The spaciness and cobwebs began to slip away, and I felt a little like my old self, which was admittedly not much of an improvement, but at least it was familiar.

Nice negative self talk, I thought. I stepped on a piece of cracked sidewalk pushed up by the root of a too big tree confined to a too small parking strip. I tripped and fell, ripping my pants and skinning my knee, like a five-year-old kid. Damn it.

Back at home, I checked voicemail and email. I had a wedding photo shoot scheduled for this weekend. Thank God I hadn’t slept through that. I had a lot to prepare, since I hadn’t prepared at all.

I returned the nervous bride’s call to tell her that we were all set, and that I would meet her at 3pm for the pre-wedding, getting ready shots. Then I went about inventorying and packing my equipment, charging all the batteries and spares. I took my photography seriously, even if this was just a wedding and not some fancy art exhibit; each picture I took was as much about me as it was about the people in the photograph.

I printed a pre-shoot preparation check list off the computer and didn’t stop until every last item was checked off, and even if I didn’t feel ready, my completed check list told me that I was, so that had to be good enough.

After the last item was checked off, I sat down on the couch, and gave myself a moment. I was out of breath just from packing up; sweat glistened on my face and arms. I was too tired to eat, but I microwaved a frozen bean and cheese burrito, and stared at it anyway.

Later as I got ready for bed, I tried not to think too much about the dream I had last night, which I could still clearly remember and feel, or the dreams I had the previous nights, which no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t quite recall. I could only remember they too were about Ben. Good Old Ben. Bad Old Ben.

I lay on the bed, looking at the ceiling. I had rigged an old, oscillating fan in the open window to blow on me. The night was hot, nearly as hot as the day, and the fan blades whirred loudly, reminding me of my mother’s nagging—nag, nag, nag, breath, nag, nag, nag, breath. The sweat beaded on my forehead and trickled down my face. I got up and turned the fan off.

Back in bed, I recited the self-help mantra that I used to say in the months after I left Ben when I couldn’t fall asleep, “You are smart. You are capable. You are whole and complete all on your own. I love you.” I tried to keep all other thoughts out of my head.

It didn’t help. Come to think of it, it hadn’t helped back then either, but doggedly I kept at it. You are smart. You are capable. You are whole and complete all on your own. I love you.

You are smart.

You are capable.

You are . . .

 

 

“Yes, yes, I hear you, Abby. Talk about beating a dead horse,” Ben said. “You’re smart, you’re capable, blah, blah, infinity.”

I looked around. We were in some sort of room. It was empty and deteriorating, weathered paint chipped off the wall in dinner-plate sized flakes.

“Where are we?” I said.

“Hell if I know,” Ben said.

We sat back to back on the floor. The floor was made out of old wood that creaked when I stood. I took a step forward and felt something heavy on my ankle. I looked down. Chains. Around my ankle was a shackle connected to a length of chain that was connected to a shackle on Ben’s ankle.

“What is this?” I reached down and pulled the chain. It was legitimate and strong and not about to give.

He said, “I’m guessing we escaped.”

“Escaped from what?”

“Shh,” he said and pulled me down to a crouch. He whispered, “There out there. Do you hear them?”

I could hear them, people running and shouting, dogs barking and white spotlights shinning through the windows, running back and forth along the walls of the room we were hiding in.

“Why are they after us?” I whispered. “What did we do?”

Ben scowled at me, whatever we did, it was my fault we did it.

The shouting and dog barking got louder and louder until it thundered around us. The walls shook and plaster from the ceiling crumbled. I covered my ears.

“They’re going to force us out,” Ben shouted over the cacophony. As soon as he said it, a ribbon of fire raced around the room where the floor met the walls and began to climb. Within seconds, the walls were engulfed in flame. It was instantly hot, unbearably hot. I could feel the moisture in my lungs turn to steam.

“We have to go!” I shouted to Ben.

“What’s the point?” he said. “They’ll just get us as soon as we run out. There is no escape.”

“Ben, come on!” I pleaded, pushing him trying to get him to move, but he wouldn’t budge. He sat on the floor and waited, unfazed by the inferno.

“Ben!” The fire moved in on us. Franticly, I pulled at the shackle on my ankle and tried to pry it off. No use. I crawled for the only door in the room. I tried to drag Ben by the chain, but he was too heavy.

“Please,” I pleaded. “Ben, for me. I can’t get out of here without you. Please.”

I coughed and coughed. I couldn’t catch my breath. All I could do was cough. Black smoke pressed us into the floor.

I pulled and struggled against the chain.

I couldn’t see Ben through the smoke now, but I assumed he was still sitting like a lump in the middle of the floor.

I couldn’t breathe.

I curled into a ball and hid my face in my arms. I could feel Ben moving at last, but instead of escaping and saving us, he curled around me. I pushed him away.

“What’s the point? We are out of time,” said Ben. His voice was clear over the roar of the fire, the din of the dogs, and the shouting of the men. He put his hand over my mouth and nose completely blocking my airway. I shook my head. He pressed his hand to my face.

“It’s better this way. It’s a kindness.” Which were the last words I heard.

 

 

I bolted awake. The clock read 11:45PM.

I rolled onto my side and coughed and coughed. I clawed at the bed. I struggled for air. It seemed forever before I was able to take a proper breath. When I could, the air felt amazing, sweet and clean in my lungs.

I got out of bed, drank a tall glass of water, and walked around in circles—kitchen, living room, bathroom—until I was able to calm myself. I took four long swigs out of the vodka bottle I kept in the freezer before curling up on the couch. I watched cooking shows on the TV, numb with vodka, the bottle nestled in the crook of my arm, just in case, until I fell back asleep.

Chapter 5—August 16

 

I woke up the next day early. Baking day.

I still wasn’t acclimated to waking up at 3:00 in the morning. I doubted I ever would be, even though I’d been doing just that going on three years now. The alarm sounding may as well be a gunshot. Without fail, I bolted upright, clenching my chest, gasping, heart racing. Every day. Every damn day. Today was worse than usual, on account of bad dreams, vodka, and sleeping on the couch.

Good thing I lived alone. I couldn’t possibly muster cute and endearing at 3am. I could barely muster stumble to the shower and get dressed. And breakfast? Forget about breakfast, no time. Sampling my baked goods was breakfast. I couldn’t sell something I hadn’t personally assured was delicious and up to the fine standards of Porkchops; now could I?

Bleary eyed and hung over, I biked to the coffee shop. All was quiet and peaceful. The only activity I could see was from the handful of bars that closed early in the morning. Here and there, dim lights were on. I could see one or two people sweeping up inside or taking out the trash.

I unlocked the ancient locks on the front door of Porkchops and rolled my bike inside. The tables were pushed to one wall. I leaned my bike against the other wall next the storage room.

I lit the ancient gas stove with a long match, started some drip coffee, and got to work. The work was calming. I found comfort in the mixing of ingredients and watching them puff up and become cinnamon buns, biscotti, cookies, muffins, pies, sandwich bread. I sipped coffee, listened to music, and tried not to think which was usually pretty easy.

Today though, my mind wandered, and I was its unwilling companion. Dreams and Ben were all I could think about. I hated thinking about Ben. I considered it a personal failing, seeing as I had spent the last seven years systematically scouring him from my memories. Ben made me feel weak. Thinking about Ben made me feel weak.

Truly, I was done with the Ben part of my life. If I could do it all over again or if present day Abbygale could tell seven years ago Abbygale anything, I would tell her to move on sooner rather than later. I would tell her to suck it up, and get the fuck out. She would survive. There was nothing realistic or rational about love, especially first love, assuming what Ben and I had was love, but seven years later I was fine, and she would be too.

Lost in thought, I burned my first loaf of bread.

Damn it.

Burning something was the worst, and I burned it good. Damn, Porkchops was going to smell like burned bread. Completely unappetizing. People were supposed to be lured in by the aroma of the freshies baking. This would lure no one in. The smoke detector went off. I fanned it with a flattened cardboard box until it gave up. I hauled the giant, industrial fan out of the stock room to vent my burnt mistake into the alley behind the shop.

It was still early. I had time for another batch. I hoped that the burnt odor would dissipate before Jason showed up.

This time I tried to only think of the bread, the ingredients, and feeling them form under my hands. I kneaded the dough, my hands working; I got my back into it when I heard a cough behind me.

I whipped around. Standing in the door to the alley was a tall, hairy, unclean, unshaven man.

I screamed. He screamed.

“Jesus Christ, Jeb Blue Pants! You scared the hell out of me.”

“Sorry Miss Abby. S-s-sorry,” he stammered. He started to tear up and backed out the door, stepping over the fan.

“Jeb Blue Pants, it’s okay. Come back. You just scared me, what can I do for you?”

“Sweep, Miss Abby?” he said bobbing his shaggy head up and down.

“Sure, we can use a sweep. Get it good and clean, Jeb.”

“Oh, yes,” he said, and he waited while I grabbed the broom from the cleaning closet and handed it to him.

He sloped out the door; shoulders bent forward, broom in hand. Twenty seconds later, I could see him sweeping the sidewalk out front. His brow furrowed. He swept hard and deliberately.

While he swept, I finished up the bread dough and left it to rise. Next up cookies.

When Jeb Blue Pants finished sweeping, he set up the outside café tables. This meant he was hungry. This was our daily conversation—Jeb Blue Pants and me.

Jeb Blue Pants was one of the neighborhood homeless men. When I first started working here, I asked him what his name was, and he told me I could call him Jeb Blue Pants, and no, he wasn’t wearing blue pants at the time. Jeb wasn’t quite right in the head, but he worked for what he asked for, the best way he knew how.

I didn’t know his story, but somewhere along the line, Jeb Blue Pants tripped on hard times and fell and couldn’t get himself back up.

Jason was okay with me giving him a cup of drip coffee for a sweep, just as long as Jeb Blue Pants didn’t loiter outside asking customers for money or becoming a nuisance. I knew Jeb Blue Pants would never do such a thing. In his own way, he considered himself an entrepreneur. He traded services for goods. Today I could tell when he set up the cafe tables that one of the goods he was looking for was breakfast. Today, Jeb Blue Pants was hungry.

When he looked like he was just about done, I packed up a day old cinnamon bun and a day old sandwich. I filled a large paper cup with drip coffee.

He knocked on the alley door before he came in. The fan was so loud I couldn’t hear it, but I was expecting him this time.

“I am all done, Miss Abby.”

I looked out the front window, mostly for his benefit. He liked people to appreciate his good work.

“Looks good, Jeb Blue Pants. Oh, looks like you set up the cafe tables too? I put a little something in the sack for you.”

“You didn’t have to do that, Miss Abby.” He eyed the sack hungrily.

“It’s not a problem. I appreciate your help.”

I held out the sack and the cup. His hands swooped in fast, but he stopped them, suddenly aware that he was about to snatch the offerings out of my hands. Jeb Blue Pants had manners. Gently and with a bob of his head, he took the bag and cup.

“Thank you, Thank you.”

He backed into the alley and was gone.

 

 

Jason arrived shortly before I was done baking. His eyes were heavy with sleep. We nodded at each other. He sniffed and furrowed his brow giving me a hard sideways look, but said nothing.

I couldn’t smell the burned bread anymore, but clearly he could. He poured himself a cup of coffee and rubbed his eyes. He began setting up in front. There was not much to set up, as the place was so small. We joked that if you wanted to change your mind at Porkchops, you’d best head outside.

Our early birds began trickling in. I liked to have everything done before customers arrived, but today I was running in slow motion. Jason was awake enough to small chat the earlies. He was charming and flirty with the women and chummy with the guys.

My back was to the front door, but I could tell that sweet, fairy-smile, yoga-la-la queen, Cindy had walked through it. I could hear Jason inhale as if he was trying to puff himself up, and the air suddenly smelled lighter.

“Morning, Cindy,” Jason smiled and leaned forward on the counter. “What can I get you?”

“The usual, please,” she said.

“And what is that again?” Jason wore his signature devilish, dimpled smile.

I snorted. Jason knew everyone’s usual, and Cindy came in every morning. Plus this was Cindy. What a joke.

“Iced medium soy chai latte, please.”

“Of course. I remember now.” This must be Jason’s way of playing hard to get.

I turned, “Medium? Did you say medium, Cindy? Are you sure you don’t want a large?”

“Hi Abby,” she said to me, and I, too, was the lucky recipient of a Cindy smile. “So glad to see you’re feeling better. No, large is just too much for me. Medium is perfect.”

“Large is too large. There’s still hope,” I whispered loudly to Jason as he walked to the refrigerator to get the chai tea concentrate. He glared at me and managed to step on my foot on his way back, which happened to be in the complete opposite direction of the counter, Cindy, and the way he was headed.

“Oops. Sorry, Abby,” he said sweetly before handing the chai tea to Cindy.

He smiled.

She smiled.

I gagged. Not out loud, but to myself. I wasn’t rude.

“Bye, Jason. See you.”

“You bet. See you, Cindy,” Jason said.

“Bye, Abby,” Cindy called over her shoulder as she passed through the door. She even tossed a sweet little wave my way. I waved a doughy hand in reply. Once Cindy was clean out of earshot, Jason exhaled, one giant whoosh.

“And end scene,” I snarked.

Jason turned around, growled, and charged, dropping his shoulder right into my stomach.

“Sorry, sorry, sorry,” I laughed.

“You better be,” he said. “Gah, do you smell something burnt in here?”

“Excuse me? Service please,” came a quiet voice at the counter. Neither Jason nor I heard the customer come into the shop. This was probably due to the fact that Jason was trying to sling me over his shoulder in a fireman carry, and I was trying to not get fireman-carried.

“Excuse me? Service?” the customer said again. This time we both heard him; we froze.

“I do believe it’s Sir Beige,” Jason whispered into my ear before releasing me and turning, with a smile.

Sir Beige looked disapprovingly at us. He sniffed, “Tsk. Tsk.” Yes, we were tsked. He tsked us.

Sir Beige, a slight man with wispy hair and thin, birdlike wrists, was a regular at Porkchops. He came in every day, whether he liked it or not. Jason and I referred to him as Sir Beige, first and foremost, because he was all one color—his skin, his hair, even his eyes, beige from the top of his head to the tips of his scuffed, beige shoes—and secondly, because he walked with an aloof, condescending dignity, managing to look down his nose at everyone even though he couldn’t be taller than my Nana, who was a tiny, old lady.

Today, Sir Beige ordered a medium dry cappuccino, extra hot, the same thing he ordered every day. He paid in coins, also, just as he did every day, pulling them one by one from his beige coin purse and sliding them across the counter. His mouth moved as he counted. He placed them in a row from largest coin to smallest coin by size not denomination.

While Sir Beige counted out his coins, Jason made the cappuccino. Mid-count, Sir Beige looked up from sliding a quarter across the counter, and focused his attention on me. He tilted his head. “Don’t count on the next life to be better. In my experience, it seldom is. There is no release. No release. It is a lie we tell ourselves. It never comes. Never.”

“Excuse me, are you talking to me?” I said, looking over my shoulder. I was moving cookie sheets around on the cooling rack and not really paying attention to him. Sir Beige never made conversation, not in the two years he’d been coming in every day. He spoke not at all, except, of course, to say medium dry cappuccino, extra hot. My brown eyes met his sand colored ones.

“I was a pharaoh in a past life,” he said. “I was very important.”

“Sounds important,” I said. Humoring him. I wished I could say this was the weirdest coffee shop interaction I’d ever had with a customer, but no, we had our fair share of the weird, the strange, and the odd. I suspected it came with the job, or maybe it came with just being human. I usually wasn’t surprised by people—mostly just intrigued, especially if I was behind my camera.

“It was,” he said.

Jason set the cappuccino on the counter in front of Sir Beige.

“It’s not hot enough,” Sir Beige said to Jason.

“How do you know? You haven’t even picked it up?”

“I know. You never make it hot enough. Never.”

Jason swept the coins across the countertop with one hand into the palm of his other hand. He stopped mid-sweep, leaving the coins in a pile on the edge of the counter, and picked up the cup and set it aside, no doubt to drink later. He proceeded to make another cappuccino, this time hot, extra hot. Sir Beige pulled the coins back from the counter’s edge and began lining them up once again.

“I was a great pharaoh of Egypt in a past life, the greatest Pharaoh of Egypt,” he said to the coins. “I was wealthy and powerful beyond any measure of modern day society. You, of course, have heard of the Pharaoh that killed all the baby boys? He was I. Seventy thousand baby boys. Dead. Just because I said so. Kill them, I said, and my men marched out that very moment and slaughtered them. In front of their mothers. Leaving only pieces to be collected or throwing them into the river as their mothers howled on shore. Now, I don’t care what you say, that is power. Real, true power,” he said looking up from his tidy coin row. “No one has that sort of power anymore. Name me one person? You can’t. It can’t be done.” His eyes took on a heavy, faraway look, and he licked his lips, “Of course, it is a burden I carry every day in this life,” his eyes darted from Jason to me to the new medium, dry cappuccino that Jason set in front of him. “That’s my punishment. The knowing. The lack of power. The universe has punished me with the knowledge of what I have lost, what I will never have again. I pray for release from the knowing; I do, but it never comes. It never will. Life after life, I am remade lower, weaker, and more vulnerable but always knowing what I was. I can only hope that in the next life, I am granted a reprieve from the memories, which would be a double-edged sword, because then I wouldn’t know how powerful and great I was, but still, it’s probably best to not know. Don’t you think?”

“Maybe it’s remorse you’re meant to feel. Like a lesson learned,” Jason said. He collected the coins again, shaking them around in his palm before dropping them into the till. He was ready for the Pharaoh to take his coffee and leave. He picked up a rag and began wiping the counter top around Sir Beige’s coffee cup.

“No. Men like me aren’t meant to feel remorse. Remorse is for men like you. Men that aspire to this,” Sir Beige swept his hand to indicate his surroundings.

Jason stopped wiping and crossed his arms in front of his chest. He breathed deep and slow, his crossed arms rising and falling. His jaw tightened.

Despite the raging summer heat, Sir Beige pulled a pair of winter gloves out of his back pants pocket and put them on. He picked up his coffee, but made no other move to leave. He had stopped talking, which was a relief, but instead of talking, he was staring at me. Intently. Which wasn’t a relief. The longer he stared, the more uncomfortable I grew. The discomfort expanded around us.

Silence grew until the Pharaoh broke it with a laugh, a short, forced, hollow laugh. The sort of laugh that boys who are picked on laugh as a sign of surrender or to buy themselves time to look for an exit or a weapon. The laugh never reached his beige eyes. He then took a sip from his piping hot cup and continued to stare unblinkingly at me. I pretended to ignore him. I lifted chocolate chip cookies off a cooling rack and arranged them in the display case. I moved on to the next tray of cookies. All the while, I could feel his gaze with every move I made. The hairs on the back of my neck stood on end.

Jason watched the Pharaoh watch me.

“You should go,” Jason said. He’d had enough.

“I mention all of this only because I think it might be of particular interest to you,” Sir Beige said, ignoring Jason.

“Why would this be of particular interest to me?”

“It’s close,” he whispered. “I can smell it on you. It smells like rain and looks like ruin. Do you feel it yet, bearing down upon you? Do you see it? Out of the corner of your eye?”

I froze. Startled.

“It’s frightening,” he said taking a step forward. “But I’m here to tell you not to be frightened. I can help. We have something in common. We’re kindred spirits of a sort.”

“I don’t think we’re kindred anything,” I said.

He narrowed his eyes, and his face flushed red with anger, “You’re broken just like me, only different,” he placed a hand on the narrow, glass display case and stood on his tip toes. Sir Beige, the Pharaoh, whom, until this morning, I had only thought of as odd yet harmless, looked positively crazed and dangerous. He was so close, I could smell his coffee breath and body odor and see the white spittle collected in the corners of his mouth. “You can’t fight it! It can’t be stopped. I can help you accept what’s coming.”

“Leave now,” Jason said.

Even though the display case was between the Pharaoh and me, Jason stepped in front of me, pushing me back, knocking the whole tray of cookies out of my hands and onto the floor.

Still poised as if he might climb over or come around the display case, Sir Beige said to Jason, “Stay away from me!” To me he said, “You’re soul hangs by a thread. Snip! Snip!” He lifted his gloved hand from the display case and scissored his fingers in the air.

“Leave. Don’t come again. I’m exercising my right to refuse you service,” Jason came around the display case. He didn’t lay a hand on the Pharaoh, but he carried himself in a manner to suggest he was prepared to lay both hands on him.

The Pharaoh hissed at Jason and scampered for the door. “The lion does not concern itself with the problems of sheep. Sheep! Sheep!”

Jason followed the Pharaoh out the door and part way down the block. I don’t know what else was said, but I could hear the tone of Jason’s steady voice. The only words I could make out were the Pharaoh’s shrill “Sheep! Sheep!” in response.

After a couple minutes, Jason walked back through the door, “Holy shit, you’re a freak magnet.”

“I’m a kindred spirit magnet,” I corrected.

“Seriously, Abby, he’s not allowed back in here and if you ever see that guy again, go the other way,” Jason said. He looked at the cookies on the floor and at my white, shaken face, he sighed, “On an even more serious note, what shitty thing did I do in a past life to end up a coffee jerk in this shitty-ass place?”

“Careful,” I said. “Don’t let the boss hear you. He’s a real company guy. Toe the line or take a walk.”

Jason put his hands on his hips and puffed his chest, “Pay no mind to Sir Beige, the murderer Pharaoh. You must have been really good in your past life to be lucky enough to work for yours truly,”

“Lucky is a matter of opinion, my friend.”

I knelt down on the floor to collect the ruined chocolate chip cookies. Jason knelt next to me and helped.

Chapter 6—August 17

 

The next morning, the day of the wedding, I felt better. So much better. I felt rested from a deep and dreamless night’s sleep.

After a hot shower, makeup, the pretty-fication of my hair, I ate breakfast, and brushed my teeth. Not only was I feeling much better, I looked better than I had yesterday. I looked like me. I smiled at my reflection in the mirror. This was going to be a good day.

I dressed in shorts and a tank top. I would change when I got there. My dress was freshly dry cleaned and hung on the back of the door still wrapped in the dry cleaner’s plastic. I loved that dress. I wouldn’t consider myself a dress person, but this dress wasn’t like any other dress I had ever owned—or for that matter tried on. I bought it on sale and still had to eat tomato soup for two months to pay for it. It was worth it. Every woman needed a dress that made her feel like this dress made me feel.

I loaded my car with the camera equipment, my dress, and everything else I thought I might need. My car was old. No way around it. I was surprised every time it started and every time it made it home. I turned the key in the ignition, and it churned to life. I switched on the air conditioner full blast. It no longer ran cold, but it was cooler than the air outside and somehow damper and smelled a bit like wet wool. Hey, no car payment. This wheeled hunk of crap was mine, all mine, and I refused to be embarrassed by it. I was sensible. People should respect my sensibleness. Although when I went to a wedding, out of consideration for the bride and groom and their guests, I parked as far away as I could manage from the main entrance. Granted hauling my gear from a parking space in Siberia was a pain, but weddings were about beauty and new beginnings and hope. I was afraid my car would serve as a bleak reminder of what real life really looked like. No one wanted real life at a wedding.

The wedding was at the Oregon coast. On a good day, the drive would take about an hour and forty-five minutes, but most of the drive was a two-lane, winding highway through the Cascade Mountain Range. If traffic was bad, it was all the way bad. One time it took me five hours to get there.

Today, traffic was light. Thank God. I turned up the music full blast and sang mightily at the top of my lungs most of the way.

The sky was blue, dotted high in the atmosphere with light, puffy, white clouds. Lush, green evergreen trees marched up and down the mountainsides. I liked to imagine living up in the mountains, hidden away from the rest of the world. The idea of seclusion appealed to me.

Every now and again the glorious green hills were scarred by a clear cut bald spot or replanted patches of tiny green tree stubble. I didn’t know why, but I felt surprised every time the trees gave way to empty space.

Very near the coast, near mile marker 28 on the descent from the summit, there was a place you could pull off right above a natural spring. A spigot and a cement basin with a fountain could be found on either side of the highway. A blue informational sign, that read Drinking Water, invited drivers to literally pull off and fill up jugs, or whatever type of container they had, with fresh drinking water straight from a mountain spring. I had always wanted to stop, but I didn’t. On the way back, I told myself.

I made it to Canon Beach in record time. Near the outskirts of the town, there was a charming little burger joint, quintessential beach style with surfboards fashioned into furniture, sand dunes along the walkway even though it was too far away from the beach for the dunes to be naturally occurring. I had always wanted to stop, and just like the spring water spigot, I usually decided that I would stop next time.

Today though, I stopped.

Without warning, I began to feel sick. Really sick. Waves of nausea hit me just as I was passing the burger joint. I turned suddenly into the parking lot. The green minivan I turned in front of expressed its disapproval of my abrupt turn by honking, loudly and for, if you ask me, a little longer than was necessary.

I pulled wonky into a parking spot and dropped my head against the steering wheel. I felt like I was going to vomit. Immediately, I was drenched with sweat. My hands and legs began to shake uncontrollably, and I clutched my stomach. It was roiling and doing flip-flops. I was going to lose it.

I opened the driver side door and hung my head out of the car. I heaved and heaved, but nothing came up. I sat with my arm propping open the door for a long while, waiting for the nausea to pass. My car bonged, alerting me that the door was open and the keys were in the ignition.

Bong. Bong. Bong.

Pulling the keys out of the ignition, I held them in my lap. The nausea began to fade. I left the door open and laid my head back on the headrest. A cool coastal breeze wafted in through the open door. I closed my eyes and breathed deeply. I could smell the salt in the air.

I breathed slowly and deliberately until the nausea passed completely, and I stopped shaking. Whatever I had, clearly I wasn’t over it yet.

When I opened my eyes, for just a moment, the restaurant looked less like a surf shack and more like a fifties soda shop.

Something struck me as familiar about that soda shop. My heart leapt. Fluttered with excitement even.

I blinked and saw the dunes and the surfboards again.

I blinked again. Still surf boards.

I climbed out of the car and followed the smell of cinnamon rolls and bacon.

I felt—no, I needed to go into this restaurant. I had this incredible sense that I had been here before. Déjà vu. I shivered. Someone was walking on my grave.

I looked around the parking lot. It was too early to be crowded although I had never not seen it crowded. There were only a few cars in the parking lot.

I walked down the wooden walkway that resembled a boardwalk; on either side there were the decorative sand dunes. This sand wasn’t beach sand. It sparkled in the sun, clean and smooth like sugar.

The giant doors were propped open. I walked in.

Off to the right of the main entrance was the bar. A man with his back to me moved behind the bar arranging liquor bottles. He looked over when I walked in.

“Be right with you,” he said.

Russell.

The name came to me. It just appeared in my head.

“Russell?” I said.

I felt nauseous again.

He looked over his shoulder at me.

“Kevin,” he said. “Russell is my father.”

He squinted his eyes, “Have we met?”

“No, at least, I don’t think so,” I said.

He walked over.

“Just one?” he said, grabbing a menu and silverware rolled in a cloth napkin.

“Yes,” I said.

I followed him to a booth in the corner. I stumbled, unsteady on my feet.

He grabbed my elbow to help balance me.

“You okay?” he asked.

He smelled nice. Clean. Like the ocean. I leaned into him. Kevin was a nicely muscled, angular black man. He was in his early thirties, the best I could tell. He wore his hair short, and he had a perfectly manicured goatee. He helped me into a booth. The bench seat was, of course, shaped like a surfboard.

He frowned.

Sweat beaded on my forehead and upper lip. I didn’t want to call attention to it.

“Did this place use to be a soda shop, fifties style?” I asked.

“Used to be Sugarman’s Soda Shop. That was a long time ago,” he said.

I gave in, unrolled the silverware bundle, and used the white cloth napkin to wipe the sweat off my forehead and lip.

“I’ll have a bacon cheeseburger and fries,” I said, “and a water too, please.”

“It’s breakfast,” he paused about to tell me that I needed to order off the breakfast menu. “—but the grill is warmed up. I can do that for you.”

“I’m so sorry, Russell!” I blurted out.

He had just turned to walk away, and he turned back. His head was tilted to the left. He narrowed his eyes at me, trying to really get a look at me.

“Come again?” Kevin said.

“I don’t know why I said that,” I said, and I didn’t. I didn’t even realize I had said it until the words were out of my mouth.

He shifted his weight from one foot to the other.

“Are you okay?” he asked again.

I shook my head, no. Then nodded my head, yes.

“I’m just getting over something, a virus. I’m sorry. Can I get a coffee too, please?”

He took one step backward and turned on his heal, taking his eyes off me only at the last moment.

I directed my gaze out the window, looking at the cars driving by, some driving to the coast, some driving away. I wiggled my fingers. A tingly pins and needles sensation covered my whole body, but especially my fingers and toes. Add to that feeling feverish and woozy again, I was just not myself. I felt light and reedy, as if I was floating just outside my body.

I should be in bed. All I had to do was get through this wedding. I could do it. There was no way I could not do it. Everyone was counting on me. The only reason I was even considered for this gig was because a friend had recommended me. Most importantly though, it paid more money than I had made on my photography all last year combined.

When the bacon cheeseburger was set in front of me, I felt better almost immediately. Anchored. The floating feeling lifted, and I was neatly tucked inside my body yet again. I hadn’t realized how hungry I was. I ate with gusto. Bacon cheeseburgers were the great panacea. The french fries helped too. I ate every last one and licked the salt from my fingertips.

“You the one asking about Sugarman’s?”

I looked up from my plate. An old, black man looked down at me, pointing a crooked finger in my face. His spine was straight and his head erect although he listed to the side and leaned heavily on a cane. His brown eyes were covered with a thin white film. He blinked rapidly. Squinting, he leaned in closer.

I wiped my face with the napkin.

“Yes,” I said.

“What do you want to know about that old place?” he said.

He slid into the booth, sitting on the bench opposite where I was sitting.

“May I?” he said after he sat.

“Sure,” I said.

“My name is Silas. Silas Nelson,” he said.

He waited for me to introduce myself, so I did. He shook my hand over the tabletop.

“I remember Sugarman’s,” he said. “It was a good old place. You remember it?”

“No,” I said. “Never been here before.”

“Sure. Right,” he said. “We closed it a long time ago. Changed its name. Now, it’s Sugar Shack Cafe. The surf boards were Kevin’s idea.”

“They’re nice,” I said.

He snorted derisively. “Nothing was wrong with how it used to be. People liked it.”

His rheumy eyes moved across my face. Blinking. Trying to focus.

“You’re familiar to me,” he said.

“Really?” I said. “We’ve never met.”

What I didn’t say was he felt familiar to me too.

“You know my son, Russell, then? Or his boy Kevin?” he asked.

“No, I don’t think so.”

My headache returned, a deep throbbing pain at the base of my skull. I rubbed it.

“Maybe I just have a familiar face?” I offered.

“I don’t know why you got to lie to me,” he said. His voice turned sharp. “You don’t have to.”

“What?” I said, startled. “I’m not lying.”

I looked around the restaurant; the people at the other tables were busy eating and talking. No one paid any attention to us. Across the room, I caught the eye of Kevin. I raised my hand for the bill, and he strode over.

“Pops,” Kevin said, resting his hand on the old man’s shoulder. “I was wondering where you’d gotten off to.”

“Boy,” the old man snapped. “I don’t get off to anywhere. Don’t you be treating me so.”

“I’m sorry, Pops,” Kevin said, and he meant it. “Your ticket,” he said to me, and placed the bill face down on the table.

Silas Nelson allowed Kevin to guide him up and out of the bench seat.

I set a twenty down on top of the bill.

“No change,” I said and started to slide out of the bench.

Quick as lighting and without warning, the old man reached across the table and grabbed my face by my chin. He yanked me toward him until we were eye to eye.

“I see you,” he breathed. For an elderly man, his grip was surprisingly strong, way stronger than it had been when I shook his hand. “I can see you.”

I tried to pull away, but he wouldn’t let go.

“I see you. I see the colors around your head. I know who you are!”

“Pops!” a shocked Kevin admonished. “What are you doing?”

Silas Nelson squeezed tighter.

“I don’t know why you’re back,” his voice shook with emotion. “But here you are! Listen to me, and listen well, do not go tonight. Russell is a good boy. He loves you. You’ll be safe with him. If you leave tonight, you will surely get into a car accident and die!”

“Let her go.” Kevin demanded grabbing the old man’s hand and trying to force him to release his hold on me. His voice was low and his words were calm in an attempt to not call attention to the scene, which was useless as nearly every single person in the restaurant had stopped eating and was watching the three of us, and the few who weren’t already paying attention at this point, stopped and stared when the old man yelled, “You will die!”

“Jesus, Pops, stop it! Stop it! Leave her alone!”

The old man’s hand went slack. He released my face. I could still feel the pressure where each of his fingers had dug into my skin. He blinked his eyes again. Suddenly, he was trembling. Every part of him. Quaking. He stepped back abruptly. His knees buckled, and his cane slipped from his grasp and clattered to the floor.

“I’m sorry,” Kevin said to me. “I’m so sorry.”

Kevin wrapped his arm around the old man. He bent over and retrieved the cane from the floor. Before leading the old man away, Kevin looked over his shoulder at me and then at the twenty on the table.

“On the house,” he said. “I don’t know what’s got into him. I’m sorry.”

Silas Nelson shuffled away under the arm of his grandson. I heard him ask with a thready voice, “Where’s the girl who wanted to know about Sugarman’s? That was a good old place. I’d like to talk to her.”

“She’s gone, Pops. Maybe next time.”

Chapter 7

 

The wedding was to be celebrated at a beachside resort hotel.

I managed to drive past the hotel. Three times. I could have cut myself some slack. After all I was still shaken from the restaurant incident, and physically I was operating at about sixty percent. The headache that had plagued me for days continued to flare intermittently, white hot and painful like a lighthouse beacon spinning forewarning in my head. The sky seemed way too bright, shadows seemed way too dark, and nausea came in occasional waves—worse when I had the temerity to look where I was going, better if I shuffled along looking only at my feet. None of it mattered though. Grumble. Grumble. I was all out of slack. I had stretched it as thin as it would go, and there was no more give and certainly nothing left to cut. I needed to get my head on straight. This job was a big deal. I could live off the proceeds for three, four months maybe.

Nick Ericcson, my friend and backup photographer du jour, waited for me in the lobby of the hotel. He leaned against a gleaming wood column with a camera bag slung over his shoulder. Nick had a lovely way of looking at ease anywhere. He was from Hawaii, and though he had left Hawaii years ago, Hawaii had never left him. His sunny hair, easy grin, and casual stride always gave him away.

In fact, Nick had just come from Hawaii, fresh from a family visit in which I could only assume he had spent the entire time surfing. He had arrived in Portland a couple days ago and come straight here. Why get here two days early? To surf, of course. Nick moved through the world not from place to place like the rest of us but from surf to surf. It didn’t matter which location was better, it just mattered that it was different and new. Surfing on the Oregon coast was cold even in the summer, but a dedicated surfer never let that dissuade him.

“How’s the surfing?” I asked Nick as I approached, lugging my camera bag and pulling a wheeled cart with plastic totes loaded with the rest of my equipment.

“Hella cold,” he said. “Did some kite surfing. Ever done that?”

“Hah, no,” I mumbled and knelt down to go through my gear, double checking to make sure I had everything.

“You should give it a try. It’s pretty wild, the wind was rough,” he paused, “but you know I like it rough.”

The last part, I was pretty sure, was added to see if I was paying attention—which I wasn’t—at least not fully, maybe half. I stopped rummaging in my camera bag and looked up at him.

His facial expression immediately transformed from joking to concern.

“Are you okay?” he crouched down beside me.

“I’m okay. Just getting over a virus. Why? Do I look awful?”

“What are those marks on your face?” he held his hand out and gently touched the side of my face where the old man from the diner had dug his fingertips into my jaw.

“Nothing,” I said, and rubbed my jaw, and in the process, rubbed his hand off my face.

I looked back into my bag. I suddenly felt like crying.

I said ruefully, “So you were saying? Something about you liking it rough?”

“Sure,” he said, “but I meant it about surfing. Get your mind out of the gutter, Neely.”

“Har har,” I said.

He laughed which made me laugh reflexively despite my sour mood.

I looked up from my camera bag exasperated. Three times, I had gone through it. The last time I even took most of the contents out. “I can’t find my spare battery, Nick. I could’ve sworn I packed it.”

He reached into my camera bag, plucked out the battery, and held it palm up to me.

“Thanks,” I said.

“Anytime,” he said.

 

 

The location was breathtaking. The weather was beautiful—hot but at least fifteen degrees cooler than Portland. The cool ocean breeze felt good on my skin. The local weatherman tracked a storm off the coast that was due to hit land some time later today or tomorrow. Looking at the sky, blue and cloudless, with not even a hint of a storm, it seemed not possible that he could be right.

Nick and I discussed plans for the evening as we walked around the venue. The ceremony would be held outside under a custom-made wedding arbor. Beautiful greenery climbed and wound its hopeful way to the top of the arbor arches. Chairs covered in white satin lined the lush grass; the seat covers tied in the back with green satin bows. All against the backdrop of a bright, blue sky, perched on a bluff, overlooking the ocean. Waves crashed in the distance, a string quartet warmed up on the lawn as men and women dressed in uniforms buzzed around, setting up tables and chairs, and displaying extravagant flower arrangements. The reception was to be held inside in a lavishly appointed ballroom with an open bar, full five course meal with choice of entree, separate little dessert stations, and dancing, dancing, dancing.

I couldn’t even begin to guess how much this wedding cost. I’d been to a lot of weddings, and never had I seen anything like this. Nick blew out a low, soft whistle when he saw the reception hall.

‘I know, right?” I said.

“Wow.” One word that summed it up perfectly.

 

 

Nick left to join the groomsmen to take their prepping pictures. I changed into my dress in the hotel lobby bathroom, loaded up on cold medicine, then made my way to the bridesmaids’ hotel room.

I could tell I was at the right room before I even got there. Giggles and occasional raucous bursts of laughter floated down the hallway. My knock on the door was met with an even louder round of laughter.

‘Not decent!” shrieked a girl’s voice.

I heard the bride’s voice. “It’s the photographer. Look sharp, ladies.”

The lock clicked, and she opened the door just wide enough for me to squeeze in.

I walked into—well, I wasn’t even sure what I was walking into at first. Four giddy bridesmaids stood in their panties in front of the mirror, passing duct tape from one to the other.

The smallest one was bent over. With one arm, she held her naked breasts up and together, and with her other hand, she pulled duct tape from one side of her rib cage to the other, directly underneath her breasts. Duct tape.

“Ouch,” I said.

“They’re trying to out-cleavage each other,” said the bride dryly.

“And I‘m winning!” declared the little one as she popped up to examine her results in the mirror. She did appear to be the clear winner, and while one of the other girls attempted to re-tape to capture the lead, the other two poured more champagne and egged her on.

The bride wrapped her arms around me in a giant hug. She smelled edible, and unlike the four dizzy bridesmaids bouncing around the room like electrons, she was calm and serene. There was a peace and surety about her that I admired. One look at her and anyone could tell that she was a woman in love and this was indeed the happiest day of her life. She looked absolutely radiant, and I told her so.

The pre-wedding, getting ready pictures were the most fun to take. The atmosphere, full of excitement and anticipation, swelled around me, and I was glad to let myself forget everything and get swept away in the joyful current.

The bride and groom wanted to do the official First Meeting picture before the wedding. Nick and I staged the groom outside on the bluff overlooking the ocean. The bride snuck up behind him. I took the pictures from the bride’s angle, and Nick captured the groom’s face—first surprise, then awe, then a look—a look I’d never quite seen before, like at that moment he would walk through fire for her. I was so surprised by the look that I almost missed taking a photograph of it.

I loved weddings. More than the excitement and the drama, I loved the little, surprising moments the most. Like that look of sheer love and devotion on the groom’s face. How his eyes welled with tears. I glanced over at Nick. He smiled at me when he caught my eye. I smiled back. Sometimes a single perfect moment was enough.

 

 

The wedding itself was beautiful. I cried just the tiniest bit, a tear or two, but there was hardly a dry eye in the assemblage. The father of the bride cried unashamedly. All the while, the mother of the bride smiled and rubbed his knee.

And with a kiss on the mouth and an introduction into the world as husband and wife, the newly married couple walked triumphantly down the aisle, hand in hand, into their new life. I crouched unobtrusively—as unobtrusively as I could—capturing each hopeful step into their new life. Let no man tear asunder.

Nick put his hand on my back after the processional.

“What next, pretty girl?”

“Next, we get the reception entrance, take candids of the guests. We get to eat too,” I waggled my eyebrows at him. “We even have our very own seats and everything.”

“Nice,” he said. “You’re top shelf, Neely.”

 

 

Included in my wedding package, I placed little instant cameras on each table encouraging the guests to take pictures of themselves and whatever else they felt moved to capture. I hung a big bulletin board by the entrance to the ballroom and set out markers for people to scribble their well wishes to the happy couple and tack up their photos for all to enjoy and for the bride and groom to keep. I also set up a digital slide show with the raw, unedited pictures I’d taken earlier that day.

The last thing on the agenda was the bride and groom send-off. Everyone blew bubbles, clapped, and cheered. My last official shot was the Just Married limo dragging cans down the grand driveway of the hotel. For all intents and purposes, my work was done.

I sat at the table all alone eating chocolate torte, my second piece. Don’t tell. The rest of people at the table were either busy spinning around the dance floor or socializing with friends and family or had already called it a night.

I was alone in a room full of people. The usual. It’s your own fault. You have only yourself to blame, my mother’s voice clucked in my head. I’d turned down two offers to dance. I was trying to be professional. That’s what I told myself, at least. Nobody wants a reveler as their wedding photographer. I was paid to watch not participate. Right now, I watched myself decorate my cake plate with the tine of my fork and raspberry puree. Would anyone notice if I got a third piece of cake?

The sun didn’t set until after 9pm that night. Finally giving up the day, it slipped below the horizon, streaking orange and red across the sky as it went. In the last hour, in the dark of night, the storm that was forecasted arrived. The windows to the reception hall were open, and I could hear the surf crashing against the shore, and the rain falling thick and heavy against the roof.

Nick had fallen prey to the cleavage contest at last. Color me not surprised. The bridesmaids had been enticing him all day, making eyes and flirting. He’d lasted longer than I thought he would. Now, he danced with two of the bridesmaids at the same time. Having what anyone could see was a great time. He looked over at me, winked, and beckoned me to the dance floor. I shook my head, begging off. I held up my camera in one hand and displayed a See, I am working, look at my camera face. He exaggeratedly sighed and shrugged his shoulders. He grabbed a bridesmaid and twirled her until she laughed hysterically and leaned on him. Dizzy, I nicknamed her. Not to be left out Bouncy, the brunette, grabbed Nick’s other hand and twirled herself.

There was a time maybe when I would have—could have—easily been any one of those bridesmaids—Dizzy Blond, Bouncy Brunette, Curvy Sue, and Up For Anything Kate with duct-taped breasts and sexy pink underwear, a sex sundae topped with a fresh cherry lipstick mouth. They seemed free to me. Like birds. Light and boundless, not tethered to anyone or anything. They were hope—beautiful, sexy, kinda slutty—hope. Of course me being like them would have been a long time ago. Before I met Benjamin Morreau. Before he broke my heart and two of my fingers. The fingers—probably an accident. The heart—not an accident.

“Why so glum, Miss Abbygale?” Nick escaped from the bridesmaids and lowered himself into the chair next to mine. “Sad that your cake is gone? I bet you could get a second piece and no one would notice.”

“This is my second piece,” I licked the raspberry puree off my fork and looked at him sheepishly.

“Well, a third then? Lord knows you could do with it. I will even get it for you and pretend it’s mine so no one will think any less of you.”

I thought about it, and the little chocolate torte lover in my head almost took him up on his offer, but I couldn’t do it. I wanted to, but I couldn’t.

“Ah no, thanks though. I’m tempted, but three pieces of cake? Just can’t do it,” I licked the last of the raspberry puree off my fork. “What they should have done was make the damn cake slices bigger or less delicious.” I pushed the plate away frowning, dropped my chin in my hand, and sighed.

It’s just cake,” he said.

I glanced over at him, “It’s never just cake.”

He laughed. Reaching across the space between us, he rubbed my upper arm. His hand warm and strong, he gently squeezed just above my elbow. His root beer eyes fizzed and sparkled. Nick was handsome in every sense of the word, tall, athletic, charming. Winsome.

A gong went off deep in my belly. I froze.

“Your bridesmaids are missing you. They’re looking over here right now.” I said.

“They’re silly. Don’t you think?”

“They’re pretty, right?” I said, “and fun. You like fun.”

“Are you driving back tonight?” he asked, steering the conversation away from the bridesmaids.

A sudden buzzing filled my ears, and my stomach flipped. I couldn’t quite make out the words Nick was saying. I could see his mouth moving, but I couldn’t hear him. The biting tingling in my hands and feet returned, the same tingling I had felt earlier at the Sugar Shack Cafe. I felt panicky, overwhelmed with panic to be exact. What was wrong with me?

“What?” I said. Trying to focus on Nick’s mouth. Willing my ears to listen. Everything was coming at me like it was passing through a wall of static. I could see Nick’s mouth moving again; his voice buzzed and his words were indistinguishable. I inhaled sharply as a sudden surge of pain coursed through my body. The arm that was adjacent to Nick’s fingertips, the one with the elbow that he had just squeezed felt the worst. It felt as if it was on fire.

“I’m sorry. What did you say again?” I said.

“Are you driving back tonight?” he repeated for the third time. Worry written on his face.

I heard him this time, “Can’t afford a hotel.”

“It’s storming, I have a room. You could stay with me and drive back in the morning,” he said. To make his point, thunder cracked in the distance, and the raindrops fell even louder, beating on the roof for emphasis, drowning out the DJ and the Electric Slide. I lowered my head until my forehead rested on the edge of the table. So cool. So deliciously cool felt the table against my forehead. My temples pulsed in the time with the music.

Nick’s eyebrows knitted. He picked up my drinking glass and sniffed it. I’d only had water. He set it back on the table.

“Nick?” came a female voice over my shoulder. I thought it was Dizzy, but I didn’t look to see. “I don’t mean to interrupt—” which of course she totally did mean to interrupt. “We were thinking about grabbing a bottle of champagne and watching the waves. Want to come with?”

Nick hesitated and looked at me.

“Go Nick. I’m just about to leave anyway. I can’t stay. Thank you for the offer,” My muffled voice rose from the table. It was the truth. I had to leave. The need to leave, to run, exploded deep in my brain. Suddenly, inexplicably, irrationally, I was desperate to leave. I needed to escape like I needed to breathe. The headache that I had chased away earlier with cold medicine and aspirin returned with blinding force. I lifted my head off the table and pressed my ice-cold hands to my forehead. Under my hands, my forehead was burning up.

“Oh, that’s too bad. You could have come too,” said Dizzy, and she actually managed to sound sincere. Props to her. To Nick she said, “It’ll be fun, I promise.”

Hers was a fully loaded promise.

“No, thanks,” Nick said.

“Alright,” her voice was thick with disappointment, “If you change your mind . . .” She let it trail, waiting a moment for him to change his mind before she walked away.

“Don’t not go on my account,” I said. I tried to stand. Conversation over. Time to go. As I stood, my camera slid off my lap, and I lunged to grab it. Nick caught it.

My lunge left me off balance and bent over Nick. Mere inches separated our faces. He steadied me with a hand on my elbow. He said softly, “It’s too dangerous to drive home tonight. You’re not feeling well. Stay in my room. Two beds. Just friends. Nothing else. No big deal.”

“I can’t,” I said, and I really couldn’t. I needed to go. I pulled myself upright and stumbled again. Nick reached out to steady me again, and like a petulant child, I twisted away from him.

“I’ll be careful,” I said.

“Like hell,” he said. “You can barely hold your head up. You’re sick. Please don’t go. Stay for me.”

Just the way he said that—Please don’t go, stay for me—enraged me. Infuriated me. I can offer no explanation as to why, all I know is I saw red and white, anger and pain, and I was pissed and DONE with people telling me what to do. I wheeled on him.

“I—am—fine—Nick,” I slurred through clenched teeth.

“No, you’re not. Let’s get you some coffee,” he said sweetly, gently, softly. He grabbed my upper arm and tried to steer me back to the table. His hand touched my bare skin, and it burned like fire.

“Fuck off, Nick! Leave me the fuck alone. Go grab yourself a bridesmaid or two. Drink some champagne. Only a fool would waste a perfectly good buzz and hotel room on me. Get laid, get whatever, just stop trying to tell me what the fuck I can and can’t do,” I smirked, punched him on the shoulder harder than I probably ought to have, effectively pushing him physically away from me.

His eyes went flat as he regarded me, looking at me as if I was some sort of new creature that he had just discovered. Fizz all gone. He nodded brusquely.

I’m sorry, Nick, is what I should have said but didn’t. I was still so inexplicably mad at him. Instead I said, “You probably didn’t deserve that” in a half-hearted, shitty way, like I didn’t really mean it, and he did deserve it.

“No,” he said. “I probably didn’t.”

Stone-faced, Nick gathered up all the instamatic cameras, table to table, looping the straps around his wrists. He walked me out to my car pulling my rolling cart with all the equipment as I teetered and wobbled woozily all the while trying to keep two steps in front of him. He even carefully loaded my equipment into the trunk after I opened it because why? Because Nick Fucking Ericcson was a nice fucking guy, and all I wanted was to be left alone and far away from him and everybody else at this moment, but especially him. I wriggled my fingers and clenched and released my hands, all in an effort to encourage blood flow and to get the madness-inducing tingling to stop.

Monsoon-style rain came at us sideways, and we were soaked within seconds of leaving the building. We used umbrellas and plastic tubs to protect the cameras and equipment. Everything else was sacrificed to the elements including my perfect dress that was now soaked through and transparent.

My shorts and tank top were folded up on the back seat of my old hatchback. My flip-flops sat next to them. Despite the downpour, I took off my strappy heals and put on my flip-flops. It was really hard to work a clutch in heals.

Nick stood with his hands in his pockets, soaked through and silent. His shirt clinging to his chest and arms. I really didn’t want to leave things like this between us. I felt as if I had damaged something—something important. Out of fear of what shitty thing I might say or do next, I avoided making eye contact with him. Now that my equipment was loaded and I was ready to leave, something had to be said or I might as well kiss my friendship with Nick goodbye.

I walked up to him and swallowed hard.

“Forgive me,” I said. Never had I seen him so serious. “I’m not feeling myself. I’m just sick, and I want to go home and get into bed and sleep forever.”

“Of course. It’s forgotten,” he said, but the look on his face told me it wasn’t.

He turned and walked back to the hotel.

Chapter 8

 

I stood in the rain, blinking against the wind and water.

I wanted to crawl into a hole and cry, but the back seat might just have to do. My head pounded, and every part of my body hurt. Once again, I felt as if I was having an out of body experience, the déjà vu from earlier was back and building, increasing with intensity with each breath, with each cold raindrop on my skin. I tried to shake it, but it grew steadily more and more intense.

I watched Nick walk back into the hotel. He didn’t look back.

The moment he was out of my line of sight, the déjà vu feeling exploded into a déjà vu monster. The feeling had claws, and it reached up from the ground through the soles of my flip-flops and burrowed into me.

Tingling pain like I had never felt before erupted in my feet—pins and needles, as if my feet had fallen asleep but worse—crying, screaming worse. The pain continued to crawl into and up me, like roots desperate for some connection. I was captive, seized. Clutched to the ground like a tree, and like a tree, I couldn’t move.

The unbearable pain knocked me over until I was on may hands and knees. The tingling, sensation moved from my feet, pulsed in my knees, clawed into my groin, and wrapped a band of hot fury around my abdomen. I could hardly breathe.

Next my hands started to burn and prickle. The pain then surged into each of my arms. The two bands of pain, the one that began in my hands and the other that began in my feet, moved in excruciating unison to meet somewhere in the middle. Where? My lungs? My heart? If I let it get that far, I knew I would not be able to breathe, yet I seemed unable to do anything except wretch hot vomit all over the pavement. Over and over until there was nothing left in my stomach.

I couldn’t get up. I couldn’t run. I couldn’t cry for help.

I looked up through hot tears and saw the outline of someone walking toward me. It was Dizzy, umbrella in one hand, bottle of champagne in the other. Our eyes met, and hers were frightened. She was saying something to me. Her mouth moved, but I couldn’t hear her over the thunder in my ears. Our eyes locked, the pain seemed to let up enough for me to stagger to my feet until she turned and ran, and I found myself once again on the ground on my hands and knees.

I vomited again. This time blood. I collapsed to my side. The rain fell hard and fast with nowhere to go. The parking lot held at least two inches of rain, and I fell into a deep, cool puddle. I couldn’t lift my face out of the water. Even though the rainwater was cold, every part of my body burned. I felt as if I was on fire. My heart pounded uncontrollably and erratically. I was dying. I was sure of it. If my heart didn’t explode, I was going to drown in this goddamn puddle.

The pain began to ease once again. I lifted my head off the pavement to see Nick in a mad sprint running across the parking lot. Dizzy had ditched the umbrella and without any care for her hair, makeup, or dress, she nearly kept pace with him.

The closer Nick came, the more the pain and pressure eased. He was close enough now that I could hear him yelling but couldn’t quite make out what he was saying, and just as suddenly as it had started, I was released. I felt a surge of adrenaline and fear unlike anything I had ever known or ever could have imagined.

Run! A voice in my head shrieked, and I was overcome with the compulsion to do as the voice commanded. Without thinking, without waiting for Nick, I scrambled up from the pavement into the car. Miraculously, I found my car keys and inserted them into the ignition. Go! Go! Go!

The car lurched forward, and I looked in the rear view mirror, into Nick’s what the hell expression.

He was yelling, but all I could hear was the voice in my head—RUN! RUN! RUN!

I wanted to stop. I wanted to, but didn’t. I couldn’t. I absolutely couldn’t. I had my little hatchback in fourth gear before I had even left the parking lot.

 

 

I floored it.

Portland.

Out of the hotel parking lot, one turn, another turn, onto the highway, I was shaking and terrified, and I wasn’t thinking. I was on autopilot.

The pins and needles started again in my fingers and toes, and pain zinged up my arms and legs. When I let up on the accelerator, the bite had more teeth and the pain surged.

A little piece of my mind, a sliver, wondered why I wasn’t thinking, and had begun to try and regain control.

I pushed my little car to the limit, and the pain in my hands and feet, arms and legs started to ease. When I slowed down the pain returned, worse each time. The faster I drove, the better I felt.

Go.

Go.

Go.

I had no idea who or what I was running from, but I was running, and I knew, deep in my gut, it was a race for my life. I would either outrun whatever was pursuing me or die.

I couldn’t see past my headlights, and I was traveling so fast that I knew my speed and the stormy night had decimated any reaction time. This was a dangerous stretch of road, but I had left my common sense back in the parking lot of the hotel with my vomit and my dignity.

My cell phone rang. It lay on the passenger seat. I picked it up and looked at it.

Nick, it flashed.

I tossed it back down on the seat.

It rang again.

Nick.

I laughed and my voice sounded distant and hollow. The car was silent except for the wheels on the road and the tired engine revving as I pushed it to the max.

The phone rang again.

Nick.

“Stop calling!” I shouted at the top of my lungs.

The pins and needles pain surged again. This time it didn’t back off no matter how fast I drove. My vision began to tunnel.

The phone rang again.

“WHAT?” I yelled at it. I had no intention of answering it, but when I looked at it, instead of Nick, it flashed Ben. Instinctively, I reached to grab it, and it slid across the seat. I swerved. Someone honked.

Shit.

I reached across the passenger seat. Creeping my fingers inch by inch while at the same time trying to keep my head up and my eyes on the road. Just as my fingertips were about to touch it, the phone stopped ringing. Damn it. I slammed my palm against the steering wheel. Ben.

It rang again.

I slowed the car until the pain was nearly too much and lunged for the phone. Got it!

I flipped it open and pressed it to my ear all the while accelerating again hoping the pain would lessen.

“I’m coming! I’m coming! Just wait. Please, just wait for me,” I said into the phone. Not what I intended to say at all.

“What? What? What’s going on? Are you okay, Abby? What’s going on?” It was Nick.

“Please understand,” I heard my voice say. The words flew out of my mouth without me commanding them. My voice. Not my words. “Please understand. I have to go. He needs me. You’re wrong. He does love me. Please understand. It’s unfair of you to ask me to stay for you. Cruel and unfair. He loves me the best way he knows how. I would do anything for him. I would give my life for him. Russell, please understand and don’t come after me.”

“Russell? Who the hell is Russell?” Nick yelled out of my phone.

His voice startled me back to reality.

“Nick?” I said. “Help me. There’s something wrong with me. I think I am going crazy.”

“Where are you?”

“I’m on 26 headed to Portland,” I cried. The pain pounded in my feet and hands, throbbing with the beat of my racing heart. I started to hyperventilate.

“Pull over,” he said calmly and firmly. “I will come and get you. I’m coming right now.”

“Russell, please listen. I never meant to hurt you. I love you, you know I do, but it’s not the same. Please don’t come. Please don’t follow. He would be so angry with you. He’ll kill you. Promise me. Don’t come,” Again it was my voice. I heard it, but it wasn’t me. That little sliver of my brain, the part that knew something terrible was happening, lit up like fireworks on the Fourth of July—and burst. I could feel the searing sizzle right behind my right eye.

‘Oh, God!” I cried out in pain.

Reflexively, I dropped the phone and clawed at my right eye, trying desperately to claw the burning out.

Honking again.

I looked up. Headlights were coming right for me. The oncoming traffic lane was reduced to a single lane, and a car, trying to pass a pick-up truck, had swerved into the oncoming traffic lane, my lane. I clutched at the wheel with both hands and slammed on the brakes. The tires squealed, and my little car hydroplaned out of control. Pain erupted everywhere in my body.

Whatever was chasing me, whatever I was running from, finally caught me. I couldn’t move, not my arms, not my legs. I couldn’t even turn my head away or close my eyes. The last few moments before impact, before I collided head on with the other car, were in slow motion, and I couldn’t look away.

Honking.

Squealing tires.

At the last possible instant, my car pulled out of the hydroplane, and the tires grabbed. My hands, on their own, turned the wheel, avoiding the oncoming car by inches. I careened off the road, over a little cliff, and ran head-on into a tree.

My body flew forward. I could have sworn I had put my seat belt on. I felt the impact with the steering wheel first then the windshield. It cracked and spidered violently, catching me like a fastball, deep in the pocket of a catcher’s mitt.

Then nothing.

Just blackness.

 

 

How long was she out? She didn’t know. She was hurt. She was hurt so bad. She had swerved to miss that elk, and miss it she did. Before she went over the cliff, she and the elk had locked gazes. The elk didn’t look the least bit sorry for walking where it shouldn’t have been.

She lifted her head. She couldn’t see out of her right eye. There was blood all over the place. Her blood. She could taste it. The strong metallic bite. She gagged and coughed violently. She was choking on her teeth. She spit them out into her hand, looking at them in disbelief. She could hardly breathe, just little squeaks on one side.

She looked down. Her dress! Oh, her poor dress! She and Lacey had just finished them this afternoon. One for each. They were so cute. She had been sure that Clark was going to love it. Especially, since she had raised the hem a good two inches higher than the McCall pattern had called for. Lacey didn’t dare, but Anna Beth had, and they both had giggled. It felt good to giggle; it had been months since she felt so free—since Clark had left really.

Lacey had said, “Oh, Anna Beth. I just don’t know about that hem. Look at your knees.”

“It’s a mini skirt, Lacey. They’re all the rage.”

“Really?” Lacey had asked then shook her head. “No, not for me. It’s far too daring, and Mother would lock me in my room for a week.”

“Do I look like Twiggy?” Anna Beth had asked, twirling around and batting her eyelashes.

Lacey had giggled and covered her face with her hands.

“Oh, you!” Anna Beth had said exasperated.

“Mrs. Sugarman will kill you,” came Lacey’s warning from behind her hands.

Well, the dress was ruined, and clearly Mama wouldn’t get a chance to kill her now. She was already dying.

“I am sorry Mama and Daddy,” she gasped. A pleasant numbness was starting to spread through her, and she knew that it was a bad sign.

No, she thrashed and tried to focus.

Clark was waiting for her.

Oh, mama, she thought. Sweet, sweet Mama. I love you. I’m sorry.

 

 

Sounds were coming at me as if through water. Screeching metal on metal. Pushing against my consciousness and then receding to blackness.

Moving. I didn’t know which way was up, but my body was being moved with purpose.

Blackness.

My chest rose forcefully.

“She’s not breathing”

My chest rose again.

“I have a pulse.”

My chest rose again and again and again.

I coughed weakly and then more forcefully. Energy coursed through me, electrifying me. I recognized it as will, my determination, my sense of self, demanding to regain control of my body.

I gasped violently and lurched forward. Heavy hands pressed me down.

“It’s ok. It’s okay. Don’t move. You’re safe.”

Breathing.

The air was glorious and wet. I could feel it against my face and down my throat and in my lungs. My vision came back slowly like an old time TV set turned on and needing to warm up.

Colors came back so vivid I could almost smell them. The night was black, but the bright orange jacket of the paramedic next to me looked like fire.

I tasted blood.

Oh no, my teeth. I reached up to my mouth. Teeth! My teeth were there.

“Hey, hey, no moving remember,” a smooth, soothing voice directed.

I searched through the spinning colors to see the face of the voice. He was kneeling beside me. Short cropped hair, EMT uniform, orange jacket. He had instruments he was using on me.

“You’re alive,” he said, “and that is a very good thing. Now, just lie still, and let me finish up what I have to do. We’ll get you loaded up and off to the hospital. You’re a lucky lady.”

I reached my hand again to my face. My nose was throbbing; when I pulled my hand away, it was covered in blood.

“Broken nose,” he said. “What’s your name?”

I tried to answer, but I couldn’t. Panic swelled in my chest.

“Shh, shh. It’s okay. Relax,” he said.

“Her name is Abbygale Neely.”

I tried to turn and see where this voice came from, but I couldn’t move my head. That’s when I realized I was strapped to a backboard laying on the ground. It didn’t matter anyway. It was Nick’s voice. I was certain.

“Alright, Abbygale,” said the paramedic. “Let’s get you to the hospital.”

He and another paramedic lifted the backboard onto a gurney.

“Can you get a blanket?” the first paramedic said to the other.

That’s when I realized I was cold. I was freezing and shaking uncontrollably. Nick stepped up next to me. With gentle hands, he pulled down the skirt of my dress that was tangled around my waist. Phil handed him the blanket, and he laid it on top of me. Nick didn’t say a word, but when I looked at him he smiled, his cool, casual Nick Ericsson grin, and squeezed my hand.

“You coming with?” a paramedic asked Nick.

“Nah, I have my car. I’ll follow.”

I closed my eyes as the men hoisted me into the ambulance and whisked me away.

 

 

The hospital they took me to was in Seaside, back down the same treacherous stretch of road I had just raced up.

During the trip back, I took inventory of my hurts. I could feel my legs and arms. I could wiggle my toes and the fingers on my right hand. My left hand throbbed, but the pain was much less than the terrible, incapacitating all over pain I had felt right before the crash. I actually welcomed this pain. This was the pain of my body. I felt comforted by it. It hurt exactly how I imagined it should hurt. I took long deep, thankful breaths.

 

 

The hospital was bright; my eyes watered. It didn’t help matters that I was strapped to a gurney and the only thing to look at where the blinding bright white lights on the ceiling.

They wheeled me into a room. A nurse and doctor came in and hovered above and around me. They talked to each other in low voices, and I couldn’t make out what they were saying. The nurse left and came back.

“This will relax you,” said the nurse. She had a giant needle in her hand. I felt a sharp sting, and warmth spread through my veins. My heart raced.

“No!” I screamed. The first word I had uttered since I was pulled from the heap of twisted steel that was my sad, old car.

Relax me it did. I was falling back into darkness, and I didn’t want to go.

“No!” I yelled and bucked. “I don’t want to die.”

“You’re not going to die,” the nurse said, patting my arm not very soothingly. She rolled her eyes for the benefit of the doctor who I could barely see out of the corner of my eye talking to Nick. “You are safe here. Just relax.”

“Let me out of this!” I strained against the back brace. “Let me out!”

The black was warm and silky, and it beckoned me. I wouldn’t let go. I fought it all the way.

“We need to x-ray your back, and see if you broke it. You have a giant cut on your leg we need to repair. Your nose is broken and needs to be set. You need stitches on your head. Your hand is broken. You need to calm down. You’re not going anywhere,” the nurse’s voice sing-songed, thick with fake pathos.

“No!” I roared.

Like magic another needle appeared in the nurse’s hand. Viola!

And like a light switch, she turned me off.

Chapter 9—August 18

 

I came to in a dim hospital room, laying flat on my back. The clock on the wall read 4:27AM. I felt heavy and drugged. My body felt foreign to me, as if the inside was stuffed with cotton and the outside covered in bruises. No longer was I strapped to a backboard. I could freely move my head around to look at my surroundings, if I could bear the throbbing in my head and neck as I did. I was rigged with an IV in my non-cast hand and hooked to a machine the blinked my heart rate. My left arm was in a cast, and when I pulled back the blanket to look, I found some pretty nasty stitches on my thigh.

Hush, like a layer of fog, settled in the hallway. Every now and again, someone in brightly colored scrubs moved past my room, slowly and quietly. I was alone, but that lasted mere minutes before a little nurse bustled into the room.

“You are awake,” she said matter-of-fact. “Can you talk? Do you know what happened? Where you are?” These were obviously intended to be questions, but coming from her, they sounded like statements.

“Yes and yes,” I replied. My hoarse voice rattled out of my throat.

The nurse was a very petite Asian woman with a once stunningly beautiful face. Her eyes were dark and serious, and her hair was black with shocks of silver, cut into an all-business, chin-length bob.

She went about her tasks in silence, looking at this and that on my body, and referring back to a chart she had set on the bed.

“Much pain?” she asked

“I hurt all over. What’s the damage?” I said.

“Concussion, broken nose, broken hand, and laceration. All in all, you are a very lucky girl. Doctor say you are going to be just fine.”

“Lucky girl. That’s me. Maybe I should buy a lottery ticket,” I said sarcastically.

She looked at me hard and long.

“Could have been worse. I have seen worse,” she said.

Suddenly, I felt guilty that it wasn’t worse.

“Would you like to try and use the toilet?” she asked. She moved around the bed and stood next to my head.

“Sure,” I said.

“You will be sore and stiff,” she said, “but you should try.”

“Alright.”

I sat up slowly feeling a little woozy and unsteady.

“Good, good. Much pain?”

“Not too bad,” I replied. I swung my legs over the edge of the bed. The nurse stood in front of me.

I looked into her black eyes and smiled. At that moment, I did feel pretty lucky. It could have been worse, and suddenly a wave of fear washed over me. I remembered choking on my teeth. I remembered all the blood and my broken body, the pieces of windshield in my hair. I remembered breathing my last breath. I closed my eyes against the memory and tried to breathe slowly and deeply to regain my composure.

“Oh!” the nurse exhaled sharply. “Oh no!”

She grabbed my upper arms with both of her cold, dry hands. She stood closer and closer on tip toes until her face was within inches of mine.

“Open your eyes,” she commanded.

I met her intense, penetrating stare. She peered into my eyes, searching. She brushed the hair back from my forehead. Her breath smelled like black licorice. She smoothed her hands down the side of my face before picking up both of my hands. She held them palms up and studied them.

Finally, after what felt like an eternity, she lifted her head and said softly, “You are going to die today if you don’t get out of here.”

“Excuse me?”

“You are going to die today if you don’t get out of here,” she repeated, same tone, stating a fact.

“What are you talking about?” I said. “How?”

“How everybody else dies. Your heart will stop beating,” she shook her head. “It is too soon though. Too soon for you.”

“I thought I just had a concussion, broken hand, laceration, blah blah blah. You said I was alright. Remember? I’m a lucky girl and this is my lucky day?”

“There is something not right. Machines—” she said sweeping her hand around the room indicating all the monitoring equipment and probably just all machines in general, “cannot see, but I can see.”

“But the doctor said—” I started.

“But the doctor said,” she mimicked my tone. “You are going to die today no matter what doctor say. After you are dead, he going to scratch his head and say, ‘But machine say she okay’, and everyone will pat him on the back and say, ‘yes, machine did say she okay.’ But you—” And she pressed her forefinger into my sore sternum to emphasize her point. “You will still be dead if you do not get out of here.”

“So how do I get out of here?”

“Run, escape, jump out the window. Joke about window. If I were you, I would stand up and walk out like nothing wrong, but if you do not do soon, you will die. Here. Maybe even lying in this hospital bed while I get you water because you are thirsty, or maybe on the toilet while I wait for you outside the door to give you privacy. So maybe soon. Something is coming. I don’t know what it is, but I can feel it. Maybe you should hurry,” she was insistent.

“Are you really saying this to me? What I’m hearing you say is that if I don’t escape from the hospital, I’m going to die?” I said.

“Nothing wrong with your ears. You hear right,” she said. “Soon. It is getting closer.”

“Look,” I said. “I think I’m losing my mind. Seriously. I really think I am, and if I’m crazy, really crazy, I think I should probably stay here.”

“Maybe you are crazy,” she said, “but soon, you will be crazy and dead.”

I looked down at my hands wondering what she’d seen in them, but all I saw were hands. My hands were my hands. My legs were my legs. I looked down the hall, which was eerily quiet and empty. The peach and gray linoleum stretched to infinity. I looked at the insistent, little nurse, into her black serious eyes and her stern, serious face. I was completely at a loss. I shook my head. No, I just wanted to lie back down. I didn’t want to go anywhere. I just wanted to sleep.

“Now,” she said the word slowly and clearly. “The doctor will be doing rounds soon.”

I shrugged my shoulders. What the hell did she want me to do?

“I will help,” she said. “Don’t die before I get back.”

She waited for me to confirm that I wouldn’t die while she was gone. I actually had to say, “Okay, I won’t die before you get back.”

Then she was gone in a blur down the hallway. She was fast.

When she returned, she carried a pair of blue scrub pants and a clean, but well-loved Harvard T-shirt. All the nurses were similarly dressed, scrub pants, t-shirts.

She recovered the plastic bag of my belongings from the little closet next to the bathroom. The dress I wore to the wedding was covered in blood, but my flip-flops looked wearable. My wallet was in there too.

With her help, I stood up and shuffled to the bathroom. She came in with me and swung the door closed behind her.

“Hurry,” she said. She was trying to help de-hospital gown me. Her cold fingers moved furiously fast on the ties on the back of the gown. “Dress.”

I put on the scrub pants and t-shirt. Harvard, huh. She arranged the flip-flops on the floor so all I had to do was slide my feet into them. I wished I had a pair of socks. My feet were cold.

She finger-combed my hair back into a tight ponytail, and soon enough I was dressed, wallet in one of the front pockets of the scrub pants.

I looked down. I looked ridiculous. The scrubs were short on my long legs leaving at least six inches of leg from the hem to my flip-flops. For a different perspective, I looked in the mirror. Yep, I still looked ridiculous. My nose was swollen, my eyes were black, and my face was raw, as if it was wind burned. The airbag had done a number on me.

The nurse looked me over. She was not completely satisfied with the result, but she shook her head and said, “Best we can do. Now go. With purpose. Go. Fast.”

She opened the door.

“Go here. You are from Portland, yes? He is in Portland.” She handed me a folded note card with an address on it, written neat as a pin. “He can help.”

I took the note card and stuck it in the pocket of the scrub pants. We left the bathroom together. She went ahead, looking down the hallway, first one way then the other. I waited behind her until she gave me the all clear.

I made my way down the hallway trying to walk as fast as I could, but I wouldn’t fool anyone. Thankfully, the hallway was empty. I headed to the EXIT sign. Just as I was about to pass through a pair of double doors, I glanced back. The old nurse stood at the nurses’ station looking down at clipboard. She snapped the metal clipboard closed and without so much as a glance in my direction, she walked briskly down the hall going the other way.

I pushed through the double doors, walked down two more hallways, moving EXIT sign to EXIT sign like connect the dots. No one noticed me. I couldn’t help but think that people really ought to pay better attention.

Outside the hospital, I was met with a cool refreshing mist. We weren’t so close to the ocean that I could smell it, but I imagined that I could. I really wished I had a jacket, something. With my arms wrapped around myself to keep the chill at bay, I walked, slowly, painfully, step by step, putting as much distance between me and the hospital as fast as I could. The nurse was right. Something was coming. Closer and closer. I could feel it too.

I found a twenty-four hour drugstore a few blocks away from the hospital. They had rows and rows dedicated to beach items you may have forgotten to bring or didn’t realize you would need—shovels, pails, sunblock, sun hats, marshmallows, marshmallow roasting forks, kites, beach balls, rain boots.

I bought a sweatshirt, a pair of $10 canvas sneakers, some tube socks, ibuprofen, water, a pint of ice cream, and a spoon.

The woman at the register looked me up and down with knowing eyes.

“Oh, honey,” she said. “Boyfriend?”

“No,” I smiled ruefully. “Car accident.”

“Oh, I’m so sorry, dear.” She bagged my purchases, clucking all the while about how people drive like crazies, thinking the road belongs only to them, why can’t people just slow down? “You go home, curl up in bed, and sleep and sleep until you feel better.”

“Plan to do just that,” I small-talk lied. “Can you call me a cab?”

“Sure thing. Take care now.” She smiled a 99 cent lipstick smile.

I waited for the cab just inside the door where it was warm and ate my ice cream. The cashier went back to the magazine she’d been reading before I came into the store. I could hear her smack her bubble gum every now and again, but other than that it was quiet.

I finished my ice cream just before the cab pulled up.

“Bye now,” the cashier called. “Take care, Hon!”

The cab driver, one arm laid across the top of the bench seat looked back at me after I climbed in and asked, “Where to?” followed by “Holy crap!” when he saw my face.

“Yeah,” I agreed. “Sugar Shack Cafe, please.”

Chapter 10

 

The cab dropped me at the Sugar Shack Cafe. It was still early, but I thought someone might be there. No one knew better than I that running a breakfast place was early work.

The front of the restaurant was buttoned up and quiet, no sign of any activity. I went around back. I moved like Frankenstein’s monster, sore and hobbling. Stealth was not on my side.

I had used the cab ride here to do some serious soul searching. Can a soul be searched in thirteen minutes? Yes, if that’s all the time you have.

In truth, I had allowed myself a ten-minute pity party. I was pretty pathetic really. I cried in the back seat with my sad belly full of chocolate chunk ice cream, my oh-woe-is-me circle of self-destructive thoughts, and my Boyfriend-Needs-To-Go-To-Anger-Management bruised and beaten face.

I very nearly called it quits at minute nine. I was simply going to give up. I was crazy. I felt out of control, and for a moment, just a moment, I was willing to let my story end right there in the back seat. Let the cab driver scoop me out of his cab with a shovel and decide what to do with my sorry self.

Minute ten was my shining minute. Last night was seriously messed up, and this morning’s ejection from the hospital was beyond the pale, but my Nana always told to believe in myself. Like a frog in a cook pot, the world was set to boil me alive if I got too comfortable. I needed to trust my instincts, and my instincts were screaming that I was not crazy, that something was indeed happening to me, and that I was the only person that could get me up and out of the cook pot. Now was my time to jump, and I would be damned if I was going to hang out and get boiled alive.

Minute eleven, twelve, and thirteen, I used to formulate a plan that started with locating Mr. Silas Nelson and ended with?

Before I could come up with the next step in my plan, the cab had pulled up to the Sugar Shack Cafe. The next step in my plan remained to be determined. Clearly, I could have used a fourteenth minute.

The cab driver, not the most chivalrous of men, had not said a word as I blubbered and cried my eyes out for ten minutes in his back seat. He held his hand out for payment before the cab had come to a complete stop in the Sugar Shack parking lot. My cash supply was meager and nearly depleted. He took my money and spun out of the parking lot faster than was necessary, leaving me, quite literally, in his dust.

I crunch-dragged my way through the gravel parking lot around to the back of the little restaurant that was born a shiny soda shop.

“Hello?” I called out.

The back door was cracked, and a light was on.

“Hello? Anybody here?”

Nothing.

“Hello?” I yelled at the top of my lungs. My head thrummed with the effort, and I winced.

A giant man, and I mean giant, pushed the door open carrying a garbage sack in one hand and a half-eaten donut in the other.

If he was surprised to find me loitering behind the restaurant, he hid it well. He wore a white, A-line tank top undershirt—the kind we called a wife-beater in college—over his broad, barrel chest. He had tattoos up and down both arms, a few of them the work of brilliant hands, most of them though, the kind you get in prison. His most notable characteristic was his thick, well-groomed mustache, which was in stark contrast to his shiny, clean shaven head.

He looked like the strong man from a circus, or a member of a biker gang (not the head guy, but that guy’s muscle), and also the kind of man that did not like being taken by surprise.

I raised my right hand in half of a mock-surrender. The other half of my surrender throbbed in a cast, and I kept it tucked against my side.

He finished chewing the bite of donut that he had in his mouth, swallowed, and placed the rest of the donut in his mouth, chewed slowly, swallowed again, then brushed the crumbs out of his mustache before he spoke.

“Breakfast ain’t start for another hour yet,” he said. He walked past me over to the dumpster and slung the black bag of trash into it. He brushed his hands off on his pant legs under the pristine white apron tied around his waist. He walked the few steps back to where I stood and waited.

“Can you tell me where Silas Nelson lives?” I asked.

“Why would I do that?”

“I need to ask him a question.”

“Too bad,” he said.

“No, not too bad. I really need his help.”

“I ain’t givin’ some stranger Mr. Silas’ address. Too bad,” he repeated and made for the back door of the restaurant.

I stepped in front of him, blocking the door. He looked me up and down. Not impressed.

“Look, I met Mr. Silas yesterday. Here at lunchtime. He said all this stuff to me that at the time I thought was crap. He told me that I had colors around my head. He told me that I would get into a car accident, and sure enough, I did,” I lifted up the cast on my left hand as proof. “He said I was going to die, and I very nearly did that too.”

He grunted and reached around me. He put his hand on the doorknob and waited for me to move, before he opened the door. When I didn’t, he sighed, “Come in. I’ll call him for you.”

I followed the mustachioed giant into the kitchen, which was warm and brightly lit and smelled completely delicious. I sat on the stool that he indicated with his meaty hand. The stool was tucked under a small stretch of counter top in the corner. He poured a cup of coffee into a white diner mug and set it in front of me. No offer of cream or sugar. While I sipped on the coffee, he placed a couple freshly made donuts on a plate. He put that in front of me as well.

He didn’t talk. He just went back to work. I watched him move about the kitchen. It reminded me of Porkchops, but much larger which was a good thing because I didn’t think the Giant would have been able to move in Porkchops’ tiny kitchen.

He was making cinnamon rolls. Huge cinnamon rolls. My eyes nearly fell out of my head when I saw how much butter he used. Those must be some delicious cinnamon rolls. If they were anywhere near as good as the donut I just ate, they must be the best cinnamon rolls in the universe, including my own.

“I’m a baker at a coffee shop,” I offered, trying to start a conversation. He shrugged. It made no never mind to him what I was, who I was. He sliced the giant rolls one by one and placed them on a baking sheet. Every move executed with extreme care like he was handling glass or a baby.

I don’t know how much time passed, but it seemed like a lot. I drank two full cups of coffee and ate both of the donuts, and still I watched the giant move around the kitchen—tasting sausage gravy, checking biscuits, shredding potatoes for hash browns.

“So, Mr. Silas saw colors ‘round your head, you say?” Apparently, he had decided to talk to me. His deep voice vibrated in the silence, snapping me to attention. I had become completely mesmerized watching his silent routine.

“Yes.”

“Mr. Silas, he sees things. He sees things that other people can’t. It’s funny, being as he’s almost blind and can’t see what most people can. Just shows you how God gives with one hand and takes with the other.” The giant never once looked at me as he talked. “Mr. Silas can see a man’s soul, I do believe. He saw mine. He saw what no one did. Not even me. He saw my future too, and the future he saw for me was more than I thought possible, more than I deserved. I owe Mr. Silas everything.” He leveled his eyes at me as he said the last part. With a glance, he measured my worth just as I had seen him measure the cinnamon, sugar, and butter. “Mr. Silas is up with the sunrise. He used to come down a lot in the mornings, have coffee, and sit right where you’re sitting now. He doesn’t so much anymore.” He wiped his hands off on a towel and picked up the receiver of the black telephone that hung on the wall.

He punched buttons on the phone, and held it to his ear.

“Mr. Silas? It’s Terry,” he said.

Pause.

“No everything’s good here. It’s just that I got this girl here. She says that yesterday you told her she was going to be in a car accident, and she was. Real bad one by the looks of her. She’s asking to see you.”

Pause.

“Yes, sir. Will do.”

Terry hung up the phone. He wiped the receiver off with a towel despite the fact I couldn’t see anything on it.

“He’s coming,” Terry said before turning back to his work.

I shuffled over to the coffee and poured myself another cup. My third. I needed it, and it was good and thick. Terry nodded at me. I looked through the pass-through that separated the kitchen from the dining room. The sun was beginning to rise. A deep, red glow warmed the streets. Every now and again someone would drive by in a car, moving with purpose. Most movement this early was with purpose; people trying to get from point A to B. This was my favorite part of the morning, and I counted myself lucky to see it at least three times a week. If left to my own devices, I would never get out of bed to see it on my own.

I saw a dark shadow making its way slowly down the street. The closer it came, I could make out two separate shadows. The first was Silas Nelson. I could tell by the cane, his straight spine. He listed to the right. The second shape was a large black dog. The dog walked slow and sure, listing to the left, keeping pace with Silas Nelson, its head alert looking this way and that. It stepped in front of Silas when they approached a street corner. Silas Nelson waited. The dog looked both ways down the street before leading Silas across. Once they had crossed safely, Silas patted the dog on the head. The pair walked around the back of the café, making a straight path to the back door.

Terry smiled a broad smile when Silas Nelson came into the kitchen.

“Good morning, Mr. Silas,” he said.

“Mornin’, Terry.”

“I got something for Sadie. Is she outside?”

“Sure is, and she be waiting. You know she is. That old girl wouldn’t make the trip unless there was something in it for her.”

Terry laughed a hearty, rumbling laugh, “Sadie would accompany you to hell and back, and you know it.”

“Let’s hope that won’t be necessary,” Silas Nelson said.

Terry opened the back door. Sadie lay on her side, but when the door opened, she sat up quickly and waited with bright eyes and a swinging tail. Terry tossed her a slice of bacon.

“I sure was sorry to hear that I was right about the car accident,” Silas Nelson found me in the large kitchen. “But much relieved that you were not killed.”

“That makes two of us,” I said.

“I would be honored if you would join me for breakfast,” he asked formally with a little bow.

I hesitated.

“That’s very nice of you,” I said, “but—”

“It would please me greatly,” he said.

We sat in a surfboard booth, the same one from yesterday. Servers for the breakfast shift arrived, and Terry switched the CLOSED sign to OPEN.

We both ordered the sausage gravy and biscuits after Silas Nelson told me I would never regret it. He was right. The sausage gravy and biscuits were delicious. We ate in silence for a time, listening to the sound of forks sliding on plates.

“Terry says you can see things. People’s souls and futures specifically.”

Silas Nelson said, “You’d be wise to not be so believing of everything you hear.”

“How’d you know what was going to happen to me then?” I asked.

“The way I see it, this conversation could go one of two ways. I could tell you that I’m just a silly, old man close to the end, that I was confused which would probably make you feel better. You look like you could use some feeling better. Or I could tell you the truth, which probably won’t make you feel any better and maybe worse. Which would you like?” Silas Nelson leaned back in the booth. He wore a starched white dress shirt, suspenders, and a green bow tie, every inch a gentleman, from the top of his wiry, white-haired head to the tips of his well-worn, polished black shoes.

“The truth,” I said.

“The truth doesn’t always serve,” he warned.

“I’ll take my chances.”

“Terry said I could see people’s souls and their futures?”

“Yes, that’s what he said,” I said.

“Terry is half right,” he said solemnly. “I don’t see people’s futures.”

“What do you see when you look at me?” I asked.

“What I see is that you are surrounded by colors. I can’t make out your face as my first vision has faded, but using my second vision, I see swirls of colors around your head. I see color and light pouring from your heart. I see everyone’s colors, and I can recognize someone’s colors just as easily as I used to be able to recall a face. Each man’s colors are distinct unto himself. Terry is Terry. Kevin is Kevin. Even Sadie has colors that I can see, and Sadie’s colors are Sadie’s colors. Very like a fingerprint, your colors are an impression left upon the world. Do you follow me so far?”

I nodded, and he took a sip of water and slowly wiped his mouth with a napkin.

“Now then,” he cleared his throat, “I have seen your colors before.”

“I thought you said that everyone’s colors are unique unto themselves.”

“They are,” he paused.

I waited for him to continue, but he seemed reluctant.

“When have you seen my colors before?”

“A long time ago. Another life time,” he said, his voice suddenly hoarse.

“I have never met you before yesterday,” I said.

“Yes, I know, but I have met you. I watched you grow up. You are as familiar to me as a daughter. My Bernice brushed your hair and taught you how to sew.”

“I’m not following,” I said.

“The colors around your head, the light pouring from your heart, your halo and heart light are identical to a girl I used to know. I may be an old man, but my memory is as sharp as a razor. I’m certain. In this, I’m not wrong.” His hazy eyes regarded me for a long moment. “Only one other time has this ever happened, and what I fool I was. I didn’t know what it meant, and I let it slip through my fingers. Every day I wake up wishing I had realized what I was seeing, but I didn’t know—“ His voice drifted off, and his shoulders sagged. “Now, I know. I know what it means. I am sure about it this time, as sure as I have ever been about anything. You were Anna Beth Sugarman. You died in 1967, and here you are again. Flesh and bone once more. God, he does deal from the same deck. You, girl, are back in play.”

I didn’t know how to react to what Silas Nelson told me, so I didn’t react at all. Maybe if he had told me this before last night, I might have laughed or made light of the whole thing. Instead a deep sense of uneasiness filled me.

Silas Nelson sat across from me; he waited and chewed his food. He patted his mouth with his napkin, allowing me time to digest what he told me. He gave me the space to have a true reaction, even if my true reaction was to laugh or tell him he was crazy. After all, others had told him so, especially when he was younger and it mattered more to him what people thought. Now he was old, and my opinion of him and the opinion of others, mattered not at all. He knew who he was. He knew what he saw. He knew that what he was telling me was the truth. I could see it for what it was—or not. It didn’t matter to him.

“Tell me about her. About Anna Beth Sugarman. What was she like?” I asked.

Silas Nelson put down his fork; he took a long drink of water. Then he told me the story of Anna Beth Sugarman:

“I worked for Mr. Sugarman from the day he moved here with his second wife. He was a good, strong man. The second Mrs. Sugarman was small and quiet. She was very kind to Bernice, but she was painful shy and kept mostly to herself.

When she fell pregnant with Anna Beth, she lit up from the inside. Anna Beth was a true blessing. There is not a child that ever was or ever will be loved more than Anna Beth Sugarman.

After Anna Beth was born, Mrs. Sugarman’s health took a terrible turn. She would have spells when she was very unwell, and caring for the little girl all but wore her out.

When she took to her bed, my Bernice would keep Anna Beth during the day. That little girl was sunshine in a dress and pigtails. It was hard not to love her. She had a devilish grin and a belly laugh that could get her hide out of any lick of trouble she found herself in. Our boy Russell was a few years older than Anna Beth. She and Russell were thick as thieves growing up.

It wasn’t the same then as it is now. I saw it first, the moment when Russell realized that he was in love with her. He was sixteen and she was fourteen. I don’t know if the Sugarmans ever noticed. Sure as the Lord is my Savior, I wasn’t going to mention it to them. The Sugarmans were kind, decent people, and I did not ever want to put them in a position where I might learn otherwise. If they did notice, they pretended they didn’t. Russell was a black boy and Anna Beth Sugarman was white as Wonder bread.

Now, my Russell is a brilliant man, and he was a brilliant boy, but he was strong-willed and single-minded, stubborn like Bernice. He thought that he could marry Anna Beth. He did not see the obstacles that I saw. Eighteen-year-old Russell Nelson’s only mission in life was to make Anna Beth his wife. He wanted to provide her with every thing she ever wanted. He excelled in school and won himself a scholarship to college.

What did Anna Beth think of Russell? I do believe she loved him too.

This one time, it was the summer of 1966, Anna Beth had been waiting tables at the soda shop, and I was busy closing up. I had sent Russell on an errand, and we were all alone, Anna Beth and I.

I said, ‘Anna Beth Sugarman, you leave my Russell be. He thinks he loves you, and that you will marry him, but you and I both know that can never happen.’

Oh, that made her mad. She spun around in a temper and said right back, ‘Mr. Nelson, I love Russell same as he loves me. I would be honored to be Mrs. Russell Nelson. The world is changing. At first, it might be hard, but—’

I cut her off. I was furious. What did she know about the world?

I yelled at her, ‘Anna Beth don’t be fool, girl. You are soft. You don’t know hard. You spend one day as a black girl, and the hard would break you in two. Move on! Set him free! If you love him as you say, you would let him go. Think of Russell. He’s a good boy, and he has a chance to make something of his life. Russell needs to be Russell Nelson, the smart black man who graduated college, the boy who made something of hisself, not Russell Nelson the colored boy who married Anna Beth Sugarman, what a shame what he did to her, and their poor half-colored babies. Girl, if you love him, do right by him and let him be!’

She said to me. She said, ‘Russell would be shamed you said these words to me.’

Then she stormed out. Right out that door right there. Hoo boy, did she slam that door. She could set a pretty good fit if it was in her mind to.

She was right though. Russell would have been shamed, but I was right too. I was right, by God.

She never told Russell ‘bout that incident, and I was grateful for it ‘specially in light of how it all turned out.

Russell went away to college in the fall. Russell told me that Anna Beth promised to wait. The Sugarmans seemed to know none of it, and life went on as normal, which was hardly normal. Letters back and forth between the two. Dr. Martin Luther King making his rounds. The Vietnam War killing boy after boy after boy. Bernice and I praying every night Russell wouldn’t be drafted and next in the killing line.

It all changed one day. A new boy moved to town. His name was Clark Talbot. His father was in the Coast Guard, or some such, and stationed in Astoria.

Clark blew into town like a tornado. He was dark haired, dark-eyed, and dark hearted. He wasn’t a bad boy like a criminal or nothing, but he was full of anger, sadness, just a dark, bleakness like he’d seen into the future and knew how his life turned out, and it wasn’t good.

He was the opposite of Anna Beth in every way. She was pure sunshine. There was not a person around that didn’t just want to be near her. He was the opposite, dark as night, and standing next to him left a body cold. I never cared for that boy. His colors were dark and spinning. Just being around him would give me a headache. I could barely stand to look at him.

They were opposites. I know I said it, but it bears repeating. Night and day. Yet Anna Beth Sugarman fell for him. They were together all the time, or rather, she was with him all the time.

I didn’t see her around much after Clark Talbot came to town, but when I did, she wasn’t the same girl. He took all her sunshine, and left her fretting and small, weak like her mama.

The Sugarmans started to worry. They noticed the change in Anna Beth and forbid her from seeing Clark, but she paid them no never mind. She snuck out of her room; she would do anything she had to do to be near him.

Mr. Sugarman asked when Russell was coming home for summer. He thought Russell might be a good, settling influence on his Anna Beth. If only he knew.

When Clark Talbot was drafted, they thought the good Lord had answered their prayers. It was only a matter of time ‘fore they’d have their old Anna Beth back.

Russell knew about Clark. Anna Beth had written about him in a letter. She was always an honest girl. Russell had wanted to come home to talk to Anna Beth in person, but Bernice and I did not give him the money to come, though we had it.

He threatened to hitch hike cross country, but Bernice told him that if he did, he would be her son no more, and he would not have a home to hitch hike to. Bernice laid down the law. That woman loved her boy more than life itself, but she would break her son’s heart herself if it would save him.

She told him that he needed to stay away. Clark and Anna Beth was for the best. They loved each other. End of story, and the sooner he could accept that the better.

It’s true; it was for the best for Russell, but not for Anna Beth. Clark used her up like a battery, and by the time Russell was home for summer there was nothing left. She was a line drawing of what she used to be, just the outside nothing filling in her middle.

It all ended the day after Russell came back. Clark Talbot was away at in-country training before he was to be shipped to Vietnam. Russell never told me the particulars, but that Anna Beth got a call from Clark. He’d gone AWOL.

He was at his darkest and threatened to kill himself. He said he needed her and if she didn’t get to him quick, he would end himself. That was all it took, Anna Beth up and went to him. Leaving her mama, daddy, and Russell. Before she left, she and Russell had a fight. From what I gather, he begged her to stay, but she wouldn’t.

She ran her car off the road that night. The wreck was just terrible. They found her car wrapped around a tree some time the next morning. Clark Talbot true to his word put a gun in his mouth and ate a bullet. He didn’t wait for her though. He did the deed shortly after his phone call. He was dead through and through, and worse, done it where Anna Beth would have been the one to find him.

Russell told me that he had found out that Clark’s suicide note was addressed to Anna Beth. It said, I am sorry. I couldn’t wait.

Russell said to me, ‘It didn’t matter how fast she got to him, Daddy. What kind of man does that?’

I told him, ‘No kinda man at all.’

Russell was angry. He turned that anger on Bernice, and he was angry with his mama for a long time. He couldn’t forgive that she wouldn’t let him come home in the beginning. He thought he could have stopped Anna Beth, saved her somehow.

That may be true. He mighta stopped the Anna Beth he grew up with and loved, but not the Anna Beth that had died racing to the side of Clark Talbot. That was a different Anna Beth all together.

Bernice got the cancer not much later. Russell let his hard feelings keep him from her side. Just another regret to add to his pile.

My poor, sweet Bernice,” Silas Nelson looked up. He whispered to the ceiling. “He’s sorry Bernice.”

 

 

Silas Nelson sat looking at the ceiling for a long time. I thought he might be praying, and I didn’t want to interrupt.

Sitting quietly, I found it hard to ignore the pounding in my head and the throbbing in my hand and the various complaints of other parts of my body. I also felt very tired.

“I dreamt of her,” I said after it seemed as if Silas Nelson would stare at the ceiling forever.

“Hmm?” he said.

“Anna Beth. I dreamt of her. After I was in the car accident, I was knocked out, and I dreamt of her. How she died.”

“Did you now?” he asked, shifting his focus back to me.

“Yes. It was horrific. I dreamt of how it must have been after she was in the car accident. The dream was so real. I felt it. I felt her dying. I still feel it when I close my eyes,” I looked down at my good, unbroken hand splayed on the tabletop.

“My, oh, my,” said the old man. He clucked softly and shook his head. “Maybe because you were her?” he offered. “Has that ever happened before?”

“No, but I have been having really awful dreams in general lately.”

“Bernice always used to say a dream was your soul talking, rap, rap rapping you in the head to get your attention. Some dreams, they do knock harder than others. Yes, they do,” he mused.

“I’d be happy if my soul would just stop talking or knocking if that’s the case. It hasn’t said anything of any importance for the last twenty-eight years. Now is not the time to start.”

“I am betting,” he said thoughtfully, “It’s because you were in car wreck in the same place, maybe. Y’know how athletes talk about muscle memory, maybe it’s soul memory?”

“So you really think I’m her?” I asked.

“Was her,” he clarified.

“Was her?” I amended even though I wasn’t sure that the distinction was important.

“Yes. I believe so.”

“So you believe in reincarnation then?” I asked. None of this was sitting right with me. I fidgeted in my seat.

“I am just on old Christian man, but I don’t know of no other explanation. I see what I see,” he said solemnly.

“You mean the colors? Tell me more about them. Is it my aura that you see?” I didn’t know anything about auras except that I once looked around a mystical bookstore in San Francisco, and there was a big display about having a photograph of your aura taken. The photographer in me was instantly intrigued at the idea of such a unique self-portrait. I would have done it too, if I had the cash.

Silas Nelson sucked his lips into his mouth and rolled them around in thought. “No, it’s not really an aura, per se,” he said. “It’s more energetic residue, a fingerprint in a way. If I really concentrate and reach out with my inner eyes, I can see it on everything that you touch. I could follow a trail of your footprints ‘cause everywhere that you stepped would carry the mark for a time until it faded.

“It is a gift of my family, handed down generation to generation, was how my granddaddy told it. Back in the mother country, in Africa, my kinfolk were game trackers. They could just tap into the earth, reach out with their inner eyes, see these soul prints, and follow them to the game. My family’s reputation as trackers was legendary. What you need to understand is what a valuable gift it was especially in that time and that place. My kin were sort of the royalty in their tribes. The very health and wealth of their tribes depended on them and their ability.

“When I first noticed the colors, I was scared. I was just a little boy, maybe six or seven. I asked my granddaddy, and he told me all about them, he called it my inner eyes, and told me I was blessed. I was the second American-born in my family to get the sight. He told me I should be proud. Truth is, when I was a kid and then on to a young man, I didn’t much pay attention to the colors, but as I aged and most especially when my vision started to fade, I began to realize what a true blessing it is. I just tune into my inner eyes, and I can see just as good or better, if you ask me, than I could when I was a young boy.”

“That is quite a gift,” I said.

He smiled, partly pleased and partly sheepish, “It is, but as with all gifts from God, it must be used and shared. The good book says, nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. We are supposed to put our lights on a stand. For a long time, I put my light under a basket. That will never please God,” he tapped at the corner of his milky white eye. “I believe he finds a way to encourage you to put that lamp on a stand. One way or another,” he rubbed his hands on his pants legs. “Well, girl, what are you going to do now?”

“I need to get back to Portland. My car is totaled,” I said.

“There’s a bus that leaves Cannon Beach every morning, but it’s done left already. You let me see what I can do,” he declared. “It’s the least I can do.”

He patted my hand. I knew that he didn’t mean the least that he could do for me, but the least he could do for Anna Beth Sugarman.

Silas got up from the booth and shuffled away. I waited, too tired to move. All I wanted to do was to go to sleep, and I think I could have easily fallen asleep right there in that surfboard booth. I think I did doze a little bit because I was startled when Terry cleared his throat.

“Mr. Nelson says you need a ride to Portland?” he asked. “I would be happy to take you. I’m leaving this afternoon.”

I rubbed my eyes one handed, and took Terry in, in all of his tattooed glory. My mother would tell me to wait, and take the bus tomorrow, for heaven’s sake, didn’t I see those prison tattoos?

“Thank you. I really appreciate it,” I said.

“It’s settled then. Four o’clock. We’ll leave from here. Mr. Nelson had to go with his grandson for an appointment. He asked me to tell you to take care, and that he hopes to see you again and that breakfast is his treat.” Terry cleared our breakfast dishes, turned, and waded through the tables back to the kitchen.

Four o’clock then. I dropped a couple bucks on the table for a tip and left through the front door.

Chapter 11

 

I had hours to kill before I had to meet Terry at the Sugar Shack Cafe. During the cab ride earlier that morning, I noticed a park a couple blocks away from the restaurant. I hoped it was quiet and clean. Truth be told, I just wanted somewhere to sit and not move, and nearly anywhere would do, and if this park had a bench, it would be my new favorite park in the whole world.

I made my slow painful way down the street. The ibuprofen I had taken earlier wasn’t touching the pain. The day was growing sunny, warm and breezy, a beautiful August day on the coast. The closer I came to the park, a warm feeling washed over me, I felt comforted, nostalgic, like hearing a song that I hadn’t heard in a long time, a song that reminded me of a happy memory.

Instead of going to the park as I originally intended, I continued walking, three blocks north and one block east, until I found myself looking at a beautiful old house with a sweeping front porch. A porch that looked a lot like the Sugar Shack’s porch, the spindles were turned exactly the same way. The house was worn, no doubt about that, but anyone could see that it had once been loved, underneath the pealing paint and bowed front steps. It sat on a corner lot of knee high weeds and grass gone to seed, not proud and welcoming as once it stood, but drooping and sagging heavy into the earth. Like the yard, the beautiful house had been left to its own devices.

I knew without being told that this was the Sugarman house. It felt as familiar to me as the house I grew up in. Maybe more. Without thinking and without an invitation, I opened the latch on the front gate and walked into the yard.

The house looked lived in, but dark and quiet at the moment. I walked around the house to a giant tree in the back yard. I sat down on the grass and leaned my back against the bark. It felt right. I ran my fingers through the blades of grass, absently twisting them. My eyes felt heavy, and I let them close.

Just for a moment.

 

 

Anna Beth sat with her back against the tree. Her heels tucked to her bottom, her arms wrapped around her knees. She cried, giant heaving sobs. She cried for what seemed like forever until she was all cried out. Today was Sunday, and Daddy and Mama had gone to service. She could not bring herself to go.

“I don’t believe in God anymore, Daddy. What kind of God would let this terrible war happen? What kind of God would take Clark away from me and send him to die?” She had wailed at her father earlier that morning.

“Anna Beth,” her father had said sternly. “I’m going to pretend that you did not just say that, and it would be wise for you to ask the Lord for His forgiveness for your blasphemous words. You are going. We go to service as a family, and as long as you are part of this family, you are going! You get in the car. Now!”

“I will not!” she had yelled.

“Anna Beth!” he had roared. “Now!”

“If you want me to go, you are going to have to pick me up and carry me, and I swear to you, Daddy, I will scream that God kills babies in the middle of the sermon. I will do it. I swear it.”

She had stood with her feet planted. Eye to eye with her father. Fire in her eyes.

“Louis,” came her mother’s soft voice. She put a hand on Louis Sugarman’s arm.

He looked at his wife’s small, pale hand, and took a deep breath.

“Fine,” he said softly. He was outnumbered. He placed his hand briefly over his wife’s.

“Fine,” he had said again before turning his back to Anna Beth and leaving the house.

“Anna Beth,” her mama had said, “I am disappointed with your behavior. To treat your father so? Shameful. Shame on you.”

She followed Anna Beth’s father out the door before Anna Beth could say the I am sorry she didn’t mean but was expected to say. Anna Beth slammed the door on their retreating backs, missing slamming her mama in it by just a hair’s breadth. Her mama hadn’t looked back. She didn’t flinch or appear surprised in any way.

Anna Beth wished she had.

Now, under the tree in the back yard, the tree that she had climbed as a child, the tree that her daddy had built a tree house in just for her, Anna Beth regarded the day, which was beautiful and sunny. Ann Beth saw it for the hypocrisy that it was.

She took an envelope out of her pocket and with care slid the contents into her hand.

In her hands, she held a letter from Clark, written on cardboard drink coasters from a bar in Louisiana. On some of the coasters, the words moved from left to write. On most of the coasters though, the words were written in a circle starting at the edge and winding inward, and Anna Beth had to turn the coasters to read them.

 

Dear Anna Beth,

I hope this letter finds you well.

I am not well. This place is a horror. I have been sent here to die. How many more days before I am shipped to hell? I will tell you, 18. 18 lousy days to live a whole, Goddamn life. In 18 days, I will be trading this hell for another.

Each day is a nightmare. Is this what my life is for? Was I born just for this? I am now in the business of killing. The only thing I have to look forward to is if the mess hall might serve chocolate milk, which it didn’t today, by the way.

Nearly every day we go on forced marches. We march in alphabetical order. Can you believe that war is in alphabetical order?

On these forced marches, I’m in the back being a “T” and all. The guys in the back are tasked with collecting the stragglers who fall behind. Some of these guys cannot even run. It’s a joke, I’m supposed to put my life in their hands, and they can’t even run a mile, and when they do fall back because they always do, it’s on me to keep some “A” or some “B” running.

A couple days ago there was this fellow who tried to make a break for it. He ran for it. I bet he didn’t even know where he was going except that wherever he was going was away, and away was good enough for him. Away would be good enough for me too.

My father was right, I should have joined the Coast Guard and just driven a little boat up and down the river. That sounds like heaven compared to this.

There are two boys in my platoon. I bet they’re not even five feet tall. They don’t even speak English. They have never in their whole lives slept in a bed all by themselves. One sneaks into bed with the other because HE IS SCARED OF THE DARK. That is until the platoon commander found out. Now they sleep alone in their Army issued beds. The army will give you a bed all to yourself and chocolate milk if you’re lucky before they send you off to hell on a mission to take another man’s life before he takes yours.

Anna Beth, I can’t stand one more minute of this. There is nothing good here. There is nothing good in me. I am irredeemable. I have known this for a long time. Long before you came into my life. When I was with you though, it didn’t matter. I felt whole and complete. I felt what other people must feel. Normal. Now, I remember what I really am deep down. Nothing. A bottomless pit. Like my Dad would say, you’re a waste of perfectly good skin, Clark.

Don’t wait for me. If I come back from this place, I’ll be very surprised. This is meant to be my end. Hope it’s quick.

Sincerely,

Clark Talbot III

 

“Hey! What are you doing?!?”

A small rock or acorn or something hit me on the head. My eyes flew open.

“Hello? Are you sleeping?” the voice yelled again.

“I’m sorry,” I mumbled, trying to gather my wits. I stood up with a lurch. My head throbbed, and my hand ached. I rested my good hand on the giant tree to steady myself before I shuffled toward the front gate.

“I’m sorry,” I said again.

“Are you a druggie? My wife says you’re a druggie and that I should call the cops.”

“I’m sorry.”

I had to walk very near him to get out the gate. I was afraid he was going to grab me, and I was relieved when he didn’t. He followed a couple steps behind me though.

“Hey?” he said and waited for an answer.

“Yeah?”

“You okay? You look pretty messed up. You need me to call somebody for you?”

“No and no.”

“Alright, suit yourself,” he said and went toward the house, hitching up his sagging pants around his beer belly as he went.

 

 

Another dream, another dream, another dream—

I needed to get out of this town and out of the shadow of Anna Beth Sugarman. It couldn’t be soon enough. I put my hand in the pocket of the scrub pants and felt the note card the nurse had given me, the note card that bore the address of the man that could help. I felt sad, so sad. Next stop after home and a shower.

Chapter 12

 

Four o’clock sharp, Terry rolled into the parking lot in an old pickup truck. He stepped out of the truck and walked around to open the passenger door for me. He was dressed in dark blue jeans with a fresh crease down the front of each leg, a long sleeved button down shirt, tucked in. His belt buckle was one of those country and western types, polished and winking in the sun. I could smell his cologne. It smelled like tobacco and pine trees. He said nothing but offered me a hand as I climbed in. Once I was settled in the passenger seat and he was behind the wheel, we were off. He drove two miles over the speed limit with both hands on the wheel the whole time.

It wasn’t long before we passed were I had driven off the road yesterday. Was it only yesterday? My stomach seized. Two parallel rubber lines ran sharply off the side off of the road. The only evidence that I almost died here last night.

“That were it happened?” Terry asked.

“Yup.”

“Tough break, kid. Give it time. All a body needs is time,” he said.

I couldn’t take my eyes off the skid marks, burnt across the pavement, up, over, and down a little cliff, into oblivion. I watched them in the side mirror until we were well and past them, though they remained burnt across my memory and the backs of my eyelids.

We rode in silence for a long while.

“What takes you to Portland?” I asked breaking the quiet with small talk.

“Date.”

“Girlfriend?”

“First date.”

“Long way to go for a date,” I said.

“Met on the internet.”

His eyes never left the road. Terry wasn’t much for small talk. I made the decision that the silence was comfortable and not awkward and laid my head back on the headrest and closed my eyes. I listened to the tires on the road for a long time until Terry turned on the radio to a country and western station.

I was scared to nod off. Nearly every time I had fallen asleep in the past few days, I’d been met with a disastrous outcome. I pinched and pinched my leg to stay awake.

I could have saved myself the pinches though. Pinches or not, I fell asleep in the middle of a patriotic ballad somewhere between here and Portland.

 

 

I walked into a bar. The heavy wooden door groaned as I pushed it open. The windows were darkened even though it was the middle of the day. Drunken ambiance. The place was mostly empty except for a few regulars, the it’s five o’clock somewhere crowd.

Ben sat at the bar with a half-eaten burger in front of him, drinking something on the rocks.

“Abby,” Ben said without turning around. “Fancy meeting you here.”

He concentrated on taking a long sip out of his glass.

“Welcome, welcome. Pull up a seat, my sweet.”

I sat on the stool next to him.

“You’re drunk,” I said.

“Yes, I am. It’s something I am very, very good at. Have one with me. Let’s toast to the good old times, Abbygale. She’ll take a beer, barkeep!”

Not a soul behind the bar, but a beer magically appeared before me. Condensation trailed down the dark amber glass of the beer bottle. This was the kind of place to not give you a glass unless you asked for it, and then of course, it was with disdain.

I took a long drink.

“We had a lot of good times in this place, Abby, Abby, Abby,” Ben said.

“A long time ago. I’m surprised you still remember.”

“Not so long ago, Abby-Abby-Looking-Crabby, and I’ve never forgotten you.”

“You hardly remembered me when we were together,” I said.

“Let’s not bring up the bad shit,” he said.

“Then we really have nothing to talk about because all of it was bad shit one way or another.”

“C’mon let’s have a nice time. I miss you,” he said. He smiled sweetly, innocently, like a little boy wheedling his way out of trouble.

“Don’t.”

“I can still remember the way you feel.”

“Do us both a favor and forget. Forget it all. I’m trying to forget. I stopped thinking about you and dreaming about you and missing you years ago.”

“Clearly not,” he said, “as I’m right here.” He finished his drink, raised a finger, and pointed at his glass, and in an instant—new drink. Ben looked at me for a long moment.

“You’re different now,” he said. “You’re not the same person you used to be.”

“I grew up.”

“I don’t know if I like it.”

“It’s not about you liking it. It’s about me liking it. I’m embarrassed about who I was when I was with you. I could never be that girl again, so blind, so accepting, so willing to take whatever you might give me.”

“I wasn’t that bad. You’re making me feel bad.”

“Don’t feel bad. Don’t feel anything. It’s over. It’s the past.”

“Let me apologize for breaking your heart and the crappy way I did it,” he said. Another drink gone and a fresh one appeared.

“I don’t want an apology. Apologies don’t count when your drunk. I’ve heard enough of those to last me a lifetime.” I finished my beer and stood.

“This was nice catching up. Have a good life. Really, I truly mean it. It’s time we both had a good life. A great life,” I said.

He reached out and grabbed my hand so I couldn’t leave.

“You don’t get to stop me or hold me down anymore, Ben. Let me go,” I said.

“No, Abby, you have to listen to me. There’s something wrong.”

I looked at him. He seemed so lucid and present, so real. The bar was beginning to fade around us, but he remained steady as if made of flesh and not just a part of a dream. The hairs on the back of my neck stood up.

“What Ben? What is it?” I asked.

“There’s something wrong.”

“What’s wrong? Tell me what’s wrong?”

His grip grew tighter and tighter. His hand wrapped around my in-real-life broken hand. In the dream though, it just seemed like my regular old hand, but now it throbbed. He was breaking my hand in the dream, slowly and painfully crushing it in his inhumanly strong grip.

“Stop! You’re hurting me!”

“Something’s wrong. I am not meaning to hurt you. Believe me. I never meant to hurt you.”

So quick, I could barely see it, he reached up with his other hand and grabbed the back of my head and slammed my face into the top of the bar. My nose exploded.

“Make it stop!” he shrieked at me.

Oh, God, oh God—he rocked my bloody face hard into the bar—back and forth.

“I called you. WHY DIDN’T YOU ANSWER?”

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” I cried. The bar muffled my voice.

“Why are you letting me do this to you?” he yelled.

I tried to fight back. He was just too strong. Groping along the bar, I grabbed a beer bottle and with great effort, I wrenched my neck up and swung with all my might, and right before the bottle hit him in the face—

I woke up.

 

“Holy shit!” said Terry. “What the fuck?”

I gasped. My face ricocheted off the dashboard. I reached up to cover my nose, and when I pulled my hand away there was blood. Blood smeared the dash. Hurriedly, I wiped it off with the sleeve of my drugstore sweatshirt, before using that same sleeve to wipe my nose. I held it there and pinched the bridge of my nose to stop the bleeding, careful not to get any blood on the upholstery of the passenger seat.

We were still on the road, nearly to my exit on the freeway. Downtown Portland was to our left. The Willamette River sparkled in the late day sun.

“I was dreaming about the car accident,” I said as if it was a logical explanation as to why I had just smashed my face into this man’s dashboard. What I was thinking was—Ben had called! He had called, and I hadn’t answered. What had he wanted?

“You’ll be okay. Just give it time,” Terry said. He reached over and lightly patted the seat next to my knee.

“What’s your exit?”

“The one after this one.”

“Good thing you woke up then,” he said.

Good thing indeed.

Once we were off the freeway, I gave him directions to my little triplex. I think I was surprised that it looked the same as when I had left it yesterday morning.

“This is it,” I said. I reached into the scrub pants’ pocket and pulled out my wallet.

“Nope,” said Terry indicating my wallet. “Put that away.”

“Thank you. I really appreciate it.”

“Take care of yourself, and get some sleep. The kind without nightmares and bloody noses.”

‘Ha—will do,” I said through the sleeve of the sweatshirt I had still pressed to my nose. I eased myself out of the truck, my body frozen into a seated position. Every single muscle was tight and angry as I stood.

Just as I was about to close the door Terry said, “Mr. Silas wanted me to tell you something. He said, and these are his words, you ain’t her. You’re your own.”

I nodded.

Terry nodded. I closed the truck door, and he pulled away from the curb, driving down the road at what I guessed was two miles over the posted speed limit.

 

 

I unlocked the door to my home using the spare key hidden under the evil plaster garden gnome next to my stoop. I tipped the gnome over with my foot and left him lying on his side, too tired to right him. He looked sourly up after me, disapproving of my decision to leave him toppled. Once inside, I located the cordless home phone before sitting on the couch, afraid that once I sat down, I wouldn’t be able to get back up again—ever. I called the voice mail on my cell phone, which I presumed was still in the wreckage of my car, wherever that was.

I had to find out what Ben wanted. I couldn’t believe I had completely forgotten that he called.

First message—Abby. This is Nick. Look, I don’t really know what’s going on. Are you okay? If you’re upset about what happened at the reception, don’t be. No big deal. Really. Call me back.

Second message—Seriously Abby. Just call me back. I’m worried. Please just call me back.

Third message was a hang up.

Fourth message—Abby, this is Ben Ben Morreau. I, uh, I got your number from Jill. I hope you don’t mind. Fuck, I don’t know what to say. Fuck!

Abby, I think I am fucking losing my mind. Something’s wrong, Abby. Something’s so magnificently fucking wrong. I keep having these majorly messed up dreams and you’re in them, but that’s not even the fucked up part. I blacked out the other day, and does the name Neal Black mean anything to you? Dr. Neal Black? I don’t know, I feel crazy, but I’m not crazy, Abby. I’m coming to see you. I need to talk to you. I think this might have something to do with you. Jesus. I’m coming now. I’m on the road; I’ll be there in like an hour and a half.

Fifth message—Abby, Nick Ericsson here. I’m at the hospital in Seaside, where you were admitted last night after the accident, and guess what? You’re not here. They said that you snuck out in the middle of the night. Call me.

Sixth message—This message is for Abbygale Neely. Ms. Neely this is Carrie from Providence Seaside. You left the hospital early this morning without the approval of your physician. He says that you require more care. Please come back or call.

Seventh message—Yo, Abs.

This one was from Jason.

What’s up? Your buddy Nick called and said that you were in an awful car wreck last night and that you were in the hospital and that you snuck out in the middle of the night. You’ve got us all worried, kiddo. Call me.

Eighth message—Abby, Nick again. I’m still in Seaside. I don’t know what to do? Are you still here? Should I go home? Please just call me back. Abby, I saw them pull you out of the car. You weren’t breathing. I took the cameras, out of the trunk, all of them. I don’t know if I was supposed to or not, but I did. Well, anyway, I have them.

End of new messages.

Chapter 13

 

7:00pm-ish and there I sat on the couch. I’d been sitting on the couch for nearly an hour. Just sitting and breathing in the Abbygale shaped spot that my couch remembered and never forgot.

TV off. Radio off. Everything off.

It was still bright and sunny outside. The temperature hovered around ninety degrees, refusing to let go. It was far too hot inside to still be wearing my blood soaked, drugstore-special sweatshirt, but I was still wearing it. I had decisions to make and action to take, but more than anything, all I wanted was to sit. I gave in to that impulse for as long as I could stand it.

The Abby Devil on my right shoulder begged me to not get up, but the Abby Angel on my left shoulder was worried, scared to fall asleep, terrified to go anywhere, but confident that we—the Abby Devil, the Abby Angel, and me—needed to do something and that we needed to do something right now.

I felt alone. I itched to call someone, anyone, but what would I say to them? I’m having frighteningly realistic dreams of my previously incarnated self? A nurse snuck me out of the hospital with dire predictions of my untimely death and a folded note card with an address of someone who could help me? I didn’t know if I believed any of it, and I had lived it. I was pretty certain that no one else would believe me either.

Let’s face it, the good regard my friends had of me is about the only valuable thing I had besides the $217 I had in the bank, and the savings bond my aunt had given me when I was seven years old—oh, and my father’s old photographs. Those were priceless to me, but not worth anything to anyone else.

That was it. The sum of my parts.

I shook off my weariness and went to take a shower. I didn’t smell good. I smelled of hospital and fear and sweat and blood. I was ready to, at least, stop carrying around that olfactory baggage.

I wrapped the cast on my hand in a plastic trash bag, sealed it off with duct tape, and took a long, one handed, hot as I could bear it, shower. I scrubbed every part of me until I squeaked, careful around the sore spots. I brushed my teeth twice and rinsed with some extra-minty mouthwash, three times.

I felt infinitely better once I couldn’t smell myself anymore.

I dressed in a pair of baggy cargo pants and a tank top. Tied my wet hair up in a sloppy one-handed bun. Ate a can of Spaghetti-O’s cold. Drank a lot of water and a tall glass of iced, instant coffee. I found some day old chocolate chip cookies from Porkchops and soaked them in my instant coffee and ate them until I was full, which mind you wasn’t one or two, more like three or four.

The entire time I ate, I stared at the folded note card the nurse had given me. I placed it on the table. There was no phone number, no name, just an address. I didn’t recognize the street. I would have to look it up before I went—if I went.

I waffled back and forth.

Go?

Don’t Go.

Go?

Don’t go.

This was ridiculous. I was going.

If I felt like I could fall asleep without having one of those terrible nightmares, I would just do that. I would just go to sleep. The truth was that I hadn’t had nightmare free sleep in seven days, and the nightmares were getting more realistic, more terrifying, and much more painful, and if I was being deeply honest with myself, which I make it a policy to only do on very rare and special occasions, I was not terribly confident that next time I went to sleep that I would wake up—so real and horrifying were these dreams.

I made up my mind. I was going.

Just then the house phone rang, and I nearly jumped out of my skin. I didn’t recognize the number. Let them leave a message; I was not in the brain space of actually talking to anyone right now. Lately, the only people that called my house phone were bill collectors anyway.

 

 

I looked up the note card address on the internet. It was near the Willamette River on my side, near a brewpub that I’d been to on a date, next to the railroad tracks, on the way to the Museum of Science and Industry. If my memory served, the area was mostly filled with warehouses. Nearer the museum, the warehouses had been converted to cute little bistros, bars, cafes, and artists lofts.

Now, the only trick left was to figure out how to get there. I wasn’t going to ride my bike—broken hand and all. It was fairly far, so walking was out.

I went out my door and walked around the house to knock on Ingrid’s door.

Ingrid was my elderly neighbor. Her son owned the converted triplex. She had a little Jack Russell terrier named Boots and a cat named Mr. Lincoln. She used to be a ballet dancer, and in her day she was a big deal. Now, she worked in her garden, read romance novels, and had a lot of gentleman callers to keep her company.

She told me once that she much preferred the company of Boots and Mr. Lincoln to that of her boyfriends—three, by my count. She said there would never be a soul on this earth who loved her more than Boots, and Mr. Lincoln’s heart was as fickle as any man’s, but at least with Mr. Lincoln, it never took her by surprise.

She opened her door before I knocked; she had seen me coming around the side of the house. Hers was the main entrance to the house; she had the front half of the house and the upstairs. My entrance was the side entrance, and I had the back half of the house. A man named Francis lived in the converted basement. I hardly ever saw him. I think he worked the night shift. Ingrid liked to monitor the comings and goings of all of her neighbors. She was a one-woman neighborhood watch.

“Oh, my, Abbygale. You look just awful, dear. Come in. Come in. Let me get you some iced tea. Would you like some iced tea?” she asked. Ingrid was a petite woman, slim neck and ankles. She had aged gracefully.

“I don’t have the time to visit. I would love a rain check though. I’ve actually come to ask you for a favor.”

“What is it dear?’

“I have to go somewhere tonight. May I borrow your car?”

Ingrid had an old Buick that she kept in the house’s only garage. She drove it as little as possible, preferring to walk to the store and the farmer’s market.

“What happened to your car?” she asked.

“Car accident.” I lifted up my broken hand as proof. “It wasn’t my fault. I was on 26 coming back from the coast. Some guy going in the other direction was trying to pass, and ran me off the road.”

“That sounds just awful. 26 is a terrible highway,” she agreed.

“I promise to be careful.”

“Oh, dear, I know that you’ll be careful, and that darn Buick is so big, even if you aren’t careful, you have nothing to worry about,” she laughed. She walked over to her purse, pulled out her car keys, and held them out to me. “Of course you can borrow the Buick, on one condition.”

“Anything,” I said.

“We’ll rent a movie and get take out from that great, little Thai restaurant, the one that you suggested when Charlie was over, and a bottle of wine. Deal?”

I smiled. The condition was nothing new. We rented movies every other month or so. Ingrid was fun, and when she started drinking, she swore like a sailor and told the dirtiest jokes I’d ever heard.

“You got it,” and the keys were mine.

“Have a good time, dear. Keep the Buick as long as you need it,” she said as she sat in her chair. No sooner had she sat then Boots jumped on her lap and curled up, claiming his territory.

Chapter 14

 

The Buick was a boat. It handled well enough, and thankfully was an automatic, so I could drive it decently with one hand. I drove with the windows down, enjoying the sauna like heat on my face and arm. It was Sunday evening and there was very little traffic on the road.

I was able to find the address fairly quickly. The neighborhood was thick with warehouses and factories. The tide of cute, hip, and trendy hadn’t reached this stretch of blue collar yet. A factory across the street chugged its way into the night shift. Smoke billowed into the sky.

I parked on the street. I parallel parked the beast, one handed. Not only was I lucky to find a spot big enough, but also I nailed it on the first go-around—pretty proud, especially since my neck was so sore I could hardly turn my head. Did I mention the spot was huge?

I got out of the car as soon as I parked. I knew if I sat in the car for any longer than I had to, I would lose my nerve. I was all jitters and caffeine and no sleep. I smoothed my pants legs, as if it might improve my overall look, and took a deep breath.

The note-card address belonged to a small warehouse that sat in the shadow of the freeway bridge. If it was possible, the shadow cast by the bridge appeared darker and more severe on this building than on the neighboring buildings. The exterior was brick and covered in graffiti, and not the interesting street-art type of graffiti. It was mostly swear words and crudely spray painted body parts. Next to an official looking No Trespassing sign, someone had spray painted the words: All Offenders Will Be Eaten Slowly and Painfully. Body Part by Body Part. Even Children. Especially Children.

The door seemed oddly disproportionate on the building, like a little mouth on a big, giant head. It was made of wood with wide brass bands across the top and bottom. It looked ancient Oriental in design. A symbol I didn’t recognize was burned onto the face of the door at about eye level. The wood of the door gleamed and the brass was polished to a high shine. It hung in stark, shining, well-maintained contrast to the rest of the ramshackle building.

The temperature dropped a good twenty degrees next to the door. Goose pimples rose up on my arms and the hairs on my neck stood on end. I almost turned around four times. Raising my hand to knock, I noticed a graffiti hangman game drawn with white chalk to the right of the doorway. The hangman was complete with all of his arms and legs and even a sad, frowning face. The dashes underneath the gallows were nearly filled in with letters.

D_N’T KN_CK

I knocked.

The sound of my knock was muffled as if the wooden door absorbed all of the sound waves. I could feel the knock across my knuckles but couldn’t hear it.

I knocked again as hard as I could. Just when I was about to knock a third time, the door opened slowly inwards. The other side of the door was cast in complete darkness. The only thing I could make out were two eye-height, green reflections that sparked for a moment and then were gone.

“I’m playing a game of Hangman,” the deep voice preceded the man as he stepped out of the pitch-black interior of the warehouse to stand across the threshold. The lone light that hung on the exterior of the building above the street number emitted a watery, gray light, illuminating him half-heartedly. “Would you care to guess a letter?”

He was average height. He appeared Asian—Japanese, I think, with short, close-cut black hair. His face was wide with high, prominent cheekbones and a strong, angular jaw. He wore what I would call karate pants. I was pretty sure that’s not what they were called “officially” and I wouldn’t call them karate pants out loud, but that’s what he wore—black karate pants, and that’s it.

I might have noticed his biceps and his muscular broad chest and his bare feet if I had been able to look away from his eyes. His yellow-green eyes had me pinned—like a butterfly in a specimen case; I looked away from them only to look back.

Unconsciously, I took two good-sized steps backward. He took two good-sized steps forward, passing completely through the doorway. He crossed his arms across his chest. Heat radiated off of him in waves. The coolness that had accompanied his door was gone.

“Are you going to play?” he said indicating the hangman game, “or just stand there with your mouth hanging open?”

Now that I was here, I realized I didn’t even know what I was going to say. I should have practiced because my head was completely blank. I had nothing.

“I need help,” I said at last.

“Go away,” he stepped back through the door. He was about to swing it closed.

“A nurse at the Seaside hospital said that you might be able to help me. Something is wrong with me, and I need help. She said you could help.”

He smiled, not nicely. His teeth were white, shiny and very sharp. I noticed for the first time that his arms were covered in deeply colored tattoos. Both arms were tattooed to resemble tiger stripes. Instead of orange and black, the traditional color of tiger stripes, these stripes were orange, and yellow, and purple, and blue. They were vibrant and rich, starting at his wrists and cutting their way back and forth up his arms to the top of his shoulders.

On his chest, over his heart, was tattooed a horse. The horse was reared up on its hind legs and inked with deep purples, greens and blues. Its eyes were yellow-green and furious. The horse’s mane was the same orange as the orange of the tiger stripe. It streamed majestically behind it, and where the orange of the mane met with the orange of the tiger stripe on his shoulder and on his arm, it flowed together.

“Come in,” he stepped back sweeping his tiger-striped arm in a beckoning gesture.

I took a deep breath, and in I went.

Chapter 15

 

The room we entered was very dark but not completely void of light, as it had appeared from the outside. I hung back allowing my eyes to adjust. With the help of evenly spaced skylights, I began to make out the contents of the room.

On either side of the doorway sat large potted bamboo plants. Several of them. Taller than me. I passed through them. It felt like walking through a bamboo jungle. The bamboo gave way to wide open space. I could hear a fountain burbling in the distance. A large koi pond was cut deep into the cement floor. Bearded orange koi swam in circles. As I walked by, one of the koi swam to the surface. His mouth opened and closed like he was saying words. He looked straight at me out of human-like eyes.

The corner of the giant room was lit with yellow candles. A large black mat lay across the floor surrounded by thoughtfully arranged martial arts equipment.

Shadows.

There were shadows everywhere, cast from what, I couldn’t tell. There wasn’t enough furniture or items in the room to account for all the shadows on the walls and the long shadows across the floor.

I followed the man across the large open room into a long, dark hallway. More yellow candles lighted the hallway. Doors, here and there, interrupted the long expanse of wall on either side of the hallway. All the doors were closed.

I should have thought to bring the can of pepper spray that I kept in my purse.

The hallway ended at a red door.

The man stopped and turned to face me.

He cleared his throat. I flinched.

His eyes swept up and down my length, appraising me. He could tell I was afraid. I could tell that he was pleased that I was afraid.

I shoved my good hand in my pocket. My nerves were getting to me, and my hand vibrated against my leg. I tried to hold it still.

“Have you told anyone that you’re here?” he asked.

I hadn’t. That was dumb.

“Of course,” I lied.

He laughed, not a ha, ha, you’re so funny laugh. It was more of a ha, ha, yes, you’re dumb laugh.

With a flourish, he opened the red door.

“After you,” he said.

I stood rooted to the spot.

The room we were to enter was completely dark.

“In for a penny in for a pound,” he said.

“I’ll follow,” I said.

He laughed again.

I wished he would stop laughing.

He went first into the room, and I followed. He flipped on the light switch that was next to the doorway, and the dark room was bathed in light.

The room was a study. A large wooden desk sat in the middle, and wooden bookshelves lined the walls. They were filled completely with old-looking, bound texts. A beautiful blown-glass chandelier hung from the center of the room. The light emitted from it was bright and cheerful, reaching every corner of the room. No shadows in here.

I breathed easier. Not that he couldn’t do horrible things to me just as easily in this nice room as he could anywhere else, but it seemed less likely. There was a sense of peace here, a sense of calmness, of tranquility.

A dark leather chair sat on the business side of the desk and a single red visitor’s chair sat on the other side. He sat on the business side, leaning back into the deep, well-worn leather chair and propped his feet up on the desk.

“Sit,” he said, indicating I should sit in the red visitor’s chair. “Let’s start with introductions before we get down to why you’re here and how you think I can help you. I am called Akio. What are you called?”

“Abbygale Neely,” I said. I sat lightly in the chair, poised to spring out of it and run away, if it came to that.

“You’re either desperate or very foolish to come knocking on a stranger’s door late at night, especially in this neighborhood. Foolish people wander in and never wander out. Desperate people too. My neighbors are less welcoming than I. Which are you?” he said. “Desperate or foolish?”

“Uh. Both,” I said. “I’m becoming acutely aware that I’m both. I would have called, but the nurse only gave me an address and no phone number.”

“May I see?” he held out his hand. I took the folded note card out of my pocket and gave it to him.

He looked at it.

“Chiyoko,” he said and smiled softly. He ran his thumb across the hand written words and held the card to his nose, inhaling deeply, before opening a desk drawer and closing it away. “I will help you.”

“But you don’t even know what I need help with,” I said.

“Chiyoko has sent you to me. That is all I need to know,” he said. “Shall we begin?” He dropped his feet to the floor and shifted his weight forward as if to stand.

“But—wait—I don’t even know what it is you do?”

“Ah,” he said sitting back into the chair. “You came here for help without even knowing what it is I do? You’re more desperate and foolish than I thought. You’re having nightmares, correct?”

“Yes, I’m having nightmares. Are you a therapist?”

“I’m better,” he said, “and worse.”

I waited expecting more.

He looked hard at me for a long time. His mouth a thin line. He drummed his fingers on the arms of his chair. Under the pressure of his regard, I shifted uncomfortably in my seat.

He said after a while, “I’m just going to come out and say it, which is not usually how this done. Usually the people who come to me are not ignorant. I am the Baku.”

“The what?”

“Baku,” he said again.

“Is that like an acupuncturist?”

He snorted and rolled his eyes.

“Forget it,” he said and stood up. “I’ll walk you out.”

“Wait—” I said not getting up. “I’m sorry.” I could tell I had offended him, but I didn’t know how. “I’ve been to an acupuncturist. It wasn’t bad.”

He looked down at me, stone faced.

“I’m sorry,” I said again.

“I don’t like it this way,” he said. “It’s better the other way, when the people know what I am. It’s not in my nature to explain myself.” He sighed heavily, put upon.

He stalked back and forth behind his desk, looking at the floor with an occasional sullen glance in my direction. He rapped the top of the desk with his knuckles and sat back down in the chair. “Fine. Chiyoko has sent you. For Chiyoko. I am Baku, the dream eater. I am ancient. I am of time and the ages. Beast not man. I eat nightmares, and lucky is the he—or she,” he inclined his head at me, “who comes to my feast.” He spoke in a flat, monotone voice as if he was reading aloud from an uninteresting text.

“Whoa,” I said. “That was not what I expected you to say. At all.”

“See?” he said shaking his head. “This is not the way it should be.”

“You eat nightmares?”

“Yes.”

“How exactly do you eat them?”

“The how isn’t important. Humans these days—” he shook his head in exasperation. “Decades ago, a man didn’t care how just that he was free of his nightmares. That man was agape at the wonder of it, the magic of it. Magic and how cannot exist simultaneously.”

“Like quantum mechanics? Like two objects cannot occupy the same space at the same time?”

He sighed again, “How charming. You’re smarter than you look. To answer your question—no, it is not in the least like this arcane rule of science because it is not wrong,” he said. “How bad are these dreams of yours?”

“I feel as if I might die if I don’t wake up. Is it true if you die in a dream, you die in real life?”

“Whether it’s true or not is less important than whether you believe it to be true,” he said.

“I think I almost did. Die, I mean, in my dreams.”

His eyes gleamed. I had piqued his interest.

“Yes, yes,” he said nodding. “I may be able to help you. Now, it’s up to you to decide if you want my help.”

“You never told me how you eat the dreams.”

He frowned, “I did tell you, however, that the how is not what is important.”

He crossed his legs. Uncrossed them. Crossed them again.

“Fine,” he said. “You go to sleep. It doesn’t hurt. When you wake up, the nightmares are gone. Are you in or are you out?”

“I’m trying to decide,” I said.

He was less than pleased. “I’m going to make some tea.”

He stood and left the room.

I sat alone.

The longer he was gone the more nervous and indecisive I became. This really was the most ridiculous thing I had ever done. At the point when I almost lost my nerve, he came back into the room carrying a tray with two cups of tea. He set the tray on the desk, placed a cup in front of me, and produced a piece of paper and a pen and set them next to the cup.

“Standard contract for protection and a waiver and release form,” he said and added, “if you decide you want to proceed.”

“I thought you said it didn’t hurt,” I said.

“I take great pains to ensure it doesn’t hurt, and if it does—very little. But there is risk, as in anything else.”

I looked at the legal document and then up at him.

“By signing the form, we have entered into a formal agreement whereby you are officially under my protection as Baku.”

I picked up the pen and twiddled with it.

“No matter how long you force yourself to stay awake, Abbygale Neely, you’re going to fall asleep eventually. There is no way around it. It’s just a matter of time, and what do you believe will happen to you when you do?” He took a long drink of his tea and sat back in his chair. He held the cup in his hands and looked off into the distance. He appeared indifferent. “Now is the time to decide, either sign the paper or get out.”

I signed the paper.

“Drink the tea, and we shall begin.” He sat immobile still looking off into space.

I drank the tea.

“Very well, then. It begins,” he said.

At first I felt nothing, and then I felt warm and heavy. My vision started to blur.

“You drugged me.”

“Obviously. It is to encourage the dreaming.”

I blinked, fighting against the effects of the tea.

“Give in, Abbygale. It will go easier,” Akio’s voice was thick. I could barely hear it. I blinked trying to bring him back into focus, but all I could see were colors. Orange, blue, purple, yellow.

I had a very real and alarming feeling that I had just made a terrible mistake. Everything started to wave and undulate around me. I clenched the armrests of the chair. I felt seasick.

“Give in,” Akio commanded.

Another wave of warmth flooded me, and I felt as if I was floating.

Then blackness.

Then nothing.

I gave in.

It began.

Chapter 16

 

The next thing I knew, I stood in complete darkness. Nothing. No light. No sound. Darker than dark. Completely void of light. I walked with my arms outstretched, my feeling fingers extended and searching. I continued on this way for what seemed like a really long time before I heard a voice.

“Abbygale? Is that you?”

It was Ben’s voice.

“It’s me. Where are you? I can’t see anything?” I said.

“I don’t know where I am, but I’m tied down. On a table, I think,” he said.

I turned and followed his voice, walking slowly, certain that at any moment I was going to walk into a wall—or worse.

“Keep talking, Ben, I’m following your voice.”

“Keep talking. Keep talking. Okay,” he said. His voice was higher than normal and stretched thin.

“What kind of table are you on? Can you tell? Can you get up?”

“The table is hard, is all I can tell, and longer than me. I can’t get up. I’m tied down.” I could hear panic in his voice. “Abby, I’m hurt. I’m in a lot of pain.” His voice was getting smaller.

“What hurts?”

“Everything. Everything hurts, but mostly my head. It’s getting worse. It hurts so bad, Abby.”

“You’re sounding closer. I’m coming.”

Still nothing but complete blackness.

“Oh, God! Oh, God! Oh, God!” he screamed.

I ran in the direction of his voice, as fast as I could. I was almost to him when I tripped on something thick and furry. I pitched forward violently, my arms wheeling into empty space, bracing for impact. I fell and fell, farther than it seemed possible I could fall. When I landed, I landed on my hands and knees—hard. I stood up slowly. My wrists felt broken, and my knees throbbed. Lost for a moment in this new fresh pain, I wasn’t registering what Ben was yelling.

“Abby! Abby! Run, Abby run!” Ben yelled. “There’s a monster!”

I wanted to run away, as far and fast as I could. Instead, I swallowed the urge and started again toward Ben’s voice, creeping, trying to be more careful, but still trying to get there.

“Ben?” I whispered.

Silence.

“Ben!” I called louder.

Silence.

The hairs on the back of my neck prickled.

Ben howled. He was close now, right in front of me. I ran the last couple steps until my thighs smacked into something solid. I’d run into the edge of a table. I put my hands down in front of me and felt legs. Ben’s legs.

“Abby,” his voice was soft and labored. “Please make it stop. I can’t move. I can’t defend myself. Please—make—it—stop.”

I ran my hands up his legs over his stomach and to his face. His face was wet. Tears?

“Can you see it?” he spoke softly. I felt his lips move under my hand.

“No, I can’t see anything, but I tripped over something,” I said.

His body tensed and seized. He arched his back and started choking.

‘Ben? Ben?” I felt with my hands. He had said he was tied down and I found the straps on his wrists. With fumbling fingers, I unbound his hands. His body arched and seized the whole time.

Without warning, something picked me up around the waist and hurled me backwards. I flew at least twenty feet before landing hard on my back, the wind knocked out of me. I saw stars.

Rolling to my hands and knees, I crawled. Once I could get a full breath, I stood and once again made my way back to Ben on the table. Before I could get there, the room filled with screaming—Ben’s and another’s. Ben’s scream was one of agonizing pain. The other scream was primal, inhuman, a cat-like keening and yowling, so loud I could feel it reverberating in my teeth.

The room began to shake as if in the grasp of a giant earthquake. It shook me to the floor. Hot wind swirled up around me; lifting me in giant hurricane hands, it threw me like a baseball.

I flew backwards away from Ben’s scream.

Away.

Away.

Away.

The other scream, the preternatural one, was in hot pursuit and getting closer. It was faster than the wind and gaining.

Two giant hands reached out of the wind and grabbed me.

“Wake up, Abbygale Neely.”

The hands shook me.

I opened my eyes. Akio stood before me. I dangled from his grasp like a kitten. We were in his library. When he saw my eyes open, he dropped me into the red visitor’s chair, and it nearly toppled backwards. I clung to it like a life raft.

Drenched in sweat and breathing hard, Akio’s muscles twitched uncontrollably. He leaned over and placed his hands on his knees. He wiped the sweat from his face and swiped under his nose. A thin trail of blood came away on his hand. He looked at it in disbelief for a moment. Wiped his nose again. More blood. Clenching his fists, he looked up to the ceiling and roared. It sounded half-freight train, half jungle-cat, and it made my blood run cold.

Rage filled his yellow eyes. He wheeled on me and came toward me. The only other time a man had looked at me like that, he had held me down and hit me. That was when I learned that no matter how strong I was, how fit I was, if a man wanted to hold me down and beat me, he could do it, and there wasn’t much I could do to stop him.

Reflexively, I cowered, covering my head with my arms. I hated myself for it. Akio stopped mid-stalk. He slowly wiped the blood off his hands onto his pants and turned his back to me.

“Don’t fear me, Abbygale,” he said. “We’ve much to talk about, but first I must regain my composure. Wait here.” Before closing the door after him, he looked over his shoulder, “Don’t fall asleep before I return.”

Chapter 17

 

When Akio returned thirty minutes or so later, he was showered and dressed in fresh clothes, a t-shirt and jeans. He carried a pitcher of ice water in one hand and two glasses in the other. Before pouring himself a glass of water, he poured a glass and handed it to me. He sat and drank the water down without taking a breath and then poured himself another glass.

“It’s a very good thing you signed the waiver,” he laughed ruefully and raised his glass to me in a salute.

“Is that so?” I said.

“Abbygale, we’ve stumbled onto something that I’ve never seen before nor have ever even heard of before. I’m at a loss, which for me, never happens. I don’t know how you humans do it, being at a loss, and you do it all the time, every day walking around not knowing what’s going on, only seeing one side of every truth, if even that. It’s an uncomfortable feeling to say the least.”

“What do you mean? What’s going on?”

“Describe to me what you think happened?” he said.

“I dreamed I was in a dark room. It was completely empty. Void of all light. Ben was there, tied to a table and screaming. A monster was attacking him. I tried to get to him and free him. I tripped. Something threw me, and then there was a lot of screaming and wind.”

“Is Ben normally in these nightmares of yours?”

“Yes, most. Some have been of a woman who died thirty years ago, but those didn’t start until yesterday. The ones with Ben in them have been going on for about a week.”

“I can’t help you, Abbygale. My pride suffers greatly in admitting this, but I can’t help you. I don’t even know where to begin,” he said shaking his head.

“What? Why?”

“I’m a dream eater not a reality eater. The how that you so desperately wanted to know earlier is this—I enter your mind in my true form, engage the nightmare, we fight. I rip the nightmare physically by the roots out of your consciousness,” he paused. “Really, it’s much more complicated than that. We could get into a discussion on what Nightmare really is, and so on and so forth, but what you need to know is that in the end, I triumph. I feast. You wake up feeling refreshed. What is going on with you is not Nightmare. It is reality. It is actuality. It is a man called Ben.”

“Ben is in my head?”

“Yes,” he said, “A man called Ben is in your head, and I very nearly killed him, and you in the process which is why I say I’m glad that you signed the waiver.”

“Alright then, so what is going on with me? How do I fix it?”

“I don’t honestly know, but there is something going on with you, something very wrong. I fear that you’re correct in your belief that you may meet your end in one of these episodes,” he sighed. He sounded resigned. “I’m timeless, Abbygale, ageless, and as such I live outside the flow of time. It is the flow of time in which you are enmeshed. How to get you out of it? I don’t know. Can you get out of it? I don’t know.”

“So that’s it?” I said. I slapped my hand on my knee and stood up, “You can’t help me with your magic hoodoo voodoo, load of crap, Baku nonsense. I’ll just be on my way, and while I’m at it never go to sleep.” Hot tears of fatigue welled up in my eyes, but I refused to let them loose. Akio smirked. My anger amused him. His amusement further angered me. I was worked up. I turned to storm out, “Thanks for nothing.”

“I may know of a man who can help,” he tossed out. He leaned back in his seat. “Since I can’t help you in the way I know, I would like to take you to him and see if instead of magic hoodoo voodoo bullshit, he can help you with science.”

I turned to look back at him, “Right. Another someone who can help, hunh? I’ve heard that line before, and why, why ever would you do this for me?”

“I’m curious, and that is enough for me to do anything,” he stretched in his chair, a long, languorous stretch. “And plus look at you. You’re a wreck. You can use the help, and of course, we are under contract.” He indicated the signed contract that still sat on top of his desk.

Akio had other business to attend to. He offered to let me stay until his return, but I declined. We agreed that I would come again tomorrow whereupon he would take me to meet this other someone who maybe, might be, hopefully would be able to help me. He wouldn’t tell me who it was when I asked. When I pressed the issue, he said, “He is a truly brilliant mind, and his knowledge of the scientific world and the brain, specifically, is vast. He’s a medical doctor, but not just a doctor. You should see the inside of his head, unlike any other head I’ve ever seen.’

“You’ve seen inside his head?”

“Of course, he was once a client.”

“How does a man of science, a doctor, reconcile to himself what you say that you are?”

“What I say that I am? How very diplomatic. You don’t yet believe that I am what I say I am?”

“Maybe this is an elaborate hoax,” I shrugged. “You drugged me with your tea, after all.”

“A hoax for what purpose? To swindle you of your great wealth? To sully your great name? Is this what you believe?”

“I don’t know what I believe. At this point in time, I’m reserving judgment,” I said.

“Abbygale, what does your intuition tell you?”

“I don’t know.”

“Well, you can hardly hear what your intuition is telling you if you don’t take care to listen to it. Sit quietly and close your eyes.”

I looked at him skeptically. He laughed. I felt like a child in his presence, small and mindless, infinitely controllable, and easily manipulated. I didn’t like feeling this way. I didn’t want to close my eyes. Defiant? Maybe.

“Close your eyes,” he said again.

Reluctantly, I did.

“Ask yourself the question, and listen to the answer. Do you believe I’m a hoax?”

I opened my eyes.

“Ah-ah,” he chastised. “Close them and listen. Be still within yourself for a moment and listen.”

After a moment, I opened my eyes again and repeated, “I don’t know what I believe.”

“Tell me then what talents do you have? If intuition is not a skill that you have mastered, maybe you do have an expertise, a mastery, in some other area that you may rely on instead.”

“I don’t really have any talents.”

“Snore. You bore me,” he yawned to prove it. “I’ve seen inside your mind, you may be fooling yourself, but you can’t fool me.”

“I’m a photographer,” I said.

“Are you a good photographer?” he asked

“I guess so.”

“Do you hear yourself? You’ve set yourself up to live a very mediocre life. You can’t even bear to claim, say it out loud, that you’re a talented photographer, and what’s photography as far as talents go? Eh, not much,” he shrugged his shoulders.

“Photography is not nothing. It is something. I’m an artist, and I’m not mediocre. I’m very good.”

“Ah ha!” he smiled. “A flicker of passion. It looks good on you, and you may very well be a genius in the art of photography, but you would never know it. To be anything, you—” he pointed at me, “have to believe it to be so and claim it for your own.”

What I wanted to say was, you don’t know me, but I said nothing. I was angry, uncomfortable, and ready to go. I half stood up, when he said, “Wait, please. I’m not trying to offend. Now use it. Use your photographer’s eye and look at me. What does your photographer’s eye tell you?”

I stood all the way up and walked around him like I would do if I intended to take a picture of him, looking for the best angle, the best light. He was a very handsome. His arms and legs were roped with serious muscle. His face was rugged. His yellow eyes though—well, they were odd. If I looked hard enough, I could see his pupils elongate to slits. When I looked again, the effect was gone. His pupils were normal, round pupils. His arms looked covered in tattoos in one angle and in another angle, just for a nanosecond, I saw fur. I could see it, and I got closer to him. He sat very still allowing me to continue. He looked at me and smiled and instead of beautiful, white, perfectly straight, flat teeth of a man, I saw pointed feline teeth. I blinked and once again, his smile was the smile of a man.

“You’re seeing now. Now, tell me what you believe to be true. Am I Akio the man, the great hoaxter, or Akio the Baku?”

I knew. In that moment, I felt it in my bones. He was exactly what he said he was, and I felt a surge of excitement and possibility. The surge lasted just for that moment though, but in that moment everything looked different.

“Wow,” I said and sat down, “I saw you.”

“Another believer,” he said. “Believing is power, a power that you have, a power that everyone has. Use your eyes and your intuition and consciously decide what you believe. Don’t accidentally believe. Decide.”

“Is that really what you look like?” I asked.

“More or less,” he said. “Mostly more.”

“What does the inside of my head look like?” I asked.

He tilted his head, “Different,” he said. “It’s unlike any mind I’ve ever seen.”

“You said that about the doctor, too,” I said.

“Yes. His is different. Yours is different, but not the same different. Most healthy minds are very similar. The minds afflicted with disease obviously look different. The minds of geniuses, like the doctor, are different. Yours is a new different. It’s not diseased, but there is something not quite—I just don’t know. I’m intrigued though. I like a good mystery.”

“Great,” I said. The stitches in my leg burned. “Glad, I could intrigue. Two weeks ago, I thought I was like everybody else, and now?”

“Oh, Abbygale, you’re like everybody else in that you’re not. Everyone is a mystery to be solved. Just some mysteries are more interesting than others”

He led me out of the warehouse and walked me to the Buick explaining that he wasn’t kidding when he said his neighborhood wasn’t the kind to be alone in. He closed the driver side door after I slid in. With his hands in his jeans pockets, he ambled down the sidewalk, presumably off to his other business engagement.

I rolled down the windows and sat for a while thinking about my life and wondering what had happened to it. Akio was right. The last seven years I had been content in my mediocrity. Wallowed in it even. I hadn’t always been that way. At least, I didn’t think so. I remember being happy and passionate about life. I had earned scholarship to art school. I was doing every thing right—pursuing life, hot on the tail of my dreams, but I was younger then, and that was before I met Ben.

Ben?

An internal alarm bell clanged in my head.

Ben? Where was he? Wasn’t he supposed to be on his way here? That’s what his message had said. He was an hour and a half out when he had left the message last night. Where was he now? I couldn’t believe that I had forgotten that Ben was on his way. Had he shown up and I wasn’t there and left? I pointed the Buick toward home. Perhaps he was there now, waiting.

Chapter 18

 

Someone was waiting for me when I got home, but it wasn’t Ben.

Jason sat on my stoop in the darkness. I’d forgotten to turn on my porch light. What time was it? Midnight? The clock in the Buick had long stopped working. It flashed 6:21. Every minute of every day, it was 6:21 in the Buick.

Jason sat, just sitting, not reading, not listening to music, not talking on his cell phone, not anything. His elbows propped on his knees, and his head rested in his hands.

“Oh, thank God,” he said. He jumped up and grabbed me in a big hug.

“Ooof,” I said. In his hug, everything that hurt, hurt worse. He ignored me, and held me tight.

“I was so God damn worried about you. What the fuck, Abby?”

“Sorry.”

“Sorry? That’s all you have to say? That’s bullshit.” His words were muffled by my neck. “C’mon, let’s get inside. You know how long I have been waiting out here?”

“No.”

“A long damn time, Abby. Ingrid said you borrowed her car hours ago.”

“I had to go somewhere,” I said.

Jason’s arm around my shoulder was comforting, more comforting than painful, and we walked up the stairs together. I leaned into him a little. Jason and I were the same height. I handed him my keys, and he unlocked the door. Once inside, I plopped down on the couch. Exhausted. Jason went to the fridge and took a look inside.

“Not much,” he said. “Wanna order pizza?”

‘Sure,” I was suddenly very hungry. “There are some painkillers in the cabinet next to the sink from when I was having those migraines. Can you bring me one, please? No, two. And some water?”

After bringing me the pills and water, Jason ordered a pizza with cheese—half with basil and fresh tomatoes and the other half with pepperoni. He made one more call before coming to sit down next to me.

“She’s here . . . Alright . . . Okay . . . yep,” was his side of the conversation.

I settled into the crook of Jason’s arm while we waited for the pizza to come and channel surfed. I leaned my head on his shoulder. He sat very still so as not to disturb me. Jason was comfort. His silence and his presence was exactly what I didn’t know I needed. I fell asleep before the pizza arrived.

 

 

“Hey,” Ben said.

He lay on the grass looking up at the night sky. The stars were brilliantly bright. We must be somewhere far outside the city.

“Hey,” I said.

He was lying oddly. His body was stiff, awkward. Instead of lying down, he appeared to have been arranged. I stood at his head and looked down at him.

“This is nice,” he said. “Pull up a piece of grass.”

I lay down next to him and looked up at the sky, my hands behind my head. A soft gentle breeze blew across my face smelling heavy, fresh and green with flowers and ozone. It felt as if it might rain at any moment, although the sky bore not a cloud.

“Look, Orion,” I pointed it out in the sky.

“Your favorite constellation,” he said.

“You remember that?”

“Of course.” He moved his head stiffly, and when his neck wouldn’t turn any further, he moved his eyes the rest of the way to look at me. “Abby, I think there is something wrong.”

“I know there is,” I said. “I know.”

“Something’s really wrong with me. I can’t move.”

“I’m going to figure it out. I promise. I just need to sleep. Just let me sleep tonight. I’m so tired.”

“Okay,” he said, “Go to sleep. I’ll keep watch.”

I curled up on my side, curling into him, like the old days.

“Wake me if—if anything,” I said.

“Okay,” he said. “I won’t let anything happen to you.”

Chapter 19 —August 19

 

I started awake at the sound of the doorbell. It was morning. The sun streamed through my front window. Dust motes danced. I lay on the couch. The shower was on.

The doorbell rang again.

“Coming,” I said. I sat up slowly and painfully and shuffled my way to the door. I looked through the peephole and saw Nick. I undid the locks and opened the door.

“Hi,” I said. Man, I felt uncharacteristically embarrassed around him.

“Well, there you are,” Nick said. He smiled widely, relieved. He seemed genuinely glad to see me. I smiled back, equally relieved but for a different reason.

Nick’s eyes swerved toward the hallway as the bathroom door opened. Jason, wearing jeans and nothing else, walked into the living room, rubbing his curly hair dry with one of my pink towels.

“Nick,” Jason said, a greeting.

“Jason,” said Nick, a curse word, his eyes back on me, smile gone. “I brought your cameras.”

I looked from Jason to Nick to Jason again. It dawned on me just how this must appear.

“Nick,” I said. My voice was soft. “It’s not what you’re thinking.”

“I’m not thinking anything,” he said. He bent over, picked up the box of instant cameras, and pushed them into my arms.

“Ouch.”

“Sorry,” he said. “Broken hand. I forgot.”

He took the box back into his arms and set it on the floor inside the door. He held out my professional camera by the strap. The camera I had worked so hard to pay for. My precious camera. I took it in my right hand, and cradled it against my abdomen—force of habit. He then placed the rest of my gear next to the box on the floor with the instant cameras, and finally, gently, he placed my backup camera on top.

“Thank you for getting them,” I said.

“No prob. I thought you might want them, seeing as you weren’t dead and all.”

I gently bumped him on the hip with my camera hand. “No, really, thank you for everything.”

“Of course,” he said. His face softened.

“Come in?”

“No, I can’t,” he looked at Jason who was pulling a t-shirt over his head.

“Please?” I said.

“Hey, c’mon in bro. I gotta run anyway,” Jason said. “Gotta get to work.”

Nick stepped back onto the porch to let Jason by. Before leaving, Jason grabbed me up in a hug.

“Call me if you need anything,” Jason said and kissed me on my cheek.

“I will. Thanks.”

“My pleasure,” he winked at Nick and popped him in the arm with a playful punch on his way down the steps. “See ya, Nick.”

“Yep.” said Nick.

We both watched Jason lope down the walk barefoot carrying his shoes. He threw a wave over his shoulder before getting into his car and peeling out.

“So will you come in?” I asked.

Nick walked slowly into my house. He had never been here before. He looked around. I had the walls covered with photos, black and white, color, old sepia tone. Some were taken by famous photographers, some were mine, and, of course, some were those taken by my dad. Among them, over the fireplace, hung a picture of a gorgeous beach, somewhere I had never been lucky enough to be where the sand was blindingly white and the ocean was deep, clear blue. A man and a woman were rendered shadows by the setting sun. The woman was sitting on the beach and the man was walking along the shore, a surfboard under his arms. She waited for him, and he was coming to her. They were all alone on the beach. All alone except for the photographer who happened to be Nick.

“You framed it,” he said.

“I love it.”

He continued to look at it for a moment more as if he was trying to remember the moment it was taken.

“Want some coffee?” I asked.

“Love some.”

He ran his fingers through his hair as he turned toward me. He continued to take in my little place as if he was trying to memorize it or perhaps to see how I fit into it all. In addition to the photos, I had lights everywhere, a unique hanging chandelier over the table. Floor lamps with beautiful, thick green glass shades. Table lamps, work lamps. Decorative sconces. Faux candles. I even had strands of white Christmas globes draped from curtain rods. I found light to be beautiful. My whole life, I had always been drawn to unique light fixtures, especially ones where the shade created some sort of effect with the light. Light coming through thick glass, painted glass, rice paper, cloth. I liked light with texture, the kind that beckoned you to reach out and touch it.

I fumbled with the coffee maker in the kitchen, trying hard to make it look effortless. Hey, I can be a good hostess, busted hand and all. Nick wasn’t fooled especially not after I dropped the lid to the coffee grinder the third time. He laughed. I laughed.

“Let me help,” he said. He took the coffee grinder from my hand, scooped the lid off the floor, and proceeded to make the coffee. He moved deliberately and confidently. He made coffee much like he did everything else, gracefully nonchalant. He was heavy handed with the coffee grounds, which I rather appreciated. I liked my coffee strong and a lot. We leaned against the kitchen counter drinking coffee. My kitchen was tiny. I joked that it was a one-person kitchen. Today, it graciously accommodated both of us.

“How are you feeling?” he asked.

“Sore. My hand hurts really bad, and I have a killer headache that just won’t give me a break.”

“Y’know the cops are looking for you, for your statement on the accident. When you went missing from the hospital, they almost launched a missing person’s case. Except for the fact that the hospital surveillance had you walking out on your own accord,” he said. “You had me really worried.”

“I know. I’m sorry.”

“Why’d you leave the hospital?”

“It’s complicated. I can’t really explain it.”

He pressed me. “You could try. I’m a good listener.”

I turned to the refrigerator and pulled out the cold pizza from last night. Cold pizza and coffee the breakfast of champions.

“Pizza?” I offered.

“No thanks. You’re not going to tell me are you?”

“You’ll think I’m crazy.”

“I already think you’re crazy,” he said, sweet as pie.

“Ha ha, no like really crazy-crazy, psych-ward crazy. You couldn’t help me anyway,” I said.

He was instantly serious, “Do you need help? I can help, whatever it is.”

He put a hand on my shoulder, a display of his helpfulness. I opened my mouth to tell him, and then closed it. I couldn’t see how telling him would help the situation in the least. Before I opened my mouth again to tell him so, the phone rang.

I answered the phone, turning my back to Nick.

“Abby?” a female voice asked.

“Yes, this is Abby.”

“Oh my god, Abby. It’s Jill, Jill Ward.”

“Oh, hey Jill. Wow, it’s been a long time. How are you? What’s up?” I hadn’t seen Jill in ages. Since probably shortly after I left college. She was in the same circle of friends as Ben and I. Sweet, beautiful Jill, she had a singing voice that could make you cry—the good kind of cry. My singing voice could make you cry too, but the bad kind of cry. We had drifted apart over the years—just like I had with all of my old friends.

“Abby, something terrible has happened to Ben.”

My heart fell to my knees.

“What happened?”

“Ben had called and asked me for your contact information, and I know how you and Ben ended and what happened and all that, but I figured it’d been a long time. He said that he wanted to invite you to his wedding, and I thought that was so sweet of him, y’know? Like mending fences. He said that he’d promised you a long time ago that he would invite you to his wedding and that you promised to invite him to yours. Well, I thought that was so cute, and just like you guys, and so I thought that you wouldn’t mind, so I gave it to him.”

“Ben’s getting married?” I said. I felt as if the wind was knocked out of me. I knew it was going to happen at some point. The reality of it upset me more than I thought it would.

“That’s not the terrible part Abby.”

“It’s not? What’s the terrible part?”

“Ben apparently decided to tell you in person, and on his way to see you, he was in a really bad motorcycle accident. He’s in a coma.”

“Ben’s in a coma? Where?”

“He’s in a hospital in Salem,” she said, and she told me which hospital. “I just found out. I thought you needed to know. I thought you would want to know.” She began to cry.

“Thank you,” I said. “Thank you for calling me and telling me.”

“Oh God, it’s so awful. Poor Ben,” she sobbed.

“Yes. It’s awful,” I agreed. “I’ll call you in a couple days Jill, and we can talk and catch up, but I have to go now. I’m sorry.”

I hung up the phone and wiped tears from my cheeks.

I turned to Nick.

“I have to go.” I said.

“I heard,” he said. “Ben’s in a coma.” He took a long drink of coffee. “Who’s Ben?”

I debated on what to tell him.

Nick was still leaning against the counter, coffee cup in hand, head cocked to one side. He was one hundred percent present, right there in my kitchen. “Ben is my ex-boyfriend.”

“Ah, the ex,” he said. “He’s the ex isn’t he? The one that broke your heart. The one that you can’t get over?”

“Well, he is an ex.” I said. “And I am over him. Completely.”

“Is he going to be okay?”

“I don’t know. That was my friend Jill. Apparently, he was in a motorcycle accident outside of Salem.”

“Are you going to go see him?” he asked.

“Yes,” I said. I wiped my hand on my pants. My hands were suddenly very sweaty.

He put his coffee cup in the sink after rinsing it out.

“I’ll go with you, if you like,” he said. His back was turned to me. Tension pulled his shoulders tight and his arms rigid.

“I couldn’t ask you to do that,” I said.

“You didn’t ask. I offered.”

“No, thank you. That’s very kind of you, but I need to do this on my own,” I said.

“One handed?”

“Yes.”

His hands gripped the edge of the countertop. He waited a long moment before turning to face me.

“Be careful,” he said and without another word, he strode across the living room and out the door.

“Crap,” I said out loud, to no one. Easy Nick didn’t seem so easy any more.

Chapter 20

 

I dressed quickly. Today was going to be another hot one.

I dressed in easy, one-handed clothes, which weren’t necessarily the lightest or most appropriate summer attire. No buttons for me, except for the one on my jeans, which took me a couple tries to fasten. I couldn’t manage a decent ponytail, so I just let it fall, crazy and past my shoulders. Ta da.

Dark bloody, black and blue crescents cradled my eyes. My nose was swollen red and pulsed with my heartbeat. My whole face, in fact, was red all over where I had plowed it into the airbag. No amount of makeup could cover airbag rash. I didn’t even try. I’d seen better days.

It wasn’t long before the borrowed Buick and I were on I-5 headed south toward Salem.

Toward Ben.

After almost an hour on the road, I entered Salem city limits. The drive had been uneventful. I sang out loud to the radio and tried my best to quiet my racing mind. Too much stuff to think about, it was better to not allow myself to think anything at all.

I was fifteen minutes or so away from the hospital, when my hands and feet started to tingle.

Oh shit.

It began just like it had after the wedding, first in my hands and feet, then spreading up my arms and legs. I tried to think my way around the sensation and not give into the panic that was beginning to swell deep inside me. It wasn’t nearly as painful as it had been last time—yet.

I slowed the car and eased it into the breakdown lane. Breathing deeply and holding great gulps of breath in my belly, I tried to think happy thoughts while blowing the air slowly out through my lips.

The tingling grew more painful.

Once I had the car to a full stop, I climbed out. Cars and trucks zinged past me. I kept close to the Buick and away from the traffic. I was dizzy and unsteady on my feet. Once around the car, I staggered to the scrub of bushes on the side of the freeway, and vomited. I sat down hard on the ground, which was mostly dirt and gravel, and wiped my mouth with the back of my hands, my tingling fire hands. My vision skewed until it looked like the world was lying on its side. The next moment, I could hear the cars on the freeway, but I couldn’t see them anymore.

Not again. Not again.

I clenched my fist and slammed it into the ground, repeatedly, fighting the feeling, fighting the pain. Scared shitless.

The giant wave of panic finally crested, overtaking me, practically lifting me off the ground.

I clambered to my feet.

No! I was going to fight it. I wasn’t going to let this happen to me again. I stumbled, blinded and dizzy. I felt as if I was being electrocuted. I cried out.

I pitched forward, graceless. My face plowed into the gravelly dirt.

Lights out.

 

 

She sat alone in the predawn half-light. Alone was nothing new for her. It’s just usually she was alone in a mess of people. She wrapped her arms around her legs and scrunched into a tight ball. She pulled her braid from the back of her head and began to nervously chew on the end of it. No one was there to smack her for her bad habit. She was only permitted to keep her hair long because she could care for it. She was very careful not to lose her only hair tie. She was certain if she lost it, she would be sheered like a sheep—just like everyone else.

She rocked back and forth. Even though it was summer, she was chilled to the bone this early morning. What she wouldn’t give for a sweater. She was dressed in the shapeless gray shift dress. No one could look at her and not mistake her for an Institute girl. She would have to find new clothes or this would never work.

She pulled her arms into the sleeves of her dress and wrapped them around her legs again. Naked arms to naked legs. It felt warmer, but not much.

She had done it! She couldn’t believe it.

She looked around, half expecting a troop of men to descend scouring the area searching for her. She had escaped!

She wanted to whoop for the joy of it. She wanted to dance. She wanted to hug—she looked around—that tree, anything. She stood up and made her way to the streets lined with neat little houses, crouching and trying to move as swiftly as possible.

“Haste makes waste. Haste makes waste,” she could hear the nurses’ voices harping in her head. She knew she needed to be hasty. Hasty and stealthy.

She crept along the dark roads. Shiny cars slumbered in driveways. Sleepy houses slept with drawn shades. If she closed her eyes, she could imagine the little children, the loved and wanted little children, sleeping in their sleeping houses. Dreaming of what? She couldn’t imagine what little children dreamt of when they had everything. Certainly, they didn’t dream the same things that she did.

Ah ha! Three streets in to her hunt, she had found what she was looking for. A laundry line was strung across a backyard. Clothes swayed in the slight breeze. Their shadows looked like monsters with clawing hands trying to scrape their way to the center of the earth.

She was still scared of shadows. She was fifteen much too old for such a silly fear. In her defense, the shadows at the Institute were the kind a little girl would be wise to be scared of.

The clothes though were benign enough. On silent cat feet, she padded her way into the backyard. She unpinned a dress and a pair of underthings and scampered off into the trees.

Once she was certain she was far enough away that no one could see her. She pulled her shift over her head and dressed in the stolen clothes as quickly as possible. She especially liked the underwear. They were very soft and didn’t itch at all.

Mother Mary, on my behalf please ask Jesus and God to forgive me for stealing this dress and this pair of under drawers.

She buried her institution garb under a bush, heaping loose dirt over top. When she was done, her hands were dirty, and she had nowhere to wipe them. She didn’t want to get her new dress dirty.

Bah!

She crept up to the back of another house and rinsed them off using the hose that was coiled like a snake by the back door.

“Who’s out there? Somebody out there?” a voice called out the window.

With a startled squeak, she turned off the water and ran away as fast as her legs could take her.

Now what?

Here is where her months of scheming dried up.

She could try to find her mother, but she had no idea where she was. Anyways, what were the odds her mother actually had a place to live? She would get to Portland and get a job. She was a hard worker, and she would do what she had to do. She could get by. She’d done it before.

But what about Cybil? She had left Cybil at the Institute. She couldn’t possibly sneak out a three year old, but the idea of actually leaving her there was unbearable.

Before the escape, she had told herself that she would go and earn enough money and come back for Cybil in three years when she was eighteen. Cybil would be six. Now, she didn’t know what she had been thinking, the idea of not seeing her sister for three years was gut wrenching. She and Cybil were all each other had in the whole world. As much as she wanted it to be otherwise, she knew that her mother didn’t count and could not be counted on. If she left Cybil there, would she be any better than their mother?

No.

The voice filled her head like a gong having been rung.

No. She would not be any better.

Would Cybil even remember her in three years? There was a big difference between a three year old and a six year old.

She chewed on this as she walked into town. She could pass for a respectable girl, properly dressed, except for it was too early for any girl, respectable or not, to be walking the streets, and of course, there was the matter of her shoes. She looked down at her feet. Institute shoes.

The grocer was getting his morning delivery of fresh bread. Just her luck, the fellow making the delivery had to make two trips with his load. As soon as he was in the store, she snuck a hot loaf off the truck. She walked swiftly away but didn’t run. She didn’t want to call attention to herself.

Mother Mary, on my behalf, please ask Jesus and God to forgive me for stealing this loaf of bread.

She hid behind the library and ate half the loaf. It was delicious. She planned on saving the rest for later.

She spent most of the morning walking around and trying not to look at people. No one paid her any mind. They were all too busy going about their day. After all, it was just a regular old day to them. Same as any other day, opening shops, going to work, going to school.

She spent some time at the library reading magazines. She was lucky that she had not been committed to the Institute until she was twelve, she could read. Most of the girls couldn’t read. A lot of them though weren’t fit enough to read. Their bodies or their minds were too broken. Some of them couldn’t even dress themselves or feed themselves. Since she was able-bodied, she was called upon to help change and feed them, help take them to the toilet. She did a lot of helping.

They were not as lucky as she.

Mother Mary, on my behalf please thank Jesus and God for giving me strong eyes and a strong body.

She walked out of town to where the freight trains passed by, and she watched them from late morning until late afternoon. She ate the other half of the bread. She decided that this is how she was going to get out, escape. She had read romantic stories of gallant hobos who traveled the whole United States hopping one freight train to the next. She could do that.

She curled up behind an abandoned warehouse and spent most of the night sleepless. She couldn’t stop thinking of Cybil. One moment she was ready to go, skip town, as the hobos would say, and the next moment she couldn’t bear the thought.

She wished she had said goodbye to Cybil. She had been planning the escape for a long time—since the day they had arrived at the Institute, and the most opportune moment presented itself to her. She couldn’t have planned it better if she tried. An open door, no one looking, and without a second thought, she went for it.

She lay huddled on the ground. She couldn’t believe that she was actually debating this. Go. Go. Go. Every train that she let go by without her on it was a lost opportunity. She had to go. She couldn’t stay.

She was thirsty. She fell asleep dreaming about little brown-eyed Cybil and of the water fountain at the library.

“Wake up!” A foot kicked her foot until she opened her eyes. Morning again, and looming above her was a police officer. He was dressed in his blues with a scowl on his face. He nudged her with his foot again.

“Wake up.”

She sat up and rubbed the sleep out of her eyes.

“Are you Claire Johnson?” his voice was gruff.

She didn’t answer. She was trying to decide if she ran for it what her odds were of getting away.

“Claire Johnson?” he said again but this time slowly emphasizing each syllable.

Maybe she should lie and tell him no. She had already sinned twice in one day, what was once more?

He reached down and pulled her up by the collar. She dangled like a chicken caught by a farmer whose next stop, after a swift neck-wringing, was the soup pot.

“Yes,” she said choking a little against the collar of the dress. “I’m Claire Johnson.”

“Thought as much. You’uns that runaway never make it far,” he shook his head. “We got orders that if we find you to bring you straight to Dr. Black.”

Dr. Black? There was hope. Maybe this wouldn’t be so bad. No one understood her like Dr. Black. Neal.

The cop led her back to the patrol car by the neck of her dress; her toes barely touched the ground. Opening the door, he guided her into the back seat managing to fondle both of her breasts in the process.

“Don’t touch me,” Claire said.

“Oh yeah?” A leer spread across his face. He looked like a jack-o-lantern on Halloween, missing teeth and all. “You’re pretty for an Institute girl.” He leaned into the car. “I bet you don’t know what it’s like to be touched by a man do you?”

He slid his hand up her thigh to her stolen under pants.

She shrieked and slid across the seat, trying to kick his hand away.

“It don’t gotta be like that,” he said sliding into the backseat after her.

 

 

The ride back felt like it took longer than it needed to. Claire huddled on the bench seat in the back of the patrol car. She pulled her knees up so her feet were resting on the seat and fretted with her braid. She counted in her head, thinking only of the numbers, not of anything else.

The cop drove down the long drive to the Institute. The driveway was marked by a sign that read Cascade Training Center–State Institute for the Feeble Minded.

He pulled up to the staff entrance, the gravel crunched underneath the tires. Lumbering out of the driver’s seat, he huffed and puffed, hiking up his pants once he was standing. He opened her door, and she slid out. He put a rough hand on her shoulder to steer her to the entrance. Jerking away from him, she scampered for the entrance like a rabbit. Before she could make it inside the door, Dr. Black exited followed by Nurse Cross.

Dr. Neal Black was a young doctor. The Institute was his first assignment out of medical school. His father, Dr. Black Sr. was the Superintendent. Dr. Black Jr. was doing his level best to follow in his father’s esteemed footprints. He felt the weight of living up to his fine name.

He was fine-looking and moved with athletic grace. Most of the nurses blushed in his presence and twittered behind his back. Claire would overhear their hushed conversations, dissecting what he said, and how he stood, how when he said thank-you he said it just so.

“Claire!” said Dr. Black.

Claire stopped in her tracks and looked down, ashamed. Dr. Black’s eyes took her in—her dress slightly askew and torn, her hair mussed, fresh red marks on her upper arms, and her red, swollen eyes.

“I will take her to the ward, Doctor,” said Nurse Cross. She suited her name to a tee. Black, beady, narrow-set eyes gleamed out of her long sharp face. “I will see to it that she is suitably punished.”

Nurse Cross yanked her by the arm and was about to tow her away. “Perhaps it’s time for a hair cut. You put too much stock into that mane as it is. Will serve you right.” She yanked Claire’s braid for emphasis.

“Leave the girl with me,” said Dr. Black.

“Yes, Doctor,” Nurse Cross looked disappointed. She liked nothing better than punishments, divining a suitable one, and inflicting it upon the wrongdoer. She preferred consequences to be swift, immediate, and memorable.

“And her hair is to remain untouched. I’m sure you can find some other form of punishment. You’ll tell the others as well,” he said.

“Yes, Doctor,” she scowled. Crossing her arms over her meager chest, she walked back into the Institute.

“I brought her to you just as you said, Dr. Black,” said the policeman.

“Yes, I see that,” Dr. Black said, his hands on his hips. “Tell me, did you find her so—disheveled?”

The cop rocked back and forth on his feet. “She was asleep behind a warehouse in the freight yard when I found her.”

Dr. Black closed the distance between himself and the policeman. Mere inches apart, he looked down and into the patrolman’s face. His voice carried a threat. “Did you take liberties with her?”

“No, sir,” the policeman lied. “Wouldn’t never do that, sir.”

Dr. Black waited not saying anything. The patrolman began to sweat, his eyes shifted from left to right. He tried to bring himself to look Dr. Black in the eye, but he just couldn’t do it.

Clearing his throat and stepping back, Dr. Black said, “The Institute thanks you for returning its charge.”

Dr. Black waited as the policeman got in his car and left. He and Claire stood silent. His eyes on the rear of the car. Her eyes still dropped to the ground, an outward expression of shame. The dust from the retreating patrol car billowed around them.

“Are you hurt, Claire?” he said finally, turning to her, beckoning her to look at him.

“No, sir.”

He lifted her chin with his forefinger. His touch was gentle.

“Did he do something to you?” he asked.

“No, sir,” she said blinking back tears still avoiding his eyes.

He brushed wisps of hair that had escaped her braid, and gently tucked them behind her ear. His hands were large and strong. Using his thumb, he swept away a tear she couldn’t hold back any longer.

He closed his eyes as if he was in pain and heaved a sigh, “I’m a gentle man, Claire, but I’ve never wanted to lay hands on another man so much in my life. You say he touched you, and I will track him down and treat him unkindly.”

She said nothing, just shook her head.

“Fine then,” he said. His voice hardened. “Get yourself to the ward and report to Nurse Cross. I’m sure she will have thought of a suitable punishment by now. No more running away. You hear?”

She nodded.

“You’d never make it on your own,” he said.

 

 

“Hey? Hello? Are you okay, miss?” A voice called out.

I opened my eyes and saw a woman. She had pulled her station wagon up behind the Buick. Her hazard lights flashed.

“Yes.” I said. It sounded more like a croak. I rolled over and slowly came to my knees.

“I called 911,” she said. Her hair was yanked back into a ponytail so severely I could see hair follicles on her forehead straining to maintain their grasp on each strand. I heard her children bickering in the back seat of her car, their windows rolled down.

“I’m okay.” I said. I brushed my face off. I stood up.

“I think you should wait for the ambulance,” she said. She still held her cell phone in her hand.

“I am going to the hospital right now,” I said.

“Oh? But still you should wait for them. You probably shouldn’t be driving.”

I turned to walk away from her.

“Are you drunk?” she called after me.

I laughed out loud, and she cut me a dirty look.

“No, I’m not drunk. I got in a car accident yesterday and suffered a concussion, and I wasn’t feeling well so I was going back to the hospital to get checked out. I got woozy and stopped and pulled over.”

She nodded slowly, “Still. You should wait,” she said.

I walked back to the Buick. I could hear the ambulance in the distance.

“Can’t,” I said. “I can’t afford another ambulance ride.”

She frowned at me as I got in the Buick. Thankfully the keys were still in the ignition.

“Wait!” she called, but her voice was swallowed by the yowling of one of her offspring. She stalked back to her car, “Get your hands off your brother. Get them off! NOW!”

I floored it, leaving the screaming kid, his screaming mother, and the screaming ambulance siren in my rear view mirror.

My hands and feet felt normal again. No tingling. Good.

I was shaken, but I was proud that I had the presence of mind to pull off the road this time. This episode was not nearly as bad as the one after the wedding. Don’t get me wrong. It was still bad, but I was trying to consciously disassociate myself from the whole thing. Looking on it like a photographer observing a scene. I wasn’t going to get anywhere wallowing in the emotion of it all. It just was. Period. I would fix it. I would find a way to fix it.

I stopped at a convenience store and used the bathroom. I bought a travel pack of baby wipes and carefully wiped my aching face. A couple pieces of gravel were embedded in my forehead. I picked them out. I looked at myself in the mirror. I looked even more like somebody’s punching bag.

I remembered what happened to Claire in the back of the copper’s car. It was as if it happened to me. I felt ill and dirty. Violated. These wipes wouldn’t be enough to make me feel clean again.

“It wasn’t me. It wasn’t me. It wasn’t me,” I said out loud to the person in the mirror.

She looked back at me, and her eyes told me that it was she.

I started to cry.

No.

No, you don’t.

Get it together. No emotion. You’re not going to get through this acting like a baby. Pull yourself together, and face this head on.

“No emotion,” I said to the mirror.

I wiped my arms off. Washed my good hand. Cleaned the dirt of the fingers on my cast hand.

I didn’t look in the mirror again. Best not to.

Chapter 21

 

I followed the blue H signs to the hospital. I parked and walked into the large brick building. I would be nervous if I was allowing emotions, but since I wasn’t—I wasn’t.

Ben was in the Intensive Care Unit. He had a room with a glass wall so that all the nurses had to do was look up or over from wherever they were to see him.

I stood on the outside of the glass wall and looked in at him. He looked worse than me. His face was swollen and purple and red, nearly unrecognizable. One leg up to his hip was in a cast and hung from the ceiling. Almost every inch of him was bandaged, and the parts that weren’t bandaged were either covered in bruises or road rash. He was on a respirator, and his heartbeat was monitored by machine. No one was in the room except for him, and he was barely there.

It was hard to see him like this. I sucked in some air, held it in my lungs, and went into the room.

Beneath all the bruises and the bandages, he was Ben. I could still see him, his long eyelashes, his jaw, his mouth resting in a shadow of his trademark smug smile. Mostly Ben.

I laid my hand on his chest, softly, softly.

“I’m here, Ben,” I said.

I didn’t know what I expected, but nothing happened. His heart continued to beep slowly and his chest rose up and down in the steady, determined, machine-induced rhythm. I sat in a chair and watched him for a while. Thinking thoughts at him—Ben I’m here. Ben, what’s going on? What Happened? I leaned my head back and closed my eyes, but didn’t dare fall asleep.

Nurses came and went. I could hear their feet on the tile floor, louder as they came, quieter as they went. No one bothered me or attempted to wake me. To them, I probably looked like I was in the same motorcycle wreck that had swallowed Ben whole. We both looked similarly chewed up.

At some point, I went to the cafeteria. I pushed a gray tray along the tray rails and loaded it with a banana, chocolate milk, and a cheeseburger and french fries.

I ate alone.

From the looks of the dining area, I wasn’t the only lone eater. The exception was a frazzled looking father of two. Two little boys with curly hair ran around their table with their eyes pinched tight, squealing in hysterical delight when they ran into each other, completely ignoring their father’s repeated pleas of sit down and eat. Now. A foil balloon floated to the ceiling tied to a pink vase filled with neatly arranged pink and white flowers. Happy Birthday, Baby Girl, it declared to the world.

My cheeseburger was okay. It tasted better than it looked. So that was something.

When I was done eating, I shuffled back up to Ben’s room, sat back in the same black, plastic chair, and waited some more.

A nurse came in and took his vitals, typing them into a computer.

She smiled at me.

“You should talk to him,” she said. “A lot of times they can hear you. It might really help him.”

I doubted whether anything I could say to him would help him. I wasn’t the right person for the encouraging coma talk.

“Don’t be embarrassed,” she said. “Just talk. Say whatever pops into your head.”

I scooted the chair over to Ben’s bedside after she left.

I picked up his hand.

I cleared my throat.

“Ben,” I started. “I’m here. I know you were coming to see me, and I know something’s wrong. I don’t know what. Do you? I was hoping . . . I don’t know what I was hoping. I guess I was hoping that when I saw you I would just figure it out. Hasn’t happened yet. So, what have you been up to? Other than getting engaged, which, by the way, congratulations. I’ve been living the dream, a starving artist, taking photos, doing what I do. I bake part time at a local coffee shop. It’s a pretty cool little place. You might like it. One of our regulars is the bass player for Bishop Culver. I didn’t even know who he was. Just served him coffee every day, and then the owner told me who he was. He’s pretty cool. So how’re your brother and sister? Good, I hope. Man, I suck at this. Can you hear me? Do you want me to stop talking?”

I dropped my forehead and rested it on the side rail of Ben’s bed. The cold plastic felt nice on my face.

“You did a number on me, Ben,” I continued, my head still resting on the bed rail. “I bought every self-help book I could find. I did everything I could to stop thinking about you. To get over you. None of it worked. I burned all the books in the fireplace one night. That worked. Some. Then one day, I just stopped thinking about you. I haven’t thought about you in years. No that’s a lie, but it’s the lie I tell myself every day.”

This was no use. I decided I couldn’t sit here with Ben any longer, and if I was being honest with myself, I didn’t want to chance meeting Ben’s fiancé. She was probably very pretty, and petite, and smart, and no doubt on her way to his bedside.

Regardless, it was time to get back to Portland. The meeting with the Baku and his doctor loomed in front of me.

 

 

I stopped by the bathroom before leaving and splashed cold water on my face.

I got a soda out of a vending machine and wandered around the hospital corridors before finally giving in and going by Ben’s room one more time.

I know, I know, but I couldn’t help it.

Someone was with him, a woman. As I got closer to the window, I recognized Bonnie Swift.

Bonnie was my best friend at school, during the Ben days. She, Jill, and I were close, like sisters. I hadn’t seen or heard from either of them in years. When I fell out of touch with someone, I fell all the way. Apparently.

I looked in the doorway to Ben’s room, “Bonnie?”

She looked up at the sound of her name. She didn’t seem surprised to see me or happy, for that matter.

“Hi,” she said. She barely opened her mouth to say it. Her eyes were red-rimmed and puffy.

“Hi,” I returned, and put on my friendliest long-time, no-see smile.

She didn’t return my smile. I left it there anyway, despite the look of contempt that flashed in her eyes.

“Did Jill call you too?” I asked.

“No, I called Jill,” she said. She raised her left hand, her palm facing towards her. It took me a moment to realize what she was doing, but when it dawned on me, all the blood drained out of my face. On her left ring finger was a modestly sized diamond ring.

“You’re the fiancé?” My head reeled. I couldn’t believe it. “But you’re my best friend.”

“I was your best friend.” Special emphasis on the was. “You took off, Abby. You left us all. Not just Ben.”

“No,” I sputtered. “I didn’t leave you. Just Ben. Not you. Never you.”

“Could have fooled me,” she said. “When was the last time you called? The last time you emailed or texted?”

I couldn’t remember.

I shook my head.

“That’s right,” she said. “I can’t remember either.”

“I’m sorry,” I said.

“I got over it,” she said.

“Apparently,” I said gesturing to Ben.

“Get over yourself,” she said. “What? Did you call dibs on him?”

“No, but you know what he’s like. What he was like to me? How could you?”

“He’s not like that to me,” she said. Her eyes narrowed, and she shrugged her shoulders. “It must have been just you.”

“Excuse me?” I sputtered.

“He’s been nothing but sweet and kind to me from the beginning.”

“How is that possible? You saw what he was like. You’re the one who told me that he was bad for me. You said that he was incapable of not hurting me. Remember that? You said Ben plus me equals bad, bad, bad?”

“It seems that you were the negative variable in that equation. Remove you, and he’s nothing short of amazing, and he’s my amazing.”

I shook my head in disbelief, “Is this some sort of alternate reality?”

“Sorry,” she said. “Hate to disappoint. Interesting how this is all about you? Isn’t it? Always poor, poor Abby. My fiancé is here in a coma, and we’re talking about you and your hurt feelings.”

“I’m sorry. You’re right,” I said. I felt terrible. She was right. I was being a selfish, petty bitch.

“What I would like to know is why did he go to see you?”

“Jill said he was coming to tell me that he was engaged.”

“Why didn’t he just call? Why was he driving up to see you? Why did he have to see you?” She said.

“I don’t know,” I said.

“I don’t believe you.”

“Really, I don’t know,” I said. “I didn’t even know he was coming. He called me on his way and left a message.”

“Why should I believe you?” she said. “Were you sleeping with him?”

“No, we weren’t sleeping together,” I said. “The first time I saw Ben in the last seven years was just now. Right here.”

“Look at you,” she said. “Were you in the accident with him?”

“No,” I said. “Separate accident.”

She covered her face, and began to weep, her delicate shoulders shaking.

She cried, and I—I just didn’t know what to do. My arms hung useless at my sides. Her pain was overwhelming; I could feel it pulsing against my face like the heat from a fire.

“He has your pictures. I found them under the bed. The ones of you and the ones taken by you.”

Ben kept my photos—is what I wanted to say, but instead all I said was, “Oh.”

She sobbed louder.

“Can I get you something?” I asked.

“I don’t want anything from you,” she wrapped her arms around her waist.

“Why? Why did he have to go see you?” she said bitterly. It wasn’t a question. It was a lament.

“What do the doctors say?” I asked.

“His brain is swelling. They say that it doesn’t look good,” she said. She hunched over, folding herself over her arms.

“I’m so sorry,” I said.

A nurse came in with a box of tissue and said, “Here you go, dear.”

“I don’t want your sorry,” Bonnie said to me. She took the box from the nurse. She blew her nose hard. “I just want you to go away. Like last time. Only this time, stay away—from us, from both of us—forever.”

Chapter 22

 

For a time, I sat in the hospital parking lot in the Buick. Even though, I had parked the car in the shade and rolled all the windows down, it was hot. I sat there until I couldn’t stand it anymore.

With the loose change I found in Ingrid’s cup holder, I got out of the car and went back up to the hospital entrance. There were only two pay phones, and one of them was out of order. I dropped the coins into the slot, wiped the handset on my jeans, and dialed Nick’s number. It rang six times, and then went to voicemail.

“Nick’s phone, leave a message.”

“Nick, it’s Abby. I’m still in Salem. I’m about to start back. I just realized that no one knows where I am except for you, and I like that. I mean, I like that you know where I am. I wish I had taken you up on your offer to come. Anyway, ‘Bye. See you soon.”

I hung up.

I was out of change, so the next number I called, I called collect.

“Abby? Are you alright? Why are you calling collect? What’s wrong?” the woman on the other end of the phone said.

“I’m mostly okay, Mom. I just wanted to talk.”

“So, you called collect just to talk? Do you have any idea how expensive it is to call collect?”

“No,” I said.

“It’s very expensive,” she said. “Are you in some sort of trouble?”

“Maybe,” I said.

“Alcohol? Drugs? Are you pregnant?”

“No. None of that. I’m having these dreams, Mom, that I’m somebody else in some other time. They feel real. I think something’s wrong with me.”

Mom heaved a sigh, “Not that again.”

“What do you mean not that again?”

“Oh, Abbygale, you’re so dramatic. You’ve always been dramatic. There’s nothing wrong with you but your overactive imagination. Whoever said, don’t let your imagination run away with you, was surely talking about you. Don’t you remember the dreams you used to have when we lived in that house on Ballymeade Street in Salem before we moved to Portland?”

“No,” I said.

“I even took you to a counselor for those dreams. What a waste of money that was.”

“Mom, I don’t remember the dreams can you tell me about them?”

“You expect me to remember all these years later when you don’t even remember?”

“Mom, I was like eight when we lived in that house.”

“Abby, do you have any idea how expensive this is going to be? I can’t afford to take a collect-call trip down memory lane right now. We’re up to our ears in your step-father’s medical bills.”

“Can you tell me about the dreams?”

“Geez, Abby, I don’t remember. That was so long ago. You dreamed about a girl. Some girl. That crackpot therapist wanted to put you on medication. Now, that would have been a recipe for disaster. You actually had him convinced that you thought you were some little girl from a previous life. You’re lucky he didn’t want to commit you.”

“What was the name of the girl I dreamt about?”

“I’ll never forget that name. Claire. You even wanted to me to start calling you Claire. You were such a weird, little kid.”

“I’m sorry I was weird,” I said.

“I really should go now,” she said. “Let’s talk about this later, not collect.”

She hung up the phone before I could say goodbye.

I put the receiver back on the hook.

I walked back across the parking lot to the Buick. There was nothing to be done, but get back home. The Buick glinted in the afternoon sun. The seat burned my back through my thin shirt, and I could barely hold the steering wheel, it was so hot.

I really should have taken Nick up on his offer to come with me. What if I had another episode? I swallowed hard and reminded myself that I did really well last time. I had pulled off the road, and everything turned out okay.

Just an hour. I had to make it an hour, and then I would be back in Portland.

I put my hand on the dash and patted. “Don’t worry. We’ll make it back.”

I took a left out of the hospital parking lot and wound around the streets of Salem looking for the on-ramp to I-5.

It was then I saw it.

Sitting back off the road, slumping, neglected, darkened with the soot from a long ago fire, it was the same building Claire Johnson was taken to by the police officer, the building that she called the Institute.

I was stopped at a red light when I saw it looming from the distance. I recognized it instantly, and I couldn’t take my eyes off of it. The traffic light changed to green, and I didn’t even notice. I was completely immobilized. With what? Fear?

Yes, definitely fear.

A horn blared behind me.

I looked into the rear view mirror. The man in the car behind me gestured for me to go forward, and then gestured for me to go screw myself.

Nice.

A gas station with a small convenience store sat on the corner, and I pulled into it. In the store, a large black man was behind the register reading a music magazine. Hotdogs turned lazily on the hotdog roller grill. Other than me and the clerk, the store was empty.

“Excuse me?” I said.

He looked over his magazine but didn’t put it down. He raised his eyebrows.

“What’s up?”

“Can you tell me what that place is?” I pointed out the window to the building.

“Oh, that place? Creepy as hell isn’t it? They say it’s haunted.” His eyes grew really big for emphasis.

“What is it?”

“Don’t know for sure. Heard it used to be some hospital for crazy people long time ago.”

“Really?”

“Heard back in the day, they used to wrangle up anyone who was crazy or retarded or a criminal. That’s where they put the kid ones. Over there.” He jerked his head toward the building. “Now, it’s just a place where the idiot teens sneak in at night and try to scare the crap out of themselves. Supposed to be locked up and condemned, but that don’t stop ‘em.”

“It’s haunted?”

“Oh yeah, big time. You’d never catch me sneaking around in there. Creeps me out just having to look at it out the window.” He shivered his shoulders.

I laid a pack of gum on the counter, and he rang me up.

“Thanks,” I said.

“You got it.” He went back to reading his magazine.

 

 

I drove the Buick over there, down the same long drive the patrolman had driven Claire. I couldn’t get even a third of the way down the drive. I stopped at the first set of orange construction barricades and walked the rest of the way.

The hairs on the back of my neck stood on end, and I felt little pulses of electricity surge in my hands and feet. This place was creepy. It was beyond creepy. The windows on the first floor were boarded up. People had spray painted the boards. The part of the building that had caught fire leaned dangerously to the side. Almost as if it just wanted to lie down on the grass, it had had enough.

Nothing was safe about this place. The drive was rutted with potholes. Broken concrete pushed upward into sharp peaks, the work of persistent tree roots running underneath. Vines and tree branches wound themselves into some of the broken windows on the second floor. Nature was doing its level best to reclaim this space.

I watched my footing and climbed carefully around the last set of barricades. There were No Trespassing signs and Condemned signs posted on any surface that could hold an industrial strength staple.

It wasn’t long before I stood at the door that Claire had run through, away from Dr. Black and toward Nurse Cross and whatever punishment was waiting for her. I laid my hand, flat-palmed against the door. I swear I could feel it electrify under my touch.

I continued walking down the side of the building and around the back. Out behind the back of the building, there was nothing but tangled weeds, thorny bushes, piles of spent bricks. It looked nothing like how I thought it ought to look. I bent to pick up a loose brick, and then tossed it back on top of the pile of other bricks and debris.

The little pulses of electricity continued to surge in my hands and feet. The pulses intensified until I buzzed all over with energy. I knew what was going to happen next, and as much as I wanted to run. I knew it would do no good. My face had suffered enough, so instead of running, I knelt on the ground. Resting my hands on my thighs and sat back on my feet, I prepared for another episode.

Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. My instinct pounded like bass drum in my gut.

I ignored it and waited for the nausea and the darkness, and the feeling of being ripped in two.

Chapter 23

 

Claire knelt on the ground picking zucchini. She placed each zucchini into the basket carefully, stacking them neatly. This was her favorite part of the day, working in the garden. It wasn’t intended to be any of the charges’ favorite part of the day, it was meant to be rigorous, manual labor, like much of her other chores. But unlike scrubbing the hallway, scouring the toilet, assisting in bathing, dressing and feeding the less capable girls, she saw the purpose in the garden, the blessing the earth provided in each tomato, zucchini, and bean.

She loved digging her hand into the rich soil, feeling its cool moistness against her fingers, plucking out the weeds, planting seeds and bulbs and potato cuts, and harvesting the bounty.

She could lose herself completely in the garden. It was beautiful only by accident. It was intended to be of service, utilitarian. Claire thought that was sad, to be only of service, to be giving, giving, giving, growing and providing, and never receiving anything in return.

She planted each seed with love, she tended each plant with care, and each vegetable that she plucked she imbued with its very own personality—some witty, some wise, some handsome and charming, some not cute at all but clever and capable. Each had its own role to play for the short trip from the earth to her basket.

The zucchini that the she cut from the plant was huge, and she imagined him to be the strong man in a circus. He looked at her incredulously, who was she to pluck him from the ground?

She had been to a circus once when she was much younger and still with her mother before Cybil. If she closed her eyes, she could still see the elephants prance around the ring with ladies lounging on their backs. She had never seen such elegant women in her whole life.

The circus came to Salem a month ago. Of course, they weren’t allowed to attend, but she could hear the circus marching down Main Street enticing all the men, women, and children with the excitement of the show.

She lay awake that night imagining the circus except this time she was the elegant woman on the elephant with the men staring at her daring dress, and the women lost in fits of jealousy.

It was certainly an uncharitable thought, and normally she would never allow herself to think anything so unbecoming, but she was especially sad that night. She had met the future Mrs. Dr. Neal Black for the first time; so just that once, she allowed it. She allowed herself to be beautiful and bold and triumphant, and she relished the envy of all the women watching. Finally, she had something someone else wanted.

“Claire,” Nurse Flanagan interrupted her daydream. She was the kindest of the whole lot of nurses. She was short and round with a kind face and the saddest eyes Claire had ever seen.

“Yes’m?” Claire said.

“Dr. Black wants to see you in his office,” she said. “Wash your hands and face and tidy your hair, and get there as fast as you can.”

“Yes’m,” Claire stood and heaved her basket of vegetables to her hip.

“Here, give me that, child,” Nurse Flanagan took the basket from Claire. “Now, get.”

Claire hurried as fast as she could without running. At the Institute, running was frowned upon. She washed her face and hands and rebraided her hair as fast as she could. She liked her face today and smiled at herself in the mirror. Seeing Dr. Black was enough to have her smiling for days. On impulse, she pinched her cheeks until they flushed and bit her lips until they were rosy.

 

 

She knocked on the door of Dr. Black’s office.

“Come in,” he called.

She walked in and closed the door behind her.

“Claire,” Dr. Black smiled. “You are looking quite well. Pretty as ever.”

“Thank you,” Claire said.

She took a seat on the small sofa. She concentrated on making her face as sweet as possible. She arranged the skirt of her uniform dress just so, and crossed her legs at the ankle.

Dr. Black stood up from behind his desk and walked to the window. Pulling the drape aside, he looked out. He watched as Dr. Black Sr. the administrator of the Institute, got into his car and drove down the gravel drive. He stayed there looking out the window until his father’s car turned onto the road.

He let the curtain fall back into place.

“Dr. Black Sr. has a meeting this afternoon,” he said. “He won’t be back until tomorrow.”

Claire said nothing. She smiled prettily.

Dr. Black shifted from foot to foot. Claire couldn’t see his face, just his back. He dropped his head, and his shoulders sagged, his hands in the pockets of his pants. He stood that way for a long moment, a man frozen in time.

Claire waited.

Finally, he shook his head as if to clear it, straightened his spine, and walked briskly across the room and locked the door.

Claire’s heart beat faster.

“Come to me, Claire,” he said.

She ran to him, and he folded her into his arms. He kissed her softly on the forehead and then on each cheek. He held her face with both of his hands. His hazel eyes were large and soft, and he closed them when his lips found her mouth. He kissed her hungrily, and she kissed him back.

She stood in her tiptoes and wrapped her arms around his neck.

“Oh, sweet Jesus,” he moaned. Lifting her off the floor, he carried her to the sofa. “I don’t know what I would have done if you had run away. Why do you want to hurt me so? I was scared that I might never see you again, my sweet little Claire. Something terrible could have happened to you.”

He laid her back onto the sofa.

“Tell me to stop, and I will,” he murmured between kisses.

She said nothing.

 

 

They lay entwined on the couch. His leg over hers. Her leg over his. Claire was nestled against his chest. He absentmindedly caressed her hair, twining it between his fingers.

This is what it feels like to be alive, she thought.

She had always heard that being alive was better than the alternative, but compared to most of her days, Claire wasn’t certain. She held onto the hope that one day, her life would be her own once more. When you are living life, the air smells better, and she inhaled deeply and sighed.

“What are you thinking about?” he asked.

“Someday soon I will be free of this place,” she said.

He propped himself up on his elbow and looked down at her. He disliked it when she talked about leaving. The Institute was his only tie to her. She was like a balloon, bright and beautiful, and headed for the sky, but for the string he held.

“Claire,” he admonished. “I hope you are not thinking about running away again.”

“No, just that someday, I’ll be free. They can’t keep me here forever,” she said.

He kissed her hard on the mouth. Her lips were swollen with his kisses, and her face glowed. She was an angel, if ever there was such a thing.

“You’re so beautiful,” he said.

She giggled and pushed against his chest with her hand. He grabbed the hand and kissed her palm, and closed her fingers into a fist around the kiss.

“Keep that,” he said. “A kiss to remember me by. To take with you wherever you go.”

“I won’t go far,” she said. “We’re meant to be together, you and I.”

“Oh, Claire,” he sighed. He disliked it even more when she started talking like this.

“It’s true,” she said. “I can’t help it if you don’t want to hear the truth.”

“I’m engaged to be married,” he said, “We can never be together in that way.”

“You don’t act like an engaged man,” she said. “Do you want to know why that is?”

He shook his head, more in exasperation than reply.

“It’s because in your heart, you know that you belong with me, that you are mine just as I am yours,” she said. “We are intended in the eyes of God. We’re soul mates.”

“Claire,” he sat up abruptly. “How many times do I have to tell you that you can’t talk like that?”

She sat up too, pulling her legs of his lap. With tears welling up in her eyes, she looked at him. She pinched her left arm hard until the urge to cry passed. What she really wanted to do was pinch him.

“You told me that you felt whole when you were with me. Remember that?” she said.

“I remember,” he sighed. “I shouldn’t have said that. It was misleading, and I never meant to mislead you. I care about you, I really do despite everything.”

“Do you love her?” she asked.

“Remember when we promised not to talk about her? The last thing I want to do is hurt your feelings.”

“Do you love her?” Claire asked again.

“It’s not that easy. You’ll see. The world isn’t always black and white. There are a lot of shades of gray. She comes from a good family. Her family’s Pedigree is above reproach. I am meant to be with someone of her standing. Men like me are expected to have children with women like her; it is our duty to society. The world isn’t what it used to be. America isn’t what it used to be. Our society is threatened from all sides. Even from within. We are breeding more and more degenerates. I have a chance to stem the tide. As my father’s son and as an American, it is my duty to have strong, moral, decent children.”

“I can give you children,” Claire said.

“Be serious, Claire. I could never have children with you.”

“You’re wrong. We’re destined to be together.”

“Claire, stop. You’re only going to end up with hurt feelings.”

“I know it to be true. An angel told me.”

“Stop.”

“You’re not supposed to be with her. You’re supposed to be with me.”

“End of discussion.”

“You have to believe me.” She jumped up, and stood before him naked. “You must believe me, that is the only way we can make it right this time.”

“Claire! Stop! I will not listen to your ravings,” he hissed. He grabbed his pants and put them on, one angry leg at a time. “Get a hold of yourself.”

“I will not,” she yelled right back. “The angel said that if you marry her and not me, we will both die!”

“Lower your voice,” he grabbed her by her arms. “You are a child, Claire. Those are stories that you have made up. You’re a special, beautiful child, with an imagination that is bigger than you are. Now it is time to grow up, and be the woman I need you to be. You must stop all this nonsense. When you talk about these things as if they are real, people think you belong here.”

“Do you think I belong here?” she asked.

“Your mother is crazy, and of questionable morals, and Cybil is—”

“Cybil is three!” she shrieked at him. “Cybil is a baby. There is nothing wrong with her.”

“And then there is you. You are smart, wily, sometimes brilliant, but then you spout these fantastical stories, and no matter how many times I tell you that for your own good, you need to keep your fantasy life to yourself, you don’t. Sometimes I wonder—”

“Wonder what? If I’m a crazy whore like my mother? Which part of that do you object to? Let go of me so I can dress!”

“This tantrum is really unbecoming,” he said.

He withdrew his hands as if she had turned to fire. She grabbed her gray shift dress and raked it over her head. She looked madly around for her underwear tossing the sofa pillows over her shoulder.

“You’re having a fit. You must calm yourself,” he said. “Let’s not do this. We were having such a nice time; let’s go back to that. Let me hold you and kiss you some more before we have to say goodnight.”

“You don’t understand,” she said. Close to tears, she pinched the tender part of her arm again, repeatedly as hard as she could, leaving a trail of hot red marks from elbow to wrist. “How can I make you believe me?”

“Stop.” He grabbed both of her hands in one of his hands to prevent her from pinching herself any further. Tenderly, he rubbed the marks with his other hand.

“It’s okay,” he said in a voice meant to placate. The same voice he used with the others.

Claire wouldn’t have it. “What can I do to make you believe me?”

“I don’t know if I can, Claire. You’re asking too much of me.”

“I wouldn’t ask if it wasn’t important,” she said.

“Tell me, why it’s so important,” he said.

“Because you love me, and because if you don’t believe me, we are doomed to die,” she said.

“Right, because you have lived so many lives, and because the angels have told you so.”

“Yes. Not angels. One angel.”

“What did the angel look like?”

“I didn’t see her, I just heard her. She spoke to me inside my head.”

“Do you have any idea how this sounds?”

“It’s the truth.”

He stood and finished dressing, slowly and deliberately. He buttoned up his shirt and tucked it in, pulled the suspenders over his shoulders, put on his shoes, and tidied his hair.

“Please dress now,” he said, again slowly and deliberately. “I’m calling the nurse to come and fetch you.”

“I don’t need to be fetched.”

“I think you do.”

“I do not need to be fetched!” She stood with her hands on her hips. “I can fetch myself.”

She picked a sofa pillow up off the floor and flung it at him. He dodged the first pillow with ease. The second one, however, hit him squarely in the face. She looked around for something else to hurl at him. Her shoe! She yanked it off her foot and flung that at him as well.

“Really now, Claire,” he said sternly. He was serious, doctor-patient, Dr. Black now. Looking at him, you wouldn’t have guessed that twenty minutes ago, he had buried his face between her legs.

“I’ll be leaving now,” she said and stalked around his desk one-shoed. “Excuse me, Dr. Black,” she said retrieving her shoe from a stack of papers on his desk, where it had landed after it ricocheted off his shoulder.

“You will do no such thing,” he said. His face was contorted with the effort to conceal his anger. She was trying his patience to the extreme, and he was fairly choking on all the things he wanted to say that his gentlemanly, professional side held in tight control. His hand was still on the telephone.

She turned her back to him, which enraged him further. He was in control. He was the doctor. Things were going to be done his way.

“Oh!” she said and grabbed her forehead.

Neal paced back and forth. Exasperated. He held the receiver of the telephone in one hand, brandishing it like a sword, the cord stretched taught. He still hadn’t dialed.

He pointed the telephone receiver at Claire, “Calm down, Claire. I am giving you one more chance. Please get control of your emotions.”

“Abbygale is here,” she said. “Do you know what that means?”

“How could I possibly know what that means? First of all, who is Abbygale? And where is she?” He made a show of looking around the room, and finding no one, he shrugged his shoulders. “No one is here, Claire. I demand that you stop this fit right now, or I will have the nurse administer restraints.”

“What it means, Neal,” she landed hard on his first name, and he flinched. “Is that we don’t make it right. This—” she waved her hand indicating everything around her. “—is over. Abbygale is me in the future, and if she exists, that must mean, I have failed. It must mean that. How could it mean anything else?”

“What are you talking about? No, wait. Stop. I don’t want to hear any more.”

Claire opened her mouth, she was going to tell him anyway, but Neal Black leaned over the desk and roared, “Stop!” before she was able to say another word. Immediately, she sat down, still holding one shoe in her hand. She crossed her arms.

“I’m calling the nurse. We’re finished here. I cannot fathom why you would choose to test me in this way, Claire, but I cannot abide it. You are to say nothing else about this. Not one more word to me or to anyone else, for that matter. Do you understand?”

“Yes,” she said. “But—”

“Not one word!” he yelled. The veins on his neck popped out, and his face was an unhealthy shade of red.

“It probably doesn’t matter anymore anyway,” she said.

“Can you not just do as I ask? Claire? Please?” he changed his voice. He tried to make it sound sweet as if he just needed her to do him a favor, a small favor that was all.

“You have surely killed me, Dr. Black.”

Neal Black, pressed the hang-up button on the phone, and got a dial tone. He dialed the extension of the nurse’s station and summoned the nurse on duty to come and collect Claire. He told the nurse that Claire was having a fit, and needed to be removed from his room and any further stimulation of any sort. “The quiet room,” he said.

Claire sat on the sofa, arms folded. She refused to look at him. When the nurse came to collect her, Dr. Black was sitting in his chair. They were both silent, each doing their best to ignore the other.

“Come with me, Claire,” said Nurse Flanagan. “And for heaven’s sake, put your blessed shoe on.”

Nurse Flanagan looked around the room, taking in the scene. She made no comment on the state of disarray of either the room or the girl, but she was very careful not to look directly at Dr. Black.

“Quiet room, please, Nurse Flanagan. Restraints are not necessary unless she proves unruly. You will handle yourself correctly won’t you, Claire?” Doctor Black asked.

Claire ignored him. Arms crossed and chin held high, she made a point of ignoring him.

“I need my underthings, Nurse Flanagan.” Claire said to the Nurse.

Nurse Flanagan found the discarded things, rolled them in a ball, and tucked them under Claire’s arm.

“Come with me, Claire,” she said, and she placed her hand gently on Claire’s back and led her out of the room.

“It’s not what you think, Nurse Flanagan. She was having a fit,” Dr. Ian Black said to their backs.

“Yes, sir,” said Nurse Flanagan, still avoiding looking at him.

“He has killed me as sure as if he stabbed a knife into my belly,” Claire said.

“Hush, child. You’re not dead. Now, let’s get a move on, the quiet room awaits.” She closed the door to the doctor’s office softly.

Chapter 24

 

“Maybe she’s OD’d or something. Or dead,” said the girl.

“Sucks to be her,” said the boy.

“We can’t just leave her there.”

“Well, I’m not gonna check. Go yourself if that’s what you want. I couldn’t care less. You just ain’t using my cellphone to call the police.”

“Dave, really.”

“Knock yourself out.”

I could see the girl look at me, and look at Dave, and then back at me. She looked like a dog trying to decide if it was going to cross the street. Sure that whenever it decided to go, it was going to cross at the wrong time.

She sighed, a big put-out sigh, and walked heavily, crunching on the gravel in my direction.

I was laying flat on my back looking at the sky. I had heard them since their approach. They were not quiet. For example, I knew that Dave was really looking forward to getting a blow job, and that the girl had laughed as if Dave was the most charming motherfucker on earth when he said, “C’mon baby suck me off.”

Now was my turn to sigh. I ripped my gaze off the white, fluffy clouds skittering across the sky, and looked at the girl.

“I’m okay,” I said.

She shrieked and jumped backward. Clearly she wasn’t expecting me to say anything.

“You scared the shit out of me,” she said giggling.

‘Didn’t mean to,” I said.

“Watcha doing?” she asked.

“Laying on my back on the grass and looking at the sky,” I stated the obvious.

“Well, I can see that,” she said. “But why?”

A plus for being observant, I thought.

“If I lay in exactly the right spot, I can connect with a past life,” I said.

“No shit?” She asked.

“No shit,” I confirmed.

“Sweet. You think it will work for me?” She said.

“Don’t know. You can try.”

She lay down on the grass next to me.

“What does it feel like? Y’know when you’re connecting?” she said

“Your hands and feet burn so bad that you think they’re on fire. You get so nauseous you just throw up, and then eventually you black out,” I said.

“Well, that don’t sound like any fun,” she said.

“It’s not.”

“It ain’t working for me. Were you high when you did it?”

“Nope, not high. Just in the right place at the right time,” I said.

We lay there for a minute or two more in silence until Dave started yelling, “Darla, stop fucking around. I only got twenty-five minutes before I have to be back at work, and if I’m late one more time, I’m gonna get fired.”

“Sounds like you got to go, Darla,” I said.

“I’m coming!” she hollered like a truck driver. That girl could use her diaphragm.

“She dead?” he hollered back.

‘No, she ain’t dead,” Darla bellowed back.

“I told you she weren’t dead,” Dave.

“No, you didn’t,” Darla.

“Maybe you should go,” I said.

“Yeah,” she popped up from the ground. “Guess you’re right.”

She offered me a toothy smile.

I smiled back.

“Darla!” Dave again.

“I’m comin’!”

Darla half-walked, half-jogged herself back to Dave. Her breasts bounced pendulously only being supported by a spaghetti strap tank top. She hoisted them up with both hands and hurried a little faster. Dave was waiting.

Dear, darling Darla, get a bra, I thought.

I felt dizzy as if I had spun myself and held my breath at the same time.

The clouds scooted by, and the breeze was pleasant on my face.

I wanted to just lie here, but I hauled myself off the ground. I inspected as much of myself as I could see. Nothing new seemed damaged, and the parts I couldn’t see didn’t feel any worse.

I dragged myself back to the Buick, listing to the right, and correcting every so often.

Some douche bag had snapped the hood ornament off the Buick.

Crap.

I was willing to bet the name of the culprit began with a D, Douche Bag Dave or Douche Bag Darla.

Before I left Salem, I drove back to the little gas station across the street. The big black clerk had been replaced by a stringy-haired, white girl who looked like she was on the left side of forty with a mask of cheap make-up but was probably nineteen.

I spent the last of the money I had in my bank account on a throwaway, prepaid cell phone.

I felt alone, removed from everyone. I felt that at any moment, I might spin off the Earth. Maybe talking to someone might make me feel grounded, tethered to the ground, bound by gravity. I was willing to try anything to calm my fear that at any moment my atoms would cease to be connected and that my somethingness might dissolve into nothingness.

I called Nick again from the car. Got his voicemail—again. I guess for Nick some of the shine of Abby Neely had worn off. I couldn’t blame him.

Next, I called the one person that I knew would answer the phone no matter what.

I called Jason.

“Hey! Miss Bliss, how’re you doing? I’m gonna stop by after I close up. How do a chocolate brownie and an iced mocha sound? It’ll cure what ails you.”

“Chocolate the great panacea. Sounds great, but I’m not there.”

“You’re what? Not there? Panacea, Isn’t that the great big continent in the beginning. Before they all split and drifted apart?” I could hear him putting the chairs up on the table. “Where are you?”

“You’re thinking of Pangaea. I’m in Salem. I’m coming back right now, but I’m so tired, I’m scared I’m going to fall asleep. Will you talk to me while I drive back?”

“Why the hell are you in Salem? You should be sleeping or hanging out or doing something boring, not driving anywhere. Are you even okay enough to drive?”

“I’m fine enough. Just really tired. I guess it’s all catching up with me.”

“You didn’t answer. What’s in Salem?”

“An old friend in the hospital. He was in a motorcycle accident.”

“Wow. Not good. Your friend going to be okay?”

“Don’t know. Coma.”

“Rough,” he said.

“Tell me something good. I need to hear something good. Tell me a Jason story,” I said.

“Dance, monkey, dance, huh?” he laughed. “I’m no good on the spot. I’m at my best off the cuff.”

He ho-hummed a bit before thinking of something to talk about then he chit-chatted me the rest of the way back to Portland.

Chapter 25

 

Once back in Portland, I didn’t stop at home. I went straight to my meeting with Akio. He waited for me outside his building. He had a way of waiting that made him look like he wasn’t waiting. He stood on the sidewalk hands at his sides, wearing sunglasses, a t-shirt, and jeans. If I had only one word to describe him at that moment, it would be still. The world moved around him leaving a wake of atmosphere where he stood. Watching him made me feel like I could see the rotation of the Earth.

He walked over to the car and smiled, leaning into the open passenger side window.

“Good evening, Abbygale,” he said.

“Should I drive?” I asked.

“I suspect that you would prefer this form of conveyance than what I usually use. Considering, you’re hand is broken, it might prove very difficult to hold on. This—” he said indicating the Buick. “—will do, and quite adequately, I’m sure.”

He opened the door and sat in the passenger seat. He put on the seatbelt.

“So you don’t get pulled over,” he winked.

“What is your normal form of conveyance?” I was intrigued. What would an ancient creature use in the present day to get from here to there? I couldn’t even venture a guess.

“Motorcycle. What did you think?”

“I don’t know, something ancient and secret, maybe,” I said.

“I prefer the motorcycle. The ancient and secret methods aren’t nearly as fast and are often more trouble than they’re worth,” he said. “I’ve briefed the doctor about your unique situation, and he’s eager to meet you.”

“Okay,” I said, suddenly feeling nervous. “Last night, you said he was one of your clients. So how does someone go about becoming one of your clients?” I asked.

“You tell me,” he said. “You’ve somehow managed.”

“They get in a terrible car accident, nearly die, only to be told in the hospital where they think that they are safe, that they are going to die at any moment if they don’t escape said hospital. Oh and by the way, here’s the name of some man who can help you with your problem?”

“In not so many words, yes,” Akio said. “I operate a referral only business. I don’t need to advertise. I’m sought out by the most powerful and brilliant men.”

“Only powerful and brilliant men?” I asked.

“Almost exclusively powerful men and brilliant men, and I use the term men inclusive to the whole of your species, including women, lest you point that out. I’m an equal opportunity dream devourer. The powerful and the brilliant suffer the most from Nightmare, new mothers as well. Wherever the fear of loss is the greatest, Nightmare can be found lurking and preying.”

“And then you eat them? The nightmares, I mean.”

“Yes, I, in turn, feed on nightmare.”

“Like a food chain,” I said.

“Exactly like a food chain. I am the top, of course,” he said. “Fear, Despair, Nightmare, all predators of great skill and cunning, admirable foes, devilsome, wicked, clever, but I am matchless. I can out-devil, out-wicked, out-clever, and out-cun—anything. The Baku’s legend is enduring. I have withstood time, and even she bends around me.”

“You sound like a good friend to have around,” I said.

“I’m nobody’s friend, Abbygale Neely. Would you befriend a polar bear? You missed our turn,” he said.

“Maybe we should have driven separately,” I said. “I’m not normally in the habit of giving polar bears rides anywhere, especially ones who give lousy directions.”

Akio laughed.

I pulled an illegal U-turn, one-handed, and turned on to the road he indicated. Akio directed me to stop at a small church, white with a little steeple.

“A church?”

“Yes.”

“He lives here?”

“It’s no longer a place of worship–to a conventional deity. The doctor is deeply scientific and has eschewed all formal religion,” he shrugged and shook his head. “You and I both know that science is in and of itself as much of a religion with perhaps more ardent and passionate followers than Christianity, Islam, Judaism, et cetera.”

I knew this? I nodded.

“Alright, then so does this famous and brilliant doctor have a name?” I asked.

“Bruce Denman,” said Akio.

“What? The Bruce Denman? Bruce Denman of DenmanNoos?”

“That’s him.”

“No way! Bruce Denman, really?”

“Yes, really. Do you know him?”

“Everybody knows him,” I looked at the little white church again, this time star-struck. “Wow.”

Akio snorted. “Act normal. He’s just a man.”

“Sure. Just a man who is the richest, most influential man in the entire world. Founder of DenmanNoos, Eterne Man of the Year, Peace Prize winner. He’s seriously a big deal.”

“I’m seriously a big deal, and you weren’t struck dumb in my presence.”

I sat for a beat. My heart pounding. My hands sweating.

“Are you going to come with me?” Akio asked. He had his door open and one leg out of the car.

I pulled the key from the ignition, but still made no move to get out.

“Don’t embarrass yourself,” Akio said.

I glared at him, and opened my car door.

“Before we disembark, I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that hospitals aren’t safe,” he said.

“I’m sorry. I don’t follow,” I said. I turned back to look at him.

“You said that you had thought yourself safe in the hospital. They’re not safe.”

“Apparently,” I said.

“And another thing. Have you heard the phrase safe as houses?”

“Yes.”

“That phrase is useless. Doubtless contrived by some felon set to prey on his fellows the moment they feel safe behind their two-inch thick wooden doors and walls made out of wood and glass. On the whole, houses are probably the least safe place. In mind and body, humans are weak, it’s a wonder anywhere is safe. Don’t get me started.” He was halfway down the walk before I was even halfway out of the car. I hurried to catch up. “One last thing—” he said turning to face me, but before he could say anything else, the double doors to the little white chapel opened.

Bruce Denman stepped into the warm yellow light provided by the ornate lamp that hung over the doorway of the little church. “Akio, friend, do come in.”

“Bruce,” said Akio inclining his head, stiff and formal, turning partially but not all the way. Akio then placed his hand on my back and led me down the walk and up the three steps to stand in front of Bruce Denman.

Bruce Denman held out his hand to me, “I’m Bruce.”

“This is Abbygale,” Akio said and looked at me. “No last names.”

Bruce Denman’s eyes were clear blue and crinkled at the corners when he smiled. I blushed. I couldn’t help it. I tried to act nonchalant like my face wasn’t on fire. I don’t think I pulled it off.

I’d seen Bruce Denman on the television countless times and on the covers of magazines. He was even more perfect in person and taller than I thought he would be.

“Telling her the ways of the world, I see. Listen to him. The Cat knows what he’s talking about. It’s prudent practice to never provide your full name to anyone, if you can help it. There are things that go bump in the night, and they might use your name against you.”

He still held out his hand. I took it and we shook. I couldn’t believe I was shaking Bruce Denman’s hand, the hand of arguably the most influential man in the world. His hand was warm and strong, and he gave my hand a slight squeeze before releasing it.

“Please come in,” he said, and Akio and I followed Bruce Denman into the little white chapel.

Chapter 26

 

“It’s beautiful,” I said.

I was raised Catholic, the dutiful every Sunday type. I went to Catholic school, the plaid jumpers, white shirts, white knee socks, saying grace before opening my brown sack lunch. The whole shebang.

I knew my way around a church, any church. They all felt the same, smelled the same, looked the same. The only difference, and it was not much of one, was the Jesus on the crucifix that hung over the altar.

You could tell a lot about a church and its congregation by their Jesus. The Jesus over the altar at the church where I went to elementary school in Salem was beautiful. He didn’t look sad or in pain or betrayed like a lot of Jesuses do. He looked transcendent, holy, more like an angel than like a man. His blond hair curled around the crown of thorns and his blue eyes lifted heavenward. A lot was expected of us at that school. We were to behave and toe the line and say exactly the right things and think exactly the right thoughts.

The Jesus at the middle school was different. He had brown hair and eyes and darker skin. He looked sad and instead of casting his eyes up to the sky, his eyes were closed. His countenance was of a man that was doing what he believed to be the right thing no matter how hard or painful. I liked that school a lot better.

I hadn’t been in a church in a long time, so long that my mom had stopped asking me if I’d gone to church the previous Sunday. Never before had I outlasted one of my mother’s guilt trips.

Akio and I followed Bruce Denman through the main doors into the vestibule of the church. This small entry room was separated from the rest of the church by two swinging, wooden doors that reached from floor to ceiling. The little room glowed with the warm light from two very simple, elegant light fixtures on either side of the doors.

“I never would have thought that you would live in a church,” I said.

Bruce Denman was wealthy beyond my comprehension. He could live anywhere he wanted; yet he chose to live in this little white church in the middle of nowhere.

“To give credit where credit is due, my fiancé, Amanda was the one who saw the true potential of the space. She has a way of finding a diamond in the rough. It’s hers and hers alone. I live in a boring, predictable rich guy place. Not nearly as impressive,” he said. He pushed through the double doors. “It was once a Catholic church, St. Anne’s. It’s shaped as all traditional Catholic churches in the form of a cross. This room is called the Narthex and is designed to separate the outside from the important work of the church. Through these double doors, we enter the Nave. Nave is derived from the Latin word navis, which means ship, and it’s thought that the nave of the church refers to Noah’s Ark or the Barque of Peter. I’m not a religious man myself, but I find the symbolism and the history of the church interesting.”

The nave of the church, where the congregation had once sat so long ago had been cleared of pews. How many weddings? How many baptisms? How many funerals had this place seen? The memories, the lives, the joys, the sadness, I could see a hint of them in the arched, leaded stained glass windows that ran along the walls, but nowhere else. The room had been stripped of its original purpose and transformed into a living area. A seating area with leather couches took up half of the large space. The other half was filled with a long wooden table covered with open notebooks, a laptop computer, and a pushed back leather chair.

At the very end of the room, the three steps that led up to the altar remained untouched, but the altar itself was obscured with ten-foot shoji screen room dividers. I could see a chandelier hanging from the vaulted ceiling on the other side of the giant screen. The chandelier was lit. It glowed through the screen.

Just over the top of the shoji screen on the far church wall, I could see part of the original church crucifix, the very top of Jesus’ head with the crown of thorns. This Jesus’ eyes were open. Instead of looking up or down, he was looking into the congregation. I wasn’t sure what emotion he was expressing because I couldn’t see his mouth, but his eyes looked defiant.

Other than the stained glass windows, the Jesus was the only other thing that screamed Church. It seemed oddly out of place in the redesigned room with its elegant furniture. Where do you put a retired Jesus? It seemed sacrilegious to just put it anywhere. I supposed if I lived in an old church, I too would leave the crucifix alone. I couldn’t think of where else it ought to be except for where it had always been.

“Speak of the devil,” Bruce said. Akio froze mid-stride and looked over his shoulder.

A woman pushed through the double doors behind us. She carried shopping bags and hummed to herself, clearly not expecting visitors. She was startled to see us and nearly dropped one of the bags. Gracefully, she wrangled it back into her arms and equally gracefully hid the surprise from her face. For a split second though, I thought I saw fear in her eyes, but if that was so, she deftly masked it with a warm and welcoming smile.

“We were just talking about you, Amanda. I was speaking you up to Akio’s friend Abbygale,” Bruce said.

Amanda smiled, pleased, “Akio, it’s always a pleasure.”

Amanda was a beautiful woman. She reminded me of a Scarlet O’Hara doll my mother had when I was a child. The doll was far too beautiful to play with, my mother told me. She was only for looking at, and I never got to look at her as much as I wanted. She was for special occasion looking only.

“Amanda, you’re as beautiful as ever, a vision,” Akio said.

Amanda set her bags down, and hugged Akio and kissed him on the cheek.

“It’s been a long time,” she said to Akio before turning her attention to Bruce, “Work?”

“I’m afraid so,” he said. “Can I rain-check our dinner?”

Amanda blinked. Her smile gone for a moment and then back again, “Yes, of course.”

“That’s my girl,” Bruce said.

“Nice to meet you, Abbygale,” Amanda said to me before collecting her bags and going back the way she had come, the double doors swinging behind her.

“I hope we’re not interrupting,” I said.

“Think nothing of it. I don’t,” Bruce said. “Amanda is used to it. I’m an unashamed workaholic. It comes with the territory, and I’m afraid I take full advantage of her forgiving nature. Well,” he turned in a circle, arms spread, “This pretty much concludes the tour, downstairs has been converted to a giant workspace and lab that is wholly uninteresting and completely lacking in Amanda’s artful touch, and attached is the former priests quarters which is now largely Amanda’s space.”

Denman led us to a circle of armchairs, a seating area separate from the main seating area.

“I wouldn’t have come to you, if I thought anyone else might be able to help her,” Akio said settling into a plush chair.

“With what you’ve told me, my interest is definitely piqued,” said Bruce. He steepled his fingers, resting his elbows on the chair arms. “Tell me what’s been going on with you that has the Cat so interested, Abbygale.”

I told him. I told him the whole story from the first dreams with Ben, to the car accident, to Anna Beth Sugarman, to finding myself at an asylum in Salem and Claire, all of it. I was careful, picking and choosing my words. I knew full well how it must sound. How it did sound. I kept my voice calm and detached, clinical, desperately trying to not come across as crazy, which was not easy.

I made it almost to the end of the tale when I stopped. I stopped cold. I couldn’t continue. I couldn’t bear to hear my voice any longer. Not one more word.

I sounded downright insane.

The telling of it hurt my pride. I sighed, and blew heavily out of my mouth. Dropping my head, I closed my eyes. The silence stretched between us. Finally I looked up, “I’m going to cry if I keep going.”

Akio smiled sympathetically, but said nothing.

Bruce Denman said nothing as well, his forehead furrowed in thought.

“I’m not crazy,” I said finally. Defiant.

Neither commented.

“I’m not,” I said again.

Akio sat with legs sprawled in front of him, “See,” he turned to Denman. “I thought you might be interested in her.”

“Interested? An understatement, Cat,” Denman rubbed his hands together, his brow still furrowed. “What I wouldn’t give to cut into her brain and get a good look.”

.

 

Part II—In which we learn more about Bruce Denman. The events that follow occur eight years ago. It is winter.

 

 

Chapter 27

 

The morning light streamed through the windows. He tip-toed carefully trying not to disturb her. It was late, or more specifically, early—5 o’clock in the morning. He had worked all night long, wrestling with his notebooks, pencils, white boards, test results. He outlasted Karl by hours.

He could make this work. No one believed him; even Karl was beginning to falter. The look in his eyes gave it away, the way he could barely hold Bruce’s eye contact these last few days.

Bruce had found a copy of Karl’s resume on the printer. It was the beginning of the end. He didn’t mention it, the resume, but he could feel Karl’s tension, the guilt oozed out of him, Bruce could practically smell it.

Karl Weber was a good man, one of the finest men that Bruce had ever known. They’d been working for the last two years on this technology. At first, lock-step, Karl brought a lot to the table, but as the months wore on what Karl brought was less and less. Bruce was far outpacing him, his intellectual capacity, his way of thinking differently, never ceased to amaze Karl. At weaker moments, Karl felt envious. He’d never met anyone like Bruce, brilliant by any definition, but more—more ingenious, more inventive, more ambitious, more on the cutting edge. Karl began to feel like a grade-schooler when compared to Bruce’s brilliance. It was unfair, life wasn’t fair, and Karl was not one to allow himself to be mired down by meager emotions. He was, first and foremost, a scientist, and secondly a man of morals and standards. He believed envy was for lesser men, and he was not a lesser man. True, at his weaker moments, he gave in to those less evolved emotions, but never for long, and they never made him feel any better. Only worse.

Karl could no longer see where Bruce was going with the research, and he didn’t know if it was because intellectually he was simply not able to grasp it, or if, in fact, it wasn’t there to be grasped after all. Bruce said daily that they were close, but Karl wasn’t so sure anymore. His certainty and confidence in Bruce had waned as the months dragged on and the money got lean and although Bruce talked to investor after investor, they couldn’t see what Bruce saw either, and the project was quickly dying on the vine.

Bruce didn’t mention the resume. He left it in on the printer after collecting his own test results. It felt like a punch in the gut, and it was the first moment, that Bruce actually began to doubt himself. Every step along the way, he had felt so certain. This technology was going to change the world, and he was never surprised when a stuffed shirt at a research company or an ivy leaguer at a think tank didn’t get it. They were limited by their myopic vision, their IQs, their greed, the need to make money and profit, the desire to be rich and drive enviable cars, but Karl? How long had Karl not believed in the project?

He had looked over at Karl, who was connecting electrodes to a woman volunteer’s head, performing each task dutifully, religiously, methodically, and although Bruce wanted to ask him about the resume, he just couldn’t bring himself to mention it.

The night had been long and tense. Karl left about midnight for home, and Bruce toiled on. He felt as if he was on the brink, the cusp, but that was nothing new. He always felt as if he was on the brink. He itched with it, always thinking about the research in the back of his mind, it never left him. He was close, so close. It was only a matter of time. Every day he came to work, he felt it keenly, that today could be the day, and he only gave up on the day when the exhaustion caused him to see double and the coffee, even though it was a freshly made pot, tasted like burned crap in his mouth. He would stumble home, crawl into bed, curl up next to Sarah’s warm body, and drop off to sleep.

This morning, even though he crept barefoot, and kept the lights out and didn’t flush the toilet, he woke her up.

“When was the last time you ate?” she asked, her words thick with sleep.

Shit. The hour or two he had each night, warmed by her sleeping body, smelling her sweet skin, he lived for it. It was his favorite time. He would wonder what she dreamed about while he lay staring at the wall over her shoulder until he dropped off the cliff into sleep.

“I’m sorry, baby. I didn’t mean to wake you,” he said.

“I’ll make you something,” she said and moved to get out of bed.

“No,” he said. “I’m not hungry. I just want to lie next to you.”

She settled back into bed, and he crawled in next to her.

“What’s wrong?” she said after a long period of silence. Bruce thought she’d fallen back to sleep.

“We’re out of money,” he said into her neck, pulling her into the curve of his body, and holding her tight.

“Oh,” she said. “You’ve been out of money before. You’ll figure it out.”

“This time maybe not.”

“Oh, pish, one thing Bruce Denman can do is figure a way out of any mess.”

“You believe in me,” he hugged her tighter. It wasn’t a question; it was a statement of fact.

“Always,” she said.

Bruce kissed the back of her neck.

“I won’t let you down,” he murmured.

“You never do.” He could hear the smile in her voice.

“Do what you do best and read my mind,” she said.

“The machine is at the lab,” he said.

“As if you need a machine to read my mind,” she said.

He laughed. “I love you too,” he said.

Sleep came finally. Not on little cat feet like it does for some, but on a freight train traveling at sixty miles per hour. No nightmares, this time, much to Bruce’s great relief, but no sweet dreams either.

Chapter 28

 

Bruce struggled awake shortly after 9 o’clock in the morning. He blinked his eyes against the bright daylight streaking in through the windows. Sarah liked to keep the windows uncovered. Their little fourth flour apartment overlooked a tree-lined hill.

Less than four hours of sleep was typical for Bruce. He swung his legs over the edge of the bed, rubbed his stubbly face, before standing all the way up. He staggered to the bathroom and showered and shaved.

Sarah had left him a plate of breakfast, scrambled eggs and sausage and a leftover sweet potato with a little note on it that said Heat me and eat me. Another note on the coffee maker said Push my button and drink me. Lately, their communication had devolved to notes and mumbled goodbyes and hellos, all in passing in the dark of night or early morning. He missed Sarah’s face.

Bruce ate his breakfast cold and drank his coffee hot. He sat on the stool at the kitchen bar and wrote a list of action items that he needed to accomplish today. First and foremost, he needed to find more funding for the project. They paid the last round of volunteers $40. It wasn’t enough money to buy any sort of commitment in anybody, especially one that required volunteers to come late at night, have electrodes attached to their heads and their brains scanned. People were inherently skittish about having anything attached to their heads. They needed people to be committed to come back night after night so they could standardize the results, but more often than not, volunteers would come one night, decide forty dollars wasn’t worth this shit, and never come again. After all they could donate plasma and make more money.

He thought he might sell his car. He could take the bus to the lab if he had to. It was a band-aid solution to a tourniquet problem, but it was all he had left. He had squeezed every last penny, asked every fat wallet, sold everything else of value. He was at the end of the line.

Shit. How much could he get for that car? Two thousand? Three thousand at most?

He left without finishing his coffee or his breakfast. He felt the pressure buzzing in his brain. He needed to figure this out, make headway. Today was the day.

He went over and over in his mind how better to approach the investors, the research facilities. How many times had someone said to him, we are in the business of science not science-fiction? Bruce was well regarded in his field. They would tempt him with any number of interesting research projects, things they would fund. How perfect, how brilliant, he could be. Didn’t he want to affect real change for human kind? Think of what he could accomplish in Alzheimer’s research, dementia research, Parkinson’s research. There were so many other neurological and brain disorders, very real, terrible things that could benefit from Bruce’s involvement.

Dr. Harvey, Bruce’s mentor, had washed his hands of him.

“You are chasing rainbows, when you could use your God given talent to make rainbows. This—this—I don’t know what this is. Pseudo-science. Vanity. You’re turning yourself into a joke. It’s not too late. You can still alter your path, before you have tarnished your reputation beyond salvage,” he had said.

“Can’t you see?” Bruce came back at him, “Can’t you see how important this technology could be for mankind? The lives it could save? The difference it could make? The sheer triumph over nature?”

“You are not God, although you think yourself to be,” Dr. Harvey had said.

“Oh, come on, don’t give me that crap,” Bruce was incredulous, “We manipulate nature every day. Men like us have led the way. We’ve led mankind out of caves of darkness and despair, discovered fire, invented the wheel and penicillin and chemotherapy. There is no God. Only us. We are God. You and I both.”

“That’s enough,” Dr. Harvey had frowned. “That is enough.” He shook his head. His words soft, his jaw held firm. “You don’t have to take my advice. Just do me the respect of listening to it. Do me the respect of caring about my opinion. Your ego is infinite and maybe rightly so as you’ve been told since you were a child how brilliant you are. You are brilliant, but you are still a man, and I am still your elder, and more to the point, I care about you, and I know that you have the power to do great things, to make a new future for some people, to go down in history, but you’ll do what you want. I know that.”

“I am doing great things. I am making a new future. I am going to go down in history. You and all the others are inflicted with tunnel vision, lay aside your preconceived notions about the world, about the brain, and trust in my vision. I see what you are unable to see, what your brain cannot even comprehend. I know without doubt. Watch. Wait. I will lay the path, and as you begrudgingly walk down it, along side all your compatriots who have done nothing but hold me down and back, I will stand at the end of the path that I have paved and watch you and the rest of them evolve right before my eyes.”

Dr. Harvey scowled and snorted. “Get out,” he’d said. “You’re an ass.”

 

 

Now, as Bruce sat mostly stopped in the stop and go Seattle traffic, he replayed the scene in his head. Dr. Harvey hadn’t spoken to him since. That had been eight months ago.

Dr. Harvey had been like a father to Bruce—even more than a father. Bruce could talk to Dr. Harvey about big ideas, whereas his true father was only interested in talking about the weather, sports, and what he happened to catch or kill on his last fishing or hunting trip.

Every triumph in young Bruce Denman’s life, Dr. Harvey had been there, cheering him on, leading him, challenging him, nurturing the aspects of Bruce’s complicated intellectual life that his parents couldn’t possibly begin to understand.

When Bruce’s parents were killed in a car wreck when he was twelve, it was Dr. Harvey who held him when he cried, who told him he didn’t need to be a man about it, that he could cry and cry all he wanted. It was Dr. Harvey, who settled his parents’ small estate, packed Bruce’s belongings, boxed up his parents’ memories with care so that Bruce would have them when he was older. It was Dr. Harvey who invited orphaned Bruce Denman into his home and treated him as if he were his own son.

Bruce could remember whiling away the nights in front of the fireplace in Dr. Harvey’s study talking about theoretical physics, advanced mathematics, the delicious, cotton candy possibility of time travel. These were Bruce’s best childhood memories. Warm. Safe.

Mrs. Harvey would bring them hot chocolate on a tray and chuckle to herself as Dr. Harvey and Bruce wound themselves up in excitement over things she had no desire to understand.

Dr. and Mrs. Harvey had no children of their own, and it was the three of them for the six years it took Bruce to get his undergraduate degree and complete medical school, both at the university where Dr. Harvey taught.

When Bruce was eighteen and moved out to pursue his studies in neuroscience, Mrs. Harvey cried and hugged him. He was her son, no one could tell her any different. True, she hadn’t given birth to him, but he was her son, nonetheless.

Bruce had called several times in the last couple weeks to offer an apology to Dr. Harvey, to let the man know that he was grateful for all that he had done for him. He owed Dr. Harvey so much and more.

Dr. Harvey hadn’t returned a single phone call. Not one.

Bruce had even written a letter. No response.

The rift felt permanent, and Bruce felt terrible. He was an ass. He admitted it. An ass who wanted to apologize and make amends, but still an ass.

 

 

There was a wreck on the freeway. Traffic crawled. Bruce got to the lab later than he planned.

When he entered his tiny office, Karl was waiting for him. Pacing back and forth. Working himself into knots.

“We need to talk,” Karl said. His face contorted in guilt. Bruce knew what was coming next.

“This is not easy to say,” Karl began. “I’ve been offered a position at Feeney. It’s an amazing offer. The work would be fascinating and important. I could run my own lab.”

Bruce very calmly sat in his chair.

“Are you going to take it?” Bruce asked.

Karl hesitated.

“Years, we have worked on this project together. You and I, Karl. The money will come. Don’t worry.”

“It’s not about the money,” said Karl.

“What is it then?”

“The project they want me for, it’s amazing. Groundbreaking. Prestigious.”

“Our work is amazing, groundbreaking, prestigious,” Bruce said.

Karl opened his mouth and closed it and opened it again.

“You look like a fish, Karl. Just say it. I’m not going to let you off the hook. You need to say it to my face.”

Karl stood straighter and turned to face Bruce and look him square in the eye.

“I’m going to take it,” he said.

Bruce snorted. “You’re going to abandon our work. Just like that.”

“It’s not my work,” said Karl. “It’s your work.”

“No, Karl, you’re wrong. It’s ours. Do you know how many projects I have turned down? How many job offers to run labs? All tackling important work. The kind of labs where money is merely poured into them like water. Do you know how many?”

“No,” said Karl.

“Dozens. I turned every single one of them down, and here you go jumping ship at the first opportunity, chasing after the first pair of long legs and big tits to walk past.”

“It’s not the first,” Karl’s feelings were hurt.

“I believe in our work. I believe in what we are doing here. This is the shit that is going to change the world.”

“I guess that’s it,” Karl said. “I just don’t believe anymore.”

“Get out,” Bruce said. “Everything stays. Your laptop, your notes, they are all property of the lab. I will not have you compromising my research. You take your body and the clothes on it, and leave, right now. You so much as take a piece of paper, I will sue your ass from here to kingdom come.”

“I would never do that,” Karl said.

“Good. I would destroy you, if you did.”

“It doesn’t have to be like this,” Karl said. “I thought we were friends.”

“Imagine my disappointment. I thought so too.” Bruce said.

“Fine,” said Karl. He pulled the pockets of his khaki slacks inside out. They were empty.

“See nothing,” he said.

Karl took the pen that was in his shirt pocket and placed it on Bruce’s desk.

“Property of the lab,” Karl said.

Karl turned on his heels, his empty pockets still hanging out of his pants, and left without another word.

Minutes passed and Bruce sat at his desk, leaned back in his chair, his eyes closed, hands in fists.

“God damn it!” he roared, and stood up, kicking his chair back against the wall. He picked up the pen that Karl had so carefully placed on his desk and flung it as far as he could, out his office door, and across the lab. He grabbed his jacket and stormed out of his office into the lab. His lab. Not our lab anymore.

“Excuse me,” a woman said. She stood just inside the lab’s main entrance. She was small and beautiful, her skin luminous white and her hair pulled into a sophisticated twist, dark and shining.

Bruce turned to her, his body and face stiff with contained fury, “No soliciting. This is a place of business.”

“I’m not here to sell you anything,” she said which is what all salesmen say.

The only people that had come to the lab in the last year were volunteers, Karl or Bruce, or solicitors, and one hundred percent of the solicitors said those exact same words—I’m not trying to sell you anything usually followed with a I’m just trying to let people know about ABC product that can do XYZ, wouldn’t you be interested in hearing more about a product that could do XYZ?

Bruce was never interested in hearing more about XYZ. Never.

He didn’t need XYZ. He needed a better building, one with a main entrance and a guard, a locked or key padded entrance, something, anything, to keep the XYZ salesman at bay.

This saleswoman was very pretty. Very. They always send the pretty ones, didn’t they? Bruce wasn’t impressed.

“I’m here about a business opportunity that I think you might be interested in.”

“Now is not a good time,” said Bruce.

“When is a good time?” she asked.

“Never,” said Bruce.

“May I leave a card at least,” she asked. She shifted back and forth on her feet, clearly uncomfortable. She would have to be oblivious to not see how angry Bruce was, and she wasn’t oblivious. She held up a business card.

“Knock yourself out,” said Bruce. “I will take the same care to read it as you did in reading my No Soliciting sign.”

She hesitated. Instead of walking across the room and handing it to Bruce personally, she set her business card on the little table by the entrance, next to today’s mail and a brown paper package left by a deliveryman.

“I’ve been instructed to tell you that this is the opportunity you’ve been waiting for,” she said.

“I’m sure it is. Aren’t they all?” said Bruce.

She nodded and smiled, pretending his comment was sincere.

Bruce paced around the empty lab for a long time after the saleswoman left, like a lion in a zoo exhibit. He was angry, as angry as he’d ever been in his whole life. The time and energy he had invested in Karl, he would never get that back. Their shared vision? Dead. Who did Karl think he was? More importantly, who did Karl think he would be without Bruce Denman’s shoulders to stand on?

He gave up on getting anything done that day. He locked the lab, and left a sign on the door notifying the evening volunteers that the session was canceled. He was taking the afternoon off, the first afternoon in over two years. He walked into the noonday sun. It wasn’t particularly warming but it was bright and cheerful.

Chapter 29

 

After driving around for a while, Bruce decided he would surprise Sarah and take her out to lunch. He would have to hurry, but he should be able to make it to Dr. Chen’s office about one o’clock in the afternoon, which is usually when Sarah took her lunch. The only reason Bruce knew this is because Sarah would text him everyday without fail, Love you, baby. She would usually include a detailed description about what she was going to eat for lunch.

Bruce was not the type of man to care what someone was having for lunch. Not only did he not care, but the very idea that someone might think he would care, would irritate him.

He rarely ate lunch himself, he usually ran or exercised at the gym around the corner, preferring to drink a protein shake on the walk back to the lab. Food was fuel. Nothing more.

With Sarah though, he found he did care, and he looked forward to her quite detailed description of whatever healthy thing she had decided to eat for lunch that day, be it lentils, sweet corn and green beans or hummus and carrots and celery or turkey wrap with cranberry slaw—whatever, it didn’t matter what it was, he cared. With Sarah, he could never not care. Every day, he looked forward to the lunchtime text.

Sounds dreadful, he would typically reply, love you too, pretty girl. See you tonight.

Today he would take her to lunch. Maybe Thai food. It didn’t really matter. He just wanted to be around her. Today, he found himself in a completely unfamiliar predicament. Unfamiliar emotions. Uncomfortable. Sarah had a way of smoothing his ruffled feathers back into place. She didn’t even need to say anything or do anything, just being Sarah and being near was enough to soothe him and set him right.

Dr. Chen was a Chinese doctor practicing traditional Chinese medicine. Sarah attended the local natural medicine university, and she interned in Dr. Chen’s office several times a week.

Chen’s was narrow storefront on a block of similar storefronts. Walking through the front door was like being transported into another world entirely. The air smelled different, thick and divine.

Sarah stood on a stepladder behind the wooden counter. She reached for a jar on the very top shelf of the row of shelves that covered the entire back wall. Jars of herbs and other interesting green and brown things and books and figurines covered every inch of space.

Bruce watched her, his hands in his pockets. She turned the jars, individually, trying to read Chen’s hand-penned labels. Her brow furrowed. She wore her serious face. When finally her hand landed on what she was looking for, her face softened, and she climbed down from the ladder with a jar of green powder.

“Oh,” she said startled when she saw Bruce. “You scared me.”

“Sorry,” Bruce said, although he wasn’t. “Just watching you. You did that nicely.” He waggled his eyebrows.

“Ha!” She said, trying not to smile, but her dimples showed anyway. “What are you doing here?” She measured the powder into a little baggie using an ancient bronze scale. “Is everything ok?”

“I thought I would take you out to lunch,” he said.

“Really?” Sarah couldn’t remember the last time they had been to lunch.

“Really.” he said.

“Okay,” she said slowly, appraising Bruce as a mother would look over her child after falling off the monkey bars on the school playground, checking to make sure everything was okay. “Can we afford it?” she whispered.

“Absolutely,” Bruce said, although they couldn’t.

Sara looked down the long counter that led to the hallway and to Chen’s office and the treatment room. “Dr. Chen is being particularly Chen. I’m only ten percent Chinese today,” she said in hushed tones.

The very first day Sarah had showed up to work, Chen had turned her away, “You are zero percent Chinese,” he barked. “Get out! Do not come back until you are one percent Chinese.”

She had left angry. She had fought for this internship, everyone wanted to train with Dr. Chen. Chen himself had even chosen her. He had to know she wasn’t Chinese. She didn’t have to be Chinese to practice Chinese medicine and acupuncture.

She fumed all the way home.

“What’s your plan?” Bruce had asked her over tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwiches. He’d had another late night, and Sarah had waited up for him. She sat cross-legged, wrapped in a blanket on their old leather couch, a mug of soup in one hand, and a triangle of grilled cheese in the other.

She said. “It’s too late to get another internship. I don’t know what I’m going to do.”

“I know what you’re going to do,” said Bruce. “You’re going back.”

“What? No way.” She shook her head vehemently.

“Go back,” he said around a mouthful of sandwich.

“He’s a jerk, Bruce.”

“Yes, he is, but you can handle a jerk. You handle me right?”

She went back.

She had walked right into Dr. Chen’s office. Her hair tied in a bun. Her spine straight.

“What would you like me to do first?” she had asked him.

He looked up from his desk. He didn’t try to conceal the irritation on his face. “I told you to go away.”

“I did,” she said. “But I’m back. What would you like me to do first?”

He glared at her.

She held his gaze.

“Ahh,” he said after a long moment where neither broke the gaze. “I see you are one percent Chinese today. You may clean the treatment room from top to bottom. Make it quick, Mrs. O’Conner’s appointment is in thirty minutes.”

 

“Ten percent Chinese? How’d that happen?” Bruce asked. “Yesterday, you were thirty-four percent Chinese.”

“He said I lacked focus.” She tied the little baggie of green powder, set it aside, and began measuring out another one.

“That’s not like you,” Bruce said. “What’d you do?”

“I didn’t do anything,” she said curtly. “He’s just in a mood.”

“Oh,” said Bruce. Sarah kept looking down the hallway. Bruce felt compelled to look down the hallway to see what was distracting her, but nothing was there.

“He said that no one will see me as an authority on anything if I lack focus,” she was on her third baggie.

“He makes a good point,” said Bruce.

Sarah looked up from the bag and scale, little metal scoop in hand. She cut Bruce a nasty look.

“Hey,” he said softly, stepping closer, his voice low, “You are good at this. No, amazing. You’re amazing at this. Chen is part of the tough love camp. You know that.” She nodded. “You’ll be back up to thirty-four percent Chinese in no time.”

She looked into his eyes. “I’m just worried,” she said.

“Worried about what?”

“You.”

“You don’t have to be worried about me,” Bruce said.

“All this stress, Bruce. It’s not good. The nightmares?”

“No nightmares last night,” he said.

“Maybe not last night, but they’re getting worse. Aren’t they?”

“You don’t have to worry about me,” he said again.

Sarah looked down the hallway, furtively. How many times had she looked down the hallway, just in the span of their conversation? Twenty?

Bruce followed suit and looked down the hallway again. He couldn’t help it. One minute the hall was empty and the next minute, Chen appeared. “He needs a bell around his neck,” Sarah would say later to Bruce when they were alone, only half-jokingly. That man could sneak anywhere. His footfalls didn’t make a sound. His clothes didn’t rustle. He was soundless. Every part of him, except for his booming voice, “Sarah,” he called. “Do you have the Dr. Chen’s Advanced Mood and Fatigue powder ready? What about the Dr. Chen’s Breathe Easy Tea? Mrs. Felger will be here any moment—Bruce!” Dr. Chen exclaimed mid-sentence. He smiled wide. “How are you? It has been so long.” The little man walked up to Bruce, shook his hand, and beamed.

“I’m well, Dr. Chen,” Bruce said.

“Are you sure?” He looked Bruce over. “You don’t look so well.”

Sarah shook her head, annoyed. Chen was the nicest, most sincere, welcoming man to everyone, except her. In her life, she had come across people who just didn’t like her. She wasn’t naive enough to think that everyone would. Usually, though if a person didn’t like her, he was just a grouchy, bitter, negative person who didn’t like anyone. Never in Sarah’s life had she met someone who liked everyone BUT her. She could win anyone over. Anyone that is but Dr. Chen, and she had done everything she could think of. Dr. Chen remained unimpressed.

“Dr. Chen, Bruce has come to take me to lunch,” Sarah said.

“Yes, yes,” Chen said dismissively to Sarah. He waved his hand at her—shoo! “Bruce,” his voice brightened again. “You must come and sit with me, while Sarah finishes Mrs. Felger’s order. I have to talk to you. It is very important.”

Bruce looked to Sarah. She shrugged, “I’m almost done.”

“Come. Come. I have something for you,” he led Bruce down the hall to his office. Dr. Chen sat behind his desk, and Bruce took the chair across from him. Chen’s face wrinkled with concern, “Sarah tells me that you have been having nightmares.”

Bruce sighed. Sarah knew he valued his privacy. She shouldn’t be talking to people about his nightmares. Even Chen.

“Maybe, I can help?” Chen shrugged, a little, one shoulder shrug.

“I doubt it. No one has been able to help me. I’ve had them since I was a kid. I’ve seen every type of doctor. Even psycho-analysts,” Bruce said. “In the end though, I’ve accepted it. I have learned to live with them.”

“Have you tried acupuncture?”

“Yes,” said Bruce. “Like I said, I’ve tried everything.”

“Okay. Okay. I don’t mean to push or pry.” Chen’s favorite thing was pushing and his second favorite was prying. “If I may,” he made a slight bow with this head. “I would like you to meet a very dear friend of mine who happens to be an expert in this field.”

“Dr. Chen,” Bruce said. “I appreciate it, but I’m not interested. I have my own way of dealing with them.”

“Okay. Okay. I won’t push. It’s just that he will be here this afternoon, and you showing up today out of the blue. I think it is meant to be. Destiny,” Chen pushed.

“Thank you, but no thank you.”

“You are most welcome, Bruce,” Chen rubbed his clean shaven chin, “Not to pry, it’s just that Sarah has become so distracted lately, what with all the worry about you and your health—Sarah is at her best when she’s not distracted.” Chen pried.

Bruce dropped his head. “Okay. I’ll meet him.”

“Excellent! Very excellent. He will be here at 2. See you then.” Before Bruce changed his mind, Chen stood and swept him into the lobby where Sarah was waiting for him. “Enjoy your lunch,” he sing-songed as Sarah and Bruce left. “So lovely to see you again, Bruce!” His voice rang joyfully before chilling,“—and Sarah, you have much work to do this afternoon, talk does not cook rice.”

Chapter 30

 

At the restaurant, Bruce and Sarah ate soup. Sarah seemed preoccupied. She fidgeted with her earrings. She rearranged the napkin in her lap. She looked up at the ceiling and over her shoulder, never once making eye contact with Bruce. She spun her engagement ring around her finger and chewed on her lip. She was quiet, which was not like her. Bruce observed her. She looked tired and cold. She held her face over the steaming soup bowl. She didn’t smile the entire time. Not once.

Bruce hadn’t realized the extent that Sarah worried for him. It never occurred to him that any one would need to worry for him or about him. In his mind, these recent obstacles were bumps in the road, merely something to get through. They were details. They didn’t define him and, until recently, didn’t faze him. If anything, his resolve, determination, and certainty grew with each and every rebuke.

“Here have some of my chicken,” Sarah said. She spooned slices of chicken into Bruce’s bowl. He accepted them because he thought it might make her feel better. He would have preferred that she eat them.

He rubbed her back. She sat stiff.

“Are you cold?” He asked.

“Not too bad,” she said.

“You need a warmer coat,” he decided.

“No,” she demurred. “My coat is fine.”

“I’ve been thinking,” she said, still spinning her engagement ring. She inhaled deeply, “We need to talk—I’ve been thinking. For a long time—” She slid the ring off her finger and placed it on the table. The little clink it made on the glass tabletop reverberated in Bruce’s ears like a gunshot. His stomach fell to the floor.

“No, Sarah,” he said.

“So, I’ve been thinking—”

“No,” he said again. What was this? What was she doing? He looked at the diamond ring on the table. His heart pounded against his ribcage. He looked up at Sarah. What was happening here? Here he was on the precipice of losing something that he couldn’t imagine living without, something he couldn’t force his will upon, something he couldn’t keep unless it wanted to be kept. He couldn’t believe this was happening to him. To him. Here. In this shitty Thai restaurant.

Tears shined in Sarah’s eyes. She was about to say something irrevocable. He could just tell. He could see the words she was about to say passing under the pain in her eyes, “Don’t say it, Sarah,” he scooted his chair back from the table. “Just don’t.”

Realizing too late what he must have thought taking her ring off meant, Sarah grabbed it and shoved it back on her finger. “No!” she said, “No! I just wanted you to have it to sell for your project. For your work. No! Never!”

Bruce leaned over and covered his face with his hands.

“I’m sorry!” she said. “I’m sorry.” She put her hands on his arm. Bruce pushed her hands away and stood, making sure to keep his face turned from her.

“Excuse me,” he said and left her sitting at the table alone. He paid at the counter, and by the time he was outside, he had regained his composure.

Sarah sat at the table for another ten minutes before accepting the fact that Bruce wasn’t going to return. She gathered her purse and zipped her coat. Bruce wasn’t outside the restaurant either. He was gone. She walked the three blocks back to Chen’s alone. Her arms wrapped around her thin coat.

“Where is Bruce?” Chen asked when she returned. Chen was talking with a man in the waiting room.

“I don’t know,” Sarah said. She tucked her purse into the little wooden cabinet behind the counter that Chen allowed her to use for her personal items. “He left.”

“He left? But I have my very important friend here to meet him.”

“I’m sorry,” said Sarah.

Chen shook his head. He turned to the man next to him. Chen’s friend wore only a t-shirt even though it was very cold outside and not much warmer inside. Tiger stripe tattoos banded both of his arms.

Chen bowed low, “My apologies. I am sorry to bring you all this way for nothing.”

“No apologies necessary, good friend,” said the man. “It was not that far and not for nothing. I’ve enjoyed our time reminiscing about the old days.”

Chen remained bowed low for another moment longer before straightening himself to his full height of five feet. “Are you returning tonight?”

“I have more business to attend to in Seattle. I won’t be returning home until tomorrow at the earliest. Thank you once again for your hospitality.”

Chen bowed low once more, “What’s mine is yours.”

The man nodded, and walked toward the door to leave. At the very same moment, Bruce pushed his way through the same door. Bruce and the man stood face to face.

“Bruce!” Chen’s face lit up. “You are here!”

He bustled over to stand between the two men and make introductions. “Bruce Denman this is Akio. Akio this is Bruce, the man I told you about.”

Bruce extended his hand. The man, Akio, followed suit, and they shook.

Chen clapped his hands, delighted, “There is much work to be done.” He ushered the two men back to his office, “Sarah, mind the front. Please cancel all of my afternoon appointments and reschedule them. We are not to be interrupted for any reason. Do you understand?”

“Yes, Dr. Chen,” she said. She watched the back of Bruce’s head, as Chen herded him and the stranger down the hallway. She willed Bruce to turn and look at her, but he didn’t.

 

 

Hours passed. Sarah switched the sign from Open to Closed and tidied the counter and shelves. Once she did everything that she could think to do, she sat on the couch in the reception area and opened her books as if to study from them.

Through the wall, she could hear the men talking occasionally although she couldn’t make out what they were saying. The spurts of muffled talk were followed by long periods of silence.

She tiptoed down the hallway to get water from the kitchenette and maybe find a better hearing spot, but no matter the locations she could here no better. She was sorely tempted to put her ear up to the door, really, in that moment, there was nothing she wanted to do more, but she didn’t. If Chen caught her, she would be dismissed for sure.

At some point, the three men moved from Chen’s office to the treatment room. Underneath the door, Sarah could see lights and shadows indicating people moving around, but there was no more talking. Just silence. When the three men finally emerged, Bruce was smiling, Akio was laughing, and Chen wore a pleased expression.

“You waited?” Bruce said.

Sarah looked up from the book she was only pretending to read, “Of course.”

“I have to go back to the lab, and I’ve an errand to run. Meet you back at home?” He shrugged into his coat.

“Alright,” Sarah tried to hide her disappointment. She must have done a passable job, because Bruce didn’t appear to notice.

“Great. See you later,” Bruce turned and shook the Akio’s hand heartily and allowed Chen to hug him tight around the middle before leaving.

Chen surveyed the tidy counter and the updated appointment log, “Twenty-three percent Chinese. True, it is generous, but I’m in a generous mood,” he declared before retiring to his office with his guest.

Sarah turned off the lights in the reception room before collecting her purse and backpack from behind the counter. It was then that she noticed Chen’s office door slightly ajar. She could clearly hear the two men talking. She knelt behind the counter.

“So you saw something?” Chen said.

“Yes,” Akio said, “but it ran before I could engage it.”

“Do you think it’s an inferior?” Chen asked.

“No, it’s most assuredly not. It knew me, and didn’t want to be seen. I pursued it, but I couldn’t catch it. It was fast. Very fast.”

“Do you think it will return?”

“I hope not. I would like to think I scared it well enough that it won’t be returning, but I can’t say for certain.”

“What do we do from here?”

“We wait,” said Akio. “There is something about this Bruce. Something different. The terrain of his mind is unique. If it wants something from him, it will be back. You will need to monitor the situation, and if the nightmares return, call me immediately. Do not delay this time.”

“I understand,” said Chen.

“That man could be in very real danger,” Akio said.

“Yes, I will be vigilant. Please pardon my previous lack of vigilance. I was unaware of the extent of his condition,” Chen said.

“You have done your best, my friend. My pardon is not necessary.”

A long moment passed without either of them saying anything, Sarah slowly zipped her backpack closed. Her head lowered. Her ears pricked. She looked up before standing. Chen stood above her. She hadn’t heard him leave his office. Chen’s hands were on his hips. His face was hard as stone.

“Eavesdropping?” he said.

He waited for an answer, tapping his foot, even though the answer was obvious.

“Yes,” she admitted.

“Eavesdropping and not getting caught, fifty-four percent Chinese. Eavesdropping and getting caught, one percent Chinese. Go, before you slide all the way to zero.” He pointed his finger to the door.

Sarah slung her heavy backpack over her shoulders and followed his finger to the door, her head hung low. Before she left though, she turned back to Chen. She couldn’t help herself. She needed to know if they were talking about Bruce, and what it all meant. Who wanted something from him? What kind of danger was he in? Her percentage of Chinese be damned. Chen was gone though—back in his office behind a now closed door. A hush settled in the reception area. She turned the doorknob, the string of bells wrapped around it jingled, their chimes breaking the heavy silence.

Sarah walked to the bus station and waited for fifteen minutes or so, her mind spinning the whole time. Her bus rumbled down the street. It began to slow and angle for her stop. She waved the bus driver off. She watched it trundle past.

She headed straight back to Chen’s, walking swiftly, keeping close to the storefronts and building facades, in an attempt to stay in the shadows. The business across the street from Chen’s was a pharmacy, the old school type where they did their own compounding, and the pharmacist was a grumpy, gray-haired man, who was half sour, half sincere and all the time a perfectionist. Sarah slipped into the pharmacy. A blast of hot air greeted her.

She rifled through magazines, finding a suitable one, she plucked it from the magazine rack, and looked through it, all the while keeping one eye staring through the large front window of the pharmacy. Her eye trained on Chen’s, she hoped they hadn’t left yet.

Her patience was rewarded ten minutes later. Chen and his friend exited. The two men talked for a few more minutes, before Chen bowed low, and turned and left. Chen walked around the corner and out of sight to where he parked his car.

This part of town was clearly divided, the burgeoning, successful section to the north with little shops and businesses. Old-fashioned street lamps lit the bustle and enterprise with a cheerful glow. Baskets of flowers hung from the light poles from spring to fall. The trees lining the sidewalk were well-maintained and deliberately spaced. Two blocks to the south, the cracked sidewalks and abandoned buildings told a different story.

Chen went north. The man Akio went south.

Sarah hurriedly put the magazine back on the rack and ran out the door. Akio stopped walking and looked back over his shoulder, toward the pharmacy, toward Sarah. She looked down and began walking in the opposite direction.

Once Akio had started walking again, she crossed the street at the corner and doubled back. She followed him, a block or two behind.

She had no idea why she was following him, but she felt compelled. She needed to find out more about him and maybe she could do that by seeing where he went next.

She followed him eight blocks, falling further and further behind as there were less and less people on the street. Where was he going? Wasn’t he cold in only short sleeves? Why was he walking? Didn’t he have a car?

Suddenly, he turned a corner, and she lost sight of him completely.

She hurried, first fast-walking, then running. She didn’t want to lose him. She made it to the corner where he had turned and looked down the street. He was nowhere to be seen. In fact, not a single person was on this street as far as she could see. All the businesses were closed up tight. No light except for the weak illumination offered by a solitary street lamp. All the other street lamps were out.

He was gone. Vanished.

Damn it.

She took a deep, shaky breath. She hadn’t realized that she was breathing fast or that her heart was racing until that moment.

It was just as well that she’d lost him. It was a dumb thing to do—following him. Bruce would be furious to find out she was chasing some strange man, by herself, at night, in this part of town.

She looked down the street one last time. Yep, still empty, still dark. So dark. Oppressively dark. It was darker than the street she’d come from, if that was even possible. The single operating street light wavered, dimming and brightening and dimming again which made it look like the shadows were moving, growing bigger and shrinking, and then bigger. Almost as if they were inching closer and closer with each surge of the bulb.

“You’re a terrible sneak,” said a deep voice behind her.

She whipped around. Chen’s friend, Akio, stood behind her. He loomed.

She meant to scream. She opened her mouth to scream.

He cocked his head to the side, waiting for the scream, but it didn’t come.

She meant to run, but her feet felt glued to the ground.

“What a lot of people don’t realize,” the man said. He spread his arms and closed in upon her, “—is that when you need to scream, when your very life may hinge on whether you scream or not, you find yourself unable to summon your voice. Which is precisely why self-defense seminars urge its attendees to practice screaming and shouting NO, because it’s not a reflex, it’s a learned skill. Your mind is telling you to scream, but your body is unable to respond. You have not habituated the appropriate response to imminent danger. Likewise, the running. You should be running right now, as far and as fast as you can. It should be dawning on you, your back to this lonely, dark alley, that I’m not the sort that you should be following.”

He grabbed her upper arm. Pulling her.

He repeated louder, angrier. His voice filled with menace. He looked over her shoulder into the depths of the alley. “I am not the sort to be followed!” He yanked Sarah around the corner away from the alley. “This is a dark part of town. Little girls like you might end up as someone’s dinner.”

She screamed. Finally.

Having found her voice, she didn’t let it go. She screamed and screamed. She tried pulling her arm out of his grasp, but he wouldn’t release his hold. He continued pulling her. She dug her heals in, which did nothing to slow him. He moved faster and faster, dragging her down the street.

She kicked at him, tying to trip him.

He stopped pulling her and turned to face her. He held her away from him.

“That’s enough,” he said.

“Let! Me! Go!” She delivered a solid kick to his shin with each word.

“I’m teaching you a lesson,” he said.

“Let! Me! Go!” Three more kicks as hard as she could.

“Stop it!” He said and shook her a little bit.

He waited.

She kicked at him a few more times. She tried to pry his fingers off her arm.

He waited.

He had her. She realized she wasn’t going to get away unless he wanted to let her loose. She was completely at his mercy.

She looked up and around and realized they were nearly back to Chen’s office. She’d lost her backpack in the struggle. Exactly when, she couldn’t remember. The man held it in his other hand. She regarded him out of the corner of her eye, letting herself hang like dead weight even though she felt as if her arm was ripping from her shoulder socket. She hoped his grip would loosen, and he would have to adjust and re-grab her giving her a chance to get free, or better yet, maybe he would give up completely and let her go.

If he’d wanted to hurt her, he could have done it already. Certainly, the alley would have been a suitable place for him to deliver to her an ugly end, a future unsolved homicide.

“Okay,” she said. She regained her footing and stood, taking her weight back from him and no longer fighting. Her hair had loosened from its bun in the struggle, and she brushed it away with the back of her free hand. “I apologize for following you.”

“Apology accepted,” he said.

“Will you let me go now?” she asked.

He let her go.

She rubbed her arm. She would have fingertip bruises for sure.

“Go home,” the man said.

She didn’t move. “What’s wrong with Bruce?” she asked.

“Go home,” he said again.

She squared her body to his, and looked him straight in the eye. He shook his head at her audacity.

“Please. Tell me what’s wrong with him? I heard you say he’s in danger. Please, tell me what’s wrong.”

“Maybe nothing,” he said. “If Bruce wants you to know, he’ll be the one to tell you.”

He set her backpack at her feet. He turned and strode back the way they had come—the way he had dragged her. Around the nearest corner he went, a moment later a motorcycle engine roared to life. Akio and motorcycle came barreling around the corner, flying down the street. He hadn’t bothered to put on a helmet, although one was strapped to the back of the bike.

Chapter 31

 

“Where have you been?” Bruce asked.

He paced back and forth in the living room of their little apartment. He had been sitting on the couch, but that felt worse than pacing, so now he paced.

When he came home, he was surprised to find that Sarah wasn’t there, and it occurred to him how unlikely it was that she would just sit around waiting for him as he toiled the nights away in his lab, oblivious. What did she do when he wasn’t here? He’d never thought to ask.

He’d called Chen’s, but the answering machine picked up, so he paced and waited. Waited and paced.

Sara had done her best to tidy herself up before getting on the bus. She set her hair right and straightened her clothes. The last thing she wanted was to draw attention to herself. The bus driver of her regular bus might have noticed. He always smiled at her, and they chit-chatted if she sat near the front, which she often did, but today, she’d missed her regular bus. An older woman was driving this bus, and she didn’t even spare Sarah a glance.

The surfacing bruises on her arms were the only physical evidence of her unwise decision to follow a strange man into a bad part of town. She hid the bruises under the long sleeves of her shirt. Bruce would be angry with her. She wasn’t planning on him ever finding out.

Her face lit up when she opened the door to their apartment and saw Bruce, “Your home!”

“Where have you been?” Bruce asked again.

“Reading magazines at the pharmacy,” she shrugged her shoulders and propped the lie like a cardboard cut between them. “I didn’t think you’d be home until late.”

“About that,” he said. “I have a surprise for you. Two surprises, in fact.”

“Really?”

“First—” He picked up a beautiful new coat that he’d lain across the arm of the sofa. “—a new coat.”

Her mouth fell open. The coat was beautiful, but far too expensive. She could tell by looking at it from across the room that they couldn’t afford it.

“Oh, Bruce,” she said. “So thoughtful. I love it, but we can’t afford it.”

“But we can,” he said. “That’s the second surprise. Karl quit the lab this morning, and I spent the afternoon thinking that maybe he’s right. Maybe it’s time to move on. I’ve been offered so many lucrative positions. Important ones. I called Clive Hawthorne at Bolster and Lumen and accepted his offer.”

“What? What about your work? You can’t just abandon it. All the time you’ve invested. No, Bruce. Call him back and tell him no.”

“My work, I’ll just back burner for now. I can work on it nights and weekends, maybe. Maybe Harvey’s right.”

“No,” she shook her head. “Dr. Harvey’s not right.”

“You deserve better than this,” he swept his hand around. “You deserve better than this crappy apartment, a sofa with holes in the cushion, a too thin coat. You deserve so much better, and I’m sorry I’ve been so blind to it. I want to give you the life you deserve.”

She took the coat from him and laid it back on the couch. “I have you. I have a great life. We’re working toward our dreams together. When you’re young, you’re supposed to be poor, you’re supposed to struggle, you’re supposed to max out your credit cards. I believe in you. I believe in us. Don’t give up on your dream, Bruce Denman, not for me.”

“It’s done,” he said. He kissed her lips before she could say anything else. He could taste her strawberry flavored lip balm. “It’s done,” he murmured. “You don’t have to worry anymore. I’m making it my personal mission that you never have to worry again.”

He rubbed her arms. She could feel the bruises underneath his hands. She was careful not to wince. She rested her forehead against his chest. She was desperate to ask him about what happened at Chen’s, but now wasn’t the right time. When she asked him later, they were laying in bed.

She could hear the smirk in Bruce’s voice, “It was Chen. It was exactly how you would expect it to be,” he said which was Bruce code for saying that he didn’t really believe in anything Chen did.

He was very careful when discussing Sarah’s course of study with her. The last thing he wanted was to hurt Sarah’s feelings in any way, but come on, he was a scientist and a medical doctor, first and foremost. None of what Chen did, and by extension Sarah, seemed evidence based. Bruce could take it or leave it.

“Why did you agree to see him, then?”

“For you. I thought he might go easier on you.”

“Oh,” she said. “What about the other man? What does he do?”

“He calls himself a dream eater. He practices what appears to be some form of ancient Japanese hypnosis that’s supposed to eradicate nightmares.”

“Do you think it will work?”

Bruce laughed, “Only time will tell.” Bruce code for no way in hell.

“What if it does work?” Sarah chided him, nudging him in his ribs.

“I will shout it from the rooftops. He will be my most favorite person in the world, next to you, of course.”

“He scared me a little bit,” Sarah admitted. “He was pretty big.”

“Big? I’m as tall as he is,” Bruce said.

“Intense, then,” Sarah said.

Bruce thought about it for a minute.

“I can see that,” he said.

Sarah didn’t say anything more. She’d fallen asleep. Bruce turned to his side, his back to her. He stared at the wall on his side of the bed, counting backward from 100,000, willing sleep to catch him. When it finally did, his body coiled tightly, anticipating the impact. Instead of a normal night’s sleep wracked with violent dreams, sleep took him gently. He slept for twelve hours straight, the first time he’d done that since he could remember.

 

 

Sarah shook Bruce awake. He opened his eyes slowly and blinked, allowing himself a moment to revel in the weight of his sleepy limbs. He felt refreshed, relaxed, at ease. Easy.

He noticed the look on Sarah’s face and sat up with a start.

“What is it?”

“It’s Dr. Harvey,” she said. Her face was white, and her eyes were red-rimmed and thick with sadness.

“What about Dr. Harvey?”

“He’s—” she stopped then started again, “He died.”

A loud rushing noise filled Bruce’s ears; he could feel his blood pounding in his jugular vein.

“I’m sorry,” she said. She hugged him as she would a child, holding his head to her chest.

“Mrs. Harvey is on the phone,” she said.

“Tell her I’ll call her back.”

“Bruce, you should—”

“Tell her I’ll call her back.”

“Okay,” she said. She reluctantly let him go and padded out the bedroom door. Bruce could hear her making muffled apologies and condolences into the phone.

He was getting dressed when she came back into the room.

“When’s the service?”

“Friday,” she said.

“So soon?”

“Yes. I’ll come with you,” she said.

“No,” he said. “It would be best if I went alone.”

“But Bruce—”

“Don’t you have class today?”

“Yes,” she said.

“You should get going. Don’t forget to wear your new coat.”

“Bruce—”

“I’ll let you know when my flight is,” he said. He kissed her forehead.

“‘Bye,” she said, but he had already left the room.

 

 

The auditorium drained of people. Dark suits and dresses, sad faces, filed out one by one, deep in somber thought, adrift in sadness. Hands holding hands. People hugged and held on to each other. So much touching in the face of mortality and death.

Bruce sat, in the middle of everyone, just another face in the crowd. He ran his hands along his knees, feeling the fabric of his only suit under his hands.

As the crowd milled about and filed out, Dr. Harvey’s photo montage rolled in a loop on the screen to the right of the stage. A man’s life in less than thirty pictures.

Bruce was in quite a few of them. Posing with goofy smiles. Had he known at the time the photos were taken that they were destined to be part of Dr. Harvey’s death montage, maybe he would have tried to make his smile less goofy, more serious, more appropriate to their ultimate venue.

The university put on an amazing tribute to an amazing man. Dr. Harvey had been a tenured professor for decades. Thousands were in attendance. Dr. Harvey deserved no less. He’d touched so many young lives, guiding them with humor, grace, and wisdom.

There were a lot of tears.

A reception was being held next to the auditorium and Bruce could hear the buzzing chatter grow through the wall as people funneled out of the auditorium into the reception hall.

He sat for a long time. The photo montage looped again and again.

He was in seven of the pictures. Different ages. He waited for the one of his graduation from medical school. Dr. Harvey stood next to him, his arm around Bruce’s back. His smile so proud. The picture faded, another picture of Dr. Harvey took its place. Bruce decided that he would wait for it one more time. It came and went again. One more time.

Bruce lost track of time. He was the only soul left in the auditorium.

He couldn’t bring himself to leave.

 

 

He sat that way until Mrs. Harvey came and sat next to him. She took his hand, “You should have sat with me. You’re family.”

Bruce couldn’t look her directly in the eye. He didn’t want to see her sorrow. He couldn’t bear to see her lost and suffering. He didn’t want to see in her face that a piece of her was missing. He knew that anyone looking at him could see it, a void, an abyss. He felt like he was about to collapse inward on himself.

She had come to comfort him when it should be the other way around. He should be comforting her. He needed to be stronger.

“He loved you,” she said.

“I know,” said Bruce. “I loved him, too.”

She rubbed his hand. Her hand was cool and smooth.

Bruce looked at her at last. He forced himself to meet her eyes. To his great relief, her face was calm. He could look at her calm face. He let her calm wash over him, cool like her hands.

“I said terrible things to him—” Bruce shook his head. He suffered under his guilt, “I was arrogant.”

Mrs. Harvey nodded, “It’s okay, Bruce.”

“I tried to apologize, but he never returned my calls.”

“He was a proud man,” she said. “Like you.”

“He should have accepted my apology,” Bruce said, looking away to the floor.

“Yes, that may be true,” she said. “There are only neat, tidy endings in movies and books. Not in real life. You did the best you could. He did the best he could. We all do the best we can. I know this, I know that he loved you like a son. He was proud of you.”

Bruce shook his head. It wasn’t enough.

“Will you come with me to the reception? Hold my arm so I don’t fall over?”

“Yes, ma’am,” Bruce said. He stood and offered her his arm, which she took.

She smiled up at him, “You’re so much like him.”

“No,” Bruce said. “He was better than me.”

“Funny,” she said. “When I said that to him, he said exactly the same thing about you.”

 

 

Dr. Harvey’s long time lawyer and friend, Chalmers Wellingham, cornered Bruce in the bathroom.

Chalmers was overcome with the loss of his dear, dear friend. This was easy to deduce because Wellingham muttered, “Oh, my dear, dear friend,” under his breath as he washed his hands in the lavatory sink.

Wellingham cried openly which made Bruce feel very uncomfortable.

“Mr. Wellingham,” Bruce nodded, he made for the lavatory exit, deciding against drying his hands, as the only operating hand dryer was now occupied with the crying, muttering Chalmers Wellingham, Esq.

“Bruce, dear boy, wait a moment,” he wheezed.

Bruce froze, half-escaped and now fully caught. He turned back to Mr. Wellingham and waited as the old man continued to dry his hands and mutter.

Once, every last drop of moisture on Wellingham’s hands had been obliterated by the hand dryer, he turned to Bruce.

“He meant this for you, Bruce,” Wellingham’s age-spotted, now completely dry hands, shook with a palsy, as he reached into his coat, removing a sealed envelope.

“So sad,” he said handing the envelope to Bruce.

“Yes,” Bruce agreed accepting the envelope.

Bruce’s name was written in Dr. Harvey’s careful penmanship on the front of the envelope. Dr. Harvey was precise in everything he did, including writing.

Bruce’s heart swelled when he saw his name neatly penned by Dr. Harvey. This was it. It had to be. Dr. Harvey had decided to accept Bruce’s apology after all.

“When did he write this, Mr. Wellingham?”

“You’ll have to open it to find out. My memory fails me. I found it yesterday as I went through his file.”

“Thank you,” said Bruce. He couldn’t bring himself to open it just yet. He slid it into the inside pocket of his suit jacket. He could feel the weight and thickness of it against his chest.

He carried the unopened letter in his pocket for the rest of that day and the next. He patted it every now and again to make sure it was still there. It was. He didn’t open it until he was on the plane returning to Seattle.

The sky was blue and filled with large, puffy clouds. The sun warmed the cabin of the plane through the window, although it was below freezing outside.

Bruce zoomed toward home at thirty thousand feet above the ground. The further away he flew from Boston, and the memory of Dr. Harvey, the heavier he felt. How could one feel so empty and heavy at the same time? He felt the weight of him might just force the plane out of the sky.

Out the window, he watched the patchwork earth falling away. He patted the envelope once more. He finally felt ready to open it and read the last words Dr. Harvey had intended him to read. Ever.

The envelope was legal size. The paper was thick and fabric-like. Dr. Harvey appreciated fine stationary.

Bruce carefully separated the top flap from the bottom flap of the envelope; he slid the letter out and unfolded it. There were at least eight pages of thick stationary paper—all blank. Nestled in the middle of the tri-folded stack of paper was a cashiers check for one hundred thousand dollars, dated the day Dr. Harvey died, signed with Dr. Harvey’s careful, neat hand. Nothing else. Not a single other word on any of the pages, front or back, Bruce checked. Twice.

The man sitting next to Bruce whistled low as he peered over Bruce’s shoulder.

“That’s a mighty large sum of money,” he said smiling benignly. He looked harmless enough, a lot like Santa Claus.

Bruce glared at him, “Mind your own God damn business.”

“Sorry,” the man sputtered. “I—uh—just—”

Bruce glared at him again.

The man closed his mouth and looked away from Bruce. He scooted as far from Bruce as his bowl full of jelly would allow which wasn’t far.

Bruce carefully folded the check back into the blank pages, tucking it back into the envelope. He returned it to his inside pocket. He felt the weight of it again, the false comfort it had provided him, gone. The stationary was thick and unyielding, and the corner of the envelope poked his collarbone. He shoved it further down into his pocket, but it continued to poke him. All the way home.

Chapter 32

 

“This is a sign,” Sarah said holding the check. “It’s a sign that you should continue on with your work. You have the money now. It’s meant to be.”

“I don’t believe in signs,” said Bruce. “And I don’t believe in meant to be either.”

Sarah’s face fell. “I believe we’re meant to be.”

“You know what I mean,” he said. He turned his back to her, he unpacked his duffel bag, tossing everything that needed to be laundered into a pile on the floor. Sarah sat cross-legged on the bed. The check, the portentous five zero check lay on the top of the chest of drawers Sarah had bought from a second hand shop and refinished with her patient, small hands. The check was still in the envelope, nested in the papers. Bruce had set the envelope name side down. It could be any envelope now—a bill, a collection notice, a solicitation for credit, a bank statement.

“No, I don’t,” she said. “How can you not believe in meant to be?”

“Sarah,” he sighed heavily. His words came slow and weary, just as he felt. “I don’t believe in it. Simple as that. I’m going to take a shower.”

“But, wait—” Sarah said.

“Look, Sarah, don’t hurt your own feelings. You know I love you. I’m tired, and I need a shower.”

He took his shirt off, dropped to the floor, and banged out as many push-ups as he could without stopping.

Sarah hated the way he said that, don’t hurt your own feelings, which is the way he ended most of their disagreements, as if she didn’t have the right be sad or hurt, and if she was sad or her feelings were hurt than it was her own doing, and she should know better, do better, feel better. Bruce certainly wouldn’t hurt his own feelings. If Bruce’s feelings were hurt, it was because somebody did something to him. Someone inflicted some sort of wrong upon him. He was justified. Sarah was never justified. She was either silly or wrong. She was too sensitive and could benefit from some perspective.

Sarah watched the muscles on his back move and contract.

She wanted to push the issue, but he’d had a terrible week—the worst week. She let it drop.

What she wanted most was to hold him and be held by him. The last several days had felt like years. She was so sad for Bruce, so sad for Dr. Harvey, whom she liked very much. She was so sad, and she felt completely at a loss as to how to make it better.

She could tell by the way Bruce held his body, the way he looked at her, that he didn’t want to be held or touched, he was deep inside his own head, and no one was welcome there. Not even Sarah. Especially Sarah. She was no stranger to Bruce retreating inward. It was how he dealt with difficult things.

She climbed off the bed and stepped around Bruce, who was starting push-up round two. Push-ups—he also did a lot of push-ups when he was thinking.

The envelope remained on the dresser, untouched, unlooked at but not unremembered.

 

 

The nightmares stayed away for two weeks, fourteen blissful, restful nights.

Bruce slept and woke rested. Perspective returned, and the monotony of packing up his lab both saddened him and comforted him.

He had told Clive Hawthorne that he could start in three weeks. It would take him that long, to organize his research and notes, to box them up in an orderly but easily accessible way.

The morning that followed the fourteenth nightmare free night, Bruce found himself lost in a stack of notes that he’d almost forgotten about.

He sat on the floor and poured over this newly found research. He remembered falling asleep at his desk one late night, his head on his crossed arms, restless half-awake, half-nightmare visions danced in his head until he finally woke completely in a fever, flush with ideas. He’d grabbed the nearest notebook and began scribbling in a furious haze. He had felt so close, so very close. He scribbled into the wee hours of the morning, completely filling one notebook.

Re-reading the notebook now, he began to feel the same rush of excitement that had ignited him that night. His handwriting was hard to decipher as he’d written so frantically, hoping to get everything down before it was forgotten. With a little effort, Bruce was able to decode the least decipherable of his late night scribble.

Something niggled at the back of his head, as he read through the notebook. It felt like having a word on the tip of the tongue. He just couldn’t quite put his finger on what was bothering him so. These notes felt important. They felt like the answer, the missing key to making the machine work, all the time and not just sporadically. He felt close, on the precipice. He read and reread the information and let it swim around in his brain. Letting his mind relax and willing it to come to him.

It didn’t come.

Bruce spent the entire day waist deep in the notebook, but still, it didn’t come. When he left the lab that night, finally giving in, he felt frustrated and agitated. His whole body itched and his brain roiled with ideas, so much for relaxing and letting the idea come to him, he’d abandoned that tactic hours ago. He wrestled with it now, head on. He knew the answer was right under his nose. In the damn notebook. He knew it. He could feel it. He just couldn’t see it yet. He would ferret it out or else be damned.

He carried the notebook and his agitated preoccupation home with him. Thankfully, Sarah was asleep.

He ate tuna fish out of a can and cold, leftover rice, and poured over the notebook some more. He paced up and down the floors. When he couldn’t keep his eyes open any longer, he lay down on the couch and fell asleep.

Bruce had strung fourteen nights of nightmare-free sleep together. The fifteenth night started like the previous fourteen, he slept soundly for an hour—maybe two.

 

 

“You are late, Sarah,” Mr. Chen observed. He looked at his wristwatch, then at the clock on the wall, then back at his wristwatch.

Sarah was obviously frazzled. She didn’t even offer an apology. Unusual for her, as she was a chronic-over-apologizer.

She rushed around the counter and stowed her bags in her cupboard.

She grabbed a cloth and wiped down the counter franticly until it gleamed.

Chen surveyed the scene, his arms crossed. Sarah moved furiously from one task to the other, nearly dropping the same jar of Dr. Chen’s Blood Clear herbs twice.

“What’s wrong?” Chen asked.

“Nothing,” Sarah said.

Chen waited. He moved closer.

Sarah looked up from the appointment book. It was disconcerting to be under Chen’s scrutiny.

She flushed.

“Checking the messages to see if anyone canceled,” She picked up the telephone receiver and held it to her ear.

Chen waited.

“Miles Abernathy canceled his 10:40,” she reported. She selected a pencil out of a drawer and carefully erased Miles Abernathy from the appointment book.

“Sarah, I think today you will begin assisting with treatments.”

“Really?” she said. Surprised. Grateful.

“Yes, it is time,” he said.

He turned to go back to his office, to do whatever it was he did in there. Most of the time he was so quiet that Sarah imagined he sat in his chair with his eyes closed and did nothing but wait.

“Remember when you asked me to tell you if the nightmares returned.”

“Yes?” said Chen. His back stiffened, and he turned back.

“They did. It was awful. The worst ever.”

“Tell me about it,” he said.

“I don’t know if I can,” she said. Bruce would be furious to know that she told anyone about what happened last night.

Chen nodded and shrugged, “I’m here to listen if you want to tell.” He turned again.

“He was crazy. Out of control,” Sarah blurted. “It’s never been like this before. Never. He was moving like he was awake but he was still asleep. He was—” she paused. “He was screaming. Screaming words I couldn’t understand, and he knocked over the bookcases in the living room and wrote on the walls in black permanent marker.”

“What did he write?” Chen asked.

“It looked like equations. Science stuff. He wrote all over the walls, every inch he could reach. I tried to wake him, but I couldn’t. I just—I just don’t know what to do.”

“How did it end?”

“He collapsed. He woke up after he hit his head on the floor.”

“Oh, dear,” said Chen. “Is he alright? Are you alright? Did anyone get hurt?”

Sarah was surprised he asked about her well-being. Chen never gave her any indication he cared.

“I’m fine,” she said. “I don’t think Bruce is. I mean, yes, physically, he’s fine. His head’s okay, but—”

“Where is he?”

“He’s at home in bed. He says he has a splitting headache. He’s exhausted and—” She chose the next word carefully, “—mortified. It was just awful. He was yelling and screaming. His face was red. Just blood red. Purple. I’ve never seen anything like it. He could hardly breathe for the screaming. I think that’s why he fell. I think he couldn’t breathe. Can that happen? Can you suffocate yourself by screaming? I wanted to take him to the ER, but he said no. His face—I can’t describe it. It was terrible. He didn’t even look like himself. I was so scared. I am so scared. I’m surprised the neighbors didn’t call the cops. I don’t know what to do. What do I do?”

Chen raised his index finger, “There is only one thing to do.”

Chen shuffled to the counter, he patted Sarah’s arm before picking up the telephone. He dialed a number from memory.

“My friend,” he said into the phone. “It is back, and it is fury.”

 

 

Chen drove the three of them to Sarah and Bruce’s apartment. Akio sat in the front passenger seat with his arms crossed, biceps bulging, seat pushed all the way back to allow for his legs. Sarah sat in the back seat behind Chen.

No one spoke.

Chen’s radio was tuned to a pop music station. Sarah wouldn’t have guessed in a million years that Chen listened to pop music. He hummed along to every song.

Akio arrived a few hours after Chen phoned him. He roared up on his gigantic chrome and leather motorcycle. The windows in the reception room rattled as he parked the beast out front.

Chen was ready to leave as soon as Akio arrived. His beige raincoat buttoned to his chin, a fedora on his head, and leather gloves on his hands. His face was grim, and his mouth was a straight line.

Sarah dreaded seeing Akio again. He made no mention of her following him, and neither did she.

Mostly he ignored her, which was fine with Sarah, in this instance she preferred being ignored to the alternative.

Sarah let them in to the apartment. She thought about knocking, but thought if Bruce knew that she had company, he would refuse them. Once they were in, they were in, and Bruce would be forced to treat them civilly. True, he may be livid with Sarah after the fact, but he would be polite in front of Chen and the other man. She would deal with his ire later.

The living room was still a shambles. The sight of it shocked Sarah again, even though she had been witness to its destruction.

Akio whistled low. He stepped over a pile of books and righted a fallen bookcase. Once in the center of the room, he turned slowly to take in the chaos. Sarah had seen similar scenes in photographs and newsreels of tornado destruction. No one entering that apartment and seeing the wreckage would imagine that one man had done all this damage, in his sleep, no less. It was amazing and complete in its devastation.

Frenetic permanent marker scrawling covered every inch of the yellow painted walls. Even the sides of the toppled bookcases were covered in writing. The TV was broken and on its side. The sofa was shoved away from the wall; the armchair was turned over. Not one thing was where it should be, and anything that was breakable was broken.

“Sarah,” Bruce said from the hallway. He wore pajama pants and a t-shirt. His arms spanned the hall, one hand on each wall, he held himself upright and steady. His head hung low as if it took too much effort to hold it aloft. He scowled, looking out of the tops of his eyes. He was angry, just as she expected. He said her name like a warning. She had crossed a line.

“Bruce,” said Chen, “We’re here to help.”

“Sarah,” Bruce said as if Chen hadn’t spoken, “I cannot believe you would bring them here. How could you?”

“I’m scared for you,” she said.

With great effort, Bruce moved his head to look her in the eyes. Bringing people here to witness his shame, his—illness, she betrayed him. Sarah looked away first. She couldn’t bear to hold his gaze.

“I’m sorry,” she said.

“Well, you’re here now,” Bruce said bitterly to Chen. “You think you can help me? You think you can fix this?” Bruce dug his index finger into his forehead.

“Yes,” said Akio. He stepped forward in front of Chen and Sarah. “I can help you. You have my word.”

“I had it in control, until you. It was never like this.” Bruce waved his hand at the walls and the remains of all the finest second-hand things his money could buy. “I had it in control. I could handle it.”

“I didn’t know what we were dealing with. Now I think I do,” said Akio. “I can help you. I might be the only one who can.”

“With more of your magic dream-eating bullshit?”

“Yes.”

“Fine,” said Bruce. He threw one hand in the air. He would have thrown both, but he thought he might topple over. “I will take your word, and I will hold you to it.”

“Chen, tell the girl to leave. We need to be alone.”

Chen bowed and turned to Sarah to deliver Akio’s message.

“I heard,” she said. “I’m going.”

She turned and left the apartment, closing and locking the door behind her.

Chapter 33

 

“Jennifer?” he said.

Sarah looked up from her books. She sat at a cafe table. A cup of coffee sat next to her pile of books, untouched. She drummed the top of her pencil on the open page of her textbook and stared out the window. Men and women dressed in shades of gray and brown, some carrying umbrellas, some not, walked this way and that.

Sarah noticed one woman in particular. She wore bright yellow rain boots and carried a bright pink umbrella. She stood out amid the shades of gray and brown people.

“I’m sorry?” Sara said looking away from the window. The man stood hovering over her table. He had dark brown hair, almost black, and shockingly blue eyes.

“Jennifer, right?” his grin was lopsided and instantly endearing.

“No, sorry, you have me confused with someone else.”

“I’m sorry,” he said. He looked mildly embarrassed. A faint mischievousness sparked in his eyes. “I could’ve sworn we’ve met before.”

“No,” Sarah said. He had a familiarity about him in the way that he seemed friendly and open, but Sarah would have remembered meeting him.

“No?” he said. He shrugged. “Too bad.”

He sat down at a table behind Sarah. Two other young men joined him. They talked convivially over a pitcher of beer, leaning inward, joking and laughing. Sarah found herself trying to listen in, but she had trouble picking their conversation out of the half a dozen that were happening around her.

She could hear them laughing. To hear them laugh made her smile, especially the laughter of the blue eyed one. It was rich, carefree, and contagious. She smiled despite herself.

Forcing herself back into her books, Sarah willed herself to focus, and she was mostly successful. Still she noticed when the trio, blue eyes included, stood to leave. She watched their departing backs feeling oddly deflated.

Sarah didn’t know when she should return to the apartment, and she’d felt she used up the restaurant table as long as a cup of coffee and a turkey cob salad warranted. She packed up her stuff and headed for the next place, which was still yet to be determined.

She walked down the little main drag in their neighborhood along the lake. She meandered. She had nothing but time and killing it was harder than it ought to be. She worried about Bruce. She wondered what was going on at the apartment. Her chest felt tight, and her hands were cold and numb.

The wind came at her sideways with bone chilling slices of rain. She didn’t have an umbrella. It was just as well; this was the kind of wind that turned umbrellas inside out. She turned her face into the stinging rain. She felt turned inside out.

She walked past a local, independently owned bookstore, a lone wolf among the large bookstore chains, and went inside.

The warmth greeted her, and she let herself drip for a moment just on the inside of the door. She pushed her hair back from her face, and attempted to squeegee the rain of her face with her ice hands.

A large section of the main floor had been cleared to allow for rows of chairs, which were all occupied except for a few. It was an author’s reading, a poster board sign read-

Genius and Insanity, Nikola Tesla.

Come join local author Gabriel Reese for a reading of his critically regarded biography of one of history’s most unusual and intriguing figures.

 

 

Sarah wandered over to the fiction section and began to peruse the shelves and tables. This was her favorite bookstore, and what she liked best about it were the tables of the employees’ personal recommendations. She’d found quite a few of her favorite books on these tables.

She picked up a couple novels that looked interesting and retreated to a corner chair.

“Are you following me?” a voice said.

Sarah looked up. Standing before her was the blue-eyed boy from the cafe.

Sarah blushed.

“No,” she said. “Are you following me?”

“I do believe I was here first,” he held up his signed copy of Genius and Insanity, Nikola Tesla. “But if I was, could you blame me?”

Sarah’s blush deepened. She resisted the temptation to press her hands to her hot cheeks.

He dropped himself into the chair next to her, “I’m Adam, and you’re not Jennifer.”

“Sarah,” she said.

“Sarah. Hebrew,” he said. “It means princess. Nice. I like it.”

“Where are your friends?”

Adam shrugged, “Not so much the bookish types.”

“And you’re a bookish type?” Sarah said.

“Of course, don’t I look it?”

Sara resisted the urge to look him up and down. Adam lounged carelessly in the chair. His legs sprawled. He was relaxed and at home. He seemed the type to be completely relaxed and at home anywhere he was.

“Where are your friends? You’re alone here, and you were alone at the cafe. A girl like you has got to have a lot of friends,” Adam said.

It was Sarah’s turn to shrug, “Killing time. I can’t go home just yet.”

“What’s that?” Adam said indicating the book she held opened in her hand. She handed him the book.

“The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton. Classic,” he said. “You’ll like it.”

“You’ve read it?”

“Sure,” he said. “It was on a list of the one hundred most important novels of all time. I’ve been reading my way through it.”

“Really?” she said. “I’m impressed.”

“I’m a pretty impressive guy,” he said. He pulled a coin out of his pocket. He showed it to her, and with a flash of his hands, he made the coin disappear. Another flash, the coin reappeared. “How about that? Ladies are impressed with slight of hand.”

Sarah laughed, “Really? What ladies?”

“Slight of hand enthusiasts mostly,” he grinned playfully. Sarah smiled back. It was hard not to smile when he smiled, like his laugh, it was highly communicable.

“What else can you do?” she asked.

Adam blew a long thoughtful breath out of his mouth. “Lots. I’m sure we could find something that you’re impressed with. Other than the fact that I can read. Shall I start listing them?”

“Ha!” she said.

“You have a beautiful smile,” he said. “Has anyone ever told you that?”

“Yes,” Sarah said. She held up her left hand and pointed to her engagement ring. “My fiancé.”

“He’s right,” Adam said not missing a beat. Sarah looked for the disappointment in his eyes, but there wasn’t any. She must have read the situation wrong. “Mind if I sit here for a while?” he said,” I’ve got some studying to do.”

“I don’t mind at all,” she said. She turned back to her book.

He pulled out books from the backpack he’d set next to the chair.

“I’ll be interested to hear what you think about Lily Bart, the main character in your book,” he said before turning his attention to his studying.

Sarah looked at him. He was bent over a textbook, his legs crossed, an ankle on the opposite knee. He brushed the hair out of his face and rubbed his jaw. He had a graceful confidence about him. Every move, even the most mundane like turning a page, was smooth and assured. He had the looks of a leading man in a movie, and he carried himself as if he was.

She looked at him too long. She didn’t realize she was staring until he looked sideways up from his book and caught her eye. She snapped her eyes away and back to her book. She raised her book to hide the blush that had returned.

They sat in companionable silence until the bookstore closed. Adam studied. Sarah read.

“What now?” said Adam as they stood to leave.

Sarah didn’t know. She had called the home phone, Bruce’s cell phone, and Chen’s cell phone, no answer. She didn’t think she should go back, not until she had the all clear, but she didn’t know where she could go now.

She had friends that lived on campus. She’d called them too, but no answer. If she could just get to campus, someone would let her into a dormitory and she could stay on the couch in a common room until she got a hold of somebody. She didn’t know if the busses ran this late, it was definitely pushing it, but she would have to give it a try.

“Do you need a ride?” Adam asked.

“I’m going to take the bus,” she said.

“Do they run this late?” It was like he plucked the thought right out of her head.

“I don’t know.”

“Let me give you a ride. I don’t mind.”

Sarah accepted. The alternative was standing at a bus stop in the icy rain waiting for a bus that might never come.

She followed Adam to his car. He opened the passenger side door and held it open for her while she climbed in. He closed it after her, crossed around the front of the car, and got in the driver side. He turned the heat on full blast.

“Where to?” he asked.

Sarah gave directions and Adam drove.

Between Sarah’s driving directions, Adam asked a lot of questions about Seattle. He’d just moved here and was getting a Master’s degree in Education at the University of Washington. He wanted to be an English professor, which explained his in-depth knowledge of the House of Mirth. Sarah couldn’t remember the last novel that Bruce had read. In fact, she hadn’t seen him read anything other than technical manuals, science and medical journals, and newspapers. Ever.

Adam told Sarah that his uncle lived downtown, and he stayed with him. His uncle traveled a lot, so he had the uncle’s condo all to himself most of the time, which was great, but could also be lonely. He asked Sarah for recommendations on restaurants and things to do. She was happy to oblige.

Adam drove through the main gates at the Northwest College of Natural Medicine. He wound through the narrow campus streets before stopping at the dormitory Sarah indicated.

“Thanks,” Sarah said.

“I’ll walk you up,” Adam said.

“You don’t have to,” she said, but Adam turned the car off and got out anyway.

“This is where you live?”

“No,” Sarah said, “I have friends that do. I’m going to stay with them tonight.”

The dormitory doors were locked at 10:00pm, and after that a key card was needed to gain entrance. Sarah buzzed her friend’s dorm room, no answer.

“I’ll just wait here until someone comes along with a card,” Sarah said. “No big deal. Thanks again for the ride.”

“You want me to leave you here?” Adam looked around. They hadn’t seen one person since driving onto campus, and although the campus was typically bustling with people at all hours of the day and night, it was unusually deserted. Undoubtedly, the freezing rain was keeping everyone indoors.

“Yep,” said Sarah. “It’s no big deal, really.”

Adam hunched his shoulders against the driving rain.

“Are you sure?” he said.

“Totally,” she said.

“Is there somewhere else I can take you?” he asked.

“Really, it’s okay.”

“Where do you live?”

“An apartment off campus, but I can’t go there tonight.”

“Why not?” Adam asked.

Sarah shrugged, “I just can’t. Adam, you’ve been so nice to bring me here. I’ll be fine. Someone will come along any minute.”

Adam shuffled his feet. By now, they were both soaked, and Adam wasn’t wearing a winter coat.

“What about your fiancé?” he asked.

“He’s busy,” she said.

“Would he be okay with leaving you here in the dead of night alone?” he asked.

Sarah didn’t answer.

“Well, I’m not either,” Adam said. “Come on.” He waved for her to follow him. “Come on,” he said again.

Sarah hesitated.

“Either you come with me, or we both stand here in the rain until someone comes or we drown. Whichever comes first. I’m putting my money on the drowning,” he said.

Sarah followed him back to the car.

 

 

Adam drove them downtown. His uncle’s loft was in an old converted warehouse in Belltown. The doorman greeted Adam, “Good evening, Mr. Beaumont.”

“Hey,” Adam replied.

The elevator was on the ground floor and opened immediately when Adam pushed the call button.

“After you,” he said. He followed Sarah into the elevator.

Sarah fidgeted with the zipper on her coat and the straps on her backpack. Adam pretended not to notice. He inserted a key into the numbered floor selector panel and pushed the P button. He stood a comfortable, respectable distance from her, watching the numbers climb on the floor indicator near the ceiling of the elevator. The elevator opened and led straight into the condominium. Sarah exhaled as she stepped out into Adam’s temporary home.

“It’s something, isn’t it? Uncle Tyler is—well, he’s rich.”

Uncle Tyler was very rich indeed. Sarah had never seen a home so nice. The walls were exposed brick. The ceilings were at least thirteen feet high with exposed rustic timbers spanning from one side of the giant room to the other. If the ceilings were thirteen feet, the windows were at least ten feet tall and just as wide, providing a spectacular view of Elliot Bay.

Everything was perfect, from the leather furniture, to the burnished cherry wood floors, to the gourmet kitchen with stainless steel, professional-grade appliances.

It was almost too perfect. It was interior decorating magazine perfect.

Pictures and paintings hung on the walls. Knick-knacks and tchotchkes were artfully arranged. There were a few personal items, but even they seemed carefully placed. Nothing gave off the impression of being used or sat on or cooked with. Everything seemed brand new and untouched. The only evidence that someone lived there was a dirty glass and plate sitting on the counter next to the kitchen sink waiting their turn in the dishwasher.

“You’re not kidding,” Sarah said. “What does he do?”

Adam shrugged, “Family business. Big money. Big power. Big time soul suck. The kind of job where having a family is a detriment. Just ask my dad. He had a kid and three heart attacks and finally had to retire. Uncle Tyler has no kids only expensive interior decorators. Those are better. Less disappointing,” he said. “I decided not to go into the family business, so I do nothing but disappoint,” he added.

“Being a teacher is a noble profession,” Sarah said.

Adam nodded, as if he’d heard it before but didn’t quite believe it, “To hear my father tell it, it’s a pauper’s profession. The great John Beaumont is uncomfortable with a pauper for an heir.”

“Too bad for him,” Sarah said.

“Exactly,” said Adam. He smiled with appreciation. “Most people can’t imagine giving up a life like this. I can see that you’re not most people.”

He led Sarah to the spare bedroom, “You can stay here. There’s an attached bathroom just around there. Towels and such are in the cabinet. My room is down the hall, shout if you need anything.” He looked at his watch. “I’ve got class in the morning. I don’t want to be rude, but do you mind if I go to bed? I’m a bear without my beauty sleep.”

“Of course,” she said. “Thank you again for your hospitality.”

“Anytime,” he said. He placed his hand on her shoulder and squeezed. Sarah could feel the electricity of his touch through her coat. Her heart fluttered at his nearness. She could smell his soap, and it smelled good. What brand was it? What did his skin smell like? His neck? Her eyes focused on the curve of his jaw where it met his neck. Could she see his pulse? She could very nearly feel it. That was the spot that she would kiss. Right there.

She shouldn’t be thinking like this. What was wrong with her?

She froze, petrified to move for fear of what she might do. A part of her wanted to run, straight out of there and all the way home. The other part of her, wanted nothing more, in that moment, than to kiss and be kissed by Adam, the brown haired, blue-eyed stranger.

She wanted to touch him. She ached to run her hands along his lean, muscled forearms, to press herself against him, wrap her arms around his neck.

She shoved her hands into her coat pockets. She tried to break eye contact, but couldn’t make herself look away.

His eyes were so blue.

If he kissed her, she wondered, would he hold her face like they do in the movies?

“Well,” he said softly after a long moment. He licked his lips. Was he leaning in? Was she leaning in? Sarah stopped herself from leaning in at the last moment. She stiffened her spine and with herculean effort, she managed to break eye contact and look at the floor.

“Good night, Sarah. See you in the morning,” he said.

He waited a beat for her to say goodnight, but she didn’t. Her heart pounded in her ears. She didn’t trust herself to say anything.

He dropped his hand off her shoulder. The tension eased instantly. Sarah exhaled. Relief spilled into her like cold water and filled her, soothing the fire in her belly and on her skin.

She watched him walk down the hallway and into a room at the end.

Leaning against the door jam, she trembled. The reality of what she might have done settled uncomfortably in her stomach. The fact that she didn’t do it was of no comfort to her. She was engaged to be married. She loved Bruce—Bruce was her life.

Poor Bruce, at home, sick or worse, what would he think if he had seen the interaction between her and this man that she hardly knew? She felt small.

Would she have stopped Adam if he’d tried to kiss her?

She knew the answer.

She felt as if she might vomit.

She was the worst sort of person.

It took everything she had not to go down the hallway. To his room. Adam. He waited for her. Adam.

She lay on the top of the guest bed not even bothering to get under the covers. She curled onto her side. She felt like crying, but she didn’t allow it. She didn’t deserve the comfort it might provide. She finally fell into a fitful sleep. Not before wondering what Adam looked like as he slept. Did he sleep on his side or on his back? Maybe his stomach.

Adam.

 

 

The morning light found Sarah herself again, ashamed but composed and still very much in love with Bruce Denman.

She heard Adam moving around outside the room. She got off the bed and smoothed the wrinkles her body had left. She slipped on her shoes. The only thing she had taken off before climbing onto the bed.

She took a deep breath before opening the bedroom door.

Adam was in the kitchen, eating oatmeal and eggs, a textbook open in front of him. He was showered and dressed. His hair still wet.

“Hey,” he smiled, “Want some breakfast?”

“Can’t,” said Sarah. “Got to go. Thanks for the place to crash. You’re a life saver.”

Adam frowned, “You don’t have to rush out so fast.”

“Really, got to go,” Sarah legged it to the elevator and pushed the call button. Several times.

“Wait a sec. I’ll give you a ride.” He pushed his bowl away and stood up.

“No need,” Sarah said. “My fiancé is meeting me.”

“Oh,” he sat back down and pulled his bowl back. “Okay.”

“Thank you again,” she said. The elevator door slid open. Sarah walked in and turned to face the door as it slid closed.

“Anytime,” he said.

He regarded her. He looked confused, as if he knew that he’d done something wrong, but he didn’t know what.

The door closed.

Sarah’s reflection glared back at her from the mirrored elevator door.

You suck, it said to her.

“I know,” Sarah said out loud. She sighed. “Believe me. I know.”

Chapter 34

 

Sarah took the bus back to the apartment. She would have called, but her cell phone was dead. It was just as well. She didn’t want to give anyone the opportunity to tell her to stay away. She was coming home regardless, whether she was wanted there or not. She needed nothing more than to be home right now. She needed to be near Bruce. She had flown out of his orbit, and she felt uncomfortable and sad. She wanted her body as close to his body as possible.

She unlocked the door and entered the living room. The furniture had been righted and the broken things, like the TV, had been removed. Their living room looked sparser than normal, but it warmed Sarah to see it. The writing was still all over the walls. She could care less.

Bruce heard her key turn in the lock, and he was in the living room to great her before she’d even stepped across the threshold. He grabbed her up in his arms, and kissed her forehead, cheeks, and lips. She kissed him back. Forcefully.

“I’ve been so worried about you,” he said. “Where did you go? Where did you stay last night?”

“At Lucy’s,” Sarah said. “On campus.”

“I’m so sorry,” he said.

She shook her head, shaking his apology away.

“You look tired,” he said.

“I slept on the floor. I didn’t get much sleep,” Sarah said. “You, on the other hand, look well. You look so rested.”

“I’m just as surprised as you are. It seems that maybe Akio knows what he’s doing after all. Once he did whatever it is that he does, I slept well. I not only did not have any nightmares, I actually had a good dream.”

“What was it about?” Sarah asked. She unzipped her new coat and hung it on a hook by the door then sat on the couch and took off her boots. “Solving the mysteries of the universe?”

“I dreamed about you,” he said. “I think we should take Harvey’s money and get married. Just the two of us. We’ll go to Hawaii. Get married on the beach.”

Sarah’s heart swelled, “What about your new job? Aren’t you starting next week?”

“I called Hawthorne and pushed my start date back a week. A week is nothing to him. He’s so excited that he’s got me. He’s beside himself. He was scared I was calling to say I’d reconsidered. He was relieved. He told me I could take more time if I wanted.”

“Just us? Elope? What about my family?”

“We’ll fly them in too. If that’s what you want. Anything. Anything you want. Just say, yes. Say that you’ll marry me this week.”

“Yes!” she said. She stood up, and hugged him. “Yes. Yes. Yes.”

“You’re the best thing that has ever happened to me,” Bruce said into her hair. He picked her up, and she wrapped her legs around his waist.

She kissed him.

She had lied to him twice in the last month. It might not bother someone else, but it bothered her. She never lied—to anyone. Much less Bruce. The half-life of the lies buzzed around in her head. She closed her eyes tight against them and kissed Bruce deeper.

“Do you feel it?” he said against her lips. “We’re on the precipice. Our lives are about to change. Sky’s the limit, my girl.”

Chapter 35

 

“What do you think?” Clive Hawthorne asked.

“Impressive,” said Bruce. The lab was appointed to Bruce’s exacting specifications.

“If you think there is anything missing, you let me know. We want this joint endeavor to start out on the right foot.” The gray haired man bounced from one foot to the other. Clive Hawthorne had tiny feet and a round belly. His plaid button down shirt stretched over it to tuck tightly into his chinos. He expected a lot out of that shirt.

Clive had flown in from Bolster and Lumen headquarters that morning. He couldn’t wait to see Bruce’s face when he saw the state of the art laboratory. Like a parent on Christmas, he wanted to soak in the excitement and joy as his child wallowed in spent wrapping paper not knowing what to play with first.

If Bruce was impressed, Clive couldn’t tell. He felt compelled to point out each state of the art piece of equipment. Truth be told, he expected a little more excitement from his multi-million dollar investment. He knew Bruce could be aloof, but come on.

“I have flown in two of my best lab techs. Top of their classes. Those two.”

“I appreciate it,” Bruce said. “In the future, I would like to hire my own staff.”

“Of course,” said Clive. “I wanted to get you started off on the right foot.”

Clive opened a giant wooden door, “And here,” he said with a flourish, “Is your office.”

The office was better than Clive’s own.

“Thank you,” said Bruce.

“Feel free to make it your own,” said Clive. “Add those personal touches. How about a picture of you and the Mrs.? Why don’t you sit in the chair? Even the chair is state of the art, three thousand dollars. Sit. Sit.”

Bruce walked around the desk and sat, “Ah, yes. Three thousand dollars, you say? I feel at least four thousand dollars worth of comfort.”

Clive didn’t realize Bruce was being sarcastic. He beamed with pride, “I have one just like it,” he said.

“Speaking of the Mrs.—how was the wedding?”

“It was perfect,” Bruce said.

Clive waited for more, but that was all Bruce offered.

“Terrible shame about Dr. Harvey. My condolences.”

“Thank you,” Bruce said.

“How did it happen?”

The one question every one wanted to know that mattered the least. Bruce pinned Dr. Hawthorne with a look, “He fell down the stairs.”

“Oh, my, how terrible. How awful. So sad. So tragic.”

“Yes, all of those,” said Bruce.

“Was it an accident?”

Bruce’s head snapped to the side. No one had ever intimated it was ever anything other than an accident. “Of course it was.”

“Of course, of course,” Clive rocked on his little feet. “I’ll have you know that I took everything Dr. Harvey said about you with a grain of salt. No one understands more than I that the mentor/mentee relationships can be complicated.”

“What did he say about me?” Bruce asked. It never occurred to him that Clive Hawthorne would have called Harvey or that Harvey would have said something about him that required a grain of salt to be palatable.

“Nothing really,” Clive stammered a little. He realized he said something he shouldn’t have, “He indicated, in not so many words, that you could be headstrong and arrogant. That you can overly fixate on one thing and lose perspective.”

“He said those things?”

“Look Bruce,” Clive chewed on his lower lip. “I appreciate your brilliance. Brilliant men can be headstrong, arrogant, and fixated. Not that you are any of those things, mind you, just that it is not that far out of the realm of what could be expected of a man of your intellect. Unlike Dr. Harvey though, I can see the merit and value of your previous research, and maybe, just maybe, once this project has run its course, we might be able to offer you a little funding to pursue a vanity project. It is within my power to control such things.”

“When did Dr. Harvey say these things to you?” Bruce asked.

“The week he passed,” Clive shook his head and tsked. “Such a shame. I understand the loss of a mentor like Dr. Harvey must leave a void in your life. Perhaps a void that I may humbly fill for you. I am here to offer you support in whatever capacity that you require.”

Bruce appraised Clive from his three thousand dollar leather chair. The little man had puffed his chest out with pride although it did not extend past his belly. Dr. Clive Hawthorne was an infant compared to Dr. Harvey’s intellectual gigantism.

“I appreciate your support,” said Bruce. “Now, let’s meet the staff. There is work to be done.”

 

“Here alone again?”

Sarah sat at a table of the bookstore. She had come here straight after Chen’s. Bruce was having a session with Akio tonight. He had been meeting with Akio regularly since the incident, which is how they referred to the night Bruce woke up screaming and hysterical, that is if they mentioned it at all.

She knew the voice belonged to Adam even before she looked up.

“It’s my favorite bookstore,” she said simply. His eyes were just as blue as she remembered. She hadn’t exaggerated them in her memory.

“May I?” he said indicating the other empty chair at the table.

Sarah hesitated, “Sure.”

“I’m so glad I ran into you again,” he said. “You look great and very tan.”

“Hawaii,” she said.

He took of his coat and settled into the empty chair. He pulled out a book and a notebook. “Vacation?”

“Of a sort,” she said. “I got married.”

“You got married?” He said. Floored. “Wow.”

Sarah saw disappointment in his face and heard it in his voice. It pleased her. She relished it. Then realizing what she was doing, she dropped her eyes, mid-relish, back to her books. The black words swam on the white page. It took her a moment to focus.

“Congratulations,” Adam said.

“Thank you.”

“He’s a lucky bastard.”

Sarah looked up. Adam hadn’t opened his book or notebook. He locked eyes with her, boldly, almost aggressively.

“I’m the lucky one,” Sarah said. Her cheeks flushed. Damn it. “Well, I should go.” She stood up, nearly knocking her chair over, and began hastily shoving her things into her backpack.

“Wait,” said Adam. He stood up too, “Don’t leave because of me.”

“I’m not,” she lied.

“I’m sorry,” he said. He placed his hand gently on her hand. She froze. “I can’t deny that there is something about you that I’m drawn too, but I would rather be your friend than nothing.”

“We don’t even know each other,” Sarah hissed. “If we’re drawn to each other, it’s purely physical and based on nothing. Nothing.”

“So, you’re saying that you’re drawn to me too?” he said with a crooked smile.

Sarah shook her head and shook his hand off.

“I’m just joking,” he said. “Too soon in our friendship?”

“We’re not friends,” Sarah said, louder than she intended. It seemed like such a mean thing to say. Normally, Sarah would never dream of saying anything so mean to anyone. The words felt like fire on her tongue.

The two girls at the table next to them looked over, interested. Their boring night at the bookstore just got a little more entertaining.

“Truly,” he said. “I want to be friends, but it’s your call.” He raised his hands in mock surrender before picking up his belongings and moving to an empty table on the other side of the room.

“He’s fucking hot,” Sarah heard one of the girls say to the other one. “He could do a lot better.”

The other girl snickered.

Sarah glared at her, and the girl looked at her with mock-sympathy. She hadn’t intended for Sarah to hear, but she didn’t care very much that she did, “Not that you’re not pretty or anything, but have you seen him? He’s gorgeous. Seriously, come and anonymously-fuck-me gorgeous. ”

“Whore,” Sarah hissed.

She slung her backpack on her shoulder and left, hot tears spilled down her cheeks. It took everything that she had not to slap that mouthy bitch across the face. She was not proud of herself, not at all. What kind of person was she becoming? An ugly, hateful one.

The girl’s shocked laughter followed her, needling her, all the way out the door.

“Oh my God,” the other one said. “Can you believe she just called you a whore?”

Chapter 36

 

“How’d it go?” Sarah asked when Bruce walked in the door Saturday morning after his previous session with Akio.

“What are you doing?” he asked although it was plainly obvious what Sarah was doing. She was painting.

She was upset when she left the bookstore. Her interaction with Adam Beaumont had left her uneasy. She was too distracted to study, so on a whim, she went to the home improvement store and bought a gallon of paint. It was high time to paint the living room. The crazed black scrawl had to be a constant reminder to Bruce of the night he lost complete control of himself. Sarah knew it was a constant reminder for her. She’d never been more scared. She wanted nothing more than to forget that night. Pretend it never happened.

Bruce was too busy to take care of it, what with the wedding, Hawaii, cleaning up his old lab, and starting his new job. She thought she would surprise him. She thought he would be pleased.

She pulled all the furniture into the center of the room, covered them with a tarp, and worked all through the night painting the living room a light, sunshine yellow.

She was done now, three coats of paint and the whole gallon of paint later.

She sat on the floor cross-legged drinking a soda. The three fans they owned plugged in, each blowing on a different wall. Windows thrown open, the cold wind swirled around her. Paint flecked her hair. A yellow smear branded her cheekbone. She was proud of herself, exhausted true, but she’d managed to pour all of her bad feelings into something productive. She finished just before Bruce walked in.

She didn’t expect the look of dismay on his face.

“What have you done?” he said. His mouth hung open. He looked from wall to wall to wall. Everything was gone. Shining, wet yellow paint from floor to ceiling.

“You’re upset?” she said.

He clenched his teeth and his hands, unclenching and clenching again.

“I thought you would like it. I did it for you. So you wouldn’t have to do it,” she said, scrambling to her feet.

He knew he should say thank you. He knew that she’d done it out of the goodness of her heart. He took a few deep breaths and counted to ten.

“You should have asked,” he said.

Sarah’s face fell, “But didn’t it have to be done? I mean, we rent. It had to be painted, right?”

He pointed at her, putting his finger in her face. Harsh words lay in wait, and he shook with the effort to contain them. She couldn’t possibly understand what she’d done.

“I need a moment,” he said finally. He about-faced and headed for the door.

“Wait!” she said.

He held up his hand, “Coming after me like a yipping dog isn’t going to help the matter. It’s only going to force me to say things I don’t mean. You should have asked, Sarah. I’m going to leave it at that. I’m going for a walk.”

 

 

When Bruce came back, Sarah was asleep on the plastic tarp covered couch. She couldn’t be comfortable. She’d left the windows open. The air inside was nearly as cold as the air outside. She lay huddled under her old coat.

He brushed her hair out of her face, trying to be gentle but at the same time selfishly hoping she would wake up. She looked sad, small, and cold. At least the cold he could do something about. He closed the windows, scooped her up, and carried her to the bed.

“Not the bed,” she mumbled. “I’m all painty.”

“It’s dry,” he said. He laid her on the bed and covered her with the red heart comforter. He tucked it in at her sides, the way his mother had done when he was little. “I’m sorry.”

“I should have asked,” she said trying to wake up but the grip of sleep was too strong.

“No,” he said, softly, “It was unreasonable of me to expect you to know.”

“Was it so very important?” she said.

He sighed, “Perhaps, but it’ll come back to me if it’s truly important.”

“I hope so,” she said. “Next time write it in a notebook or something. Not the wall.”

“Ha ha,” he said. “Go back to sleep. We’ll talk more when you wake up.”

Chapter 37

 

The next few weeks passed uneventfully. Bruce’s lab was humming. Sarah was busy. When she wasn’t in class she was at Chen’s.

Mr. Chen not only allowed her into the treatment room, but he, finally after so many long months, decided to carefully teach Sarah his practices. She had learned more at Chen’s in the last few weeks then she had the last year in school.

Mr. Chen was exacting in his teachings. He explained every movement. He quizzed her ceaselessly on herbs and acupuncture sites, on conditions and modes of treatments. To some it might prove too much, Chen expected Sarah to absorb and retain everything he told her. He clucked and moaned if Sarah answered a question wrong. He rolled his eyes and feigned fainting if Sarah actually did anything wrong or even something not exactly right or he’d slap her hands away—which was worse than the moaning and fainting and looks of horror.

Thankfully, Sara was an excellent student and a fast learner. Chen relied on his theatrics less and less each and every day.

Three weeks passed before Sarah went back to the bookstore.

That night Chen told Sarah that he had plans and was closing early, fifteen minutes early, but early nonetheless. He looked furtively around the room, looking one way then another, before divulging that he had a date.

Sarah laughed out loud. She covered her mouth with her hands but couldn’t stop laughing. Chen glared at her for a moment before sighing and shrugging his shoulders and giggling himself.

“Really, Sarah that is not very ladylike or Chinese.” He waggled his bushy eyebrows. He must really be looking forward to the evening.

“Good for you, Dr. Chen, you deserve it,”

“I don’t know about deserve,” Chen said meekly. His fit of giggles subsided.

“Where are you taking her?”

“Movie,” said Chen.

“Have a good time.”

Chen blushed. “Now, go! Shoo! I don’t want to be late.”

Sarah gathered her belongings, and Chen hustled her out of the building. He locked up, and tipped his hat to Sarah, the same hat he wore everyday when coming and going, before hurrying to his car.

Sarah stood on the sidewalk. Bruce had already told her he was going to be late. She wanted to go to the bookstore, but she had not allowed herself to even think about going. She had taken the bookstore away from herself as a consequence and punishment for her embarrassing behavior.

She hesitated. It was her bookstore after all, she had gone their at least three times a week since discovering it the first week after they’d moved here. It was one of her favorite places in the whole world. She decided that she’d been punished long enough, and what were the odds that she would run into Adam Beaumont again. Miniscule. Seattle was a sprawling city. For all she knew, Adam was already lost to it, absorbed into the masses of people, just another face in the crowd, and she would never see him again.

She girded herself, straightening her spine, and pulling her shoulders back. Regardless, if she saw Adam Beaumont or if she never saw him again, she knew who she was at her core. She wouldn’t allow herself to be thrown, not again. She would handle herself in a manner that she could be proud of.

Clearly, the odds weren’t in her favor. Adam sat at a table, books sprawled around him. He ran his hands through his hair. It was tousled and unkempt. During the time it took, Sarah to spot Adam, give herself another pep-talk, and make her way to an empty table, she noticed a girl perusing the economics section directly behind Adam, walking back and forth, casting surreptitious glances his way, hoping that he’d look up.

Sarah sighed.

She sat at the only other empty table, which was directly in Adam’s line of sight, provided he looked which he didn’t. He appeared completely engrossed in the book he was reading. He scribbled notes on a notepad managing to hold a ballpoint pen and a highlighter pen in the same hand. His head was propped up with his other arm, his forehead resting in his non-writing hand.

Sarah chewed on her lip. The economics girl took another lap. Adam made no indication that he had seen Sarah.

Sarah stood and took off her coat. She hung it from the back of her chair. She smoothed and straightened her clothes. Clearing her throat, she walked over to Adam’s table.

He didn’t look up.

“Adam?” she said.

“Hmm?” he replied. He rubbed his eyes and ran his fingers through his already tousled hair. He looked Sarah in the eyes, and she steeled herself for the jolt of attraction that had always followed looking into Adam’s blue eyes, but it didn’t come.

“I want to apologize for being rude to you,” she said.

“Oh. Sure. Apology accepted,” he said. His eyes looked tired.

“Really?” she said.

“Really. It’s not a thing, Sarah,” he went back to his books.

Sarah went back to her table. Economics girl scowled at her. Sarah smiled back. She felt light. Lighter than she’d felt in weeks. She finished her homework in record time, and as a reward, she allowed herself to pick another book off the recommended novel table.

She bought coffee at the little coffee bar in the bookshop.

She set a cup on Adam’s table, next to his textbook.

“You look like you could use a cup,” she said.

“Oh, you don’t know how bad.” He picked it up and sipped. He leaned back in the chair. “Ever feel like you’re in over your head?”

“Sure. Every day.”

“I find that hard to believe,” he said. “You seem to have it all together.”

“Facade,” Sarah said.

Adam flipped his pen absentmindedly in his fingers. He droned on and on about his everyday problems—some teacher that was a pretentious asshole, his father’s disappointment, his lack of certainty that he was doing the right thing, maybe he should just join the family business after all.

Sarah listened and nodded, offering suggestions at the appropriate spots. Very normal. Just like friends.

Chapter 38

 

“Well,” said Akio. “Whatever it is, it is the sneakiest I have ever dealt with. Which is saying something.”

“No trace then?” said Bruce. He sat up and unrolled and buttoned the cuffs of his dress shirt. He slid his feet into his shoes and laced them.

Akio sat on a rolling stool opposite the small bed that was in the treatment room at Chen’s. He rolled absentmindedly, a little bit this way, a little bit that way, deep in thought.

“Its scent is familiar,” said Akio. “I catch traces of it, but it’s gone the moment I arrive. You said you aren’t having any more nightmares?”

“No, not since we’ve gone to once a week.”

Akio rolled, thinking, “Normally, this is where we would discontinue our treatment or at least lengthen the duration in between, but something doesn’t sit right with me. I can feel it in my teeth.”

“I’ll leave it to you, since devouring nightmares is not my area of expertise.”

“Your brain is unique,” said Akio.

Bruce rubbed his hair ruefully. “Tell me about it.”

“Do you find it awkward, relating to the other humans? When you can see so much more than they can?”

“This is how it has always been for me. I don’t know any different.”

“The nightmares want something from you,” Akio said.

“What do you think it is they want?”

“You would know better than I.”

Bruce blew out a long breath, “Let me think on it.”

“Until next week then,” Akio said.

“Next week.”

Bruce stood and stretched. He walked into the night, feeling completely rested and at ease. He would gladly pay Akio whatever he charged to continue feeling this way.

So much of his life, his childhood especially, plagued with nightmares, the very idea of going to bed at night caused him anxiety. Dr. and Mrs. Harvey chalked it up to repressed anxiety over the death of his parents. They felt so much was expected of him at such a young age, so much pressure for a little boy. He schooled and worked and collaborated with grown men and women every day. He talked like an adult; he understood more complex ideas than most of his educational peers. It was easy to forget he was just a boy.

When night came though, Dr. and Mrs. Harvey could see the boy and not the little man he pretended to be. Sleepless, anxious, worried.

The curse of brilliance, they would say in hushed whispers, as one or the other, whosever’s night it was, stumbled out of bed to comfort the crying Bruce.

Another nightmare, they would say. His cross to bear.

Poor boy, it’s your turn.

It was the cross they all bore—Bruce the brilliant little boy and the two people who took it upon themselves to nurture and protect him so that he might thrive and change the world.

By the time Bruce was fifteen, he was able to manage on his own when a nightmare woke him. They no longer took him by surprise. He would work equations in his head while staring at the ceiling, careful to not cry or wake the doctor or his wife. At fifteen, he understood the importance of self-reliance and the power of shame and embarrassment. Not that Dr. Harvey or Mrs. Harvey gave him any indication that he needed to be embarrassed or ashamed by the nightmares. Not that the litany of doctors, he had been taken to had given him any indication that he should be ashamed—except for one, Dr. Conway. “Would it be fair to say, that this is a tool that you have come to rely upon to get attention? Come on, Bruce, you can tell me. We can find a way to work on your attention getting needs in another, less intrusive way, wouldn’t that be fair to say?”

It wasn’t fair to say.

Since Dr. Conway, esteemed psychotherapist, Bruce kept his nightmares to himself.

He declared himself cured.

Dr. Conway could suck it.

Bottom line, Akio could say whatever he wanted, do whatever he wanted, as long as Bruce continued to feel this way. Akio could refer to the nightmares as they or them or him or—really anything. He could talk about how they were out to get him—whatever. Bruce let him have his shtick. He couldn’t care less. Whatever Akio was doing, was working. That’s all that mattered.

Nightmare free. Refreshed. His mind hummed on all cylinders fueled by a solid, straight eight hours of sleep, every night. His body felt strong. He felt as if there wasn’t a thing he couldn’t do. He had never felt more alive.

Imagine what he could do now that he wasn’t hamstrung with nightmares and no sleep.

He felt untouchable.

He smiled all the way home. He couldn’t help himself.

 

 

Bruce heard the sound of a car door close. A few seconds later, Sarah’s keys turned in the lock on the front door.

She walked in, rosy cheeked from the cold.

“Someone drove you home?”

“Yes,” she said.

“Who?”

“His name is Adam.”

“Adam? If you needed a ride, you should have called me. I would have picked you up.”

“I thought this was dream-eater night. I didn’t want to interrupt.”

“So, tell me about this Adam?” he didn’t try to hide his irritation.

“Not much to tell. Getting his masters at U Dub. He studies a lot at Beacon Books. We’re friends,” she shrugged.

“I don’t know how I feel about you getting rides from strange men,” he said, although his tone made it clear exactly how he felt.

“Alright,” she said standing on her tiptoes and kissing his cheek. “No more rides from strange men. Although, for the record, I do know him.”

“For the record, I don’t.”

“I said alright. Geesh.”

“You hungry?”

“I could eat,” she said.

“Excellent, I got sushi.”

Sarah’s face lit up. Sushi used to be a once a year treat, usually for her birthday.

“Who loves you, baby?” Bruce said with a wicked sexy smile. He unpacked the brown and green bag from their favorite sushi spot, he handed her a pair of chopsticks.

Sitting cross-legged on the floor in front of their portable heater, they ate sushi out of takeout boxes.

“Have I told you how much I love your new job?” Sarah said.

“Yeah, it doesn’t get much better than this. Does it?”

Chapter 39

 

Bruce was at the lab early the next day. He hummed O Fortuna under his breath as he was setting up the day’s work. He liked to arrive before his lab technicians.

One lab tech, Stacey blathered on and on about what she did the night before and how she was so tired. If it wasn’t one thing, it was another—her cat kept her up, her boyfriend snored, she just couldn’t bring herself to turn of the TV. If only she wasn’t opposed to caffeinating herself, for both moral and physical reasons, of course. She cited the rainforest deforestation, for one, and potential cancer causing effects, for two. Instead she sipped decaffeinated green tea and bemoaned the fact that it just didn’t do it for her. Every. Day. Incessant squeaking, like a little mouse, mousey hair, mousy face, mousey voice. Squeak. Squeak. Squeak.

The other lab tech, Ivan was more tolerable in the fact that he didn’t talk much, but when he did open his mouth, which thankfully was a very rare occurrence, he undoubtedly gave away the fact that he was a complete and total idiot. He was self-aware enough to realize that he was in fact a bumbling moron, which is why he kept his mouth shut most of the time. For this, Bruce was thankful. If Bruce could mesh them together, he might have a pretty decent lab tech—might. Stacey for all her chatter was at least smart and capable.

“O Fortuna,” commented a voice behind him, “is it?”

Bruce had heard the footsteps clacking on the linoleum floor so he was not surprised at the interruption, but the voice was one that he didn’t recognize. It was female, but definitely not the helium squeak of Stacey’s voice.

Bruce looked over his shoulder. A petite dark haired, beautiful woman stood, holding a briefcase. She wore a dark, flatteringly cut, no doubt very expensive, business suit and a cheerful smile. She looked familiar, but Bruce couldn’t place her.

“Good ear,” Bruce said.

“Composed by Carl Orff, a very complex character. It is one of the most widely recognized pieces of classical music having been in hundreds of movies and television shows. A composition based on twelve poems from the Carmina Burana, a compilation of eleventh and twelfth century poems.”

“Trying to impress me with your intelligence?” said Bruce.

“Is it working?” she said.

Bruce shrugged his shoulders.

The woman’s smile faded for a moment, before widening again. She was beautiful and not used to indifference from men, in any regard.

“We met once before,” she said.

“Refresh my memory.”

“It was at your old lab. I left my business card.”

“Ah.” Bruce placed her as the saleswoman who stopped by the day Karl gave notice. “There’s no soliciting at this lab either. The security guard should not have permitted you access.”

The woman, licked her lips, and smiled again. She appeared nervous. Bruce flustered her.

“My boss is in town, and he sent me as an emissary. He would like to speak to you about funding your research.”

“Tell him I am currently funded for my research. Hence, this state of the art laboratory that you are trespassing in.”

“No,” she said. “Your other research.”

“Not interested,” Bruce said.

“But you haven’t heard the details.”

“Not interested in the details either. I have made commitments to this lab. I’m not in need of funding, of any kind. Please pass my regrets to your boss.”

“It can’t hurt just to hear him out. He would like to take you out to dinner.”

“I have work to do, Ms.?”

“Ramona Blakely.”

“Ms. Blakely, please pass along to your boss that I’m not interested. I will however take another card of yours since I threw the last one you gave into the recycling bin, and give you my solemn promise that if I am ever in need of funding that your boss will be the first on my list.”

“Certainly,” she said.

She changed tactics. Slowly, she pulled a business card out of the breast pocket of her suit—emphasis on the breast, twiddled the card in her fingers before handing it to him. She chewed on her lip, and looked up at Bruce with doe eyes. She even fluttered her eyelashes. Bruce didn’t realize that women actually did that outside of movies.

“My boss is going to be disappointed in me,” she pouted, “I assured him that I would be able to secure a meeting with you.”

“Best of luck breaking the news to your boss,” Bruce said. A slow smile spread across his face. He had to admit he was enjoying this. Would Ramona Blakely try to persuade him with any other stereotypical female coercion?

Instead, Ramona cleared her throat and straightened her suit jacket. She felt rebuffed, and she didn’t like to be rebuffed.

She smoothed her hair back and arched her brows.

“Best of luck to you as well,” she said stone-faced. “You may need it more than I.”

Bruce tipped an imaginary hat at her.

She scowled, and left.

Chapter 40

 

“So this is where you work?” said Adam.

Last night at Beacon Books, he had told Sarah of his headache woes. The stress of his master’s program was no doubt getting to him. Sarah had urged him to come to Chen’s.

“I don’t know,” Adam had said reluctantly, “if I believe in acupuncture.”

“Chen is the best. He really is. I’m not saying that just because I work for him,” she had replied.

Evidently, Sarah had been convincing. Adam showed up the next day, the bells on the door jangled, announcing his arrival. Sarah was pleased to see him. She rushed around the counter and hugged him.

“I don’t know if we have room for you today,” she said, “But let me check the book. We probably have a space tomorrow.”

She flipped through the appointment book as Adam wandered around the reception area, admiring the Chinese ornaments and decorations before turning his attention to the shelves of herbs and books.

“We’re booked all week,” Sarah said. She looked up. “He usually has a cancellation or two. I can call you if he does.”

“How about you?”

“Me?”

“How about you treat me? Aren’t you almost graduated?”

“I couldn’t,” Sarah said.

“Sure, you could.”

“It wouldn’t be proper. Chen would have to oversee.”

“It doesn’t have to be here,” he said, “I wouldn’t want to get you in trouble.”

“No. I couldn’t.”

“I trust you,” Adam said.

“What have we here?” said Chen. He pushed through the front door. He took off his fedora and appraised Adam and Sarah. Adam was leaning across one side of the counter, and Sarah the other. “Mr. Chen, this is my friend Adam. He came to see about an appointment.”

“I see,” said Chen. He regarded Adam without the usual smile and gracious demeanor with which he handled all of his patients.

“We have nothing for a week,” added Sarah. She hoped that Chen would be willing to squeeze him in.

“It’s a shame,” said Chen. “You came all this way. Next time, you should call. We are glad to take appointments over the telephone.”

“I will do that,” Adam said to Chen.

“Sarah, please check these herbs into stock.” He placed the oily paper bag that he was carrying on the counter.

“Of course,” said Sarah. She opened up the brown paper sack and looked inside.

“So, you are a friend of Sarah’s?” Chen asked Adam.

“Yes.”

“Do you go to the same school?”

“No.”

“How do you know each other?” Chen asked. Sarah double-taked. She stopped pulling items out of the bag, and looked up at Chen. She had never seen Chen treat a potential client in such a way. It was almost as if he was giving Adam the third degree. Which couldn’t be right, could it?

Adam didn’t seem to notice Chen’s rudeness.

“We met at a bookstore. Sarah’s been kind enough to befriend me. I’m new to town.”

“How long have you known her?”

Now Sarah knew she wasn’t imagining things.

“A few months,” said Adam. He looked from Chen to Sarah; his face was bemused. He gave Sarah an I’m so sorry you have to work for this guy face.

“Get back to work, Sarah, those herbs aren’t going to inventory themselves.”

Sarah realized for the first time that Chen resembled a little bulldog when he was irritated.

“Well, I should go,” said Adam.

“Next time call,” Chen said. “Save yourself the trouble of coming down.”

“You know that boy?” Chen said to Sarah after Adam had left.

“He’s my friend,” Sarah said.

“That boy is trouble.”

“How can you say that? You don’t even know him?”

Chen harrumphed, “Does Bruce know?”

“Does Bruce know what? That I have a friend named Adam? Yes, as a matter of fact, he does.”

“Does Bruce know that he is so good-looking?” Chen said good-looking like it was a boil or a heinous, disfiguring rash.

“How does that matter?”

“It matters. Oh. It matters. You listen to Chen. It matters.”

Chapter 41

 

Bruce, having dismissed his minions for the day, took his final walk-through of the lab. He liked to make sure that everything was tidy, and ready for them to pick up their work as soon as they arrived in the morning.

A knock came at the lab door.

Bruce opened the door to find a very serious looking man. He was as tall as Bruce and dressed in an impeccable suit and tie. His head was shaved clean. The man looked at his watch, the watch alone must have cost as much as most people’s car, and probably four times as much as Bruce’s car.

“I’m glad I caught you,” the man said. He pulled the cuff of his shirt down over the watch after assessing what time it was. He smoothed his fine suit unconsciously with his hands.

“May I help you?” Bruce said.

The man smiled a wide smile.

“I certainly hope so,” he extended his hand. “Lucius Toro and you are Bruce Denman. Pleased to meet you at last.”

Bruce shook the man’s hand.

“What can I do for you, Mr. Toro?”

“If you could give me five minutes of your time, I would be forever grateful.”

“I can do that,” Bruce said and opened the door all the way, inviting the man into the lab and leading him to his office.

“Please call me Lucius,” the man said. “I have sent my employee, Ramona Blakely, on a couple of occasions to meet you and secure a face to face. I can see now that you are the sort of man that likes to deal directly, man to man.” Lucius Toro sat in the offered chair. “Important men have no time for middle men, am I right? I apologize for not coming in person earlier.”

Bruce said nothing. He sat opposite Lucius Toro, behind his desk, settling into his three thousand dollar chair.

“The reason I’m here, Bruce,” Toro continued smoothly. “Is to talk to you about your brain research. I represent a small consortium of very powerful, very smart men. We are interested in your research. More specifically, we are interested in funding your research.”

“As I told Ms. Blakely and as you can see, I’m funded, my current research that is. I’m quite content with my position and my employer. I’m, of course, flattered in your interest in my previous research, as it is very important to me personally, but I’m afraid it’s too little too late. I’ve set it aside for the time being.”

“I can guarantee that what I have to offer is not too little, whether it is too late is entirely up to you.”

Bruce shook his head, “My research has been lambasted as financially risky, morally questionable, not too mention fringe science. Impossible. Dangerous. Foolish. Why would your consortium be interested in funding a project that the scientific community as a whole has resoundingly scorned?”

“I find it hard to believe that a man of your giftedness and esteem would pursue a project that was any of those things much less all of them.”

“No, of course I wouldn’t,” said Bruce, “but even I am willing to concede that I may have been pushing it before its time.”

“Who’s to say when anything’s time is?” said Toro. “I personally think the time is now. The consortium thinks so as well. We are not scientists; we are not constrained by rules of nature or laws of physics. We are simply very wealthy men who believe in you and your project. As far as the moral ambiguity, aren’t those determinations best left to the philosophers and politicians? Progress was never made on the back of rightness or wrongness.”

“I intend it for the benefit of mankind,” said Bruce.

“Of course you do. I didn’t mean to suggest otherwise. Just think of the possibilities. Think of all the good that could come from knowing completely, fully, and irrefutably the contents of a man’s mind. It’s staggering. How close are you to accomplishing it?”

“It is just there,” said Bruce proudly. He held up his thumb and his forefinger, placing them a half inch apart. “I’m on the brink, and yes, it is staggering and exhilarating. Reading a man’s thoughts, and it’s not just thoughts either. It’s the entire contents of a man’s mind. Even the things he doesn’t allow himself to consciously think. Even the things he doesn’t know he knows, translating the electric impulses of a man’s brain into language. Language! We can communicate directly with his brain!”

“Fascinating,” said Toro. “Impressive. Leagues above and beyond the work they have you doing here.”

“But—my best engineer left me.”

“Karl Weber? He is good, but not the best. I know better. I can get you better. That’s not an obstacle.”

“I’m paid well for what I do here.”

“This is monkey’s work for a man like you,” Toro snorted. “I will pay you triple.”

“You say that, yet you don’t know what they pay me.”

“I know to the penny. I’ve done my research. I’m not the type to take a flight of fancy or make an offer I’m not prepared to follow through with,” Toro said picking imaginary lint off the sleeve of his suit

“I’ve made a commitment here. I take my commitments seriously.”

“As you should. Quadruple.”

Bruce saw a glint in Toro’s eyes. He had the eyes of a hungry man eyeing a table full of food. Bruce leaned back in his chair. He realized he’d been leaning forward in excitement. He’d imagined this moment. Someone giving him the means and opportunity to pursue his work. His heart raced, and he breathed slowly to calm and center himself. It was too good to be true.

“We can come to an agreement. We are both reasonable, and we both want the same thing which is for Bruce Denman to be the most influential man of the twenty-first century.”

Bruce said, “I will have to think about it.”

“What concerns do you have? I would be happy to allay them.”

“I would require complete control of the research and how the findings are implemented. Everything would have to go through me. I get the final say.”

“We would be obligated to ensure the arrangements are favorable to all, to you and to the consortium, of course. You know how investors are. Willing to invest only if the return is sizable enough,” Toro said. “It is business, after all.”

“I need to think about it.”

“I understand,” Toro said. “I can give you a little bit of time, but then I must focus our time and energy on other projects.”

“I’ll need your offer in writing.”

Toro steepled his fingers, “Of course.”

“And a list of the consortium members.”

“I’m afraid I cannot comply with that one. Our members prefer their investments to be anonymous. It is entrusted to me to be the public voice and face. All dealings and interactions with them go through me.”

Bruce shook his head, slowly and heavily, “That’s a deal breaker for me, I’m afraid. I don’t do business with faceless, nameless men. Your five minutes are up.” He stood.

“You’re making a mistake,” said Toro. “I like you Bruce. We’re birds of a feather, but I can guarantee that another offer like this is not going to come along. You know better than I. You’ve beat the pavement. You know. No one will see in you, what we see in you. No one will believe in your research as we do.”

“Provide me a list of members, and I promise to reconsider.”

“Sadly, we are at an impasse, then,” said Toro. He stood slowly, smoothed and straightened. He shook his head, “What a great disappointment.”

“Yes,” said Bruce.

“You’re being shortsighted.”

“I’ve been accused of worse,” said Bruce. “Now, I really must get home to my wife.”

“Please pass along my regards to your beautiful bride, Sarah.”

Bruce was suddenly irked.

Toro admitted that he’d researched Bruce, but still Bruce couldn’t help but be annoyed at hearing this man say Sarah’s name. Maybe it was the way he said it—slowly, purposefully, as if it tasted good on his tongue. Savoring.

“Please pass along my regrets to your nameless, faceless consortium of investors. It is business, after all,” Bruce replied.

It was Toro’s turn to narrow his eyes in annoyance. His mouth thinned, “I’ll show myself out.”

Chapter 42

 

Akio was being followed.

Before, he’d only suspected.

He was fairly certain the night that Bruce’s Sarah followed him leaving Chen’s that she hadn’t been the only one tailing him. He could feel the presence of at least one maybe two others in that alley. He didn’t know which one of them was being followed, him or Sarah, but who would follow the girl?

Now, though, he was certain. He was being followed, and not subtly either.

He left his warehouse for a walk in the cool evening. The sky was blanketed in low, thick clouds. No stars. No moon. His footsteps echoed sharply on the pavement.

He heard the footsteps behind him. He turned to look over his shoulder but saw no one. When he stopped walking, the footsteps stopped. When he started, the footsteps started.

He hoped for the sake of whoever was behind him that they didn’t make a foolish choice.

Then he heard the second set of footsteps joining in with the first.

He stopped again. The pair of footsteps silenced. He smelled the air, but couldn’t smell anything. Unusual. He continued walking. He held his hands in fists at his sides.

Was that another set of footsteps? Three now?

He continued at the same pace, but he veered off his intended course. He’d planned on a nice stroll along the river, but decided to keep his walk to the pavement to better hear his pursuers.

He pricked his ears. The footsteps did not close the distance. They remained the same distance behind him. They were far enough away that he couldn’t hear them breathing. Giving in to curiosity, he looked over his shoulder again. Still, he couldn’t see anyone.

He pulled his phone out of his pocket and dialed a number.

“This is Akio. I am calling to speak to one of the monkeys.”

“They’re not here,” said the voice on the other end of the line.

“All of them?”

“Yep.”

“Where are they?”

“Look, buddy, I just answer the phone. They don’t tell me where they go.”

“Have them call Akio when they return.”

“Sure thing.”

“Are you writing it down? Akio.”

“Sure thing.”

“I expect them to get the message.”

“Sure thing.”

Akio disconnected the call.

Was that snickering he heard coming from the footsteps? Yes. It was.

Now, he was pissed.

He turned on his heel and stalked toward his pursuers. The footsteps scattered in three different directions.

Hearing the scampering in the darkness, Akio felt a little better. Whoever they were, at least they had the good sense to run away from him.

Just then he heard the sniveling laughter again, this time it was coming from the left side of him, above him.

Akio pursued the sound. He ran down the narrow street to his left. A metal fire escape on the side of a brick building was pulled to the ground. Akio moved fast and quietly, he scaled the fire escape to the roof of the building.

He heard the laughter again, but still could not see anyone.

It was still coming from above him, but there was no higher to climb. Just the sky.

“Identify yourself!” Akio yelled. He tilted his face upward. He roared into the night sky.

The fiendish voice snickered again, ascending up and away until it was gone.

Chapter 43

 

“Really?” said Bruce. “This is a little aggressive, don’t you think?”

Bruce was going home early. He wanted to surprise Sarah with a pasta dinner and a bottle of wine. He’d had a lot of late nights. What with getting the lab up and running, and bringing the lab techs up to speed. He’d promised Sarah that he would be around more with this job, and tonight was as good a night as any to begin to make inroads on his promise.

He tried to remember which pasta sauce Sarah usually purchased, when Ramona Blakely appeared next to him in the grocery store aisle.

“I’ve been instructed to give you one last opportunity to say yes,” she said.

“Toro sent you?”

“Of course,” she said.

“This is bordering on stalking. How did you know I would be here?”

Ramona shrugged her delicate shoulders. She wore a black trench coat tied at her slim waist. She looked bored and tired.

“Please just tell me that you will consider it, so I may pass that along to Mr. Toro.”

“I told him that I would consider it, if he could provide me with a list of investors, but this is just too much. Following me to the grocery store? The answer is flat out no. You tell him that.”

Ramona shrugged again, “He told me to tell you that you would regret it if you said no.”

“Are you threatening me, Ms. Blakely?”

“Do you feel threatened?”

Bruce looked her up and down. She tilted her head meekly, her hands in her pockets.

“No.”

“She likes the Organicville brand Mushroom sauce.”

“What?”

Ramona Blakely narrowed her eyes, “Sarah, your wife, prefers the Organicville Mushroom sauce the best, at least that’s what she purchased the last three times.”

“How the hell would you know that?”

“How about now?” she said. “Do you feel threatened now?”

“Get the hell away from me,” he leaned into her. “And stay away from my wife.”

“I don’t like you,” said Ramona, “I don’t care one way or the other if you decide to work for Toro, but he cares. He cares a lot, and he only has your best interest in mind. Last chance, are you in or are you out?”

Bruce picked up the jar of sauce that Ramona had indicated. He rotated it slowly in his hand giving himself a moment to collect his thoughts.

“There’s been a misunderstanding,” Bruce said finally.

“Excellent, I am so relieved to hear that,” said Ramona. “Mr. Toro will be delighted.”

“The misunderstanding,” continued Bruce. He took a step closer to Ramona and said softly and angrily, “is that someone somewhere has given you and your boss the impression that I can be bullied or coerced.”

He dropped the jar of spaghetti sauce. Ramona Blakely pulled her hands out of her pockets to catch the jar just in time. It landed heavily in her hands.

“Tell your boss to go to hell.”

“I shall relay the message, Mr. Denman.”

Ramona Blakely said nothing else. She placed the jar of spaghetti sauce into the shopping basket that Bruce was carrying. Then she turned on her heels and strode away.

Chapter 44

 

Akio climbed down from the roof of the brick building the same way he’d climbed up. The fire escape creaked and shuddered under his weight. A couple sections of the metal ladder were pulling away from the brick facade of the building and could use some attention.

Halfway down the final length of the ladder, Akio jumped lightly to the ground.

He looked up and down the empty street, but couldn’t see or sense anyone. The hairs on his arms and the back of his neck stood on end. It’d been a long time since he felt this level of unease. Something wasn’t right.

He shambled down the street, scuffing the soles of his shoes and kicking a piece of loose pavement ahead of him.

He thought of calling the monkeys again. If something big had descended upon the city, they would know it. They always knew. It was their job.

The clouds were low and thick and the air smelled like ozone and something else.

Fog began to rise up from the pavement and Akio could see his breath in the chill. He turned the corner; it was then that he heard the footsteps fall in behind him. One, two, three pair.

He sighed heavily.

Unlike before when he couldn’t smell anything except the night, he could clearly smell his pursuers now. He smelled sweat and unclean bodies and bloodlust. The men behind him were itching for a fight.

He could hear their rapid breathing and their strong hearts beating. One heart, two hearts, three hearts.

Akio’s arms and legs suddenly felt very heavy. Whoever had set these three men upon him had done them a serious disservice. Three humans were no match for Akio. It wouldn’t even resemble a fair fight. He felt bad for the men. The last thing that Akio wanted to do was fight them.

Resigned, he continued at the same shuffling pace, waiting for them to make their move, hoping that they wouldn’t.

Chapter 45

 

Chen locked the door to his little clinic. He fumbled the keys in his hand, and they clattered to the ground. The night was heavy and dark.

Chen knelt down to retrieve his keys. He knew without looking up that someone had moved in and was now standing above him. He plucked the keys off the pavement and bounced up and back lightly on his feet.

He didn’t expect to see Adam, but he hid his surprise under a frown.

“We are closed,” he said.

“I’m here for Sarah,” Adam said. “She told me to meet her here. We’re going out for dinner.”

“She’s gone.”

“Oh?” said Adam, “Maybe she forgot. Do you know where she went?”

“Even if I knew, I wouldn’t tell you,” said Chen.

Adam spread his hands in a plaintive gesture. “Please,” he said, “I might have got it wrong. Maybe she wanted me to meet her somewhere else and not here. Maybe she’s sitting somewhere waiting for me.”

“If Sarah was smart, she would meet you nowhere and never.”

“Alright, alright,” said Adam. “I give up. At least I tried. If you see her, you can tell her I came by . . . or not . . . whatever.”

Chen snorted. He watched Adam walk away before he turned his back and finished locking the door.

 

Chapter 46

 

Bruce was disappointed that Sarah wasn’t home when he got there. At the very least, he wanted credit for coming home early. She’d left a note that she was studying at Lucy’s. Again.

Bruce set the bag of groceries down on the counter and opened the bottle of wine. He poured himself a glass, a big glass, and sat down on the couch. He turned on the TV and flipped through the channels finally landing on a BBC miniseries about a noble English family on the brink of World War I.

He dozed sitting up on the couch, his head bobbed up and down, waking in fits, wondering in a red wine haze what time it was, and where Sarah was, but never completely waking. At one point, about the time that the war in all its ugliness descended on the house of the royal family and their servants, he lay down on his side on the couch. He pulled the throw that Sarah liked to drape over the worn spots on the back of the couch over his shoulder and fell into a deeper sleep.

He awoke to knocking on the front door, followed by louder knocking, and then banging. He sat up, sore and stiff. The couch was not good for sleeping. Heavy footed, he made his way across the living room to the front door. He opened the door to see two uniform police officers with somber faces.

He knew with startlingly bright clarity that this was the moment his life would change forever.

He exhaled.

His heart imploded in his chest.

A rushing sound filled his ears.

He didn’t know where to put his hands—should he use them to cover his heart or his ears? They hung limp and useless at his sides.

“Sarah?” he said. He could barely say her name with the little air he had left. Somehow in a moment, he’d forgotten how to breathe.

The skinnier of the two, nodded.

“You should get your shoes and coat, Mr. Denman, and come with us.”

Chapter 47

 

Akio walked for hours, and the men never got closer. They never made their move. At some point, their footsteps faded into the night, and the night faded into dawn. Akio wound his way home.

He was troubled. His skin itched with foreboding. The worst part was that he couldn’t think why. He unlocked the door to his warehouse, and before entering, looked over his shoulder one last time. He tried to shake the feeling that he was being watched, but the feeling was unshakable.

He locked the door behind him and walked through the main room down the dark hallway to his bedroom. The morning light streamed weakly through the skylights.

Shadows moved over the skylights like clouds casting the room in flickering darkness. When Akio looked up, the sky was still blanketed with the thick, heavy clouds of last night, the kind of clouds that weren’t the moving or casting shadows type.

Akio turned on the little television that he kept in his bedroom. Regardless of what he thought of TV, it was vitally important to stay abreast of the news and current affairs. The voices droned monotonously.

What he needed now above all else was a shower. He kicked off his shoes, pulled his shirt over his head, and unbuttoned his jeans . . . and froze. He turned back to the television and turned up the volume.

“. . . horrific scene this morning in downtown Seattle’s Belltown neighborhood. Just after one o’clock in the morning, police were called to the scene of a double homicide. The victims of this grisly crime were well-known financier Tyler Beaumont and a young woman who has been identified as Sarah Denman. Details are still tentative at this time, but we have been told by an anonymous source that a yet to be identified assailant attacked and murdered Tyler Beaumont as he was arriving home late yesterday evening from a business trip. Beaumont’s nephew subdued the assailant but not before the young woman was caught in the crossfire. Tyler Beaumont was pronounced dead at the scene from a gunshot wound. The young woman, Sarah Denman, was taken by ambulance to Mercy General and pronounced dead upon arrival. We’ll bring you more details when we have them . . .”

Akio stood immobilized. His mind raced.

He had not expected this.

How could he be so ignorant?

Bruce had been come for at last.

Never in all of Akio’s days had he seen a move of this magnitude, of this depth, of this ferocity, and Bruce didn’t even know what and whom he was dealing with. Akio had thought it best to not tell him. Bruce wouldn’t have believed him anyway. No doubt he would have sent Akio away, and then Akio wouldn’t have been able to monitor the situation.

Still that was no excuse. Akio should have told him. He had an obligation to tell him. Bruce needed to know. Everything was at stake.

Akio ran flat out, shoeless, shirtless. He ran out of his bedroom, down the hall, flying through the main room.

He had to get to Bruce as fast as possible.

Faster.

He barreled out of the front door. One step. Two steps. That was when they descended upon him.

It was a trap. He was surrounded.

Some jumped from the roof, some ambled around the corner, and still some more came from down the street. Dozens. Humans and demons.

The humans carried sticks and baseball bats. A few had tire irons. The demons carried nothing but the fire in their eyes and fists.

It was not done like this. It simply wasn’t done like this.

They were breaking every single rule in the playbook. There was an order to these things. Akio fought in dreams not in broad daylight, not out in the open, and never in this form.

Akio spun around, crouched, ready to go at whichever one of them was going to make the first move.

How long would the demons last in the morning sun? These were minor demons in their true form. They were strong but they had little power to protect themselves from the daylight. They were sacrificing everything just to keep one Baku away from Bruce Denman.

How long would they last?

Not long. Not long at all.

But Akio knew it would be long enough. He would never make it to Bruce in time.

“Who sent you?” Akio demanded.

“You don’t know?” said a human. He laughed and spat a giant snot filled wad on the pavement. “They told us you were smart.”

“Who is your master?” said Akio.

“The Prince, himself, commands us,” said the human. He moved spastically as if he was on drugs. Lurching forward on one foot then another, he was one of the ones carrying a tire iron.

Chapter 48

 

Bruce sat in the chair that was placed at a right angle to the detective’s desk.

Detective Doughty’s night had been a long one. His hair was mussed, and his chin was covered in stubble. He had brought Bruce a cup of coffee; it was thick and strong and tasted like bad breath.

“I don’t understand, is it really my wife? Is it really Sarah? Are you sure?”

“We’re sure,” Doughty said.

Bruce didn’t believe him. He wouldn’t believe until he saw for himself.

“What was she doing there?”

Doughty shook his head. Delivering bad news sucked. Changing people’s lives with his words made him feel somehow complicit, culpable. This was the part of the job that took its toll, chipped away at him. He had yet to learn how to distance himself, hold it at arm’s length. What was he supposed to say to this man who’d just found out that his wife was not only brutally murdered but unfaithful?

When Doughty had found out his wife, Lisa, was cheating on him, it ruined him. His partner told him he was too soft, he had to buck up and get laid with a stranger himself to get back at her, but he couldn’t. If being soft was being in love with your wife, then he was soft. Forgiveness and keeping their family together felt better in the long run than the short-lived satisfaction of getting back at her. Didn’t it?

He didn’t answer Bruce’s question out loud, but Bruce could see the pity on the man’s face. He could see in Doughty’s eyes the words he was reluctant to say, the words Bruce didn’t want to hear. A quick look around the room, the cops, moving slowly and deliberately in the early morning hours, talked in hushed voices. They all knew. The TV in the background was tuned to the news. Someone had paused it on the story. Out of deference to him? Maybe. The whole world knew. This is what it felt like to find out that your wife was in the bed of another man—ice water shame. He struggled to breathe. He wanted to rage, to break things. He wanted to scream at her, to call her terrible things, to punish her, to make her take this shame from him. To hurt her back.

But she couldn’t be hurt anymore, could she?

She was dead.

He imagined his body caving in on itself.

He wished that he could disappear. To spin off the earth. To never exist.

At that moment, two plain-clothes police detectives were leading a disheveled Adam out of an interview room. Adam wore jeans and an undershirt that was covered in blood. His hands and arms were covered in blood, it looked like he had tried to wipe it off before giving up and letting it dry in streaks on his forearms. He wore an expression of shock and sadness, and he blinked a lot. Presumably to hold back tears.

“Is that him? Is that the guy she was with?” Bruce asked Doughty.

“His name is Adam Beaumont,” said Doughty.

A couple of the female officers looked up from what they were doing to watch Adam being escorted across the room. He was that kind of good-looking, even in grief, covered in blood, he drew attention and admiring glances.

Bruce clenched his fists and his teeth. He thought his teeth might crumble. The anger surged in his veins and burned him from the inside out.

“Now, Mr. Denman, I understand what your feeling, really I do, but you need to remain calm.”

Bruce shook off Doughty’s cautioning hand and leapt from the chair, intercepting Adam’s departure. Doughty, up from his own chair, was close on Bruce’s heels, and the two detectives on either side of Adam were suddenly on alert, as was every other police officer in the room.

All eyes were on the two men. Every single one of them might have turned a blind eye if Bruce went after Adam in the parking lot, in an alley, anywhere but here in the precinct. Sure, they got it. They understood. After all they were husbands and wives. But not here. Bruce would be dealt with to the letter if he so much as laid a hand on Adam here.

The tension swelled. All of them stood at the ready, waiting. Each one of them thinking in their heads, don’t do it, don’t do it.

Bruce fidgeted with his hands. He struggled but managed to maintain a thin grasp on his composure.

“What were you to her?” Bruce said.

Tears filled Adams eyes.

Doughty snorted, he couldn’t believe the balls on this douche bag.

“I’m so sorry. She wanted to tell you, Bruce.”

“Tell me what?”

“We are—were in love,” Adam said wrapping his blood smeared arms around his waist, “I loved her. She was going to leave you for me. We were going to be happy.”

Jefferson, the cop to Adam’s left and the closest one to Bruce, stepped forward and put his hand on Bruce’s shoulder. He didn’t lay it roughly on him, but he held it firmly—just in case.

“Take him out,” Jefferson ordered Doughty. Doughty obliged, taking Adam’s left side and steered him out.

“I want to see her,” Bruce said. His voice shook. His hands shook. His legs shook. He shook all the way to the floor.

“Sure thing, pal. Our condolences,” Jefferson said. “It sucks. Sucks all the way around.”

 

 

 

Sarah’s body lay lifeless and cold on a metal table.

A rolling cart of her personal items was next to the table. Evidence.

Bruce noticed a pink negligee neatly folded, blood stained. He’d never seen it before. Next to it was Sarah’s cell phone, her wedding band, the clothes she had worn yesterday.

He looked back to her face.

It wasn’t her, but it was her.

It was for real.

She was dead.

He couldn’t not believe it now.

His eyes burned with the image of her lifeless face. When he closed them, he could still see this final image of her, branded forever on the corner of his mind. He knew he would never forget it.

He turned and vomited violently into a metal trashcan. He heaved until he was empty and heaved some more.

Detective Doughty stood next to him, bobbing from foot to foot. His shift was long over, but he didn’t feel like he could go home.

“Let me take you home, Mr. Denman.”

Bruce, still bent over the trashcan, wiped his mouth with the back of his hand.

“I don’t want to go home.”

“Is there anywhere you want to go? I’ll take you.”

“I want to go back to yesterday.”

“C’mon,” Doughty said. “Come with me.”

Bruce followed him. He followed Doughty’s back out of the Coroner’s office out onto the street. He followed Doughty’s back down the block and into a low lit bar.

He followed Doughty’s back to a bar stool and sat next to it.

“What’ll you have?”

Bruce shook his head. He didn’t want anything.

“Two burgers, Larry, and two beers.”

“And whiskey, neat,” Bruce said.

Larry, the man behind the bar, nodded. He didn’t say anything, but he reached behind the counter, pulled out a bottle of whiskey and set it and two glasses in front of Doughty.

Doughty poured. Bruce drank.

“You have family?”

Bruce shook his head. He took a large swallow. The whiskey burned down his throat. He didn’t have anyone anymore. Sarah was his only family. No one was left.

They ate in silence. More specifically, Doughty ate, Bruce drank. When Doughty was done with his meal, he offered once more to take Bruce somewhere, but Bruce declined.

Doughty slid his business card with his cell phone penned on the back. His son had a basketball game, and he was running late for it. Lisa would give him hell if he missed another one.

“Call me for anything,” he said to Bruce.

To Larry, Doughty handed a fifty-dollar bill and asked him to call a cab when Bruce was ready to go home.

“You got it, Mike,” he said. “He gonna be ok?”

“You hear about what happened in Belltown this morning?”

“Yeah.”

“His wife.”

“Ah.” Larry nodded soberly. “I’ll keep an eye out for him. No problem.”

“Call me for any reason,” said Doughty. “I owe you one.”

“Nah, never. You’re always good with me, Mike.”

Doughty slid his arms into his coat and patted Bruce on the back before leaving the bar.

Doughty hesitated at the door and looked back. It didn’t feel right to leave him.

He thought about what he’d say to Lisa, and how she wouldn’t care, and how that would make him think a little less of her. If it could be helped, Mike knew it was best to surround Lisa with circumstances where she didn’t have to make a hard choice to act selflessly and in someone else’s interest, a situation in which she could easily choose to be her best. Lisa wasn’t one to rise to the occasion.

Lucius Toro sat in a booth by the door. He watched the detective leave. He stood, smoothed his pants, straightened his tie, and sharply tugged the end of each sleeve on his expensive suit.

He dropped a twenty on the table to pay for the meatloaf with gravy he ordered but didn’t eat.

The endgame was begun.

Lucius Toro made his move.

 

 

Bruce looked up from his glass of whisky when Lucius Toro sat on the bar stool next to him. The stool was still warm from Doughty, Toro found the warmth distasteful. He resisted the urge to find another stool.

“I called the lab, one last ditch effort to woo you. Your tech, Stacey, told me what happened. I want to offer you my deepest, sincerest sympathies.”

“Go away,” Bruce said. “I want to be alone.”

“Certainly. My apologies,” said Toro. He made as if he was going to stand up, but didn’t. “Before I go, let me buy you a drink. It’s the least I can do.”

“I have a drink.”

“Bartender,” said Toro to Larry. “Your most expensive bottle of scotch, the very best, and a glass for myself and a fresh glass for my friend.”

“Yes, sir,” said Larry.

“How’d you know I was here? Did you have me followed?”

“Ah, yes, Ramona told me of her interaction with you. It’s most unfortunate. Once you’re on board, you say the word, and she’s gone. You’ll never see or hear from her again.”

Larry displayed a bottle of Highland Park single malt scotch. Toro nodded his approval. He opened his wallet plucked a card out of it with two fingers and laid it on the bar. Larry set down two spotless, tulip shaped whiskey glasses.

“I’ll pour,” said Toro.

Larry nodded. He set the bottle down on the counter and slid Toro’s card across the counter, palming it. He turned his back on the two men and immediately went to the far side of the bar to the cash register to run Toro’s card. That was an expensive bottle of whiskey, and the only one he had. Let’s face it, it was mostly for the swank factor. No one ever asked for it, but to see it displayed on the top shelf provided a smoky understated testimony that Larry ran an upscale establishment.

Bruce’s head hung low. It felt so heavy. He closed his eyes and imagined it falling off his neck with a double thud—the first thud when it hit the counter, and the second thud when it hit the floor.

“My wife is dead,” he said. The words felt like a weapon that he wanted to turn on someone, anyone, but they only hurt him.

“Try this,” Toro said, “One of finest in the world.”

Bruce accepted the glass and sipped from it. The scotch was strong and smooth. He might have appreciated it given other circumstances.

He swirled the amber liquid in the glass. Two fingers on the stem, he made condensation circles on the polished bar top.

“If only you had known what was going on in her head,” Toro said after a long silence, matching Bruce sip for sip.

“What?” said Bruce.

“You—of all men. If only you had known, and unlike every other sop, you could have known.”

Bruce shook his head. He felt like he should be angry, the nerve of this guy. Heartless. Insensitive. Cruel. Salt in the wound. He should be furious, but he wasn’t. He felt tired. He shook his heavy, heavy head.

“You mean hook her up to the machine?”

“Precisely.”

Bruce shook his head again, shaking Toro’s words off. “It doesn’t work, not reliably anyway. Besides I could never have done that to her.”

“Why not? It seems a small thing, compared to what she did to you.”

“No. It would have been wrong.”

“Would it?” said Toro. “Would it really? I think it would serve right not wrong.”

Bruce laid his hands flat on the bar top, his fingers splayed. He looked at his hands, his long, strong fingers. He balled them into a fist then laid them flat again.

“It doesn’t matter. The point is moot. Like I said, the machine doesn’t work reliably. I’m missing something, some vital piece to make it work all the time and not just every once and a while. I almost had it, or at least I thought I did . . . but . . .”

“I can help you with that,” Toro said.

“Really, how? Come work for you?”

“Yes.”

“Not going to happen,” Bruce took another sip.

“That’s where you are wrong. By the end of this conversation, I bet you will change your mind.”

“Keep dreaming,” said Bruce.

“No, you keep dreaming,” Toro said.

Bruce felt light, all of sudden, like he might lift off the barstool. He felt loose and buzzy, and his hands, still flat like pancakes, began to levitate off the bar.

“What is wrong with me?” Bruce demanded. Using all of his strength to bring his hands down and hold them against the bar, but despite his best efforts they buoyed up. He forced them down again.

“You’re dreaming,” said Toro.

“Impossible,” said Bruce.

“Possible.”

“What did you do to me?”

“I drugged your scotch. Remember when I told you about the consortium’s other interests? Well, you are sampling one of them. It’s a paralytic combined with a hallucinogen to enhance lucid dreaming.”

“Why would you do that to me?” Bruce’s vision swirled in front of him. He could barely make out Toro’s face. He felt helpless, scared, and he felt like he might cry.

“That feeling. The one where you feel like you might cry will pass in a moment. Just breathe slowly.”

“Where am I?”

“You’re at the bar that Detective Doughty brought you to. Your head is on the bar. You look passed out drunk. Larry’s asked me if he should call you a cab, but I told him no. I told him that I would take you home, and then I gave him a generous, very generous tip. Add that to the fifty that Doughty gave him and the sale of the bottle of scotch, Larry’s had something of a windfall tonight. He’s going to take his wife out to dinner. If he plays his cards right, he’ll probably get lucky.”

The lightness and thinness passed along with the urge to cry. Bruce felt more like himself, but slow, like he was moving through mud, thinking through mud, reacting through mud.

Toro took out a stack of paper and placed it face down on the bar. Next to the stack, he placed a single white piece of paper, also face down.

“What’re those?”

“This—” Toro said indicating the single piece of paper. “—is the missing link, the lynchpin, what you’ve long been searching for.”

“I don’t follow.”

“The answer.”

“The answer to what?”

“With this,” Toro set his hand down gently on the single sheet of paper, “your science will work. The machine will work perfectly, and your whole life will change. You, Bruce Denman, will be the most influential man in the world.”

Bruce wanted to turn it over, but he didn’t. As a deterrent, Toro’s hand still rested ever so softly on top of the single sheet of paper.

“Where’d you get it from?” Who could possibly have this knowledge? Bruce was confident that if he didn’t know it, not a man on earth did or could.

“The where isn’t important right now. What is important is that I have it. I’m the only one who does. As long as I have it, you will never know it.”

Bruce’s slow heart rate picked up. “I’ll figure it out,” he slurred.

“No, you won’t,” said Toro.

“You don’t know me,” said Bruce. “If it can be figured out, I can do it.”

“Try, try as you might, you never will. The only way you will ever know is through me.”

Bruce said nothing.

“Stings doesn’t it? That itch, that curiosity, it bites. It has teeth. I can see by looking at you that you are desperate for it. That the very fact that you don’t know it, and the information is sitting right in front of you, is eating you alive.”

Toro was right. Bruce wanted to know. He had to know.

“What do you want for it?” said Bruce. A man like Toro doesn’t become a man like Toro unless he was successful at attaching strings to every negotiation.

“You.”

Bruce narrowed his eyes, “Be more specific.”

Toro removed his hand from the single sheet of paper and placed it heavily on the stack of papers next to it. The stack of papers was neatly combined with a giant paper clip. The paper clip gleamed and sparked in the dim light.

“First, I will tell you what we are prepared to offer. You will work for us. We will compensate you handsomely. You will want for nothing. Fame. Fortune. Recognition. You will go down in history. All the things that a man like you desperately, secretly yearns for and deserves. Everyone will know your name. We will be eternally committed to securing your legacy. What we want from you is for you to be all those things. To be as committed to your legacy as we are. To work for us exclusively. As collateral, we ask you to sign away your eternal soul.”

Bruce laughed. Hard.

He nearly fell over in slow motion, but was able to steady himself clumsily with both hands on the bar.

“Holy shit, this is a dream,” he laughed until tears rolled out of the corner of his eyes.

“I told you it was,” said Toro. He watched, only mildly amused, as Bruce continued to laugh.

“This all seems so serious and real. Not like the dreams I’m used to. My soul? Sure, whatever. Take it. I don’t believe in souls.”

“Wait,” said Toro holding up a cautioning hand. “This business requires gravity. I cannot in good stead accept a soul that you’ve laughed away whether you believe in its existence or not. There is an order to these things.”

Bruce continued to laugh.

“We’ll proceed once you have regained your composure.” Toro’s expression turned stern.

Bruce laughed harder until he was all laughed out. He wiped his eyes, and sighed.

“So who are you?” Bruce asked. “The devil?”

“A devil,” said Toro.

“There’s more than one?”

“Of course.”

“So which one are you?”

“I have many names. I can hardly be expected to choose one. It is worth knowing that I am the worst of them and not to be trifled with in any way.”

“Satan?” whispered Bruce hoarsely very nearly on the verge of laughter again.

“If you like.”

“Lucifer?”

“Yes. Let’s refocus our attention on the matter at hand. This contract once signed remits your soul to my custodianship. It is a binding, unbreakable contract. In exchange, I’m prepared to offer you great wealth, illustriousness, renown, et cetera, et cetera. You get my drift. The specifics are outlined in detail in the contract. Most importantly and above all else, I offer you knowledge, the knowledge that you have been searching so long and hard for.” He indicated the single sheet of paper again. “I am a creature of my word. Rest assured, I am bound by the agreement as much as you.”

Bruce shook his head, “I told you that I don’t believe in souls.”

“You can believe in them or not believe in them.” Toro shrugged his shoulders.

“I should say no and wakeup, right?”

Toro said nothing.

Bruce eyed the piece of paper. He wanted desperately more than anything else to turn it over. He needed to know.

“If there are souls, does that mean there is a God?”

Toro again said nothing.

Bruce slapped his own face. He could hardly feel it. It felt numb, anesthetized. He slapped harder. He pinched himself.

“How do I wake up?”

“You have to wait for the drug to wear off.”

“And then I wakeup?”

“Yes.”

Bruce looked at the piece of paper again. Toro had removed his hand.

“Turning it over is the same as signing the contract,” Toro said. “Just so you know. I don’t prescribe to loopholes of any kind, and although you may be under the effect of my special pharmaceutical, you have full grasp of your mental faculties just not your physical ones.”

Bruce forced himself to look away. He had trouble focusing on anything else in the bar. Everything else wavered as if under water. Not the piece of paper and not Toro. They were both crystal clear, sharp enough to cut him in two.

“Don’t you want to know what it says?” Toro took a long sip of whiskey.

Yes. Bruce wanted to know. More than anything. He wanted to know.

He didn’t know how much longer he could hold out. His hands sweated. His heart beat loudly in his chest. Every inch of him wanted to know.

His hand reached for the paper. He paused, holding it in mid air.

“What if you had known what she was thinking? What if you had seen inside her head? You could have saved yourself this unbearable agony.”

“She would still be dead.” Bruce’s set his hand heavily on the bar an inch away from the piece of paper.

“Maybe not,” said Toro. “Maybe you could have confronted her before she committed her first transgression, when the idea of stepping out on you was just that, an idea, a thought. Maybe you could have learned how lonely she was night after night in that tiny apartment waiting for you. If you had known how sad she was, how much she missed you, how much she needed you for comfort and reassurance; surely you would have done something about it.”

“She was lonely. I know that.” Bruce said. “I promised her with this new job, it would get better. But it didn’t. Was she sad?”

“Contented women very rarely cheat.”

“I want to wake up,” Bruce said.

“Then we’ll wait,” said Toro.

And before Bruce could stop himself, he turned over the sheet of paper.

 

 

.

Part III—In which we are almost back to present day, a full week before Abbygale falls ill. August 8th finds Abbygale moving through a regular Thursday, baking in the morning followed by a baby photo shoot in the park in the afternoon. She’ll eat a salad for dinner and fall into bed that night exhausted. Her life is small and considered. Little does she know if it all goes as it has always gone, in less then two weeks, she’ll be dead.

Chapter 49—August 8. Thirteen days left for Abby.

 

Akio didn’t have to do anything he didn’t want to do, which included helping anyone he didn’t want to help. He was here to repay a debt. Of all the things Akio found distasteful, being in someone else’s debt topped the list. Come to think of it, that was pretty much the entire list.

Above all else and all through time, Akio managed with painstaking and deliberate care to maintain his independence. He belonged to no one and answered only to himself.

To say that Akio liked humans was a true statement; even truer would be to say that Akio enjoyed them. He found a lot of them charming and humorous and their company not very bothersome and preferable a lot of the times to being alone.

He was patient with them. Mostly. What was important was that he tried to be patient. Always.

Mary Ann Mosbaum, despite Akio’s best effort, was trying every last ounce of his patience, and she was anything but amusing. Her company was anything but enjoyable, and Akio thought that if he could trade her company for one hundred years of solitude, at this moment, he just might take the solitude.

She was a tall woman with long blond hair pulled tightly back from her forehead into a severe chignon at the nape of her neck. Her cheekbones were high and sharp and her blue eyes were nearly colorless like ice. She sat spine straight on the leather couch, and appraised Akio through her cool eyes. Her lips were pale and tight, and she chose her words carefully, choosing only the sharpest most exacting words. She preferred to pin and needle those she chose to talk to. She was ungentle and unfeminine and precise, from the furnishings in her house to her level gaze to her choice of profession.

Akio disliked her immediately.

Even worse then the incessant, needling of her voice were the words coming out of her mouth. Absolute crap.

Akio sat comfortably, one leg sprawled forward. His hands rested in his lap. He knew that his comfortable posture would irritate her, and he was happy to oblige. He yawned for emphasis. She narrowed her eyes at him but didn’t stop talking. Her lips moved and moved and moved. Akio watched them move.

“And then I’m running,” she said. “I’m running down the stairs, and the carpet is red. Did I tell you that the carpet is red? Red like blood. Oppressive red.”

“Yes, you mentioned the red carpet.”

“Does it matter if the carpet is red?” she asked. “It certainly had malevolent undertones. Oppressive really. Did I mention it was oppressive?”

“Oppressive,” Akio repeated.

“Are you listening?” she asked.

“Yes, of course.”

“But are you following? Because I don’t have very much time allotted for this, and I don’t want to have to go over it a second time.”

Akio said nothing for a moment. He regarded her stonily until she shifted uncomfortably.

“Please continue,” he said and yawned again.

Mary Ann Mosbaum frowned deeper, but continue she did, “So I’m walking down these stairs. The carpet is one step plush and thick, and the next step it nearly sucks me straight into it. It squishes, squelches, and sucks me in. I struggle to pull my feet out with each step, but I can’t. Someone is coming after me. A man. I think it is a giant, malevolent man. He has bad intentions toward me. He wants to do vile things to me, and he is aroused that I am pregnant. His mind is dirty, and I can feel his thoughts pushing against my mind—against my will. I can feel all the dirty, vile, inhuman things he wants to do to me. I am finally able to pull one leg out of the suck of the carpet. My heart is pounding. I want to run, but I can’t. I pull my other leg out and lurch forward, and I lose my balance and go tumbling head over heals down the stairs. They are never ending, and although the carpet was soft and squelchy before, it suddenly becomes very hard, and I become very brittle and I keep tumbling. I hit the edge of a step just right, and I shatter into a million tiny pieces. Like a porcelain doll. Me painted on the outside and on the inside I’m painted red. Like blood. Like the carpet. I shatter to nothing. Just a pile of broken pieces, and lying in the center of the pile of my pieces is the baby. Unharmed, unbroken, curled into a little ball with eyes tightly closed, hands held tight in little fists, smeared in my blood and covered with the dust of my broken body. I’m screaming. Screaming. Screaming. And then I wake up.”

Akio leaned forward. His elbows on his knees. His hands clasped.

“It sounds very traumatic,” he said.

“It was.”

“Are you happy about the child that you carry?” Akio asked.

“What do you mean?” she asked. “Really, what kind of question is that?”

“An important one,” he said.

“How could knowing this possibly aid you in releasing me from these relentless nightmares?”

“Have you known many dream-eaters, Mary Ann?”

“No.”

“Any?” he continued

“None,” she said.

“When you are lawyering a client, and they continue to ask you question after question, or conceal from you important things whilst you are presumably trying only to help them, does it make you grow weary and no longer wish to help them further?”

She narrowed her eyes at him and lifted her chin up and to the right. She smoothed her shirt, pulling it down over her heavy breasts, “I am not unhappy about the baby. I am inconvenienced by it, for sure. I’m a professional woman, and there is no room in my life for a baby.”

“Will you make room?” he asked.

She narrowed her eyes even further. If she narrowed them any more, her eyes would be completely closed.

“Look at me. My face is puffy. I have gained fifty pounds. My feet do not fit into a single pair of shoes that I own. I went and bought a new pair yesterday, and my feet have grown two sizes. Take a look at the father of this baby. He is still the same tall, athletic man he has always been. He is still ogled by women. He can climb in and out of his car with ease. He isn’t constantly dropping or forgetting things. I only have plastic dishes now. I’ve dropped every breakable plate, bowl, drinking glass that I own. People do not tread delicately around him as if he is a delicate flower. Not one single man has looked at me since I fell pregnant. They look over me or around me, but never at me. How is this fair? Why must woman have the short shrift of it all? Everything has changed for me, every single thing, and for him, nothing has changed. He is still himself in every sense of the word, and I am a joke. I am the butt of a great big cosmic joke, and now I have a great big cosmic butt.”

“Life is a blessing. Being a female and growing new life inside—some might find that exhilarating.”

“Or parasitic. Did you know that it comes first? Nutrients, food, whatever. It takes first, and I am left with whatever is left. If there is anything left. I should get used to it because this is my future. Always coming in second. Never first. Not anymore. Never again.”

“Why did you decide to keep the baby then?”

“Terminating would have been politically ill-advised. Being a single mother is bad enough, but I am forgiven because I am in my forties. People understand that for a woman of my age it is now or never, and no one could possibly understand the never of it,” she said. “Are you satisfied now? Have I told you enough to suitably help me?”

“Is the baby a boy or a girl?”

“I have chosen not to find out,” she said. “It matters little either way.”

“Now?” she continued. “Can you help me?”

“Yes.” he said. Ande would have to consider his debt paid in full. Paid in full and then some. “I will return tonight.”

Chapter 50—August 9. Twelve days left for Abby.

 

Melodie was waiting for Nick at the airport. She stood outside of her car, with a sign that read, Nick Ericcson, held across her large pregnant belly.

Melodie, Melodie. She was as beautiful as her name. She had sunny hair and blue eyes. She was petite. Nick used to joke with her that if she was any cuter or any smaller, he would scoop her up and slip her into his pocket.

“Oh you,” she would say.

“Or you could jump right in,” he would say and then hold out his pocket by way of invitation, and she would blush—pink from the roots of her blond hair to her toes. This was of course before she and Frankie had started dating, back when she was just an idea that hadn’t been formed yet in either of their minds.

He and Frankie were brothers—identical twin brothers. They were close, the kind of close unique to twin brothers, best of friends and competitors in every aspect of life. Growing up they fought over everything. You name it—toys, clothes, who was smarter or funnier or better than whom. Who had the biggest pancake at breakfast? Who had lost the first tooth? Who had learned how to ride a bike first? Who had better grades in school? Who was taller if even by fractions of an inch? They were constantly jockeying for position, always on the lookout to ensure the other never had an unscrupulous advantage.

Their mother had written each boy’s name on everything, right down to their underwear. She had always made an effort to be fair, painstakingly fair, where her boys were concerned, and armed with a black permanent marker, she demarcated their lives in the only fair and possible way—one thing for each boy, no matter what. Even if one of the boys wasn’t particularly interested in whatever it was, she bought two. Two surf boards—Nick and Frank. Two yo-yo’s—Nick and Frank. Two harmonicas—even though Frank could care less about the harmonica, she bought two. Two of everything, except of course, Melodie. There was only one Melodie, and Melodie was Frank’s.

 

“Nice sign,” Nick said to Melodie.

“I thought you would like it,” she said. “The rainbow sparkles are a nice touch, don’t you think?”

Melodie had come alone to collect him. Apparently, Frankie was tying up loose ends at the office so he could take a couple vacation days to spend with Nick, and Mama was helping Aunt Lo with the welcome home party.

“Come here,” Nick said and flashed his crooked smile and cracked the small enough to fit you in my pocket line as he wrapped his arms around her in a big bear hug.

“Oh, Niko, I’m so fat, look at me,” Melodie said as Nick’s hug squeezed the air out of her.

“Mel, you’ve never looked more beautiful. You’re the most beautiful pregnant woman that I have ever seen. Besides these are cargo shorts, the pockets are really, really big.”

She laughed, and then her laughter turned to tears, and then Nick felt like a jackass.

“I’m sorry, Mel. I was just joking.”

“Ha ha, I’m a mess, Niko. I cry at everything. This morning I cried at a toilet paper commercial. I’m the one who should be sorry.” She wiped her eyes under her sunglasses. “I’m glad you’re home,” she said.

“I’m glad to be home too, sister.”

Hawaii was beautiful, and it was home. His whole family wanted to know why he would live in Oregon if he could live in Hawaii, and Nick didn’t have a good answer for them. He’d never bothered to ask himself that question, so it remained answerless. He told his mom one time that he couldn’t live on Maui, as she had already written Frankie’s name on it.

His mother had smiled sadly at that, tears brimming her eyes, “It would mean so much to me to have both you and Frankie here. It would mean the world, Niko.”

Nick had felt like a jackass.

 

 

With Mel behind the wheel, they whizzed through the pineapple fields headed toward home. Nick looked out the window. He remembered the last time he had come home to visit. He’d brought Abby with him. Together they had driven down this same highway. Pineapple fields stretched out on either side as far as the eye could see, row upon row, those little arrogant bastards poking their prickly heads out of the ground.

“Those are pineapples?” Abby had marveled. “I thought they grew on trees. How funny. Just right out of the ground.”

She had come with him to photograph a surf competition. He knew she had scrimped and saved for months just to afford the ticket. He had offered to pay, but she flat out refused. She ordered the cheapest thing in every restaurant he took her to.

“Let me get this one?” he would say, “My treat.” He smiled. She smiled back. He loved the way that no matter what, if he smiled she would smile. She looked so serious most of the time, so he made it a point to smile all the time. It was a good trade. Abby’s smile was, as his mother would have said, wide as all outside. His mother also used that phrase to refer to her own backside when she helped herself to another macaroon. It wasn’t true in that case, his mom was as slim as a girl, but when it came to Abby’s smile, wide as all outside fit. Perfectly.

By her third rejection at his third offer to pay, Nick had stopped taking her to restaurants. Instead he brought her to his mother’s house, and she would cook up a Hawaiian storm. Abby ate, and Nick felt like less of a jackass for inviting her to come. He knew that she couldn’t afford it and that she wouldn’t accept his offer to pay, but selfishly, he’d asked her to come anyway.

Nick wished Abby was here now to see things new for him. He’d grown up in Hawaii, and sometimes he forgot to appreciate the beauty of it. He felt more appreciative in general whenever he was with Abby. He made an effort to appreciate the pineapple fields. He tried to look at them like how Abby would for a minute or two. It didn’t work. They revealed themselves to him as uninteresting and commonplace as they’d always been. He switched his brain off, closed his eyes, and listened to Melodie chatter away about this person and that person. Her voice was familiar, her everything was familiar. She prattled on and on, all the rest of the way home.

 

“Here we are,” Mel announced pulling into the circular drive.

“Wow, you painted,” Nick said.

“Like it?”

“Looks great,” said Nick, although he was partial to the brown it used to be.

It had been brown as far back as Nick could remember. Today, it was yellow. The house was a beautiful native-style house, the kind built on stilts. It looked as if it had grown straight from the rich brown earth, shaded with palm trees, at the foot of the ocean. The stilts stood like long slim, brown legs, and the house—a skirt, all its precious possessions tucked up and away from the threat of the ocean waves.

Dad and Uncle Hee, his mother’s brother, had built it. The day it was finished, his father proposed to his mother on the brown porch.

Now it was yellow. This would take some getting used to.

“Hey, Brother,” Frank swaggered up to the jeep. “Give me a hug you big, fat bastard.”

Nick swung the door open and stepped into Frank’s waiting hug. When he was with Frank, he felt whole.

“What’s to eat?” Nick said.

Frank heaved Nick’s bags over his shoulder with one hand, and they followed the leader up the steps, first Frank, then Mel, then Nick.

“Niko!” His little Hawaiian mother wrapped her brown arms around him and hugged him as tight as she could, which was tight. “Come in, come in, I have so much food for you. You’re so skinny, my baby. When are you going to move back here so I can fatten you up?”

“I see what you’ve done with Francis, Mama. That’s not really my thing.”

Frank rubbed his once flat stomach. “I’m eating for two.” He grabbed a beer out of the fridge and handed one to Nick, “You just wait. When you get married—”

“Niko’s never getting married,” Mel said, “He’s a bachelor through and through. Right, Nick?”

“Oh, hush.” Niko’s mom said covering her ears. “I won’t hear it. Niko has many beautiful, round babies in his future.”

 

 

Later that day, the three of them Nick, Frankie, and Melodie, found themselves at the beach.

The sand was warm on Nick’s feet, and the sun was warm on his face. He closed his eyes and pretended to be asleep.

He listened to Frankie and Melodie talking. He knew he was eavesdropping, but he felt that he had a right to. After all this was Mel and Frank. He was part of them, and they were part of him.

 

 

Frankie had been a professional surfer. He and Nick had grown up surfing. Salt water in their blood and all that.

One Christmas, Frank had wanted a new surfboard even though his old surf board was just fine, and Nick had wanted a camera. His mom had bought them the surfboards first—Frank and Nick. Nick had had to wait a whole year until the next Christmas, so his mother could save up enough money to buy them each a camera. Frank’s camera sat in the original box untouched. It remained untouched for the longest time until Nick broke his camera. He switched his broken camera for Frank’s new camera. He covered Frank’s permanent marker name with batman stickers. In fact, he put batman stickers around the whole damn thing, so it wouldn’t look suspicious with batman stickers in just one corner. Frank never found out as far as Nick knew.

Frank’s professional surfing career ended with a broken neck. It was a week before the North Shore competition, and the three of them were surfing just like they did every day. A storm had just passed through, and the waves were good. They were a little too good.

Nick didn’t see Frank go down. He was lying on the beach soaking in the sun. His last run was really nice, and he lay on his towel letting the sun dry him, his eyes closed, his mind shut off.

Melodie’s screams alerted him that something was wrong. He knew from the tone of her voice all that he needed to know, and his body was running before she had gotten the second, “Niko! Help!” out.

Nick was a strong swimmer, stronger than Frankie, and Frankie was a great swimmer.

By the time Nick reached Melodie. She was crying, “Oh my God! Oh my God!” over and over again. Tears streamed down her face, and she shook violently. Frank was nowhere to be seen. His surfboard floated riderless to the shore.

Out of breath, Mel dove under again looking for Frank. When she came up, she was choking on water and sputtering. She couldn’t catch her breath. Her eyes were wide with panic. She coughed and coughed, gulping for air, but unable to fill her lungs.

Nick dove under and swam hard. He opened his eyes against the salt water, and they burned. Each stroke he pulled himself lower and lower. He saw Frankie’s trunks first. Purple. His lungs burned by the time he was able to feel Frank’s legs with his fingertips. His vision started to tunnel. He knew that if both of them didn’t make it back to shore then neither of them was going to make it back.

He was okay with that. Hand over hand, he pulled Frank’s legs toward him, and before he knew it, he had Frankie under the arms. He shot up. Kicking and pulling with his free arm with every ounce of strength he had. He surfaced gasping for air. One armed, he swam back to the shore hauling Frank’s heavy, limp body. His arms burned. His lungs burned. His legs burned.

“He’s not breathing, Niko,” Mel said paddling behind them.

Nick stopped and half-floated on his back with Frank’s head on his chest. Melodie breathed into Frank’s mouth. Nick treaded water.

After every two breaths, she said, “It’s not working. It’s not working,” but she continued on, and Niko treaded trying to keep Frank’s mouth above the water and accessible to Mel. It was harder than he imagined it would be. It was the hardest thing he’d ever done.

Nick felt a giant shudder from Frank’s chest, and with a cough, water came from his mouth and nose. Nick held him, and Frank coughed and coughed until he was no longer coughing but breathing shallowly.

Nick pulled them the rest of the way to the shore. He carried his brother and laid him just above the water line. He ran for their pile of stuff and grabbed his cell phone out of his backpack. There was no service where he stood. Nick held up the phone and ran hard up the beach until he saw bars on his phone.

He dialed 911. The ambulance came sirens wailing. The paramedics found them.

“Took you long enough,” Nick said, but they had gotten there quickly and Nick knew it. He just didn’t have anything else to say.

Brett, one of the paramedics, had gone to high school with Nick and Frank. He understood. He’d driven as fast as he could to get there. There was nothing he wouldn’t do for Nick or Frank.

“Where is he?” Brett asked.

They ran together down the beach. Mel knelt next to Frank. She had wrapped him in towels. She was still shaking.

The paramedics strapped Frank to the backboard, and hurried back to the ambulance.

Brett gave Mel a jacket but she couldn’t stop shaking. Nick sat still on the bench seat in the ambulance, shirtless, shoeless, just wearing his trunks. His elbows rested on his knees and his head hung forward. The paramedics worked on Frank, saying words that Nick either couldn’t hear or couldn’t remember.

Frank was ripped out of the ambulance by the hospital employees and rammed into the hospital, down one corridor after another, through swinging doors. Too fast for Nick to follow. Nick walked into the Emergency Room trying to keep up with Frank. Barefoot. Disoriented.

Brett found him after Frank had been handed off to the waiting ER staff.

“ . . . Mom . . .” Brett said and some other words Nick couldn’t make out.

“What?” Nick said.

“You should call your mom,” Brett repeated. “I’ll call her if you want me to.”

Nick rotated aimlessly in a circle.

“Here,” Brett said and handed Nick a cell phone.

Nick dialed. He didn’t know what he said. He just remembered his mom shrieking. He would never forget the desperation and the pain in her voice.

Later, once Frank was stabilized, hooked up to every machine the hospital had at its disposal, with a white blanket pulled up to his chin. Motionless. Still. They huddled around him like a campfire. Except they felt cold. Mom, Nick, Mel who was still wearing Justin’s jacket, together they stood vigil.

Later, when Frank was better and could walk again. They would laugh about Frank’s near death experience, shake their heads at a promising pro-surfing career sunk before it had even begun, and reassured him that he would have been amazing. Tears would form in their mom’s eyes and spill out at the thought of what she had almost lost, and Frankie would say, “Oh, Mom, I’m okay aren’t I?”

Frankie was more than okay. Frankie was still amazing. He had a great job. He was married to Mel. They had a baby on the way.

Somewhere in the back of Nick’s mind, he had known watching Mel standing over Frank in his hospital bed that that was the moment that he had lost her and that Frank had won her. Nick would never allow himself to acknowledge it or put words to it, but in his gut, he knew. He was okay with it. Frank was the better of the two of them, and Mel deserved the best.

It wasn’t much later that Nick moved off the island.

He went to California, San Diego to be exact. He landed a job as a graphic designer. He took a lot of pictures in his spare time. Surfed a little too. Dated a lot of San Diego girls, brown all year round from the sun, with long legs that gleamed and shined. He couldn’t complain.

He went up to Portland for a meeting with a big fish. Sitting in the lounge waiting for his turn to present, he met Liam Brody. Liam owned a small two-man boutique graphic design company—soon to be one-man as the Jonathan of Jonathan & Brody PDX was bailing.

Nick liked Liam Brody a lot.

The weekend after the presentation, a photography gig in Portland fell out of the sky and landed right in his lap. After that, Nick took an impromptu vacation, and kicked around Portland for a week. He liked it. It was new and different and unlike Hawaii and San Diego in every way. He never left. His vacation ended up being his two-week notice, and Brody & Jonathan PDX became Brody & Ericcson PDX.

 

 

There they were again, just like the old days. Lounging on the same beach, the one where Frankie had lost his career and Nick had lost the girl.

Nick lay on his back sprawled across his towel. His folded t-shirt lay over his eyes.

Frank and Mel talked—more specifically, they argued in hot, hushed tones. Frank’s phone rang.

“I have to take this,” he said.

“This is exactly what I’m talking about, Frank. You promised that you were going to leave work at work. Nick’s here.”

“Nick doesn’t give a shit, Mel, look at him. I have to take this call. It’s important.”

Melodie sighed.

From the sound of things, Frank must have stood and walked away to take the call because Nick couldn’t hear him talking. Melanie sighed again. She ran her fingers through the sand, making lines than swiping her hands over them, erasing them. The lines disappeared only to re-scrawled again and again.

Frank came back and sat down on his towel.

“Who was it?” Mel asked.

“Someone from work.”

“Who from work?”

“Why does it matter?” he said.

“It matters. I just want to know who. Why won’t you tell me?”

“Okay,” he said. “It was Bridgette. She’s dealing with Mr. Hashimoto, and she needed me to answer a question. Happy?”

“Happy?”

“Yeah, happy. Or is that too much to expect from you anymore?”

“Frank, you’re being mean,” she said.

“And you, Mel, you’re being—”

“What am I being?”

“Nothing,” he said after a moment. “This conversation is going nowhere. I take one day off in Lord knows how long, and your making it unbearable. I’m going to surf.”

Frank stood up and brushed of his trunks. He tucked his board under his arm and kicked Nick’s foot.

“Hey, Niko,” he kicked Nick’s foot again.

“Wha?” said Nick.

“We came here to surf, right? We can nap later. You coming?”

Nick pulled the folded up shirt off his face and looked up through squinty eyes. Frank’s head eclipsed the sun and his blond hair backlit looked like a halo.

“Be there in a couple minutes,” he said. He sat up, grabbed his bottle of water and took a long drink. The water was warm. His throat was scratchy.

“Don’t take too long,” Frank said. “Good waves aren’t like ladies. You actually need to work to get on a good one.”

“Seriously?” Mel said. “Really?”

“The mother of my child has developed delicate sensibilities,” Frank explained to Nick.

“So it would appear,” Nick replied.

Frank turned and loped out to the ocean. He was waist deep in just a matter of seconds.

“Something is going on with him,” Mel said once Frank was out of earshot.

Nick turned to look at her. She was sitting cross-legged. Her giant belly gleamed like a bowling ball, shiny and tan, between the top and bottom of her yellow bikini. She had one hand on the side of it and was absentmindedly rubbing it.

“Oh, Mel,” Nick said.

“No, I really think so, Niko, I do,” she said. “I think he’s having an affair.”

“No. Never. Frank loves you more than any man has ever loved a woman.”

“He used to,” she said. “But lately he’s hardly ever home. He works insane hours, and it’s been more insane than usual.”

She looked up facing the blue, cloudless sky blinking back tears.

“Mel, no, never,” Nick said, and he meant it. “I’m sure there is a good reason for the hours.”

“He won’t even take his telephone calls from work in front of me. He always goes somewhere out of earshot, and it’s always Bridgette. Bridgette is young and beautiful, funny and smart. If I have to hear how smart Bridgett is one more time—I just don’t know.”

Nick wrapped his arms around his legs. “I can’t believe that he would do that, Mel. He would be heartbroken if he knew that you were thinking this and talking to me about it. You know he would be.”

“Yeah,” she said. “You’re right. Sorry, Niko.”

She put on a large floppy sun hat and wiped her eyes. The hat shaded her face to the point that Nick couldn’t make out any of her features.

“You should go surf with him. He took today off from work just for you. You must really rate,” She laughed a short single ha.

“Why don’t I just hang here with you?” he said. He offered her a lopsided grin, “We could build a sand castle or something.”

“I brought a book. I’m going to read,” she said and without further comment she searched for her book in her giant beach bag. She found it at the very bottom, under the sun block, the sun tan lotion, the bottles of water, and bag of pretzels. She opened it and rested it on her belly. Nick couldn’t tell whether she was really reading or pretending to read, her hat was that big.

He stood up, grabbed the borrowed board, and walked out to meet Frank. He looked back over his shoulder, and Mel was still making the motions of reading underneath her giant hat. He felt he could have handled that whole conversation better, and he mentally kicked himself for not trying harder.

 

 

That night, Aunt Lo held a party at her house. She loved a party.

Aunt Lo was a short, round Hawaiian lady, who was quite possibly the happiest person in the world. Nothing got Aunt Lo down. Not a thing. She was a force of nature all her own. Typhoon Lo.

Aunt Lo made it through Uncle Hee’s cancer. She smiled and joked with him until the very end. She made it through losing her only, beloved daughter. She made it through things that would force any normal person to their knees, strangled with hopelessness and fear. Not Auntie Lo. Her fundamental self never changed. She was love in person form.

Aunt Lo wrapped her strong arms around Nick and kissed him straight on the mouth.

“Come, give your Auntie Lo a hug,” she said even though she was already hugging him.

Nick’s mom had moved in with Auntie Lo after Nick and Frank’s dad had passed away. She was lonely and life with Auntie Lo was never lonely. There was a constant stream of people coming and going. Stopping by at any given moment to talk and drink and eat—there was always something to eat. Aunt Lo was an amazing cook.

After his mom moved out, Frank and Mel had moved into the house that dad and Uncle Hee Ho had built with their hands. The two men had stained the wood lovingly, imagining it from a pile of wood to a house to a home where two little boys would live their greatest adventures. The same house where Nick had fallen down the stairs and broken his arm and needed to get stitches, where he got his first camera, took his first photo, and had it displayed with pride right in the middle of the living room wall, where on the same wall his mom had charted little Frank and little Niko’s growth, pencil line after pencil line, both climbing inch by inch, growing up and becoming men. The same house that was now yellow filled with Mel’s ideas of chairs and tables and Mel’s idea of home and comfort. Nick’s heart squeezed a little every time he walked into the now yellow house. He tried to hold the memory of how it looked when he grew up there, but like any other memory—that shit just fades with time, and eventually he’ll have to paint it yellow in his memory or let it go to dust, and he was not ready to do either.

Nick’s Welcome Home party was in full swing and Aunt Lo’s little house was fairly dancing on its long legged stilts. Dad and Uncle Hee had built this house too, it was nearly an exact copy, and when Nick walked in the front door that was never locked, he could feel them here just as real as he could feel Aunt Lo’s giant arms and giant hug as she snatched him up. Aunt Lo didn’t skimp when it came to hugs.

“Oh, sweet Niko you are as handsome as ever. Come eat. You’re skin and bones.”

 

 

Aunt Lo’s house was filled with laughter that night, as it was every other night. It could be considered by any respects as a showcase of laughter in all its forms—from the embarrassed behind a hand I can’t believe you said that laughter, to whoops and yee-haws, to the tumbling belly laughs of children.

And there were always children around despite the fact that Uncle Hee and Auntie Lo only had one child, sweet, gentle Marissa.

Nick always remembered Marissa to be kind and gentle and safe. She would watch him and Frankie when their parents went out at night sometimes, doing whatever it was that made them smiley, happy, smelling like cigarettes and rum by the time they returned home.

On those nights, Nick would lay awake in bed, silent as he could be. He didn’t want to get Marissa in trouble or for his parents to think less of her skills as a babysitter, but he couldn’t fall asleep when his parents weren’t home. He needed them to be home safe and sound. He needed to know that they were in the next room. He would lay awake and listen to Frank’s deep, slow breathing that reminded him of the ocean pushing in and pulling away at the shore.

Frankie could sleep through anything. Like a log, his dad had said, “Frankie, you sleep like a log.” He would ruffle Frank’s blond hair when he said it. Sometimes he would throw Frank over his shoulder, spin around in circles, and gallop around the room. Frank would yelp and squeal, loving every moment of it.

Nick remembered the way his dad smelled. Like Marlboro cigarettes and Afta aftershave. He could still pull that scent from the recesses of this mind at any given moment and inhale the long lost aroma of the greatest man. Good stink. There was nothing like the smell and stink of a good man.

Marissa would turn off the television and read a book after the boys had gone to bed. Her legs curled up under her, twining her long, dark Hawaiian hair around her finger. Nick would sneak out and peak around the corner.

‘I see you Niko,” she would say. “You little beast go back to bed. Your parents will be home soon.”

It was her playful way of calling him beast that made Nick know that she didn’t really believe him to be a beast. He was Marissa’s beast, and she was his monster.

“I’m thirsty, monster,” Nick would say.

“I think you have drunk the whole ocean by now. How many times is this?” she said. Her brown eyes peered over the top of her book. Probably Gone with the Wind. She had read that book so many times that the pages began falling out. She would scoop the loose pages up and put them in the right order and slide them back in to the cover, never missing a moment of Scarlett’s less than ladylike behavior and Rhett’s swarthy, rapscallion ways. Nick wouldn’t be surprised if she had the whole book memorized.

He had wanted to know what the draw of that particular book was. One time when he was at the public library with his mother and Frank, he pulled it from the shelf and hid in a corner and read as much of it as he could before his mother came looking for him.

The whole thing fascinated him. He thought Scarlett was silly, and he wondered why Marissa seemed to like her so much. Marissa was nothing like Scarlett. Rhett, on the other hand, now he was the kind of character that Nick could get behind. He was bold and decisive. He got what he wanted. He was sure and manly. Nick imagined him with a swagger and a fabulous grin that made ladies want more—want more what? He didn’t know. More swagger and more smile was all he could suppose.

A smile and a swagger, now that was something that Nick could do. He tried it out one day as school. He was eight almost nine and madly in love with Sophia Cooke. Oh, Sophia, she had the darkest hair, the darkest eyes. She was so smart. She was the best reader in the class. She was reading at the fourth grade level. When it was reading time she would collect her books and actually go to the fourth grade classroom. One day, Nick had swaggered up to her and smiled his Rhett Butler smile.

Sophia looked at him and giggled, “What in the world is wrong with you, Niko Ericsson?”

He didn’t know what to say. So far he had only worked on Rhett’s smile. He hadn’t gotten to what Rhett would say, so Nick smiled again putting every ounce of Rhett Butler he had into that smile. Sophia giggled again, and then Nick laughed, and they laughed and giggled until they couldn’t breathe and until they had forgotten why they were laughing in the first place. Sophia was sent on her way to fourth grade reading, and Nick was made to stand in the corner for disrupting the class.

“Two times,” Little Nick had said. “I’ve only come out two times, Marissa.”

“C’mon Niko, you know it’s been at least three. Oh okay. Hurry up,” she said.

Nick ran into the kitchen and filled up the biggest glass he could find and slowly sipped from it. He knew he was pushing his luck, and he knew he was pushing the arrival of his parents, and his father would not be pleased to see him up so late. He didn’t finish the glass. The worry that Marissa might get in trouble sloshed around in his belly with the two previous giant glasses of water that he had consumed earlier. He sloshed his way to bed, past Marissa, down the hallway. He climbed up into his bed and listened some more to Frankie breathing.

The hardest transition about growing up and being on his own was learning to sleep without Frankie’s breathing. He would slow his own breath and match his pace. Ten or fifteen minutes later, the front door had opened and with it Nick imagined a giant warm breeze that smelled like his mother’s hair and his father’s aftershave wrapping him in its imaginary weight. He felt instantly tired.

Marissa would sometimes sleep in the spare bedroom and then Nick’s dad would take her back in the morning. Sometimes, his dad would take her home that night. Either way, his mother would come into their room and put Frank’s blanket, which he had invariably kicked off, back on him. Then she would lean in and kiss Nick on the temple and brush away his hair, sleep heavy on his limbs and finally setting in for good.

“Good night my beautiful boy,” she would say. She would go into her room and wait for their father to follow her in or return from dropping Marissa back home. He would close the door softly behind him. Nick would hear the lock click.

The day that Marissa had died had been like any other day, bright and sunny. Nick woke up that morning just like he woke up every other morning. His mama had made them pancakes, careful to make them all the same size to avoid the boys’ bickering. She moaned that Nick and Frank were going to eat them out of house and home or maybe she said something about two hollow legs.

Marissa was home from college planning her wedding. It was going to be a triumphant affair. Everyone was excited about it. The family liked any reason to celebrate anything, Auntie Lo and Mama were going to go dress shopping that day, as Auntie Lo hadn’t found a dress that she could decide upon and the wedding was only two Saturdays away.

Frank and Nick were talking about surfing. It seemed they were either talking about surfing or surfing those days.

The phone rang and Francis Sr. answered the phone.

He said only two words—“Oh no”, but he said them in such a way they all froze and looked at him. Fear on his mother’s face.

“Marissa died last night,” he said after he hung up the phone.

No one moved. It was as if they hadn’t heard what he said.

Nick felt as if his legs and arms had gone numb and his head felt heavy.

“Oh,” said his mama in a whisper. She wiped her hands on her apron, and then took her apron off and folded it neatly. The boys stood up, and they followed, in a line, their mother out the door. Mama, Daddy, Frank and Nick. The drive to Aunt Lo’s and Uncle Hee’s was barely a drive, but it seemed to take forever that morning.

Marissa had died in her sleep from a brain aneurism. Just like that, Nick would say in his head over and over again. Just like that. The end.

She was buried in her wedding dress. The entire town was in attendance.

He remembered every word that Aunt Lo had said to him the day she died, as he stood in the doorway of Marissa’s room. Her’s was the first dead body that he had ever seen.

“She is with our Lord now,” Aunt Lo had said. “It is not the way I would have chose it,” she said. “But it is so. The Lord makes his choices, and it’s not for the mind of man to understand. She was my gift,” she said, “But it is so. She’s an angel now.”

“She was always and angel, Auntie Lo,” Nick was barely able to say the words around the lump in his throat.

“Yes,” Aunt Lo said. She smiled as the tears poured down her face. Nick stepped back and out of the way as the coroner came out of the room.

“I am so deeply sorry, Lo,” The coroner said, placing his hand on her arm.

“Thank you, sir,” Aunt Lo had said. Nick couldn’t understand why her voice sounded more proud than sad.

When they came in with the gurney and laid Marissa’s small body on it. Nick couldn’t bear to be there anymore. He needed to be anywhere but there.

“Boy, you best go now,” Auntie Lo said. “Your mama will stay, but you—you need to go. Come and see me tomorrow.”

Nick had felt ashamed. Frank and his daddy had gone off with Uncle Hee to take care of the arrangements, but Nick couldn’t do that and as it turns out he couldn’t stay either. He wanted to be of comfort. He wanted to be of use, but more than anything he wanted to crawl into his bed and cry for Marissa and for Aunt Lo and Uncle Hee and for himself.

Head bowed, he nodded slightly at Aunt Lo’s permission to leave. He slunk out the door as others were arriving with food and condolences and shoulders that were much stronger and better than his to cry on. Word in their town traveled as fast as the wind.

He ran home which wasn’t far. He had done it often. When his house came into view, he just kept running. He didn’t know how far he had run, but he ran for hours. He found himself on a stretch of beach he had never been on in his life. He sat for a good long time on the sand before walking back home.

Home was dark when he got there. He showered and climbed into bed. He looked at the ceiling for a long time.

Just like that, he thought, the end. Marissa was sleeping when she died. He wondered if she even knew that she was dead.

 

 

Nick hugged Auntie Lo back. He knew Aunt Lo wouldn’t let him go until she felt she had wrung every last ounce of hug there was out of him. He thanked her for the party.

“So, my Niko, come and sit with me. Let’s catch up, my nephew. You look so skinny. What do you eat? What do they eat in Portland? Is it that vegan stuff that’s got you skin and bones?” She whispered vegan like it was a swear word, and she pinched his side for emphasis. “Nothing there,” she said. “Bring your narrow backside into my kitchen. Aunt Lo will fix you up a plate.”

Fix a plate she did. There was enough food piled on that one plate, three men could have easily eaten what was offered and left sated.

“Your mama says that you came alone this time? Is that true?” she said.

“Yes Auntie. Solo,” said Nick.

“What happened to the last one? What was her name?”

“Abbygale,” Nick said.

“Oh, yes. Now she was a tall one. Legs for days. Like a super model.”

Nick smiled.

“Well?” she prodded,

“Nothing happened to her,” he shrugged.

“Are you two together?” She held up her hand and crossed her first and second finger. Yeah, that kind of together.

“No, Aunt Lo, we’re just friends.”

“Just friends?” she scrunched up her nose. “Niko Ericsson when was the last time that you had a just friend?”

“I have lots of friends that are women,” Nick said.

Aunt Lo snorted. She leaned in and whispered behind her hand, “What’s wrong with her? Was she too tall for you?”

“Nothing. Nothing is wrong with her. She’s just fine. She’s just where she always is, and where I left her. And no she’s not too tall for me.”

Aunty Lo looked at him hard, first out one eye then shifting her head and out the other eye. “Oh, Niko,” she said. “You are in love with that girl.”

Nick looked up from his plate, his mouth full of food. He said nothing.

“Oh Niko, does she know?”

“I don’t know,” he said quite simply. The words surprised him, as did the sudden realization that he did in fact love her. “I don’t think so. I haven’t told her.”

“What are you going to do about it?” she said.

“I don’t know what to do,” he said and looked back down to his food, eating slower and looking at each bite before he put it into his mouth as if that bite was unique or something special. He chewed slowly.

“I need a drink,” said Aunt Lo. “And so do you. When I come back, we will figure out what to do.”

Nick nodded warily. He wondered if choking on his food would get him out of the conversation with Aunt Lo. He watched her large behind sway into the kitchen, and he knew that there was nothing that could get him out of any conversation with that woman save for death.

He continued to eat, as Lo chatted up all the other booze getters. Aunt Lo mixed up a mai tai with extra rum, one for her and one for Nick. She talked to the pastor of their church as she did so, not even looking at the bottles or the glasses. She talked to her dog groomer, and the football coach, and the head of the PTA. Everyone in their small community found their way to Aunt Lo’s house, and more specifically, around Aunt Lo’s kitchen island where she had the drinks laid out. There was a card table filled with punch and non-alcoholic fair for the littles and the designated drivers. Most people found a way to walk home from Lo’s house, so there was not much need for designated drivers.

Out of the corner of Nick’s eye, he saw Melodie sitting alone on the couch, a still photo amongst the buzz and blur of the other guests. She sat staring out the front window into the night, a plate, that Lo must have fixed judging by the heaps of food, on her lap.

Nick looked the way she was looking, and he could just make out Frank through the window, outlined against the setting sun. Nick could tell by the set of the man’s shoulders and the tilt of the head. He knew Frank’s outline as well as his own, if not better. He stood up, his hand under his plate, still full of food, and crossed the room, weaving in and out of folks

He stopped a moment to say, “long time” to Betsy the head cheerleader who now had at least five small boys and who sold Mary Kay or was it Avon? Some kind of makeup. She was rouged up. Her lips were slick and pink, so shiny it was hard not to look at them when she talked. Betsy told Nick that she and her husband were getting a divorce and that maybe Nick could stop by sometime while he was in town, so, y’know, they could catch up.

Nick smiled and said he just might do that.

Two more steps, and he was clapped hard on the back by his Uncle Luke. Uncle Luke was Hee’s older brother. He was a good man but spare of word and a hard shoulder clap was about all you were going to get by way of conversation from him.

Nick continued on his way to the porch. He stepped out the front door. To his right a cluster of smokers were talking and laughing. They were in the yard away from the house. The bright ends of their cigarettes bobbed up and down in the dusk. One only smoked if they absolutely had to at Lo’s. Uncle Hee had died from lung cancer. Aunt Lo never asked anyone not to smoke. She didn’t have to. The smoker’s, the few of them, maintained a respectable distance.

To his left and leaning on the railing was Frank. He was talking on his cell phone, whispering. Nick walked up to him, stood just a few steps away, and resumed eating from his plate. He couldn’t quite make out what Frank was saying, but the closer Nick came the quieter Frank talked until Nick came to a stop next to him and so did Frank.

“I’ve got to go,” said Frank into the telephone. “Call you later. Okay. Yep. Okay. You too. ‘Bye.”

Frank disconnected the call and twirled the phone around in his hands a couple times before sliding it into his back pocket.

“What’s up, Nick?” he said not turning yet to face his brother.

“Nothing,” said Nick. “Just came to see what you were up to.”

Frank turned so Nick could see his face.

“Sorry to interrupt,” Nick said pointing with his fork at Frank’s back pocket and the phone contained in it.

‘You didn’t interrupt,” said Frank and something flashed across his face that set Nick’s stomach wrong.

Nick took another bite of food and chewed it slowly and thoughtfully.

Frank shifted from foot to foot.

“Better get back in. Mel hates it when I take work calls on off hours,” Frank said.

“That was work, huh?” said Nick.

“Well, sure. Of course it was,” said Frank, breaking eye contact.

Nick took another bite and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand.

“Yeah, you should get back to Mel,” Nick agreed. “A man like you is smart enough to never let work or anything else come between him and the most amazing woman that either of us has ever known. You always put the ones you love above all else. I admire that about you, Frank. I really do. You’re a good man,” Nick took another bite.

Frank dropped his head. “That means a lot, brother.”

“What are you two doing out here?” came Mel’s voice from the front door. She waddled across the porch holding a drink in each hand.

She lifted one hand up to Niko and said, “From Lo, and she said, don’t think you two are done talking.”

“I doubted I’d be so lucky,” Niko said. He took the glass offered by Mel and set his plate on the porch rail.

“Just telling Frankie how excited I am about being an uncle. I can’t believe you’re going to be your own little family,” Nick raised his plastic cup in the air, “To Francis and Melodie Ericsson, may the Lord bless you and your little ohonu. No keia la, no keia po, a mau loa. From this day, from this night, forever more.”

Chapter 51

 

Akio arrived at Mary Ann Mosbaum’s elegant, austere house ready for work. He was prepared for anything. He hoped anything was prepared for him. A challenge would be nice. Mary Ann opened the door. She was wearing gray sweat pants and a gray sweatshirt. The gray of it all was overwhelming, her face even looked gray. The sweatshirt stretched tightly across her pregnant belly, and when she opened the door she managed to hit her pregnant stomach with the edge of the door.

“Damn it,” she said.

“Pleasant evening,” he said.

“Come in,” she said. “Can I get you anything? Something to drink?”

“No, thank you,” he said. “Are you ready?”

“Well, I took some Tylenol PM if that’s what you mean.”

Akio said nothing and stepped around her into the entry hall.

“I didn’t think I could sleep with a strange man in my house,” she said. “I asked the doctor he said it was okay.” She sounded defensive.

Akio shrugged. “On second thought, I will have a glass of water and get one for yourself.”

Akio was surprised that she offered no retort at the get one for yourself instruction. She marched from the room in her socked feet. Her back straight and her shoulders pulled back. Her heavy belly hanging in front of her, pulling her down and inward, she pulled her shoulders even further back to compensate.

While she was getting bottled water from the fridge, Akio made a slow circle around the living room, admiring the art on the wall. He ran his hands along the superb leather couch. Mary Ann Mosbaum had expensive tastes. Akio admired expensive tastes. He leaned forward and smelled the leather couch, filling his lungs with its scent.

He walked over to the polished stone mantle over the fireplace where a row of pictures was displayed, arranged neatly in rows. Instead of the usual family pictures, they were all snap shots of Mary Ann in various locations around the world: the Eiffel Tower, Paris; Broadway, New York City; the Opera House, Sydney; the Plains, Africa. If there was a photographable landmark, Mary Ann had stood in front of it and no doubt snared a passer-by to take her unsmiling picture. She looked straight into the camera every single time. The effect was that she appeared to be peering out of the photograph straight into his eyes.

She was a well-traveled woman; at least that is what her mantle would suggest. Fallen back behind one of the identical picture frames was a loose photo, not framed, folded and creased, the edges worn. Akio picked it up to look at it—Ande. Akio held a picture of Mary Ann Mosbaum and Ande, proof that the two had actually been in each other’s presence. Akio marveled that anyone could manage to be in Mary Ann’s presence for any length of time much less long enough to photograph the event. The two of them were standing shoulder to shoulder. Presumably in this picture, Mary Ann had just held the camera up at arms length to capture the impromptu portrait. Was that a pyramid in the background? Was that a smile on Mary Ann Mosbaum’s face?

Mary Ann cleared her throat. “That’s Ande,” she said.

“You look happy in this one,” said Akio.

“It was an amazing trip,” she said. “I had always wanted to go to Egypt. Have you ever been?”

She handed him the plastic cup of water, perfect moon-shaped ice cubes floated and tinkled against each other and thumped against the side of the glass. She held up her hand, palm up, once Akio took the cup from it and waited for him to lay the picture in it. Akio let her hold her hand there.

“Tell me about Ande,” he said looking down at the picture in his hand then back up at her.

She sighed and dropped her hand to her side.

“He was a good friend of mine. We both liked the same things,” she said. She drank some water and was quiet for a moment before she added, “He’s the most amazing man I have ever met.”

Akio handed her the picture and watched as she placed it in a desk drawer on the far side of the room. She looked at it for a moment before she placed it face down in the drawer, closing the drawer gently.

 

 

She led Akio to her bedroom. The furniture was large and wooden and the bed was covered with a surprising amount of tiny, fluffy, very not serious pillows. Akio didn’t know what he was expecting but this wasn’t it. He chuckled a little to himself.

Akio directed Mary Ann to lie down. She did so stiffly. If anyone could look awkward lying down in her own bed, it was Mary Ann.

“Relax,” said Akio.

Mary Ann closed her eyes tight.

“Pretend as if I am not here. Relax all the muscles in your body starting with your feet and move upward, tensing and releasing the muscles.”

Akio stood several feet away from her with his back to her. He moved slowly and deliberately through Tai Chi movements. He pulled energy to him. The universe opened to him, and he began to glow as if the sun was shining on him. The glow emanated from his center. He was a sun, and the universe released its energy to him, filling him.

He listened as Mary Ann’s breathing gradually relaxed and deepened. The sleeping Mary Ann was a beautiful woman, her skin youthful and glowing, and her blond hair shone down the pillows. He could see what drew Ande to her, powerful and mighty during her waking hours and like an angel as she slept.

Once he was sure she was asleep, he allowed his true nature to surface. The cat nature pushed forth from his center, stretching out of him. He felt warm from the inside as he allowed the cat to push further and further outward. He raised his hands, splayed his fingers, stretched, and yielded. The change was as gentle as it was powerful. He arched his strong horse back at the completion. He rubbed his tiger arms with his paws and ran his paws through his mane, rubbing his nose in the crook of his arm. He yawned, his mouth wide open, his pink tongue curling. He allowed the stretch to go on as long as he could. He willed it to last, but all too quick it was over. He stood giant and beastly on all fours, his hot breath coming in chuffs, his horse heart pounding in his chest. He was part tiger, part lion, part horse, all Baku.

With one giant leap, the Baku focused all of his energy on the sleeping Mary Ann and entered her dream center. Everyone’s dream center was different. Mary Ann Mosbaum’s was dark, palatial, and cold.

Each person created their own dreamscape or rather the dreamscape formed around each person. Akio had been in many that were so intricate and vast and beautiful that it would cause him to pause and honor the unpredictable nature of humanity. It was here that he saw a man or woman for who they were at their core. Their joy manifested in flowers and sunshine, their hopes in trees and stars and colors so rich that nothing compared to it in the world, their fears jutted up in jagged mountains and cliffs that dropped into nothingness.

The scene shifted as Mary Ann began to dream.

Akio walked assuredly across the stone floor of Mary Ann’s great dream palace. The palace began to recede and devolve to form the old house that Mary Ann had described earlier. The walls closed in, and the ceiling descended to just above his head.

Akio found himself in a small corridor, and if he was the sort of beast to feel claustrophobic, he surely would in this place.

The marble floor softened and blood red seeped from underneath to bloom with each of Akio’s steps into a bloody paw print. The blood red spread until the floor was carpeted with it.

“Mary Ann?” he called.

He used the voice of Akio the man so as not to alarm her. He continued down the hall calling for her. The narrow hall was lined with doors some small, some tall. Akio pushed the doors open and looked inside. The rooms were empty with fading and peeling wallpaper. Weak sunlight leaked through dusty windows. The rooms weren’t identical, although they were all empty. The peeling wallpaper was different in each room, the windows were shaped differently, sometimes a pane of glass would be broken.

The blood red carpet was the same throughout, squishing and growing thick and spongier as Akio walked on. The corridor ended and rounded a corner leading to the curving staircase that Mary Ann had fallen down in her previous dream.

Akio called again. Still no Mary Ann.

At the very bottom of the stairs, there was a foyer and a final door to the right. Akio descended the stairs and pushed open the door.

This room was different than the others. It was clean, and the wallpaper was fresh. A row of neatly and painstakingly stenciled fire trucks marched around the blue and green striped walls, and the window glass was shining and clean. Warm sunlight poured into the room in great sheets, almost solid as if Akio could reach out and touch them.

At the window, looking out, stood Mary Ann Mosbaum. She wore a white dress, and her blond hair glowed, lit by sunlight looking ever so much like a halo. She gave the impression of a warrior queen, and in her arms, she held a baby wrapped in blue, not making a sound.

Akio walked up and looked at the baby to make sure it was alive. He was relieved to find the baby breathing softly. He smelled him deeply, he liked the way babies smelled and this one smelled strongly of Ande. This was Ande’s male child. He could feel Ande’s pride in the sunshine.

“Is he here?” Mary Ann asked.

“I cannot feel him yet,” said Akio. “We will wait. He will be here shortly. He has made it easy this time. You are not pregnant in this dream. He does not have to chase you and break you apart or find some other way to take the baby. He has laid the baby in your arms, so that he may just take him. He probably means you to give him to him?”

“I would never,” she said.

“You might be surprised,” Akio said.

They waited together in the sunlight, Akio by the door and Mary Ann by the window. After a while, they heard footsteps, clear and crisp, the stride of a man walking first down the upstairs hallway, the same one Akio had come through. The footsteps paused briefly at the top of the stairs before coming swiftly down. The blood red carpet did nothing to mute the sound of the man’s arrival.

“He is here,” she whispered. She was suddenly terrified, and she wanted to run.

‘Remain calm,” said Akio, and he crossed the room to stand between her and the door. Mary Ann pressed against him. Akio could feel her shaking. The baby remained quiet.

The footsteps paused again outside the door before entering. Akio buzzed with energy and anticipation. His hair stood on end as if a current ran through it. This was what he was for. The fight.

And into the room stepped—Ande.

“I am here my queen,” Ande declared. He stood tall and broad, dressed in a fine suit with gold and silver threads spun into the weave. His face was chiseled and brown, and his hands were outstretched ready to embrace Mary Ann. “I have come for you and for my prince,” he said.

“Ande? It’s you!” Mary Ann said. Relief filled her. “It’s a boy,” she said.

“I am so proud of you, Mary Ann. You are strong. I knew my love in you was not misplaced, and Akio, my great friend. You have always been there for me. I declare your debt to me paid in full and then some. I am your servant from here to eternity. Thank you for protecting those that I care for the most. I have invested the heavens into my prince, and he shall reign at my side. I am jubilant. I am humbled,” Ande dipped his head at Akio in acknowledgement.

“Now, Mary Ann come around the beast and let me hold my boy,” he said.

Mary Ann came from around Akio. She held the baby in her hands. The baby’s eyes were open now. Ande held out his hands as Mary Ann held the baby in hers.

Akio leapt from around Mary Ann. With his giant tiger paw, he swung and hit Ande in the face so hard Ande flew across the room and hit the far wall.

“What are you doing?” Mary Ann shrieked.

“My good friend,” said Ande wiping his cheek with the sleeve of his fine suit. “Please do not forget yourself. Your job is done here.” Four long lines of blood welled up on Ande’s face. He lay sprawled against the wall, an elegant sprawl. Ande gathered himself and stood slowly. “I command you to back away, Baku.” He held out his hand and the walls of the house began to tremble, and the windows rattled and shook. “Do not test me.”

Akio roared, a primal roar that was so loud the baby startled and began to cry. Mary Ann jumped and backed away from Akio. Ande didn’t flinch.

“You fool,” said Ande. His face transitioned from serene to vengeful in the blink of an eye. Akio found it beneficial to not blink in situations like these, and so he did not miss the transformation.

“I shall give you credit. Your impersonation of Ande is flawless,” said the Baku.

Ande faltered for a moment, but quickly regained his composure.

“Give me the child, Mary Ann. I can see I was foolish to entrust something as precious as he to this beast.”

Mary Ann looked from Ande to Akio. She took a step forward.

“Mary Ann,” said Akio. “Do not listen. This man is not your Ande. I am the one that you can trust. Ande sent me here to protect you.”

“A mistake. Clearly,” said Ande.

“Ande does not make mistakes, and if he does, he never claims them as such. Nor is he ever humbled or ever willfully offer himself to be anyone’s servant. Your impersonation lacks on every important level,” Akio said. “End this deception. Take off his face.”

“Such a clever Baku,” Ande shrugged indifferently, his face smug. He spread his arms and morphed into a giant falcon. Blood oozed from his falcon beak, his arms, now wings, spanned an impressive twelve feet. Mary Ann screamed at the fully formed giant falcon that a moment before was her beloved Ande. “I hadn’t anticipated your presence Baku. It didn’t occur to me that Ande would lower himself to consort with your kind. I shouldn’t be surprised though, as he has shocked us all by impregnating this human woman with his seed.” He managed to make his falcon face grimace with distaste. “Regardless, your cleverness is not sufficient to best me. Have you come ready to fight?”

“I’m always ready to fight, and speaking of clever, how remarkably clever to come at the mother and child through the Nemasu.” The Nemasu was the dream realm, a significant portion of the Between. “I have not yet decided if the cleverness has outweighed the cowardice of it. Let me think on it,” said Akio. He paced back and forth between the giant falcon monster and Mary Ann and Ande’s child.

“You cannot best me in a fight, kitten. You have no idea who I am,” The giant falcon turned to face Mary Ann. “I know what a burden this child is to you. You have so many more important things to do and be. A child will ruin your life. Give him to me and I will give you anything that you desire—youth, immortality, wealth. You have but to ask, and I shall give it to you in exchange for the child. Ande has left you, strapped you with a child that will drain every last ounce of your identity from your breast. He has reduced you to a beast of burden. Nothing more. You are to do all the work for him, and then when your work is done and there is nothing left of you, Ande will swoop in, and take his child, and they shall dance away into the sunset, the dust of your bones on their feet.”

Mary Ann said nothing. Stone faced, she looked at the baby and then looked at the giant falcon. Akio couldn’t tell what she was thinking.

“You must tell him no,” said Akio. “Mary Ann, you must tell him no, or his offer will grow and become more powerful. It will become like a living thing. Its oxygen, its fuel, its raison d’etre—the possibility that you might say yes.”

Mary Ann said nothing. She turned and looked out the window.

“The Baku is Ande’s emissary. He is working for Ande not you. He does not have your interest at heart only Ande’s. Name it and you shall have it. I shall give you anything and everything. The child isn’t even born yet. You have no bond. Do not lose yourself to the machinations of some man. This is your life not Ande’s. A blink and it is gone. Do not lose it to a child you never wanted. Do not waste it away.”

“I have decided and the answer is no,” said Akio.

“Kitten, you may not say no on her behalf. This is between me and the woman,” said the falcon.

“You may not be paying attention,” said Akio. “I am between you and the woman. You will have to go through me or around me. Moreover, the no I am referring to is whether you are more clever or more cowardly to come at the woman and the child through a dream, and while you were prattling on and on, trying to entice her into a devil’s deal, I had time to think on it. I have decided. No, it is more cowardly than clever, and I never took you for a coward, but I am not surprised. Your treacherous ilk has broken the rules before. Mary Ann—” Akio said over his shoulder, “Make no mistake that this is a deal with the devil and verbal contracts are binding. You must say NO.”

“Are you calling me cowardly?” said the falcon. “I have heard of you Baku, but must caution you, your boldness does you a disservice? Do you know who I am?’

“I know you call yourself Gavin.”

The falcon screeched.

“You dare say my name,” said Gavin. “You have no excuses now. Now I can rend you limb from limb and chew on your bloody parts without an ounce of remorse. You really are as they say.”

“I assure you that I am, and if you’re so certain that you will best me, let’s fight. I am ready, let’s go!” Akio paced back and forth, snorting and seeming to grow with each breath in size and impatience.

“I can destroy you with one thought,” said Gavin. He licked his beak.

“Impressive,” said Akio stretching his paws, his claws extended.

“I need your answer woman,” Gavin said. “If you are amenable to my terms, I can take the child and leave you here with your house cat, and no one has to get hurt.”

“No.” said Mary Ann.

Gavin shrieked again, his wings spread, and he half-flew, half-lunged at Mary Ann over Akio’s back. Mary Ann stumbled and fell against the wall. She pushed herself sideways with her feat trying to escape Gavin’s slashing beak and claws. Before Gavin could descend upon her, Akio grabbed him by the neck in his giant mouth, piercing through the falcon’s armor-like feathers until he could taste bitterness. He shook the bird fiercely and threw it against the opposite wall. Gavin was up in a flash, slashing and shrieking. The fight was on. Akio and Gavin alternated slashing and pecking.

“You are a fool!” rasped Gavin.

Akio had him by the neck once again. The falcon used his claws to slash at Akio’s soft belly, ripping it. Akio roared and twisted away from the slashing claws of the bird, his grip on Gavin’s neck weakened and failed. He jumped off him and backed up, panting, assessing how badly his belly was cut. He still had all of himself inside him, and though it burned like fire, he was not defeated. He breathed easier.

“I will end you,” said Akio. “I am the monster of this realm. It will take more than a demon from hell to best me. I eat demons for lunch.”

Gavin laughed, “That’s not what I’ve heard.”

Akio lunged and swiped the falcon with his paws. Had Gavin stood an inch or two further away, Akio would have missed him. Instead though, he made contact, raking the bird with his claws, a good inch or two into his chest. Black oozed from the wound.

Gavin stumbled and stepped back to gather himself. Akio advanced and swiped again, clawing a new and fresh track across the bird’s neck and chest. Gavin squeaked and black burbled from his beak.

“Lucky shot,” he winced.

The constructs of the house that Gavin built began to fail, each wall falling away like a house of cards until all that was left standing were Mary Ann holding the baby, the Baku, and the falcon. They stood in the dark austere palace of Mary Ann Mosbaum’s mind. A cold wind swirled around them.

“I will be back,” said Gavin. “She will relent.”

“You won’t be back,” said the Baku. “The woman and the child are under my protection. I know who you are, Demon. I will invoke your true name, and command you to appear in your true form.” Any being of the Between, or the other world, had a true name, and true names had power. With a true name, anyone could command the fiercest of hell beasts and demons. At least they could try.

“You would not do that,” said Gavin, “This form can bear the weight of a fraction of my true power. My true form would drive the woman mad and you to oblivion.”

“That may be, but if I am triumphant, and I destroy the mighty Demon Asm—” Akio stopped short from saying the demon’s name fully. The demon flinched. Akio licked his lips. “You will be returned to hell. Thousands of years of gathering power from the deepest, darkest, most remote corner of hell, and only then would you be able to start thinking about returning to this world. I know who you are. Ande told me everything about you. All of your secrets and soft spots.”

Gavin screeched and flew at Akio. Akio charged the falcon head on, leaping. When he landed, he expected to land on the falcon but the falcon was gone, he had disappeared with a parting slash at Akio’s underside.

Akio slid across the smooth marble floor. He slid until he came to a stop, and rolled to his side. He panted heavily, his belly bleeding. He lay immobile for a long time wondering if he would be able to stand.

Mary Ann walked over to him, and sat down next to him. The baby in her arms asleep once again as if nothing had happened.

“Who is Ande?” she asked him.

“It is not my story to tell,” Akio said. “It is Ande’s. It is never wise to tell another’s story.”

“Do you think I could get him to tell me?” she said.

Akio didn’t know.

“You swore to protect me and the baby. You’ve taken responsibility for us, and I’m going to hold you to it,” she said. “You must tell me. The bird monster said he would come for the baby again, and I need to know why. I need to know how to protect him, and in order to do that, I need to know why he should be protected.”

Akio licked at the scratches and beak bites on his paws and legs. This wasn’t how it was done. Ande would likely not forgive him, but Mary Ann was right. He had sworn his protection to her, and not to Ande. His obligation was to her and to the child. Mary Ann Mosbaum and her child would be forever in jeopardy of one sort or another. She needed to know. Ande could like it or not.

Akio sighed. “It is not my place. His story belongs to him and him alone. He would know that I told you, and he would be angry with me.”

“Are you hurt?” asked Mary Ann.

Akio closed his eyes and breathed deeply and slowly, willing himself to mend, but the falcon had cut his belly good, the burning grew in intensity.

“What can I do?” she asked.

“Nothing,” he said. “I will be fine in a little bit. I just need to rest.”

Mary Ann scooted closer to him. She was having a hard time stilling herself from trembling. Akio moved his giant muzzle next to her cross legs. He liked the smell of babies, sweet and innocent. He inhaled deeply, and let the baby smell soothe him.

Quite a trio they made. A giant cat monster sprawled next to a woman in white, a little baby bundle on her lap, in the middle of a giant, austere, marble palace, the ceiling so high that Akio couldn’t make it out.

They sat like that for a long while. Mary Ann thought Akio had fallen asleep. He had been so still and quiet. His breathing evened out; she was surprised when he began to speak.

“I will tell you,” he said. “It is your right to know. I have sworn to protect you and the child, and knowledge is your best protection. What do you want to know?”

“What was that thing?” she asked, “and who is Ande?”

“A long, long time ago, nightmares were a type of parasitic minor demon, a nuisance demon—a demonling really, a creature of the Nemasu. The Nightmares would sit on the chest of their victim, drop terrible images into their consciousness, and then feed on the victim’s fear. Those were the days of easy hunting for a Baku. Times changed though, and no longer was it just the demonlings responsible for nightmares anymore, it was regular, fully realized demons, most still minor, but some major. The hunting was no longer easy.

“That creature was the Demon Asmodeus. He is Ande’s great nemesis. He is a major demon and one of the Fallen angels. The Fallen angels were a group of angels that grew tired of Heaven and longed to be part of the human world. They came to the earth, married the women, and had children with them. They reveled in humanity. They felt that humans were truly the blessed of all creatures. Not blessed with power or strength, mind you, blessed with freedom and the god’s favor. From the beginning of time, the angels had considered themselves to be the chosen ones of their god, but then the god, presumably bored with them, created humans. He showered the humans with his love. He gave them the Earth. He gave them the animals and the waters over which to rule and command. He had given the angels nothing by comparison.

“The angels grew jealous. They should be the favored ones not humans. The ones who fell were given the task of watching over their god’s newest infatuation. They came to earth and walked among the humans, and when their god found out, he was furious. He ordered them to return to Heaven, to leave behind their wives and earthly families. The angels refused, and as punishment the all-powerful god cast them into the deepest pits of hell.

“Asmodeus was one of the leaders of the rebel angels. He had great power and influence and is one of the most formidable demons of hell.

“To further compound the rebel angels’ ire, the god refused to accept any apology, and some did try, repenting on hands and knees, pleading, begging. The god refused them and forever sealed the gates of paradise from them. A few of the Fallen wanted nothing more than to go home. They were doomed to live out eternity adrift.

“There were many more though who gave into their ire and fury at the god and his precious humanity. Torn from Heaven, stripped of their earthly women and children, they watched from hell, as the god gave humankind his grace time after time after time. He so easily forgave his precious humans, yet he would not forgive his other children, the ones who had served him from the beginning of all time, for surely nothing worse or offensive than the countless acts of immorality that humans do upon each other time and time again.

“The rebel angels grew angrier and more defiant. The leaders of the Fallen, Asmodeus—one of them, struck a blow on their god by taking their anger out on humanity, using humans, manipulating them, infecting them, reaping soul after soul after soul. A great cosmic war began and has been waged through the ages. The score was told in souls and fear and despair.

“A great king wizard of humanity came to power. His name was Solomon. He was the king of all men, of all the land of the earth, He had seven hundred wives and three hundred concubines and his children numbered in the tens of thousands. There was never a more powerful man before or since. He grew to regard himself like the god. Prideful. It appeared to the Fallen that the God paid no heed to the man’s hubris. In fact, he indulged it. Solomon was continually rewarded with wives and children and land.

“Asmodeus and his fellow demons infiltrated Solomon’s people, laying waste, reaping souls, one by one. The rebel angels were more powerful than any man. They were superior in every way, and if the God would not recognize it, then mankind would. Mankind would bow to the Fallen, worship them, or they would be made to suffer. Humankind did suffer. On the verge of losing, amidst this great battle between the angels of hell and mankind, Solomon asked the god to please give him something of power, anything that he could use to defeat the demons. The god commanded the Arch-angel Michael to make Solomon a tool to defeat the demons and reclaim the human world.

“Arch-angel Michael did as he was commanded. He gave Solomon the most powerful object he could forge, and it was called the Ring of Solomon.

“It is said, that Solomon wielded the ring and cast the demons back to hell. One demon in particular, the vilest, evilest of the lot, the demon Asmodeus, was trapped in a bottle and flung him into the sea.

“The demon Asmodeus lay trapped at the bottom of the ocean for centuries until discovered by a fisherman and let loose.

“Men since Solomon’s time have hunted for this great ring forged by Michael and given to a man, this great ring that is powerful enough to cast demons from the world. The wielder of such a ring is rightfully the most powerful man in the world. He is truly as close to a god as a man could be.

“Men have given their lives in the search of Solomon’s ring, and none have found it. It is often referred to as the ring of Andeleeb. The reason no one has been successful in finding it, is because it is not an it, it is a he. It is thought that the Arch-angel Michael was similarly miffed about the disparity in the god’s care and attention to humanity. To make an object of such great power and hand it over to the man Solomon seemed careless and negligent. How could one man be entrusted to handle and maneuver something of that power? If it could cast an angel of hell out of the world, what could it do to an angel of Heaven? A thing—an object—something that could be held in a hand—it was too much. Yet at the same time, Michael could not disobey the god. Could he?

“The Arch-angel Michael forged from Heaven a man and gave him to Solomon as a son. A man no matter how powerful could be destroyed, and Michael took comfort in this.

“He was named Andeleeb, the powerful smiter of demons. He is like a god, greater than Solomon and greater than any other king before or since, but he is still a human, and he is your Ande.”

Mary Ann Mosbaum said nothing for a long time. “Why me? Why did he choose me to carry his child?”

“That—” said Akio. “Is Ande’s story as well, and as I don’t actually know it to tell it, you will have to ask him.”

 

 

Akio let Mary Ann Mosbaum sleep the whole of the night. He sat in her bedroom on one of the plush wing chairs that she had positioned next to a large window. He put his feet up on a matching ottoman and stared out the window into the darkness.

The darkness did not affect his sight in the least, and he could see all the way down the street. The street was quiet. He suspected that Mary Ann spent a lot of time reading in this very chair in the morning sun warmed through the glass window. If she didn’t, it was a shame, this chair was clearly meant for reading and lounging. It was very nice.

The orange sun peeked over the horizon. Akio could not sleep the rest of the night. He was troubled. Troubled by whom he had encountered last night even though Ande had warned him, and troubled how Ande would react to Akio telling his story to the woman. He knew that had Ande wanted the woman to know, Ande would have told her himself. It was the right thing to do though. She needed to know. Ande could like it or lump it. It was done.

 

“Wow,” said Mary Ann, her voice thick with sleep. “That was not what I expected,” she said.

“I would be surprised had you expected it,” said Akio.

She sat up in the bed and immediately her hands went to her belly. She held them protectively on either side. Her face was lost in deep thought.

“You’re hurt,” said Mary Ann. She finally stepped off her train of thought and took a look at Akio. He was sitting as Akio the man. He was shirtless wearing only his dark trousers; bandages were wrapped around his midsection from below his waistband to nearly the middle of his chest. He had bound them tight and taped them, but there was some blood seeping through, and he would need to change the dressing soon. He should have brought a better med kit, but he hadn’t needed one in he couldn’t remember how long.

‘What can I do for you?” she said.

“I am more than well,” he said. “It is nothing.”

“It doesn’t look like nothing.”

Akio didn’t respond, and the silence spread between them. By the look on Mary Ann’s face, she had questions, and she didn’t know if she should ask them, which undoubtedly was foreign territory for her as there had never been a question she didn’t ask.

“Is he gone?” she asked finally.

“If he knows what’s best for him,” said Akio.

“Really?”

Akio looked out the window, “I hope so.”

He stood up, moving swiftly. If his wound hurt, he didn’t let it show.

“I must be going,” he said.

“Can’t you stay and have breakfast?” she said. “We could go to breakfast. There is a nice little restaurant a couple blocks away. Excellent brunch. We could walk. My treat. It’s the least I can do.”

Akio pulled his shirt over his head. “You’re having a boy child,” he said.

“A boy? I can hardly believe it,” she said. “A boy?”

“Yes,” he said. “Don’t you remember?”

“I—well—I—just never thought. A boy? Yes, a boy,” she looked down at her pregnant belly and the little boy inside. “It never occurred to me that I would have a boy. It hasn’t sunk in yet.”

“Clearly, you will have to desist from your thinly veiled man-hating ways.”

She cut him a look.

“Man-hating? That’s the right phrase, isn’t it? A female who harbors a great deal of resentment for males? ” He continued, “ For the sake of the boy, of course.”

She scowled, her brow furrowed and sharp words stood at attention on her tongue, prepared, ready to cut and lash. Instead she said, “I don’t hate men, but yes. Yes. Everything is different now.”

“Breakfast? Is it out now? Because of the truth telling?” Akio smiled. “I may be honest to a fault, but I’m still very hungry.”

“Ha ha,” she said. “No, it’s still on, but now we’re going dutch.”

Chapter 52—August 10. Eleven days left for Abby.

 

Mars Mathias steered his compact rental car onto the DenmanNoos Enterprises campus. Whoever had rented the car before him liked country music, loud country music. Mars was running late for his appointment and couldn’t be bothered to change the station, and any sort of music was preferable to silence. He went with it. Today, he was a little bit country.

The DenmanNoos World Headquarters was a city in and of itself. It boasted three restaurants, two bars, a store, a fitness center complete with climbing wall, two basketball courts, a swimming pool, on-site daycare, banking center, dry cleaner, and even a hair salon.

Walking paths looped and meandered their way here and there across the campus. The grass was lush and well maintained. The rest of the Portland Metropolitan area wilted and browned in the heat wave, but the greenery on the DenmanNoos campus appeared not the least affected. Ducks paddled in the man-made pond that twinkled in the sun while DenmanNoos employees ate lunch and talked on an adjacent patio, shielded from the noonday sun with umbrellas and delicate, fine water misters.

This was a nice place. Mars glanced down at the campus map he held in his hand while trying to maintain the 10 mph campus speed limit. He almost hit a lunchtime jogger, who skipped unharmed away from the cornflower blue bumper, and instead of flipping Mars off and cursing him out, the jogger smiled and waved—no harm done.

Whoa, not in Kansas anymore.

Mars raised his hand—Sorry.

The Antevorte Building was adjacent to the man-made pond. Mars pulled into a parking spot. The only empty one it seemed on the whole campus.

The Antevorte Building was a giant glass dome that appeared to glow from within. Panes of curved glass reflected the silver pond, the green trees and grass, and the blue sky. Considered to be a modern design marvel, its magnificence had been featured in dozens of architecture articles and magazines.

Mars squinted his eyes against the sunlight glinting of the sides of the building. His eyes teared a bit. The Antevorte was both beautiful and hard to look at the same time.

With one hand, he grabbed his battered canvas messenger bag off the passenger seat. His other hand, he pressed to his head, flattening and smoothing his curly, demi-afro. He gave himself a final once over in the visor mirror before climbing out of the car.

He loped across the grass and into the building.

The meeting was at noon. Sharp. He was ten minutes late.

Mars was not more than one step into the building when he was hailed by security.

Paul, at least that’s what his nametag identified him as, coughed and raised two fingers, gesturing for Mars to come toward him. Paul wasn’t like most security guards Mars had come across—bloated, neckless, self-important men, or young, weedy, and green. Paul was tall and thick. He looked like a marine, or a soldier-for-hire. He was all business. No smiles, no small talk.

Mars couldn’t imagine anyone giving Paul a hard time.

“Heya, Paul,” Mars said.

Paul shook his head, his lips making a straight line. He knew Mars’ type. Smart, an inner-city kid who pulled himself up by his bootstraps, making something of himself, but never able, no matter how hard he tried, to knock the chip off his shoulder. It was the chip that would get a young man like Mars into trouble. Paul could spot a shoulder-chip from a mile away. For that matter, Paul could spot any weakness from a mile away. He had a keen eye and could size a man up in a matter of seconds.

“Who are you here to see?”

“Bruce Denman,” Mars said.

“Bag,” said Paul.

Mars handed him his canvas messenger bag, “Is this really necessary?”

“Yes.”

Paul pulled everything out of the bag. He thumbed through the books and notebooks looking between the pages.

“Really?”

“Really.”

Paul opened and closed Mars’ sunglasses case, examined his laptop, clicked his ball point pens, and opened an aspirin bottle and looked inside, then took a sniff, before putting the cap back on.

Mars looked off to the left. He rocked back and forth on his heels. Forget ten minutes late. He was now fifteen, maybe twenty minutes late by the time Paul was done with him.

Mars closed his eyes and took a deep breath.

Paul examined a tube of lip balm. He pulled off the cap and smelled that too.

“Strawberry?” Paul commented. “Kind of girly, don’t you think?” Paul liked to give people shit.

“Are you kidding me?” Mars crossed his arms across his chest and cocked his head to the side.

Paul put everything back into Mars’ canvas bag and walked around the table with a metal detector wand.

“Arms out to the side. Legs spread.”

Mars did as he was told.

Paul moved the wand along Mars’ arms and sides and up and down the outside and the inside of his legs.

The wand remained silent.

Paul moved back to his desk and looked at the computer.

“Full name?”

“Mars Mathias.”

“I’m not showing you on the list.”

“I have an appointment at noon.”

“With Mr. Denman?”

“Yes.”

“You’re late,” Paul observed. “You’re also not on the list.”

“It’s a mistake. I made the appointment months ago with Wendy his personal assistant.”

“Wendy, you say?”

“Yes.”

“She’s usually very on top of things. I find it hard to believe that she’d forget to put you on the list.”

Paul picked up the phone and dialed. He held it to his ear for a moment before setting it back down on the cradle, “She’s at lunch.”

Mars rifled through his notebook and pulled out an email sent by Wendy confirming his meeting with Bruce Denman. He was glad that he’d printed it out. Mars prided himself on being prepared. He handed the email to Paul. Paul took it and read it.

12:25

“Hmm,” said Paul. “Just a minute.”

Paul was about to pick up the phone again, when his head jerked up. He narrowed his eyes and honed in on an elderly man who had just walked through the main entrance into the building.

The man wore brown work jeans and a plaid button up shirt. His gray hair was cut short and neatly brushed.

The old man kept his gaze straight ahead and made for the bank of elevators. He moved swiftly, his arms stiff at his sides. A row of turnstile security card readers was set before the elevators. In the short time, Mars had been there, a handful of DenmanNoos employees had passed through them, each swiping a magnetic access card, waiting for the beep and green light, before proceeding.

Paul moved around the table where he was inspecting Mars’ bag and strode toward the old man intending to head him off at the security checkpoint.

The old man must have seen Paul coming toward him out of the corner of his eye because he flinched visibly and started walking faster. Once to the security card reader, he placed a hand on either side of the turnstile and vaulted cleanly over.

“Stop!” Paul bellowed. He took up a run. His lean muscled body caught up to the old man in less than ten strides and one leap, hurdling the turnstiles effortlessly. Paul positioned himself between the old man and the elevators.

Although Mars didn’t see Paul press a button or call for help, a dozen uniformed security guards, side arms strapped to their waists, appeared as if out of nowhere. They had the old man surrounded.

“Remove yourself from the premises,” Paul ordered.

“I just want to see Mr. Denman. Just for a minute,” the old man said. He tried to walk past Paul to the elevator. It was a mistake.

In a flash, Paul had the old man flat on the ground, prone on his belly. Paul’s heavily muscled forearm pressed into the old man’s neck. Mars was reminded of a lion taking down a scared antelope—a scared, old, weak antelope. Paul pressed the old man’s face into the glass tile floor. His knee on the small of the old man’s back.

“No, more warnings,” Paul said.

The old man’s cheek smooshed against the floor, and his face scrunched in pain. His eyes darted back and forth, and he breathed heavily. His face began to turn a bright shade of purple. The purple spread up the man’s face to the top of his head. Mars could see purple through the man’s thinning gray hair.

Paul stood up. The old man remained face down on the ground, his arms splayed to his sides. He didn’t move. Mars wondered if he could anymore. Mars hadn’t seen a take down like that since—since ever. Television maybe.

Once Paul was off the old man, the purple flush began to recede. Paul gave a sharp nod to the nearest uniformed security guard, who with the assistance of another guard, lifted the old man off the ground and escorted him from the building. The old man’s feet barely touched the floor.

Paul crossed the lobby to Mars.

12:35

“Just a minute,” he said again. Paul was completely composed, not out of breath, not agitated. Smooth and collected.

“He looked harmless enough, man,” said Mars still not believing what he just saw.

“You think so? You would be wrong.”

Paul picked up the telephone and punched a number into the keypad.

“Paul?” said a well-dressed man in an impeccable suit and shaved head. He had just come in from the outside. He was still wearing his sunglasses. “What’s going on?”

“Mr. Toro,” said Paul. “Nothing now. It’s been handled.”

“Your man, here, just tackled an old man to the ground. Lawsuit city.” said Mars. He looked from Paul to the finely dressed bald man.

Paul and Toro turned and appraised Mars. Both wore nearly identical humorless smirks.

“And you are?” said Toro removing his sunglasses and sliding them into the inside pocket of his suit.

“Mars Mathias.”

“Are you a lawyer, Mr. Mathias?”

“No.”

“Imagine my relief,” said Toro. “What is your business here?”

“I have a meeting with Mr. Denman. Confirmed by his assistant Wendy.” Mars raised the printed out email. “I’m forty minutes late now. Can we hurry this along?”

“I’m not aware of any such meeting with Mr. Denman,” said Toro. He gave Mars another top to bottom once over.

Mars shrugged his shoulders—not my problem. “I do have a meeting, and it’s been confirmed.”

“It’s not on his schedule,” said Paul indicating the computer screen.

“And what is the manner of your business with Mr. Denman?”

“I’m here to interview him.”

“Press?’

“Yes.”

“Mr. Denman doesn’t do press.”

“Apparently, he does,” said Mars. “He’s agreed to meet with me. Now if you could just direct me to his office?”

Toro looked at Paul. Something significant and unspoken passed between them.

Paul smiled at Mars, “Come with me Mr. Mathias. I will take you personally.”

Mars picked up his canvas messenger bag, slinging it across his body. He patted is afro and flashed Paul a bright, toothpaste smile.

“Thank you,” he said and followed Paul, careful to maintain a three-step distance behind him. With a man like Paul, it was prudent to stay out of arm’s reach. Although if it came to it, Mars knew an arm’s reach wouldn’t be far enough away from Paul, the man’s muscles had muscles.

 

 

Paul led Mars down a long hallway. The hallway ran along the pond side of the building. The glass outer wall of the building was spotless. Mars imagined that it was probably someone’s whole job to keep it so. The effort was worth it—if you set aside the whole notion of wasting your life cleaning the glass of a super corporation that doesn’t give a shit about you. If you set that aside, of course—it was worth it and you could almost imagine that you were outside walking alongside the pond and not inside an office building.

Bruce Denman’s office was at the end of the hallway.

Paul knocked on the slightly ajar door.

“Mr. Denman,” he called. “I have a Mr. Mathias here. He says he has a meeting with you.”

“Send him in,” said Bruce.

“He’s not on your calendar,” said Paul.

There was no answer for a moment, and then the door that was slightly ajar swung completely open. Bruce Denman, shirt sleeves rolled up, tie and collar loosened, stood in the doorway.

“I apologize for the oversight, Mr. Mathias,” said Bruce.

“No problem,” said Mars.

“You can leave us. Thank you, Paul.” Bruce said.

Paul hesitated for a millisecond before saying, “Yes, sir” and leaving.

Bruce invited Mars into his office.

“You got some serious security here, Mr. Denman.”

“Yes, we do,” Bruce said. “DenmanNoos is an intellectual Fort Knox. There is more to protect here than anywhere else in the world. We are not only the stewards of secrets but also the protectors and fosterers of brilliant minds and cutting edge research and technology. There are many—individuals, competitors, even whole nation states that would do us harm and gladly. And please call me Bruce, Mars.”

“Thank you for meeting with me,” said Mars.

Bruce Denman’s office wasn’t what Mars had expected although he didn’t really know what he had expected. It was big. Huge really. Bruce Denman’s desk was extravagant, but Mars expected that. Everything was the finest, the finest leather, finest wood, finest ceramic coffee mug. What Mars didn’t expect was that half of Bruce Denman’s office was dedicated to a personal laboratory complete with white boards loaded with equations, long tables with papers arranged in neat piles, and not one but three computers. It was an interesting amalgamation—one half the plush, resplendent office of the most influential businessman in the country, the other half a working lab.

 

 

“Let’s get to it,” said Bruce. He sat down behind his desk, and leaned back.

Mars sat in one of the chairs opposite. He took out a digital voice recorder, turned it on, and set it on the edge of Bruce’s desk.

Mars rarely, if ever, felt self-conscience, but even he had to admit to feeling a little awe struck sitting in Bruce Denman’s presence.

Mars cleared his throat. Usually, he had the questions memorized, but he wasn’t going to rely on his memory today. He pulled out his reporter’s notebook and leafed to the pages of carefully thought out questions.

“Before we begin,” Bruce said. “I have a question about a recent article that you wrote. The one about corruption and cover-up in the Cambridge police department.”

“You read my blog?” Mars couldn’t help but feel proud.

“Of course,” said Bruce. “Mars Mathias—intrepid freelance reporter. You’re very insightful and normally spot on. I make a point of reading it. Plus we have the same alma mater.”

“Not technically. I didn’t graduate.”

Bruce shrugged his shoulders. It didn’t matter to him. “You said the police department had a history of ignoring or losing witnesses and you specifically cited an incident where a witness came forward and claimed that he saw someone push Dr. James Harvey down the stairs. Can you tell me more about that?”

Mars tapped the edge of his notebook on his knee. “I see what this is,” he said. “Dr. Harvey was your mentor and friend. That’s why you agreed to let me interview you.”

“Yes,” said Bruce. “But I fully plan on giving you an interview. I’ll answer all the questions in your little notebook, if you answer mine first.”

Mars worked his jaw back and forth. “Depends,” he said. “On what you want to know. It was some time ago. I was still in school at the time.”

“How do you know that a witness came forward?” Bruce asked.

“Because the witness told me.”

“How do you know that the police did nothing?”

“Because the witness told the police, and the police didn’t follow up. Didn’t even ask the witness anything. Not a single question. The witness even followed up with the police, but still the police did nothing.”

“What did the witness say he saw?”

“It was late, and Dr. Harvey was leaving. He was coming down the stairs from his office in the science building. He was standing on the landing. He held his briefcase with his right hand, and he was in the process of switching hands, y’know, so he could use his right hand on the handrail on the way down and hold his briefcase with his left hand. Some guy wearing a baseball cap low, so you couldn’t see his face, shouldered Harvey in the back, and Harvey just sorta fell.”

“What did the man who pushed him do after he fell?”

“He followed after him down the stairs. He rolled Harvey onto his back and looked at him in the eye. Real close. Then he took off.”

“Did the witness know who pushed him?”

“No.”

“Will you tell me the name of the witness?”

“No. That I can’t do. Have to protect my source.”

“Fair enough,” said Bruce. “I wouldn’t want you to compromise your principles.”

Bruce stood up.

“Isn’t it my turn to ask questions now?” said Mars.

“I thought we’d start with a tour,” said Bruce. “Don’t worry we’ll get to your notebook. In fact, bring it. We’ll talk and walk.”

 

 

Bruce led Mars into a room the size of a gymnasium. The room was empty except for one large machine and stacks of file boxes.

“This is the beginning,” said Bruce pointing to the machine. In the center of the machine sat a reclined chair similar in style to a dentist exam chair. The chair was surrounded in a half circle of six monitors. The monitors beeped and paper readouts hung like so many rolls of toilet paper. It looked largely uncomfortable. “This is Zora the original NooScan machine.”

“Wow,” said Mars. “It’s bigger than I thought it would be.”

“Yes,” Bruce smiled almost wistfully. “She’s certainly not as sleek as the models today that’s for sure. She’s clumsy and clunky looking, but she holds a special spot in my heart. At one time in my life, I gave up everything for her.” He paused and rubbed his chin.

“Zora, huh?”

“We’ve spent a lot of time together, Zora and I.”

“I’m sure you’ve heard about your partner and engineer Karl Weber claiming that you held out on him. He claims that when you and he parted ways the machine was nowhere near completion, but suddenly and coincidentally, not long after he left the partnership, you completed a working prototype. He asserts that you held out on him. What do you have to say to that? You’re the richest, most powerful man in the world and Karl has pretty much amounted to nothing by comparison. Sour grapes?”

“I wouldn’t say that Karl Weber is nothing. Sour grapes? Probably. Regardless of what he thinks of me, I will always consider him a friend. It’s a shame he jumped ship when he did. Or maybe not, maybe it was his leaving that gave me the impetus to complete the machine. I needed to prove to everyone, him included, that the science was founded, that the machine would work, and she does. I admit when he left, it stung. We were friends. We were partners. I would be lying if I said that there wasn’t a part of me that wanted to stick it to him for not believing in me and in our work, but the truth is that the machine didn’t work properly before he left, and I didn’t hold out on him. Zora still works to this day. Want to try her?”

Mars looked uneasy.

“Have you ever had a MindPrint or a TruthScan done? It’s fascinating.”

“No. Never had one done,” Mars eyed the machine. “I don’t know—”

“Come on, hop in,” he indicated the reclined seat in the middle of the machine. “I’ll just ask a couple of easy questions, so you’ll have an idea how it works. It will make for a better article, don’t you think?”

Mars reluctantly set down his notebook and his bag. He sat down on Zora’s gray vinyl seat and leaned back. Bruce placed a band around his head and several independent electrode devices on his temples and earphones over his ears.

“Is this going to hurt?”

“No, not even a little,” Bruce said. He flipped some switches, here and there, pressed buttons. Zora whirred and chugged to life.

“Ready?” Bruce asked.

“Sure.”

“I’m going to ask the questions into this microphone. You will hear the questions in your ears. In addition to that, the questions will be translated into electric impulses and sent straight into your brain. You will say your answer out loud. The machine will record your spoken answer and simultaneously translate the electric thought impulses in your brain. These thought impulses will be translated by the machine into language and images. We will then be able to compare your spoken answer to the answer your brain provides.”

“What is your name?”

“Mars Mathias.”

“Where were you born?”

“New London, Connecticut.”

“Now, I will ask you a more complicated question. Tell the truth for this answer. Why did you not finish your college education?”

“I was kicked out.”

“Why?”

“For fighting and for a paper I wrote.”

“Now for this next question, answer with a lie. What was the fight about?”

“Alright,” said Mars. He paused for a moment to think up a good lie. “I had this professor, a real jackass. For some reason the guy didn’t like me, so I wrote this paper, and it was completely awesome, if I do say so myself. A+ work all the way. The guy gave me a D on it. I went up to him after class to ask him what’s up. Why a D? He told me that he really should have given me an F. That he was just being generous. He said it was a kindness to me and my single, on welfare and food stamps, broke mama. So that when I wash-up, decide that college isn’t for me, and find myself back in the ghetto, my mama will be able to console herself that at least I didn’t get an F on this one paper. So I punched him. I punched him in the face. I broke that bastard’s nose and eye socket. He fell like a tree. Boom. Knock out, baby. Lights out.”

“Fascinating,” said Bruce. Zora beeped and whirred. The paper printouts started to chug. Bruce typed on the keyboard. He didn’t ask any more questions for a while.

Mars reclined, not fully relaxed, his neck rigid, one leg dropped over the side of the chair. His foot tapped on the floor. He waited, strapped in, listening to the machine chug and whir and beep and hum.

“Almost done, Mars,” Bruce said into the microphone. “Poor Zora is an old lady and not as sleek as the NooScans today. She takes her sweet old time.”

“No prob,” said Mars, “I’m curious to see what it says.”

“Alright,” Bruce said into the microphone. “We’re done.”

Bruce unhooked Mars from Zora. Mars sat fully upright. He rubbed his head and temples where the probes were attached.

Bruce waited as the official report finished printing before pulling it off the printer. He sat on a rolling stool and rolled this way and that as he read through the printout.

“What does it say?” Mars asked.

Bruce handed Mars the top-two thirds of the report. The last couple pages, he folded lengthwise and tucked into the inside pocket of his suit coat.

“It says, that although you did have a heated conversation with the professor, it wasn’t a D you got on the paper, it was much worse, and you may have wanted to punch the professor, but you didn’t. When you left after your conversation with the professor, there were two thugs messing with your bike, when you confronted them, they fell upon you. One of them had a baseball bat, and they beat you soundly. Somehow in the scuffle, you were able to get control of the bat. You hit one of the thugs, you hit him so hard, he ended up in a coma. You were arrested. Witnesses didn’t corroborate your side of the story. Instead, they said that you instigated the confrontation that the two boys were leaning on the bicycle rack and one of them accidentally knocked over your bike. You picked up the baseball bat from the grass. It was laying next to one of the boy’s backpacks, and you beat him unconscious with it.”

Mars shook his head bitterly, “It says all that?”

“It sure does. Read it.” Bruce lifted his chin and nodded at the stack of papers in Mars’s hands.

“I was set up.”

“I believe you,” Bruce said.

Mars narrowed his eyes.

“I do. Even if I didn’t. There is your proof. It would stand up in a court of law.”

Mars looked at the papers in his hands. Proof. Proof that he wasn’t a liar. Proof. He shook his head in disbelief. No one had believed him. Not even his mother. He remembered the look on her face, the disappointment, the shame. He could take it that the Dean didn’t believe him, that guy was an old white, privileged jackass. He could take it that those people lied against him; he was nobody to them. He was just another skinny, black kid, a quota kid. He was there to make the university look diversified, culturally in the mix. The one thing he couldn’t bear was that his mama didn’t believe him. That had hurt. All the way.

“Thank you,” he said. He took the printout and very carefully placed it in a folder then tucked the folder into his bag.

“Why do you think you were set up?” Bruce asked.

Mars didn’t look up.

“I wish I knew,” he said.

“It seemed so orchestrated. So planned. Even witnesses—three of them—to corroborate the other boys’ account of things. Who would go to all that trouble to hurt you, Mars?”

Mars shrugged his shoulders.

“Alright,” said Bruce standing up. “What other questions do you have for me? We can finish this interview over lunch. Are you hungry? I know I am. I had a lunch date with a reporter, but he was late.”

Mars stood up. He felt light. He looked Zora over once more before following Bruce out the door.

Mars Mathias had a spring in his step, a smile on his face, and proof in his pocket.

Chapter 53

 

Mars Mathias, Video Log—

Good Evening to all of my dedicated Martians. I hope this vlog finds you well on this beautiful summer evening.

What? Did Mars just say something was beautiful?

Yes, discerning listeners, I did.

This video isn’t going to be in typical Mars Mathias fashion. Bear with me.

Today, Mars is feeling sentimental.

Today, Mars is feeling free.

Just this once, I’m doffing my intrepid reporter hat. We are going to talk, man to Martian.

You will all be pleased to know that word has gotten around about yours truly. My intrepid reporting is becoming the stuff of legend. No small part have you played, my clever Martians. Together we are making the world a better place, a more accountable place. We do the right thing. Always.

The story I’m going to tell you begins two weeks ago when I got a call from Bruce Denman’s private secretary.

The Bruce Denman? You say.

Yes. THE Bruce Denman, billionaire businessman, founder and CEO of DenmanNoos Enterprises, philanthropist, Eterne Man of the Year, father of modern day criminal justice. Et cetera.

The man hasn’t done an interview in years. Three year and eight months to be exact. Not only did he decide to sit down with Mars, he sought me out.

Yes, it’s true.

I went in to the interview with half a notebook full of questions to ask him.

I did my homework. Prepared tough, hard-hitting questions we have all come to expect. I interviewed Karl Weber to get his side of the story. How Bruce Denman bilked him out of billions. I felt bad for the man. Shoot. To be so close to billions of dollars and missing out? That would be a tough thing to live with your whole life.

This story isn’t about Karl Weber though. Here’s what I have to say to that man— grow the fuck up. We’ve all been there. We’ve all not gotten something we thought we deserved or thought we earned. Too bad for you it was billions. Sucks, but maybe you shouldn’t have bailed when you did. Time to be a man and live with your decisions.

I thought about doing the humanitarian side of the story. How a man, driven by the ruthless murder of his young wife, dug into his work and built a mechanism that revolutionized the criminal justice system. Remember the days of DNA evidence? Hello, Dark Ages. How something that changed the world was birthed from tragedy. Remember when the Supreme Court allowed convicted felons to procure MindPrints and TruthScans? Remember the dozens of men and one woman released from death row? And all the other innocent incarcerated men and women set free? Remember their tears and jubilation? Remember the truly guilty being sent to prison at long last finally paying for their crimes.

I hear you, I hear you. Not very original, Mars. No, I agree, but still compelling journalism.

Having eschewed my two initial premises, I decide instead to tell a very personal story. A story about Mars, a man on the street, a vignette.

Let’s start at the beginning,

A long time ago, a baby was born. The woman who gave birth to him asked the nurses to take him to the nursery, so that she could take a nap. Her labor had been long and she was exhausted, she explained to the nurse who answered the on call button.

She was tired.

She kissed her swaddled baby boy on the forehead as the nurse held him in her arms.

“Mama’s tired,” she said. “Behave for the nurses.”

Ten minutes after the nurse had left carrying her swaddled, precious baby boy, the new mother shuffled over to the wardrobe, took out a plastic bag filled with her street clothes. She dressed. It hurt, but she didn’t notice much. The industrial strength sanitary pad the nurses had given her to soak up the bleeding barely fit in her pants, but she made do.

Thirteen minutes after the nurse left the room carrying her swaddled, precious baby boy, the new mother snuck out of the hospital room, waddling down the long corridor. She made it as far as the dumpster on the side of the hospital. It was here that she met her baby’s daddy. Together, they got high, huddled behind the blue dumpster. It was a good high, she remembered.

She never went back.

He never asked about the baby.

Less than two hours after Mars entered the world, he was an orphan.

The woman who raised him was roused out of a deep sleep by the telephone. She was listed as next of kin. She brushed her teeth and tied her hair into a ponytail. She drove the long drive, four hours total, and held the tiny baby in her arms before the sun rose the next day.

She held his tiny brown body in her white arms and kissed his sweet baby cheeks, his skinny baby cheeks. She made comments to the nurses about how small the baby was, was he okay?

“We suspect the mother was on drugs,” the nurse said.

“Yes,” the woman said. “That sounds like my sister.”

“Will he be okay?”

“No saying,” the nurse said. “But babies like him are like all babies, love makes them grow, and sometimes love is enough.”

The baby opened his eyes for the first time. His eyes were green; the woman squealed with delight.

“Welcome to the world, baby boy,” she said. “Did she name him?”

“She named him Mars,” the nurse said, “But that could probably be changed.”

“No,” the woman whispered, “He needs to have one thing from her. It stays.”

She stayed with him for the two weeks that he needed to be in the hospital. His little body had a hard time maintaining body temperature, he had a lazy suck, and he was jaundiced. She rocked him in a rocking chair and bottle-fed him, and he grew.

Two weeks was long enough to track down the sister when she wasn’t rocking Mars, to get her to sign over her parental rights, and to find a lawyer who wouldn’t charge too much for a domestic adoption.

Two weeks was long enough to fall in love and become a family, and by the time she left the hospital, driving the four hours back home, April Mathias and Mars were a family.

April Mathias was a school librarian. She was young, twenty-three years old, and single. She hadn’t even begun to think about having a family. The idea of having a baby was a distant someday for her. She hadn’t even known her sister was pregnant until the phone rang the night Mars was born.

Being a librarian didn’t pay much, but she made it work. Mars had clothes, not new, fancy clothes, but good, serviceable clothes. Mars had food to fill his belly, lots of vegetables and whole grain bread, treats every now and then, special occasions mostly. Mars had toys. Some.

What Mars had more than anything else was books, lots and lots of books, and imagination, and the love of a good, kind woman, the type of woman who never told a lie. The type of woman who if she found five dollars in the parking lot of the grocery store, she would take it in to the customer service desk, the type of woman if she was undercharged or not charged on an item would bring it to the attention of the cashier, immediately.

The type of woman that was generous with the hugs, the type who held Mars to the kitchen table to work on math until he got it, regardless of how many fits he threw.

“Mars you can do this,” she would say. “You just have to believe you can and work for it.”

“I can’t,” he would say, “I’m not smart, Mama, stop pretending I am.”

“You are smart, Mars, but what’s better than being smart is being clever. Being clever is knowing what you don’t know and finding ways to know it. Being clever is doing what no one thinks you can do because you’ve found a way to do it. You’re the cleverest boy I know.”

They made an unusual pair especially in their small town, a small white woman and her brown skinned boy.

“Is he adopted?” “Are you the mother?”

Nosey people have a way of asking rude questions like they have a right to the answer.

“He’s mine,” she would say with a wide smile.

“Sure,” some would persist, “But is he yours-yours? Y’know like did you give birth to him?”

“Yes,” she would say not blinking an eye. It was the only lie Mars had ever heard her tell.

He called her on it once. He asked her why she lied.

She said to him, “It’s not a lie. You are mine. You were meant for me the moment you were conceived. Shelly could never have cared for you, but I could. God had to have known that. You may have come to me through her, but you still came to me. I conceived you in my heart. So I didn’t give birth to you? So what? Maybe I gave birth to you through her. There is an old Chinese proverb that says that people who are meant to be together are tied together with a thin, red thread. Across time and distance this red thread connects them by fate. Those whom fate binds together will find each other though separated by a thousand miles. We’re like that, bound together. We are family. I am your mother. Those people don’t understand what we have. I won’t have them even insinuating that our family isn’t as much of a family as their family. Family happens where people love each other, where people take care of each other, where people are committed to each other, and we are all those things to each other.”

Mars never asked her again about it. When his friends or his classmates asked if April was his real mother, he would always answer yes. Some people couldn’t see the red thread, but he could.

Mars was thirteen when his biological mom called. Apparently, she wanted to see him. Just once.

April took the phone into her bedroom and closed the door. Mars could still hear what she said even though the door was closed. It helped that he followed her and pressed his ear to the door.

“I don’t know,” April said. “Shelly, you’ve had so many chances. So much opportunity in your life and you’ve squandered it all. I don’t know if I want that influence around Mars—

He’s a good boy, an amazing boy—

Are you clean?

I don’t know—

Just for a half an hour—

Alright—”

Mars was not excited about meeting Shelly. Not at all. Although April didn’t talk about her much, he knew that Shelly was not a good person. He didn’t know where that left him in the world. If his mother was a bad person, what did that say about him?

“It’s important to make the right choices,” April would tell Mars especially when Mars would lose control of his temper. Mars was stubborn and hot-headed. April was neither. Mars assumed all of his bad traits he got from Shelly, his stubbornness, his hot-headedness, his trouble with math.

When April would say, “It is important to make the right choices,” Mars would always add on to it in his head by thinking, “so you don’t turn out like Shelly.”

Shelly showed up as promised. Mars was freshly showered and sitting on the couch, his skinny legs jouncing with nerves.

April opened the door.

“Oh, April,” Shelly’s voice was high pitched and her words tumbled out of her mouth, “Something terrible has happened, and I need to get back home. Sully’s been arrested. I have to get back.”

“You’re going back now?”

“I need to.”

“What about Mars?” April said.

“Sully needs me to bail him out. I have to go. He needs me. Tell Mars we’ll do it another time.”

“Who’s Sully?”

“My boyfriend. Didn’t I tell you?”

“No,” April said. “Mars is waiting to see you. Don’t you at least want to see him? Five minutes?”

“Tell him next time.”

“Sure,” said April.

“Hey, April, do you have some money I can borrow? I’m a little short for the bus back home.”

“How much?” said April.

“Two hundred?” Shelly’s voice went really high.

“Two hundred dollars for a bus ticket? I’m sorry, I don’t have that much. I can give you fifty.” April said.

“Uh, okay. That’s better than nothing,” Shelly said.

April turned to get the money out of her purse.

Mars pushed in beside her.

“Here,” he said. He held out a peanut butter jar filled with bills. He was saving for a game system that April couldn’t afford. “It’s $180. Take it and leave.”

“Mars?” Shelly’s face lit up. Not at him at the cash in the jar. She looked some like April, an old tired, drugged out version of April. Her teeth were gray when she smiled. This was the woman who gave birth to him.

“You look so handsome. Like the pictures April sent,” Shelly said, but she wasn’t looking at him, she was still looking at the peanut butter jar that he was holding in his hand.

“Take it and go.”

“Mars. Wait. Don’t,” April said. She knew how long he had saved that money. She reached for the peanut butter jar, but not surprisingly, Shelly was faster, and she snatched it before April could put a finger on it.

“What a nice boy,” Shelly said cradling the peanut butter jar to her saggy bosom.

“You can have it on one condition, you don’t come back,” Mars said. “Ever.”

“You don’t mean that,” Shelly said. She rotated the jar in her hand trying to see what denomination of bills she could make out in it. “I’ll come back next time. We’ll talk. It’ll be nice.

“I mean it,” said Mars. “You can only have it, if you don’t come back.”

“Don’t you sound like a little man,” Shelly snorted. She tucked the jar into the duffel bag she had set on the stoop. “You might want to know your mother some day. You might regret this.”

“I know my mother,” Mars said. He felt a little like crying, but he didn’t, “and you aren’t her.”

Shelly frowned, “You might want to teach him manners, little sister.”

April put her arm around Mars’ shoulder. Mars had never seen a look like the look on April’s face at that moment. Disappointment. Shame. Anger. All mixed up on her face. All directed at Shelly.

April and Mars stood about the same height, both skinny with pointy elbows and knees. Mars might have been an inch taller.

Without another word to Shelly, April pulled Mars back from the door and closed it on Shelly’s face. She turned the dead bolt.

Mars had seen that same look on April’s face one other time, after he’d been dismissed from the university, sitting in a jail cell charged with assault and battery. That time though the look was directed at him.

 

 

Mars paused mid-story, adjusted the camera, and cleared his throat. Then cleared it again before continuing—

She was so proud of me when I graduated high school. I was the class salutatorian. Hard to believe, but she said she believed from the very beginning. I went to college on a partial scholarship. It didn’t pay for everything, so in addition to her full-time job as the school librarian, she took on a second job working at a grocery store stocking shelves at night. She doubled up on the amount of kids she taught piano to on the side. She had essentially three jobs. She said she liked it. It kept her busy. Since I wasn’t there, she didn’t know what to do with herself anymore. I knew why she was doing it. I told her I would take out loans. That was how everyone else did it, but she said she didn’t want me to be strapped with student loans after I graduated. She wanted me to have a fresh start, and besides, she liked to keep busy.

I majored in Digital Media and minored in Writing.

It was hard. A lot harder than I thought it was going to be. I felt a little like I was thrown to the wolves.

Here I am—Mars Mathias coming from a small town in Maine. Salutatorian of my little class. Scholarship albeit partial, but a scholarship to one of the most prestigious universities in the nation, and here I was struggling, drowning, about to wash out.

I felt like a failure.

I was a failure.

I stopped calling home because I didn’t know what to say. It was hard keeping the conversation light. I felt like I was lying.

So I stopped calling. Stopped answering the phone.

I wanted to give up, but I didn’t. I steeled myself. I spent all hours at the library. I worked hard, and when that wasn’t enough, I worked harder. I may be a lot of things, but I’ve never been a quitter.

You get the picture. Mars, the fish out of water. Mars the formerly big fish in a little pond now a tiny, tiny fish in the ocean.

You get it, right?

Fast forward to the incident in question. The great shame of Mars Mathias. The skeleton in my closet. The great expulsion of Mars Mathias began with an essay and ended with me in handcuffs in the back of a police car.

The essay was for my Writing and Rhetoric class. It was about maternal healthcare and drug babies. A subject that was near and dear to my heart.

I poured everything that I had into this paper. I researched and researched. I pulled from personal experience. I interviewed others affected. If I do say so myself, the essay was brilliant. A triumph.

The professor for this class—we’ll call him John Smith—was a total douche bag. Grade A asshole all the way. He didn’t like me from day one, and the feeling was mutual. He had a reputation of being a hard-ass, and he was just the sort of dick to be proud of such a reputation. In fact, it seemed he worked every year to out hard-ass his reputation from the previous year.

I handed in the essay. I was proud. If this wasn’t A work, then I didn’t know what was.

The day he handed back the papers, he gave everyone’s back except for mine. Instead, he said to me, “See me after class, Mathias.”

Class was over. Everyone left. I hung back.

He pointed at me, a frown on his face, and beckoned for me to come to the front of the classroom.

I walked up there.

He dropped the paper in front of me, on his desk.

He opened up his laptop and turned it on. He didn’t look at me the whole time he did this. We listened to the computer boot up. He was still not saying anything.

Computer comes on. He types and clicks, and I stand there and wait. He doesn’t even look at me. Finally, he turns to me.

He points to my paper.

“You want to explain this,” he said.

“What?” I say.

“You have one chance to explain yourself. One chance for me to take pity on you. One chance. Here, I’ll start it for you—Gee, I’m sorry Professor S. My mama never had the time between collecting food stamps and welfare to teach me right from wrong. Now, your turn. Gee, Professor S—”

He raised his hand inviting me to continue.

I never wanted to hit a man more than I did at that moment.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” I said.

He snorted.

“I don’t know who you think I am,” he said. “I understand it’s a challenge to be here. To be a quota kid, and to be fair, you’ve lasted longer than a lot of other quota kids. Last chance to cop to it.”

“I don’t know what you are talking about,” I said. “It’s a good essay.”

“It’s an amazing essay. A plus essay, especially when it was first written three years ago by Watkins Dire.”

He turned his laptop to face me.

I leaned in to read the words on the screen. He had pulled up a web site. It was word for word my essay. Word for word.

“I don’t understand,” I said. “I wrote it. I didn’t copy it.”

Professor Smith shook his head. “Thanks for playing, Mathias,” he said. “This university is for the elite. Time to check the bus schedules. I’m sure the next bus going to wherever you’re from is leaving some time soon.”

I couldn’t believe it. I kept reading the essay on his computer the one written by Watkins Dire. The one that was exactly like mine.

“Didn’t you read it before you plagiarized it?” he snapped the laptop closed in my face.

“I didn’t plagiarize. I swear. I don’t know how it happened. Please believe me.”

“I’m a busy man,” he said. “I don’t have time to waste on former students. You can have this conversation with the Dean.”

“Go,” he said, and he made a shoo-ing motion with his hand.

Never before in my life have I wanted to beat someone senseless. I saw red. Literally. I saw red.

I wanted to strangle him.

But—

I didn’t.

I left.

As soon as I left the building.

Two guys, one with a baseball bat, attacked me.

Completely unprovoked.

They beat me senseless.

I thought they were going to kill me.

Somehow, I still don’t know how, I was able to get the baseball bat from the smaller one who had it. I hit him with it. I hit him in the head.

Knocked him out.

Put him in a coma.

Nearly killed him.

The police arrested me for assault.

Witnesses said I attacked them.

I have lived under the shadow of that day every day since.

I have born the shame and disappointment of my mother.

Every day since.

And today.

Today.

I am finally free from it.

Finally free.

This print out in my hand corroborates my side of the story.

I did not plagiarize.

I did not attack those boys. They attacked me.

The dark cloud has lifted.

The sky is blue.

Mars Mathias is free from his prison, from his shame.

A machine called Zora and a man named Bruce Denman set me free, as he set hundreds of others free, as he prevented countless others from being wrongfully convicted.

I was not raised to be vengeful. I was raised to be compassionate and understanding, but I just have to say—oh hell—

Fuck you, Professor Richard Bauer and Dean of Academics Milton Anderson!

Street thugs with baseball bats William Big Willy Bishop and Mark Nicastro, fuck you too!

And last but not least Watkins Dire whoever you are, suck it.

I am the man on the street.

Vindicated at long last.

Wait, hold on—

There is someone at the door.

Mars will be right back.

And when I do, we are going to celebrate, my Martians!

 

 

Mars reached forward and paused the video stream.

The video on his laptop froze. The last image was of Mars’ arm extended, finger presumably on the keyboard, his head half turned toward the door of the hotel room.

Chapter 54

 

Bruce Denman sat at his desk waiting for Wendy to connect him with the Cambridge police chief.

A mere ten minutes ago, he had walked Mars Matthias out of the Antevorte Building.

“It’s been a pleasure, Mars. I look forward to reading your article,” Bruce had said.

Mars had smiled and shook Bruce’s hand, “Thank you again.”

Now Bruce waited. He could hear Wendy in her adjacent office making the call. He unfolded and spread the last five sheets of Mars Mathias’s scan on his desk. He smoothed the pages flat with his hands.

Wendy’s voice came over the intercom, “I have Colburn Butterfield on the line, Mr. Denman.”

“Put him through, Wendy.”

“Yes, sir.”

Bruce waited for the click. He could hear breathing on the other end of the line.

“Bruce Denman here, Captain Butterfield.”

“What can I do for you, Mr. Denman?” Colburn’s voice was deep. It sounded tired or wary. He spoke slowly and cautiously. It wasn’t every day that Bruce Denman called. In fact, it wasn’t any day that Bruce Denman called.

“Captain Butterfield, I’m calling about the death of Dr. James Harvey.”

“James Harvey? That was a long time ago. What about it?”

“I have evidence that Dr. Harvey was murdered.”

“Now, Mr. Denman, we looked into that. It was a fall. I’m sorry to say. Mr. Harvey was old. He fell. It happens.”

“Dr. Harvey was pushed down the stairs. I am holding in my hand irrefutable evidence that he was murdered. I also have access to an eye witness.”

“Is that so?”

“Yes. I will have my assistant fax you the TruthScan of the eyewitness. It proves that he saw a man come up behind Dr. Harvey and push him down the stairs.”

“Yes, please do fax it.”

“I trust that you will address this matter with the care and diligence and immediacy that it requires.”

“Of course. I’ll look into it immediately.”

“Captain Butterfield, this is important to me. I intend to focus as much energy on this as necessary. Do you understand my meaning?”

“Yes, of course, Mr. Denman. I await your fax. This city’s police department is at your service.”

Bruce disconnected the call.

He smoothed Mathias’s scan some more.

Zora had not been designed to mine information as the later generation NooScan machines were. Bruce had upgraded her functionality after securing the meeting with Mars. Zora was a dinosaur, but unlike all the other NooScans, she was a stand-alone unit and her collected data was not automatically uploaded to the DenmanNoos database, which meant Toro and his people didn’t monitor her. She was the only independent machine.

Zora confirmed what Bruce suspected, Mars was the eyewitness. Mars had seen the man who pushed Dr. Harvey. He had watched as the man knelt at the bottom of the stairs to make sure Dr. Harvey was dead before opening Harvey’s briefcase and taking something from it.

Mars had seen it all.

Bruce faxed the scan to Captain Butterfield personally. Bruce’s fax machine was in Wendy’s office.

Wendy looked on from her desk. She twisted her hair and fretted. First, she had forgotten to put the meeting with Mars Mathias on Mr. Denman’s schedule causing him to have to wait an hour. Now, he was faxing his own documents. She had offered to fax the report for him. Twice. But he said he wanted to do it himself. He wanted to make sure it got there.

He cleared the memory of the fax machine when he was done.

He needed to get the original NooScan to a safe place, and the safest place he had was in the safe in the basement of Amanda’s church. On sacred ground and in a state of the art, biometric safe was as secure as Bruce could make anything. It would have to do.

He told Wendy that he was meeting Amanda for dinner. He didn’t want to be interrupted for any reason. It could all wait until tomorrow.

“Yes, Mr. Denman,” Wendy said.

Wendy was harmless. She had been arrested for shoplifting. The truth of the story was her boyfriend Kevin had slipped the pilfered cell phone into her purse, and she hadn’t noticed. He had prior convictions, and she was a good girl, never done a thing wrong, the courts would go easy on her, or so Kevin had convinced her when she was caught. She loved him, so she confessed to it. For him. When another company bought the company she worked for, she was let go. It was hard to find a job with the shoplifting on her record, and she struggled. Her car was repossessed. She ate ramen noodles every day, for every meal, so she could cover her rent with her unemployment check. Kevin ran out the same day her unemployment benefits did.

She was grateful to have this job. It was a good job. No, a great job. She was Bruce Denman’s personal assistant. She drove a brand new car and lived in an apartment that was twice as big and twice as nice as her old apartment. She’d had the satisfaction of slamming her twice as nice front door on Kevin’s face when he came back begging for forgiveness. She decided she was never going to be so gone over a man that she would allow herself to be compromised. Ever again.

Bruce knew she was immensely grateful, and he knew it not because she had told him. Wendy was a serious worker and immensely private. Bruce knew like he knew everything else about everyone else who worked for him. All employees of DenmanNoos underwent a DenmanNoos Pre-employment Personality Profile—just one of the many fine products DenmanNoos provided the corporate world. Know the men and women who run your company was the slogan of this very fine product.

It was important to pick the grateful ones. Gratitude breeds loyalty.

Plus Wendy was pretty, and that helped.

Pretty was almost as important as loyalty.

 

 

Bruce parked his car in the basement of the Antevorte building where it was air conditioned and monitored by security. The leather of the driver’s seat felt cool through his dress shirt, which was especially nice on this hot day. The windows of his low profile sports car were tinted dark, darker than the law permitted which was a necessity when it came to privacy and being Bruce Denman and nice on a day like today with the sun angry and bright, intent on searing its way into every space.

Bruce drove to Amanda’s. He knew Amanda wouldn’t be there when he arrived. She liked to keep herself busy. She had a real need to make herself not feel like a kept woman, which by all accounts, she was. She volunteered most days to be useful and of service to the community. Other days, she took classes to keep her mind sharp. The evenings that Bruce worked late, which was most evenings, she spent at the gym with her personal trainer.

Her personal trainer’s name was Justin. He was well-muscled and handsome, just the sort of impeccably, chiseled good-looking one might expect given the exorbitant fees he charged.

One training session, Justin didn’t wear a shirt. This bothered Larsen who was Amanda’s personal security, hired by Bruce. Larson reported all of Amanda’s comings and goings to Bruce—whom she talked to, what she did, even what she ate, which Bruce could care less about.

“She hardly ate at all today Just a salad,” Larsen would say. “Not healthy.”

“She’s a big girl,” Bruce would say.

Amanda felt compelled to stay thin and beautiful for Bruce. She didn’t feel like she had much else to offer. She sold herself short everyday, and living up to the type of woman she imagined a man like Bruce ought to be with was hard work, physically and mentally.

Bruce had had a lot of girlfriends before Amanda and since the death of his wife. Amanda felt the pressure. She loved him, but a man like Bruce could get bored easily, and she knew that he could have any woman that he wanted.

Bruce liked Amanda. He admired her goodness, her honesty, and her loyalty. He knew without a doubt that Amanda was true to him.

All those other girlfriends he had hooked up to Zora. All had failed for one reason or another. Most were using him for his money or his status. Some were on Toro’s payroll, sent to woo him and keep tabs on him, and some were weak willed and weak minded. They may love him now, but were ripe for Toro to step in and persuade them.

A few refused to be hooked up to Zora, which was their prerogative, of course. Bruce never tried to persuade. He made the initial request, and if they balked, he would have one of Paul’s men drive them home. Immediately. No matter how interested he was in them, no matter how attracted, they were gone. Bruce couldn’t afford to make a mistake when it came to this.

Amanda was different than all of them. She was pure and sweet, honest and devoted. When she said she loved him, she meant it. She truly did. She was beautiful too, and to Bruce, beauty was almost as important as devotion.

The day that Justin, Amanda’s trainer, took off his shirt. Larsen interrupted the session. He picked up Justin’s discarded t-shirt.

“Put it on,” he said.

“What?” said Justin.

“Put it on,” Larsen said and pushed the shirt he held in his big ham hand into the middle of Justin’s chest.

Justin took the shirt and put it on. He could tell from the look in Larsen’s eyes that it was either that or get punched in his chiseled jaw.

Amanda was mortified.

“You should see the way this Justin guy looks at her. If you know what I mean, sir,” Larsen complained to Bruce.

“Leave it be, Larsen.”

“But sir—”

Bruce looked away from his white board filled with equations.

“Leave it be, Larsen.”

Amanda was a good girl. Bruce knew she would never cheat on him, but still he checked out Justin. He could never be too cautious. He did it on his own though not through Larsen.

Larsen also reported to Paul.

Paul reported to Toro.

Toro checked out Justin too. Bruce knew because he saw the query in the database.

Toro knew that Bruce knew, because he saw Bruce’s query of his query.

The dance continued.

 

 

Half a mile from Amanda’s, a man darted out in front of Bruce’s car.

Bruce slammed on the brakes. The tires screamed and smoked, and the car came to a hard stop. The seat belt cut into Bruce’s chest as he was thrown forward and then backward into the seat.

Any other car, one not as responsive—with new tires and freshly serviced brakes—would not have been able to stop in time. The man would no doubt be dead, spread all over the street. Instead, Bruce’s car stopped just in time. The bumper pressed into the man’s shins. The man’s hands pushed against the hood reflexively as if he might be able to prevent the car from driving over him with sheer, brute strength. The realization that he wasn’t dead, hit the man hard. He leaned over at the waist. His arms shook violently. He gasped for air.

Bruce leaped out of the car and flew at the man.

“What the hell is wrong with you?”

“I’m sorry. I’m sorry, Mr. Denman,” the man said. He leaned on the car trying to catch his breath and regain his composure. “I need to talk to you, and they wouldn’t let me in to your office, and they’re watching your girlfriend’s place and your apartment. I didn’t know what else to do?” The man wore brown work jeans and a plaid button up shirt. Bruce could see the mottled skin of his scalp through his thinning gray hair.

Bruce’s heart was beating fast, and he strode back and forth, trying to calm himself. The old man still leaned over Bruce’s hood.

“Well, we can’t talk in the middle of the street,” Bruce said finally.

The old man stood up. He was sweating profusely and still shaking. He held his left arm with his right arm.

“Let me pull out of the street first. Then we’ll talk.”

The man nodded and shuffled to the side of the road. Bruce pulled his car off to the side of the road. He parked in front of a dusty, late model green pick-up truck. He assumed it was the old man’s truck.

Before getting out of the car again, Bruce put the envelope with Mars’ scan in the glove box and locked it.

“Alright,” he said as he strode over to the old man who was leaning against the tailgate of the dusty, green truck. “What’s so important that you need to run in front of my car and kill us both?”

Now that he had Bruce Denman’s undivided attention, the old man began to wonder if he was doing the right thing. Bruce faced him with his arms crossed. Waiting.

“Well,” the old man said, still sweating and breathing hard. He leaned even more heavily against the tailgate. He wavered. This was a bad idea, and his heart was hurting. He was having a hard time catching his breath.

“Now’s your chance, old man. Say what you’ve got to say.”

The old man squeezed his eyes closed. It had taken a lot of courage to get this far, drive cross country, find Bruce Denman, and get in front of him to say what he had to say. He mustered the last of his courage.

“I don’t want to go to hell,” he said. Tears filled his eyes. “I’ve come to ask you if you’ll forgive me.”

Bruce narrowed his eyes, “Forgive you for what?”

The old man’s heart spasmed, and he clutched at his chest.

“My name is Terrence Brown. I was the man driving the delivery truck that hit and killed your parents.”

He took a deep breath, and peeked out his eyes. Bruce’s face was expressionless.

“They said it was an accident?” Bruce said. “Should I forgive you for an accident? They said you fell asleep at the wheel. Too many hours on the road.”

“That’s the thing, it wasn’t an accident,” Terrence Brown said. “Right before the accident, I was at a truck stop, and this man came up to me. He said he would pay me money, a huge sum of money, if I would just do one thing for him. Once I passed mile marker twenty-three, all I had to do was take my hands off the wheel and close my eyes. We were in debt, you see. Gambling. Alcohol. I was in a bad place. The worst place. My wife was going to leave me. I was in real bad shape. The man said that’s all I had to do. Just close my eyes, take my hands of the wheel, and let fate do the rest. He said I wouldn’t die. I’m ashamed to admit I asked him if I would, but he said I wouldn’t.” The old man gasped and clutched his heart. He squeezed his eyes shut. “I think I’m having a heart attack,” he said.

Terrence Brown opened his eyes again.

Bruce still stood, unmoving, stony faced. He regarded the old man coolly.

Terence Brown continued, “I think you should know the man at the truck stop was your partner, Lucius Toro. He’s the one who paid me.”

Bruce said nothing.

The old man moaned and slumped, sliding down the tailgate, landing hard on his ass in the dirt.

“I’m having a heart attack,” he said plainly “I don’t want to die. I don’t want to go to hell.”

“Too bad,” Bruce said. “That’s what happens when you make deals with the devil.”

“No,” the old man whispered. “No. I was dumb. It was wrong. I was a kid. I was just a kid. A dumb kid.” He fumbled with his right hand and pulled a cell phone out of his front shirt pocket. He brought it close to his face and tried to make sense of it, but he was having a hard time making sense of anything.

“Will you call an ambulance for me?” he said. It took everything he had to get the words out. “I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry for what I did to you.”

Bruce reached for Terrence Brown’s cell phone. Terrence handed it to him.

Bruce took a handkerchief out of his pocket and slowly, carefully wiped Terrence Brown’s cell phone.

Terrence watched him. He licked his lips, “You’re not going to call are you? That’s okay,” he said. “I understand. You don’t have to call. I understand.”

Bruce was silent. He held the cell phone by its corner with the handkerchief.

“Just forgive me. That’s all that I need. Just forgive me. You don’t have to call.”

“I hate to break it to you, but my forgiveness won’t keep you from hell.”

“I straightened my life up. I lived the rest of it right. I was a good husband, a good father. I did the best I could.”

Terrence fell over sideways from his seated position. He lay on his side on the ground. Bruce watched him struggle to breathe. He watched his face turn gray. He waited until Terrence Brown stopped breathing entirely, then he placed the phone back in Terrence’s outstretched hand and drove away.

 

 

Bruce pulled a U-turn and headed back to DenmanNoos. His blood boiled, and the anger that consumed him felt like fire. He and Lucius Toro were going to have words. Or worse.

His poor mother.

His poor father.

His parents were hard working, middle class folks. They were common, and lucky enough or unlucky enough, depending on your point of view, that their union produced an uncommon son.

They loved their son. Everything they did was for him. His father wanted nothing more than for Bruce to have a normal childhood. He thought the education could come in its own time, but t-ball and playing with friends and having crushes on girls, those things couldn’t. Those things were part of being a child, and Bruce deserved to be a child as much as any other kid.

Bruce’s mother and father butted heads with regard to his education a lot. When it came time to think about sending Bruce to college at such a tender young age, Bruce’s dad put his foot down.

Bruce had time. He had time for all of that, he would say to Bruce’s mother. Let him be a kid.

Normal childhood was winning out.

Then they died.

Normal childhood lost.

It never occurred to Bruce that Toro had been involved in his parents’ deaths. Not even once. He was twelve years old for Christ’s sake.

Bruce’s mind spun.

What else was Toro involved in?

Bruce’s eyes were open in a whole new way.

Toro had some explaining to do.

Chapter 55

 

Bruce squealed into the basement parking of the Antevorte building. The car tires screeched on the polished concrete floor. He pulled haphazardly into his parking spot and didn’t bother to back out and angle in correctly.

He ran to the elevator. He pressed the UP button. It lit up orange. He pressed it ten more times for good measure.

The elevator arrived and the doors opened swiftly. A smooth electronic female voice said, “Going up.”

Bruce stepped in jabbed the number two. He shifted from foot to foot as the elevator rose to the second floor. The second floor was a near exact copy of the first floor except for the lobby. A second floor balcony overlooked the glass lobby on the first floor.

The elevator door opened and Bruce was out. He knocked into Fred from accounting, nearly knocking him down.

“Sorry, Mr. Denman,” Fred said although he hadn’t done anything to initiate the contact.

“My fault, Reggie,” Bruce said over his shoulder before taking off into a dead sprint. He ran down the long hallway. Toro’s office was directly over Bruce’s just one floor higher.

The glass floor was polished and not suited for running in dress shoes. Bruce slipped and slowed to steady himself. He looked down for a moment as he was regaining his footing, and when he looked up he saw that Toro’s office door was open.

He could hear voices coming from inside, Toro’s and someone else’s. The other voice was male, and it sounded familiar. Bruce felt a tingle on the back of his neck, and he got the immediate sense that this was a conversation that he wasn’t meant to hear.

He slowed to a complete stop and pressed his back up against the wall outside Toro’s office. He crept closer until he could make out what was being said.

“It’s done,” said the voice that sounded familiar but Bruce couldn’t quite place.

“You are certain of this?” Toro said.

“I put my best man on it.”

“Your best man? I put my best man on it. That man being you. When I ask you to do something, I expect you to do it yourself. Are you forgetting how this works?”

“No, sir, my apologies.” the other man said. “It won’t happen again.”

“See that it doesn’t,” Toro said. “And another thing, you shouldn’t be here.”

“Paul said that Denman was gone for the day. He’s having dinner with his girlfriend and doesn’t want to be interrupted.”

“Regardless,” Toro said. “I prefer to keep things uncomplicated.”

“How’s that working for you?”

“Don’t be insolent. It won’t be tolerated.”

“Yes, sir.”

A pause.

“Anything else?” Toro asked.

The man hesitated, “No, sir,” he said finally.

“I’ll pay you for the job when you’ve provided me with the proof that it is completed. I want it by the book this time. The head should be sufficient.”

“You’ve never required proof before.”

“Today, I do. You’re irritating me. Just think of it as a corrective measure, a reminder, to hold your tongue and to remember who it is your dealing with.”

“Yes, sir,” said the man. “May I be dismissed?”

“You may. Close the door.”

There was nowhere for Bruce to hide, and running off down the hallway wouldn’t do. He was pressed up against the wall outside Toro’s office like a common sneak, and that wouldn’t do either. He stepped into the middle of the hallway like he owned the place, which he did, and waited for the man with the familiar voice to exit Toro’s office. He put one hand in his pocket adopting a posture of complete nonchalance.

It was Adam Beaumont who wasn’t paying attention. He closed Toro’s door behind him and walked straight into Bruce.

Although the voice was familiar, never in a million years did Bruce expect to see Adam Beaumont walk out of Toro’s office.

Bruce froze. Dumbstruck.

Adam realizing that he had just collided with Bruce, looked into Bruce’s completely surprised face.

“Shit!” Adam cursed under his breath.

Adam looked over his shoulder. Thankful that he’d closed Toro’s door and that Toro hadn’t seen or heard.

“Sorry, man,” Adam said. He patted Bruce’s shoulder, the shoulder he had collided with, before taking off in a mad dash, making a break for it down the hallway, leaving behind a completely frozen, utterly in shock Bruce.

Bruce looked at Toro’s closed door and then down the hall at the fleeing Adam. His business with Toro would have to wait. He took off in pursuit of the rat bastard, Adam-fucking-Beaumont.

Adam ran as fast as he could, but Bruce was faster and he gained with each stride, closing the distance. They flew past the bank of elevators, weaving in and out of startled DenmanNoos employees, past the overlook to the lobby. Both ran in silence neither wanting to call attention himself and thereby alert Toro or Paul and his security guard minions.

Adam was nearly to the stairwell at the far side of the hallway when Bruce tackled him from behind. They both slid hard into the stairwell door. Bruce, on top, managed to regain his footing first, and he yanked Adam from the floor and slammed him into the door. Hard. Unsatisfied with how hard Adam’s head hit the door behind him, Bruce grabbed Adam’s beautiful face and slammed his head into the metal door again for good measure. Harder. And again. Harder still.

“Are you one of them?” Bruce demanded.

Adam’s bell was rung, and he blinked his eyes. He saw two Bruces and no matter how many times he blinked the two didn’t merge to one.

“Do you mean am I a demon?”

“You’re one of them aren’t you?”

“A demon? No,” said Adam.

“What do they have on you? How do they control you?”

“You mean am I a soulless drone like you? No. Hate to disappoint. I just work for them, I have my soul,” Adam put his hand behind his head. “Jealous?” He pulled his hand away. His blood covered his hand like a glove. “Shit, I think you broke my head. You should be jealous because that makes two things I have that you don’t. My soul and the memory of what Sarah’s last words were. Do you remember Sarah? I do.”

“You son of a bitch.”

“I could tell you what she said. Do you want to know? Do you want me to tell you?” Adam smirked his handsome face. His voice slurred.

“No,” Bruce said through gritted teeth. “I don’t want to hear a word she said come out of your mouth. What I want is to choke the life out of you. Right here.”

“You won’t kill me,” Adam chided.

“You work for them? For Toro?” Bruce demanded.

“Family business. We specialize in dirty work, wet work, all kinds of work,” Adam tried to shrug, but he was only able to shrug one shoulder. The other wouldn’t shrug. “Since Uncle Tyler met his unfortunate end, gunned down in his apartment with our dear, lovely Sarah, I’ve been running things around here. Y’know what I miss most about Sarah? The way she smelled. What do you miss?”

“Stop talking about Sarah! What’d you do for him? Just now. Why are you here? What’s the job?”

“Wouldn’t you like to know.”

“Answer me.”

“You’re supposed to be fucking brilliant. What do you think?”

“I think I’m going to end you.” Bruce pressed his forearm against Adam’s neck.

“You wouldn’t do that. The great Bruce Denman?”

“I’m not great, and there’s nothing that would give me more pleasure than to squeeze the life out of your eyes.”

“They won’t let you kill me,” Adam said. He believed it.

Bruce laughed, “Want to bet? Do you want to play the game of who’s more important to them? You or me? I’m willing to play, are you?”

Fear filled Adam’s eyes for the first time. He looked down the hallway.

“There are people around. Someone will see you,” his voice was hoarse.

Bruce slowly began to increase the pressure on Adam’s neck. “So?” he said. “You don’t think they’d have your mess cleaned up before your body hit the floor. Naiveté doesn’t suit you, Beaumont.”

Adam grimaced. Bruce pressed still harder.

“There’ll be someone who sees. Those people by the elevator. Witnesses. They’ll clean them too. Do you want that?”

“Now, you’re gambling on my humanity. How much do you think I have left? Some? Any? Part of me thinks the satisfaction of killing you would be worth any and all collateral damage.”

“If you kill me, you won’t know the truth.”

“What truth?”

“The truth about Sarah. What they don’t want you to know,” his voice was a hoarse whisper.

Bruce paused. “Tell me.”

“No, you have to let me go first.”

“What is my assurance that you’ll tell me?”

“No assurances,” Adam said, “Men like me don’t give any, but you have to decide if it’s worth it to you. You let me go, I’ll call you when I’m safely out of choking distance, and tell you everything that happened and why it happened. Poor Sarah. You want to know. Trust me.”

Bruce released Adam. Adam slid to the floor.

Bruce squeezed and released his hands.

“You call me. You have until midnight tonight,” Bruce said. “Or I will track you down and finish what I started. I will spend the next six hours, or until you call, thinking of the most horrendous, painful things I can do to you.”

“Upon my dishonor,” Adam rubbed his throat, and smiled his beautiful smile up at Bruce.

Blood streamed in a river down the back of Adam’s neck. The collar and yoke of Adam’s shirt were soaked bright red and spreading. Head wounds tended to be bloody, and Adam’s especially so, but no amount of blood would be enough to give Bruce even the tiniest bit of satisfaction. Not unless it was all of it.

 

 

Bruce pushed through the stairwell door, leaving Adam sitting against the wall in the hallway. He ran down the three flights to the basement parking level, taking the stairs two at a time.

When he got to the basement, he saw that the passenger door on his car was wide open. He slowed down and walked around the car. The glove box that he had locked was open as well, and the manila envelope with Mars’ TruthScan was gone.

The open car door, the open glove box, all of it, it was a message.

Toro knew everything. Toro wanted Bruce to know that he knew everything. He would have closed the glove box and the door otherwise.

Bruce was a fool to think he was surreptitious enough to deceive him.

He looked up at the security camera, the one that was trained on his parking spot. He kept his face calm and neutral. Inside though, he was screaming. His guts twisted with anger.

That son of a bitch!

His parents killed.

Dr. Harvey killed.

And Sarah?

Even without Adam’s confirmation, he knew that Toro was behind her death.

Sarah.

Sarah.

Sarah.

These people had done nothing to deserve what happened to them, nothing but love him and care for him.

Bruce unrolled his shirtsleeves and buttoned the cuffs.

He re-tucked his shirt that had come untucked during his pursuit and scuffle with Adam.

He reached in to the car, closed the glove box, and then closed the passenger door.

He walked calmly and slowly around the back of the car and got in the driver’s side.

He backed up smoothly and drove slowly out of the basement into the sunlight.

He drove calmly.

Work the plan. Work the plan. He told himself over and over again. It was his mantra. He wasn’t going to be under their thumb forever, at least not in this life, not while he had a life to live.

Work the plan.

It came as no surprise to Bruce when midnight came and went without a call from Adam Beaumont.

Chapter 56

 

Mars Mathias freelance journalist was found missing from his hotel room in Portland, OR yesterday. Anyone who knows of his whereabouts should call 911.

The self-ascribed Martians, followers of Mars Mathias’ news blog, The Mathias Manifesto, have posted a $25,000 reward for any information leading to the whereabouts of Mr. Mathias.

Chapter 57

 

“Aside from cutting her open, what do you think? Is there anything that can be done to help her?” Akio said.

“Well,” Bruce said. “First of all, we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Maybe, it’s not what we think it is. After all, usually the simplest answer is the correct answer. Don’t go looking for zebras. Maybe it is just a sleep disorder or maybe it is a mental health disorder. ”

“It’s not,” Akio said. He crossed his arms and shook his head. “It’s not either of those.”

“This should be approached scientifically.”

“As you say,” Akio said inclining his head.

I sat on the chair looking from one to the other. They talked about me like I wasn’t in the room.

“Let’s do a dream study. I have a portable machine in the basement that can monitor her brain waves and function while in a dreaming state.”

Bruce stood up.

“Shall we follow?” Akio asked.

“No,” Bruce said and sort of chuckled to himself. “The basement is my domain. I’m afraid it’s not up to having visitors.”

I fidgeted and chewed my fingernails.

“He was only joking about cutting into my head, right?”

“Did you find it funny?” Akio asked.

“No.”

“Then it probably wasn’t a joke.”

“That’s not very comforting,” I said.

“I’m sorry,” Akio said, “Then it probably wasn’t a joke, my dear Abbygale,” he amended.

 

 

When Bruce Denman, returned from the basement, he carried a large black suitcase. He told me to lie down on the leather couch, which I did. He opened the suitcase on the floor next to the couch. It contained a machine, the dream-monitoring machine, I assumed.

He pulled out wires and attached nodes to my forehead and my temples.

He took his laptop from the long table and attached the machine to it.

“Alright, begin to slow your breathing,” he said. “Relax.”

As tired as I was and even though there was nothing I wanted to do more than to sleep, I couldn’t fall asleep.

I looked at the back of my eyelids for a long time. No one spoke. Not Bruce Denman. Not Akio. I wanted nothing more than to open my eyes and see what they were doing, but I didn’t. After a while of just listening to everyone breathe and to the machine quietly whir, and not feeling remotely like I might fall asleep, I began counting backwards from one hundred in the hope it might bore me to sleep. It must have worked. One moment I was saying thirty-three in my head, or was it thirty-two, and the next moment I found myself in a cold dark room.

The room was big and hollow like an empty warehouse. Every step I took echoed, and it was cold. If I could see anything, I’m sure I would have been able to see my breath, but all I saw was pitch-black darkness.

From somewhere in front of me, I could hear something. It sounded like an animal in distress.

Very slowly with my arms out, I made my way to the sound. The closer I got, the more human it sounded, and I could make out someone crying. I continued moving toward the sound. In the darkness, I managed to run my head straight into something that felt like cement.

I reeled backwards and clutched my forehead. I blinked away stars. I put my hands out and up to feel what I just smashed my brains into, and it felt like the ceiling sloped downward. I followed it with my hands and began moving forward again, this time at a slower pace. The ceiling continued to descend until I was crouch walking, no more echo anymore.

I began to feel claustrophobic.

The crying grew louder and louder. I continued on despite every nerve in my body pulsing with electricity and the very real desire deep in my guts to turn around.

After a little while on my hands and knees, just when I thought the sloping ceiling was going to pinch me out of existence, the ceiling began to ascend.

The crying stopped, but I could hear someone breathing.

“Who’s there?” a voice called out. “Who’s there?”

I froze.

“God damn it,” the voice said. “Answer me. I can hear you. I know you’re there.”

“Who are you?” I said. I tried to make my voice smooth and confident not shaking and terrified. I was unsuccessful.

“Is that you, Abby?”

“Yes,” I said barely audible. My heart raced. I moved a little closer. I began to make out a man lying on a stainless steel table. He was covered up to his chest with a white sheet. I moved closer and soon I was able to make out his features. “Ben?”

“Yeah, it’s me,” he said. “Something is wrong with me.”

I laid my hand on his arm. It was ice cold.

“I think something happened to me,” he said.

The fear in my belly eased, and the darkness gave way a little bit. I could see Ben much clearer than I could just a moment before.

He looked at me, searching my eyes. His beautiful blue eyes were so familiar to me, as familiar or more familiar than my own. I had swam in those eyes and drowned.

“I was coming to see you. That’s the last thing I remember.”

“You were in a motorcycle accident,” I said. “Somewhere outside Salem.”

He took a deep breath, slow and shaky.

“Oh,” he said.

He looked away and then around at his surroundings.

“Where am I?” he said. “Am I dead?”

“No,” I said. “You’re in a hospital in Salem, Oregon. You’re in a coma.”

I let him digest that for a moment. I rubbed his arm reassuringly. The stainless steel table became a hospital bed and a few machines became visible around him. I could make out an IV and a line running to his wrist. Other wires from other machines were also attached to his arm and chest.

“I don’t feel right,” he said.

“The accident probably,” I said.

“No,” he said. “It’s something other than the accident. Something’s not right, Abby. And where is this place?” he said.

“I’m dreaming, I think.” I said.

“I hear voices,” he said. “Can you hear them?”

I listened hard and struggled to hear what he was hearing, but I heard nothing. I shook my head no.

“I don’t hear anything,” I said.

“I think it’s the nurses,” he said. “They’re saying something about me, but I can’t quite make it out. You don’t hear them?”

“No,” I said.

“I heard Bonnie earlier. She was talking to me,” he said. “Is she there at the hospital? With me?”

“Yes,” I said. “I saw her yesterday.”

“Is she okay?” he said.

“She’s very worried about you.”

“You went to the hospital to see me, Abby?” He said, his eyes shone a little, and he smiled just a bit. He reached his opposite arm across his body, and he placed it on top of my hand, which was still on his arm. “You came to see me?”

“Of course,” I said. “Of course I went to see you.”

“I didn’t hear you,” he said.

“I was there most of the morning until Bonnie showed up. Then I left.”

“Thank you,” he said, and to my surprise he lifted my hand and placed it palm-side to his cheek. “It means so much to me. You will never know.” His voice broke, and he swallowed hard. “I’m having a hard time breathing.”

“Oh, Ben,” I said.

“I don’t want to die,” he said, and he closed his eyes. “But at least if I die now, I will know that you came to see me. I can die knowing that.”

“You’re not going to die,” I said. The thought of him dying was heart rending. A lump formed in my throat, and I tried to swallow it away. “Why were you coming up to see me?”

“Oh—” he still held my hand. He squeezed it tighter and moved it to a more comfortable position on his chest. “Damn. How could I forget about that? There is something going on with us. I don’t know what it is. I don’t know. I started having these really weird dreams—or episodes—I don’t know. I was this man. Another man. Not me. You were there, but you were a girl, a teenage girl. I don’t know. I felt like I had to get to you. I can’t explain it.”

“You don’t have to explain it,” I said.

“Oh, God!” Ben screamed. He arched his back and clutched the side rails of the bed. “It hurts so bad!”

His eyes were closed tight and tears streamed down his face. His body tensed, rigid with pain. He rolled to his side and curled into the fetal position. His breath came hard and heavy. He began to sweat profusely.

“Ben?”

His back was to me. I put my hand on his shoulder.

“Ben?”

He didn’t answer. He lay tense and tightly curled. Then he sighed, and his body went slack. He rolled onto his back with the release of the tension. His eyes were closed, and for one horrible, terrible moment I thought he was dead.

The hospital room, machines and beds disappeared, and Ben was once again lying on a stainless steel table. The dark pressed in on us until it was pitch black.

I laid my head to his cold chest to see if he was breathing, but I couldn’t tell.

“Ben!” I yelled. “Ben!”

“Ben!”

“Ben!”

I shook him softly at first and then garnering no response, I shook him harder and harder.

“Please, please, please, Ben, Ben, Ben.”

My heart was beating so hard I thought it would burst.

What do I do? Holy word, what do I do?

Like I had seen in any number of any stupid TV shows about emergency rooms, I clasped my hands together, and with all the force I could muster, I pounded down on his chest. His body bounced and jiggled like Jell-O on the table. I raised my hands above my head for one more pound, and as I was bringing my hands down as hard and fast as I could, his body arched, and he screamed. My hands came in contact with his chest, and energy unlike I have ever felt coursed through my body throwing me backwards into the darkness. It was like he was electric, and I was electrified.

I landed on my back and smacked the back of my head on the ground. I scrambled to my knees and then to my feet and ran back to Ben, stumbling and skidding the whole way.

Figures stood around him, half-formed apparitions, blinking in and out of being. A man wearing scrubs held the paddles of a defibrillator in his hands. Another figure stood at Ben’s head and still another figure stood next to the man with the paddles.

“Clear,” the man with the paddles said. His voice sounded small and far away.

He placed the paddles on either side of Ben’s chest.

Ben screamed and arched his back again.

The three figures wavered and disappeared.

Ben and I were alone again.

I hesitated, just for a moment before walking over to look down at him. I was afraid of what I might see.

His eyes were open. He blinked and stared off into the middle distance.

“Ben?”

He turned his head and looked at me. I could see that he was trying to focus on my face, but was having a hard time.

When people talk about being flooded with relief, I never knew what they meant until just that moment. Yes, I had been relieved before, but this—this filled me from my toes all the way up with icy, cold, painless, boundless, steady calm.

“Thank God,” I said.

I crawled onto the table and wrapped my arms around him and cried and cried. He was so cold and still, but I could feel him breathing against me.

“Abby, is that you?” he said.

I cried harder.

“Where am I?”

“You’re in the hospital.” I said.

“Something’s wrong.” he said.

“Yes,” I said. “Something is wrong.”

 

 

“Wake her up.” I could hear Akio say from far off in the distance. His voice echoed and bounced as if it was coming toward me through a long, empty hallway.

“Wake her up!” Akio said again. He demanded.

Another voice, Bruce Denman’s, “I can’t. I can’t wake her.”

“Did you give her something?” Akio said.

“Something?”

“Drugs? Sleep inducing something? What did you give her, Denman?”

“Nothing,” Bruce said. “Calm down.”

I heard Akio’s voice coming to me. It no longer sounded far away, it sounded right next to me. Right over my shoulder. It gave me a chill down my spine and the hairs on the back of my neck stood up.

“Abby. Do you hear me?’ Akio’s voice said from over my shoulder trickling into my ear like water. It tickled.

I looked over my shoulder. I was still curled around Ben like a question mark. He was sleeping again, his chest moved up and down slowly and rhythmically.

“Take hold of my words, and follow them out,” Akio said.

I tried to do what he said. I got up from the metal table. I pulled the white sheet up and smoothed it across Ben’s chest before I moved toward his voice.

Akio’s words pelted me like soft, steady breadcrumbs. I followed. His voice was calm and measured and each word made me feel the same. Smooth and quiet, and as I got closer to where I assumed he was, his words got louder. I felt safe. Safer than I had felt in many, many days.

“Can you go in there?” I heard Bruce Denman ask.

“I can if I have to, but it would be dangerous,” Akio said. “For all of us. She is far. Maybe farther than I can get.”

I continued moving toward his voice and toward the warmth. It wasn’t until this point that I realized how cold I was. I was so cold, painfully cold. My fingers burned. My toes and the tip of my nose too, as if they were frost bitten.

“Abby,” Akio’s voice rang out. “Open your eyes.”

I did as he asked, and it was no easy task. I tried several times to open my eyes and failed, and it wasn’t until the fifth or sixth attempt that I was able to engage my eye opening muscles and get them to open. Once open, I blinked against the brightness of the light.

Akio knelt by the leather couch. One of his large hands holding both of my hands at my waist and the other hand rested heavily on my forehead.

“You made it,” he said. “Good girl. I almost had to go in after you.”

I blinked again and tried to say something, but nothing came out.

Bruce Denman stood over Akio’s shoulder. He had a gleam in his eyes, and although he wasn’t smiling, I got the sense that he was smiling underneath his carefully arranged expressionless face. His hands shook almost imperceptibly. With anticipation? Excitement? Fear? He saw me looking at them and shoved them in the pockets of his charcoal gray dress pants.

Akio looked me up and down. He peered into my eyes before giving me a reassuring fist bump to the shoulder.

He smiled, “I’m relieved that you look at least as well as you did when you went to sleep. Looks like you escaped this one damage free.” He lightly tapped my cast arm. “How do you feel?’

“I feel like crap,” I said. “What happened?”

I looked at Bruce. He said nothing. I looked back at Akio, he was also looking at Bruce. His eyebrows raised, waiting for Bruce’s assessment.

Bruce still said nothing. He took a hand out of his pocket and rubbed his chin.

I struggled to sit up. My body felt really tired and heavy, but it was just too weird lying flat on my back trying to have any sort of conversation much less a serious one with these two men.

At last Bruce spoke, “When you first fell asleep, your brain activity appeared completely normal and as expected, but once you began sleeping heavily, we were able to detect two separate activity patterns which is unusual. As in, I’ve never seen anything like it before.”

“Alright,” I said slowly. “What does that mean?”

“It is too early to say just what it might mean. You’re body did not respond as it should in a normal dream state. The brain typically switches off the parts of the brain that cause your body to move, effectively paralyzing you. In your dream you may walk, but in reality you are not walking, you’re laying on a bed sleeping.

Your brain was not completely suppressing movement, you were moving quite a bit, and that’s not unusual in and of itself, there are people who suffer from a disorder known as somnambulism, where they perform tasks like walking or sitting up or moving about. This was different though. At one point, you were literally thrown off the couch violently, in a manner and with a forcefulness that you couldn’t do to yourself. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that you were possessed. Are you certain she’s not possessed, Akio?”

“She’s not possessed,” said Akio. “Not by a demon, at least. During my initial evaluation, I found a man, a human man, named Ben in there, wholly conscious and completely separate from Abbygale’s consciousness.”

Denman nodded, “The next step is for us to take an image of your brain. I need a better look then I can manage with any of the equipment that I have at my disposal here. We’ll map your brain, and see if we can’t figure out for certain what is going on in your lovely, little head. The equipment is at DenmanNoos,” he leveled his gaze at Akio. Something significant passed between them. Akio nodded slowly knowing there was no way around it.

“Excuse me, while I make arrangements,” Denman said.

 

 

“He’s intense,” I said to Akio. Who was still, by the way, half-sitting on the couch.

“Yes,” Akio said. “Bruce is troubled, and he’s not to be completely trusted.”

“Oh—” I said. Shocked. “Why did you bring me here then if we can’t trust him?”

Akio shook his head. “I wouldn’t have if I didn’t think he wasn’t the only one who might help you.”

I looked down at my hands.

“Cheer up,” he said, “All hope is not lost, not for him and not for you.”

Something in his voice took me aback. It hadn’t entered my mind until that moment that my situation might be hopeless. I cocked my head, “You think what’s going on with me is hopeless?”

“No, you didn’t hear me well. What I said is that there IS hope, and it would be best for you to hold on to it.”

“Do you think I’m going to die?”

“Someday,” he said. “Let’s not let it be today.”

He stood up and stretched, and then looked back down to me sitting on the couch.

“Don’t think about death,” he said softly. “When you think about Death, Death thinks about you, and you don’t want her thinking about you. Instead, think about living.” He pressed his thumb to the center of my forehead. His touch carried a shock like static electricity. “Don’t fall asleep again until we have it figured out,” A kind, sympathetic tone carried his words, one that hadn’t been there before.

This was just as serious as my gut was telling me.

“Just to be on the safe side,” he added and flashed me what I could only presume was his most winsome smile.

Bruce came back in the room sliding his cell phone into his pocket.

“Ready? I’ve made the preparations. My best fMRI tech is expecting us.”

“And Toro?” Akio asked.

“Gone for the day to his home or to his cave to hang by his feet. Whatever.”

We filed out of the little church to Bruce’s fancy sports car. It had no back seat, or at least not much of one, and that was where I knew I would be sitting. Somehow, in the course of us getting in the car, it happened that Bruce and I stood together alone.

“You should take these,” he said handing me an amber pill bottle halfway filled with large white tablets.

“What are these?” I eyed them suspiciously.

“Modafinil. They’ll keep you awake hopefully. Believe me, no one knows better than I how not to fall asleep.”

“Thank you,” I said and tucked them in my pocket. I had no idea what modafinil was. Was this something that Akio told me to be on guard for?

I squeezed into the back seat, perching half of my butt on the sad excuse for a bench seat. Bruce held the driver seat forward so I could get in easier. Bruce climbed into the driver side after I was perched. The car roared to life, deep and throaty. I could see how some women thought a car like this was sexy on a guy.

Bruce Denman looked into the rear view mirror and smiled at me. His eyes crinkled at the corners.

“You don’t look well, Abby,” he said to me.

I shook my head.

“I haven’t felt well in days,” I said. “I feel like I am holding on to the side of a cliff and that at any moment I might lose my grip.”

He turned his eyes back to the road in front of us, “I can empathize with that feeling. How’s your arm?” He was making small talk. Chit chat. I got the impression he was a master of small talk.

My arm hurt a lot.

“It’s okay,” I sighed.

“So, tell me what do you do?”

“I’m a photographer.” I said. I surprised myself at how firmly I stated that. Usually, I said something about working at Porkchops and pursuing photography on the side, something mild and unassuming. I decided I was done with mild and unassuming. Especially if today was the day I was going to die. I was going to die a photographer.

Stop! Stop, thinking about dying.

He nodded, “That’s great.”

You’ll never make money at it, I heard my mother say in the back of my head. Photography is a hobby not a career.

“I love it,” I said.

“What do you take pictures of?” he continued.

“People mostly,” I said. “And light. I’m fascinated by how light and shadow can play tricks on the mind.”

I was tired.

I yawned and blinked my sandpaper eyes several times. I was so tired. My eyes felt heavy and they began to close.

“Abby! No!” Akio reached over from the front passenger seat and shook my knee, which wasn’t much of a reach since my knee was practically in his lap. My eyes flew open.

“Don’t fall asleep,” he said.

“Right,” I said.

“We are almost there,” Bruce said.

Akio left his hand on my knee, and jerked my leg again when I blinked my eyes. Granted, I blinked them pretty slowly, but—

“I’m not sleeping,” I snapped. The lack of sleeping was leaving me pretty pissy.

“Keep it that way,” he said.

“Fine,” I snarled. I rubbed my eyes hard with one hand and pinched the bridge of my nose and then the tops of my thighs as hard as I could. I was so tired that I could barely feel the pinches, so instead I pinched my cheeks. They were raw from my face first swan dive into the gravel earlier that day, but at least I could feel those pinches.

“We’re here,” Bruce said. He parked the car in the outside parking lot of a building that looked like a traditional office building. It sat adjacent to the Antevorte building; the large glass dome building that I had seen featured in magazine articles and television shows. Bruce was often photographed leaving the building or with the building as backdrop. There were at least twenty closer parking spaces. He parked in the shadow of a cluster of trees.

Akio came around the car and held out his hand to help me out.

“I got it,” I said.

When I was out of the car, he took my arm. I tried to take it back, but he held it tighter, not tight enough to hurt, but he wasn’t going to let go of my arm. I was a tall girl, but next to Akio, I felt small.

“I guess chivalry isn’t dead,” I said.

“And neither are you. Yet.”

 

 

We followed Bruce across the parking lot. Instead of walking through the front door, he walked around to a side door. He swiped a card key. I saw it before he put it back into his pocket. The card key had a picture and a name on it and not Bruce Denman’s picture or name.

“We haven’t transitioned this building to biometrics yet. I don’t know what I’ll do then. Could get a lot more complicated.”

Akio nodded, but didn’t meet Bruce Denman’s eyes. He was busy keeping an eye out behind us.

Why did it feel like we were breaking into this place? This was DenmanNoos. Bruce Denman ran this place. Surely, he could go anywhere he wanted, using his own name and key card.

Once we were in, like little lemmings, Akio and I followed Bruce down a long hallway to a room with a plaque on the outside that read fMRI Testing in Progress. Bruce led us into the room. Everything was bright, stark white, and clinical looking. A tech was busy setting up the fMRI equipment.

The tech looked up and rushed over.

“Dr. D, almost ready,” he said. He looked at me and then back to Bruce Denman. “Is she the one getting scanned?”

“She is,” Bruce said.

“Do you have any pins or metal in your arm?” The tech asked me motioning to my broken arm.

“No,” I said.

“Any piercings?” He waggled his eyebrows.

“No.”

“My name is Shiloh.” He said.

“Hi, Shiloh. I’m Abby.”

Bruce floated around the room looking at this thing and that thing before making his way into the technician’s room. Akio stood next to me, still.

“Alright, Abby. We’re going to get a look at your brain tonight. Dr. D seems pretty excited to see what goes on up there.” He handed me two hospital gowns. “One for the front and one for the back,” he explained. “Take everything off. Especially anything that has metal in it which would include your bra.”

“Got it,” I said.

I went to change in the private dressing room in the hall right next door. Akio looked like he wanted to come with me, but instead he chose to go into the tech room with Bruce.

Once I was dressed, I followed Shiloh into the MRI chamber.

“Lay here,” he said. “It’s really important that you don’t move.”

“Don’t move. Got it.” I said.

He placed a plastic collar down on my neck.

He moved a pillow to support my broken arm under the elbow as I rested it across my chest. He brushed the hair back from my face when he put the headphones on. He told me the headphones were to provide a sound barrier against the banging of the magnets moving from position to position, and also a way for me to communicate with him in the control room. His hands were soft.

“Comfortable?” he asked.

“Yes. Thank you.”

“This should not take very long,” he said. “Again the important thing is to not move.”

“Got it.”

“Now let’s see what so important in that melon of yours that Dr. D pulled me out of bed so he could take a look.”

“Sorry,” I said.

“Don’t be,” Shiloh said. “I live for this shit.”

Shiloh stepped away. The MRI machine was equipped with a rear view mirror, and I could see him in it. He smiled and gave me a thumbs up.

“It’s no big deal,” he said loudly so I could hear him through the headphones. “I go in there when I need a nap.”

I laughed. A little. He was nice. He deserved a laugh, and I was feeling a little slap happy from lack of sleep. Well, swinging between slap happy and pissy anyway

The fMRI began. The machine clunked as the magnets moved from position to position. The noise was much louder than I expected it to be.

I was tired. I was unreal tired. I had almost reached the point when you’re so tired, you don’t give a damn anymore.

Maybe I should have taken the pills that Bruce gave me. I could understand why sleep deprivation was a torture tactic. This was ridiculous. I tried to let my mind wander but it wandered right into stuff I didn’t want to think about. I was never one to stick my head in the ground and run—or wait, maybe I was.

Maybe that is what I had been doing my whole life, sticking my head in the ground and running.

Wait, how could you stick your head into the ground and run? That didn’t make any sense. Talk about a mixed metaphor.

I started to laugh. A giggle bubbled up from my belly like the water pushing to the surface from an underground stream. The giggle became a full on belly laugh. My head was strapped in so well, I felt like I was being choked, and that made me laugh hard. I couldn’t stop.

Shiloh’s voice came over the speaker that was in my headphones.

“Please remain still for the scan, Abby.”

I laughed even harder.

I was loosing my fucking mind and this was some funny not-funny shit.

“Please, Abby,” his voice clicked in again. “I’m going to have to discontinue the scan if you don’t stop laughing. Hold still.”

I tried. I tried. I held my breath a little bit, and slowly I began to calm down. Breathe in. Breathe out. I concentrated on my breathing, and without thinking about it, and before I could stop myself, I fell asleep.

 

 

Back in the dark place.

“Abby?” Ben called. “Abby?”

I opened my eyes and the darkness receded. I was sitting with my back against a cement wall, and Ben was sitting next to me.

“Wow, you look good.” I said.

“I feel pretty good,” he said. He smiled. Ben had a nice smile.

“You look beautiful,” he said

I looked down at myself. No arm in a cast, in fact, the skin on my arms and legs was practically glowing. I shone like the moon. I wore a yellow sundress.

Ben grabbed my hand and pulled me closer to him, and I went gladly.

He was warm.

“Do you remember how much fun we used to have?” he asked.

“Yes,” I said. “I could never forget.”

“I like that,” he said. “Never forget.”

After a while, he said, “I did love you, y’know.”

I wanted to say something, to address his confession of love, but even with glowing skin and a yellow sundress, I couldn’t find the right words, so I said nothing. I should have felt vindicated or triumphant or happy or maybe mad or bitter, but I felt none of those. I felt a hole, and no words to fill it.

He waited for me to say something, so I sidestepped and said, “Are you still in the hospital?”

“Hospital? What hospital?”

“The motorcycle accident. Remember?”

“I remember taking you to my parents’ lake house. Do you remember that?”

“Yes. I remember,” I said.

“Do you remember when I kissed you for the first time? Outside. Under the stars and the giant moon.”

“Yes.”

“Kiss me again,” he said, and he pulled me to him. “One more kiss.”

“No,” I said.

In the next instant, we were standing on the boat dock outside his parents’ lake house in the Ozarks. It was chilly, and I wore my winter coat even though it was the end of May.

“How has it been that we have never kissed?” he asked just like he had asked when this happened in real life.

“You said that you didn’t want to ruin our friendship,” I said. “Remember?”

My heart was pounding against my chest, and I suddenly felt very warm in my coat. I wished I had left it behind. The top that I was wearing was very low cut, and I wanted to show it off.

“Fuck that,” he said. “I’ve got other friends.”

He pulled me to him, and kissed me slowly.

It felt so real. I could feel the breeze in my hair and hear the cicadas and the other inhabitants of the night. I could hear the water pushing and pulling the boat that was tied to the dock.

I could smell the air and taste his lips and tongue and feel him against me. His hands on my back. His legs against my legs. It was exactly how it had been that night, and I wanted nothing more to stay in that moment forever, but a voice in the back of my head told me to stop—that it wasn’t real.

“This isn’t real,” I said off-script.

“What? Isn’t this what you’ve been wanting?” he helped me out of that damn, unbearably hot coat and his hands were moving up under my shirt.

“Stop that,” I said pushing his hands back and pulling my shirt down. “This isn’t real.”

“What the fuck!” he said.

He stepped back throwing his hands into the air. “YOU wanted this! You’ve been after me for months.”

“This isn’t real,” I repeated. “It’s a dream or something, Ben. We’re dreaming.”

He held his hand, palm out up to my face. Stop, his hand said, or maybe Shut-up. His mouth said, “Well, I know I was fucking dreaming thinking this was a good idea. I’m going to bed.”

He stomped up the dock away from me toward the house.

“Don’t follow me,” he added over his shoulder. He sounded petulant. How many times had I heard that exact same tone creep into his voice?

“Wait!” I yelled running after him. “We’ve got to wake up.”

“You wake up.” He said bitterly.

“I’m trying,” I said. “But I can’t.”

“Stop following me.”

He spun around and I ran into him as I was following him too closely.

“Nice,” he said when I stepped on his foot.

Coming out of the back of the house, I saw Bonnie. She was smiling, carrying a thermos of hot chocolate and a bottle of Baileys. She froze in her tracks. Smiling one moment and the next moment, she paled, smile gone. She stood frozen mid-step. She looked down at the dock where Ben and I had just been standing and kissing, and where we would still be if it were that night. She stood transfixed.

“Oh, Bonnie,” I said.

“What?” said Ben snapping my attention back to him. “What are you saying? What about Bonnie?”

“Nothing,” I said. “Look Ben, we’ve got to wake up. Something is really wrong here. We’ve got to wake up.”

“What are you talking about? You sound like a crazy person, Abby. Really.” He stood with his hands on his hips. He was irritated with me.

“Look,” I said, “You’re in the hospital. You were in a motorcycle accident. This isn’t happening now. It happened seven years ago. You kissed me right there on the dock, and we didn’t stop kissing until the sun came up.”

He looked at me and cocked his head to the side. He opened his mouth, and then closed it again. Opening it once more, “Abby, I don’t know what you’re talking about.” He shook his head and took a step back and made to turn, but paused and looked back over his shoulder. “How do I wake you up?”

“I don’t know,” I pinched myself hard. Nothing. I pinched him.

“Ouch,” he said.

I looked around. What could I use to wake us up? I couldn’t see anything that might be helpful. I saw Ben’s parents’ house with lights on, warm and yellow against the night. I saw Bonnie on the other side of the glass sliding door. She’d gone back inside. I saw the cars jumbled in the driveway and parked haphazardly on the side grass. I saw chairs and patio furniture, and I saw the lake.

The lake!

I ran for the lake, out onto the dock. My feet flew across the wooden slats, as soon as I got to the end, I dove head first into the dark water. The chill hit me face first. I sank deep and fast.

Wake up, wake up, I willed myself.

I thought for sure, jumping into the water would wake me up, but I was still sinking and still not awake.

I paused and treaded water. My head several feet under. I looked around and couldn’t see anything except for black water. It wasn’t working. Finally I kicked to the surface. I kicked and I kicked and pulled with my arms. Any moment now, I expected to break the surface, but I didn’t.

My lungs began to burn and bright spots singed the corners of my vision. I pulled upward with all of my might. Pulling and pulling, it seemed like I pulled forever, but still no surface.

I began to panic. I didn’t have much air left. Oh God, this hurt. My chest felt as if it was about to explode. I gathered all the strength I could muster and clawed upward in a last ditch effort. Too much. Too far. Only water and darkness.

Was I even going in the right direction?

I should have reached the surface by now.

I struggled and struggled, pulling up. I was close. I was so close. I could see the giant moon just above the surface. Maybe one more pull.

Just as I was about to break the surface, I felt giant hands grasp my ankles and began pulling me down. Pulling me down!

No!

I fought. I kicked.

I ran out of breath, and sank like a stone.

Chapter 58

 

Bruce Denman and Akio were in the control room. Neither talked to the other, yet each was casting surreptitious glances in the other’s direction. Shiloh expertly manipulated the controls. He knew this was his chance to show the big man what he could do. He could recognize an opportunity.

Something on the screen caught Bruce’s eye, and he leaned in for a closer look.

“Do you see what I’m seeing?” he asked.

“No,” said Akio. “I don’t see anything. Just brain.”

“Do you see this anomaly here?” Denman pointed to the screen.

Shiloh looked over.

“Whoa,” Shiloh said.

“I just see brain,” said Akio. “What are you looking at?”

“See this,” Bruce pointed at the screen. “Extra brain material. She has two. Both are firing. Firing like crazy. I have never seen anything like this before.”

“What do you make of it?” asked Shiloh. He rolled his chair over to get a better look, careful all the while not to block Bruce’s view.

Denman didn’t answer. His eyes were transfixed on the monitor. Shiloh thought nothing of it. Men like Bruce were in the habit of not hearing questions from people, especially from people like Shiloh.

“Oh crap,” said Shiloh. He rolled back to the main console. “She’s seizing or something.”

Akio and Bruce looked up and through the Plexiglas window into the treatment room. Abby was convulsing, moving violently and erratically in the fMRI machine. She flopped, flailing her arms and her legs against the sides of the tube, restrained only by her head and neck in the plastic collar.

“Pull her out.” Denman ordered.

Shiloh hit the abort switch and ran from the observation room into the imaging room.

The table that Abby was strapped to automatically pulled out. Abby kicked and flailed. Once the table had ejected itself from the machine, she flailed most of herself off the table. She was still being held by her neck. Shiloh was convinced she would break it.

She continued to seize.

Shiloh frantically released the neck and head stabilizer setting Abby free and allowing her to fall completely to the floor.

“Is she going to swallow her tongue? What do we do? What are we supposed to do?” Shiloh looked for things to move out of the way because he remembered in First Aid class that that was an important first step to take when someone was seizing, but there was nothing to move out of the way.

Abby continued to convulse. Her eyes were slits and all that could be seen were slivers of whites.

“Oh my God! Oh my God! Oh my God! What are we going to do?” Shilo backed himself up against the wall watching Abbygale convulse. “Should I call 911?” Were they expecting him to know what to do?

“Calm yourself.” Denman said. He and Akio were in the room now.

Akio crouched down over Abby. She had stopped convulsing. She stopped moving all together, and she began to turn blue.

“She’s suffocating,” said Akio. “I don’t think she is going to come out of this on her own.”

“Call the paramedics,” Bruce ordered Shiloh.

Bruce rolled up his sleeves and knelt close to Abby.

“Leave us,” said Akio to Bruce.

“What? She needs medical attention. I’m a doctor.”

“Leave us, and take the boy. Don’t come back in until I say you can.”

“You think she’s dreaming?” Bruce asked.

“I think she’s dying,” said Akio. “She has my word that I will watch out for her. I must try to go in and save her.”

Shiloh ran back in the room.

“EMS is on its way,” he reported.

“Shiloh,” said Bruce standing. He put his hands on his hips and looked down at Abby and Akio next to her. The girl wasn’t breathing at all. He turned his back to them. To Shiloh he said, “Come with me.”

Even in this situation even though it was completely not appropriate, Shiloh couldn’t help but feel a surge of pleasure that Bruce Denman knew his name, “I don’t think she’s breathing, sir. Someone should check to see if she’s breathing.”

“Leave,” said Denman.

Shiloh hesitated. His face was pale and the whites of his eyes shone. He looked from Akio to Bruce Denman then finally to his shoes. He didn’t understand why they weren’t doing anything to help her.

“She needs rescue breathing or CPR or—” Shiloh blurted.

“You’re wasting her time!” said Akio.

“Leave.” Bruce Denman ordered. He pointed his finger to the door. “Now.”

Shiloh closed his eyes. His shoulders drooped. He about faced and walked out the door. Regretting every single step.

Denman started to follow, but he stopped before he crossed the threshold. He looked over at Akio crouched over the prone girl, and he felt a surge of anger. Something snapped in him. One moment, he felt calm and level headed and the next moment, he felt angry. Territorial. Possessive. Threatened.

He reached out with his left hand, grabbed the door, and slammed it in front of him so hard, the room shook. He turned to face Akio.

“I’m a doctor. This is my facility. My fucking name is on the stationary. I will handle this.”

“This is not a medical situation. Your expertise is of no use here,” Akio raised up from his crouch, his stance was that of a football player lined up at the line of scrimmage waiting for the play to start. His voice was a growl. He could smell the shift in Denman, and it smelled like danger.

“Get away from her. Let me work.” Denman growled right back. “There’s a time for medicine and there’s a time for make believe. It’s medicine time.”

Akio didn’t move. He breathed slowly in and out, watching Denman with his yellow eyes. Eyes that were turning more and more yellow.

“You are a fool,” said Akio. “I advise you for the last time to leave. There is not room for both of us in here, and my change has begun.”

Faster than Akio thought Bruce could move, faster than he thought any human could move, Bruce charged him. He flung his entire weight against Akio, capitalizing on the element of surprise, and managed to push the Baku still in human form off his feet.

Akio roared, deep and guttural, wholly inhuman. He grabbed Denman, and threw him bodily across the room.

Denman crashed into the wall with a crunch and slid down it landing in a heap on the floor.

Akio grabbed Abby by the ankles and pulled her to him. He lay on top of her. His face inches from her face. “Abby, hear my voice and come toward me.”

Denman stood and stumbled, shaky on his feet. He bellowed a primal, guttural ancient sound that made the hair on Akio’s neck stand on end.

“Bruce Jeremiah Denman, I command you to leave this room.” Akio yelled at Bruce. Softer he said to Abby, “Abby, follow my voice.”

“This is my room. No one tells me to leave. No one commands me. I’m the boss here. What are you?” Denman countered. He stood like a wounded, angry dog, wide-legged to balance himself. His head low. His eyes murderous. He had territory to protect.

“Abby,” Akio ignored Denman. “Be strong and follow my voice.”

Denman came after Akio again. Akio was ready for him this time. He stood and spun lightning fast in a sweeping kick taking Denman legs out from underneath him. Denman landed with a thud on his back.

“This is your last warning, Denman.”

“I’m a doctor!” Denman roared. “What are you?”

Akio grabbed Abby’s legs and pulled her to the corner of the room. He positioned himself between her and Denman.

“You know what I am,” Akio said. “The better question is what are you?”

Denman still lay on his back on the floor. His face was red, bright red, and he was sweating profusely. His shirt was ripped, and the back of his head throbbed from the impact of falling back on it. He clenched his hands into a fist and ninja style jumped from his back to land softly and agile on his feet. His knees flexed. He was coiled and ready for the next move.

“Hold onto your humanity,” Akio said.

Denman blinked, and looked down at his clenched fists. His face fell.

“Step back and cover your head. There is no more time.” Akio said, and erupted—one second a man and the next second a beast.

Denman eyes widened. Akio was magnificent. The largest beast Denman had ever seen. His giant lion face was wide and his paws were massive.

Denman tried to look away, but he couldn’t. He was mesmerized.

Akio turned his massive lion head and roared into Denman’s face. His breath was hot and the sound that emanated from the giant maw shook Denman to his core. He would have believed himself too far removed from anything that could terrify him. Hadn’t he seen the worst? Hadn’t he done the worst? Every fiber in his being was telling him to run, but he couldn’t make his feet move. For that matter, he couldn’t make any part of his body move.

Akio reached out with his giant paw and batted him away.

 

 

Abby sank deeper and deeper, pulled by her ankles. Where was the bottom? She couldn’t move, and she knew that her burning lungs could not hold out any longer. She fought with the last of her strength to not inhale, but her body was no longer under her control. She shuddered and choked as the water rushed into her wrung out lungs. The water burned like fire.

A hand from above grabbed her. First her hair, and it pulled, grasping until it grabbed under her chin, still pulling hand over hand until, it had her by the upper arm. She was pulled, drowned and immobile out of the lake.

Just before the darkness took her, she saw Ben’s face above her.

“I’m sorry. I’m sorry. You’re right. We’re dreaming. Don’t. Don’t die, please.”

Violently, Abby sputtered and heaved. Ben rolled her onto her side, and she vomited and coughed water—every last ounce of fluid out of her body. She began to cry involuntarily, and Ben held her until she was done coughing and retching.

‘I’m sorry. I’m sorry,” he repeated over and over again, rocking her back and forth in his arms. “I wished you dead. When I saw you jump into the lake. I was so angry. I wished you would drown. I thought it would serve you right, but then I remembered that this is not how it went. That I kissed you on the dock all night long. That this never happened.”

He held onto her fiercely and she cried harder.

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry. Abby, I’m the bad guy. I’m the bad guy in all of this. Why couldn’t I ever treat you like how you deserved to be treated? I knew. I always knew I should do better by you. I’m sorry. Please forgive me.”

It took a while before Abby was able to compose herself. She clung to Ben. He didn’t complain. He held her and looked into the distance, at their friends in the house, laughing and playing some sort of game that involved darts and ping-pong balls. None of them showed any indication that they heard what had happened only a few hundred feet from where they were carrying on.

“I’m trying to wake up,” he said sweeping the hair out of her face.

Abby nodded.

“They were talking yesterday,” he said. “About removing the life support. I could hear them.”

“What?” Abby’s voice was hoarse, and she could barely talk above a whisper.

“They said there was no brain activity. They said I was brain dead”

“No.” Abby rasped. “No, they can’t do that. I won’t let them.”

Ben closed his eyes and sighed. Water ran from his hair down his forehead mixing with his tears.

“I will not let them!” Abby said.

He leaned down and kissed her softly on the forehead before burying his face into the curve between her neck and her shoulder.

“On the count of three, wake up,” he said. “One. Two.”

Chapter 59

 

I came to, lying on the cold floor with my double layer hospital gowns. Two paramedics were kneeling over me, running their hands down my body checking for broken bones. The woman paramedic had me hooked up to some type of monitoring equipment. She saw me open my eyes.

“She’s coming to,” she said to the male paramedic down by my feet. “Do you know where you are, hon?” she asked me.

I blinked my eyes and coughed and shook my head. I looked around the room at the big fMRI machine. Across the room, three other paramedics were huddled around a man’s body. I could see the legs only, but the legs were wearing suit pants.

I went to rub my face and didn’t realize my arm was in a cast until I clunked the plaster on my nose. My broken nose erupted with pain. My broken arm followed suit.

“Take it easy, lady,” said the male paramedic. He had moved up to my head.

“Do you know your name?”

I shook my head no.

A red haired man dressed in scrubs was standing by the door talking to police officers.

“He was about yay high,” he said indicating with his hand several inches above his own head. “He was Asian. Definitely Asian. Spiky black hair. His eyes were sort of yellow, sort of green. I thought that was weird, y’know?”

“Any identifying marks?” an officer asked him, not looking up from the notes he was scribbling in his notebook.

“Tattoos. He had these tiger stripe tattoos all up both of his arms,” the red haired man said.

“Name?” the officer asked.

“I don’t remember. Is he okay?” he looked over to the suit legs and paramedics.

The officer looked over too and shrugged his shoulders.

The paramedics were putting a neck brace on him. The man looked so familiar.

“I know him,” I said to the male paramedic, pointing to the suit legs.

“Of course you do. Who doesn’t? That’s Bruce Denman. The more important thing is do you know yourself?”

On my back, I looked up at the ceiling.

I did not know. Not for the life of me.

“You’re pretty beat up, friend.” he said. “Broken arm and abrasions on your face. A lump the size of a tennis ball on your head. Not all of it from today. Looks like you’ve had a rough time of it lately. Are you in some kind of trouble?” He leaned closer to me and asked real low.

“I don’t know,” I said although something in me wanted to say yes. “I don’t even know my name. My head hurts.”

“With a knot like that,” said the woman. “It’s no wonder.”

An officer broke off from the cluster gathered around the red-haired man, and walked over to where I was lying down. He picked up a torn t-shirt and a shredded pair of jeans. “Look at this, Hal.” said the officer. T-shirt in one hand and jeans in the other. Hal looked up from the notebook. “Are these the perpetrator’s clothes?” he asked of the red-haired man.

The red-haired man’s eyes widened. “Holy wow,” he said and nodded. “Yes, that’s what he was wearing.”

“What do you suppose he’s wearing now?” said the man holding the shredded clothes. “I ain’t ever seen anything like this, Hal.”

“Stick around, rook, you won’t be able to get half the shit you see out of your head. People are fucked up,” said Hal.

Hal spoke to the third cop who I hadn’t yet seen move. “Go talk to Security. Get a copy of the security footage pronto. We need to get a good look at Tiger Arms.” The third cop made for the door. “I’d like you to come down to the station.” Hal said to the red-haired man. “We need an official witness statement from you.”

Hal turned around and addressed everyone in the room, “This is a high profile case, people. Any word of this leaks to the media, I will know it came from one of you. I promise I will hunt you down and make your sorry life miserable. Got it?” He pointed at each one individually with his pen.

The heads of the officers and the paramedics nodded half-heartedly. A gurney was brought in, and Bruce Denman was lifted onto it. They took him out of the room in the extra rush reserved for the rich and famous and small children.

“Do you know her name?” Hal asked the red-haired man and pointed with his ballpoint pen to me.

“Her name is Abby,” said the man. “Her stuff is over here. I’ll get it for you.” He left the room. While he was gone Hal tapped the end of his pen on his notebook while the younger officer looked around presumably for more evidence.

The red-haired man came back, carrying a folded pair of pants and a tank top and a pair of boots. Hal went through the pockets of the pants and pulled out my wallet. “Abbygale Neely,” he said. He pulled out the cell phone and started thumbing through it. He was so cool that he didn’t even flinch when it rang in his hand. He read the number on the caller ID out loud, “Know it?”

I shook my head, no.

He answered it on the third ring, “Hello, this is Abbygale Neely’s phone.” He paused as the person on the other side said something. “This is Officer Hal McCary,” he paused again the continued, “There has been an incident at DenmanNoos and Abbygale was involved. Who are you to her? Relative?” Short pause. “Boyfriend?” he raised his eyebrows and looked pointedly at me.

I shrugged, I don’t know.

“I’ll tell you what, Boyfriend Nick, we are taking her to the hospital. You can find her there,” he said. He gave the clothes to the woman paramedic along with the cell phone and wallet.

I sat with my back leaning against the wall. They’d finally let me sit up after they were convinced that I didn’t have any new broken bones. I held an ice pack to the back of my head with my good hand and sat there with my eyes closed. They’d let me put my pants on. That was nice of them.

My head was spinning.

“Do you remember anything, now?” the male paramedic asked. He crouched down next me. Since Denman had been in urgent need of medical care, he was the priority. DenmanNoos employed their own paramedic staff, but alas they had only one ambulance. As I was not priority nor was I Bruce Denman, we sat waiting for another ambulance to come or for that particular ambulance to come back.

“I remember drowning.”

He cocked his head and looked around the room. He knelt in front of me and pulled down my eyelids.

“Signs of petechial hemorrhage,” he said. He pulled out his stethoscope and listened to my lungs and my heart. “They sound okay,” he sounded iffy.

He held my head with his hands and gave it a good look over.

“Are you breathing okay now?” he said.

“Yes.”

“You’ve got me concerned Miss Abbygale. I’ll mention to the docs at the hospital when we take you in.” He started looking at other parts of my body, my hands, fingers, and proceed to conduct a more thorough pat down than the initial broken bone scan. “Between you, me, and the door, I’ve seen my fair share of weirdness here at DenmanNoos.”

A tall bald man strode into the room. His face was alert. His eyebrows and his lips made straight parallel lines, all business. He was a man not well-pleased with the situation.

“Who is in charge here?” He was dressed impeccably well. His suit must have cost thousands of dollars, it moved like a second skin. “I came as soon as I heard. Where is Mr. Denman, and what are you doing about locating the perpetrator?” He asked of the room at large.

“Officer Hal McCary here,” said Officer McCary flashing his credentials. “And you are?”

“Lucius Toro.” Mr. Toro frowned and looked around. His nose wrinkled as if he smelled something left to rot. “You are to keep me abreast of everything, Officer,” he said.

He looked at me hard and served an equally pointed look to both paramedics and an especially withering look to the red-haired technician who seemed to shrink three inches under the scrutiny.

“I’m going to the hospital to see about Mr. Denman. Here is my card. My personal and direct line. Call me for any reason, and mind media contamination, Officer McCary, no mistakes.”

Lucius Toro left as quickly as he arrived. Everyone in the room exhaled, and officer McCary sheeshed. He put Toro’s card in his pocket. Out of the same pocket, he pulled out two pieces of nicotine gum and popped them in his mouth.

 

“Ambulance is here,” the male paramedic said.

He helped me up. I sat on the gurney and laid back. I winced. Everything hurt.

“Now this feels familiar,” I said.

“What?” he said.

“Riding in an ambulance. The gurney. I feel like I’ve done this before. Recently.”

“Girl, what have you got yourself into?” he shook his head.

The lady paramedic shot him a warning look.

“Don’t look at me like that,” he said. “I think I’ve done had enough of this shit.”

“Some of us need this job, so keep it to yourself,” she said. “Tutors and basketball shoes and meat for dinner every night costs.”

The male paramedic shook his head and sighed but said nothing else until the woman paramedic walked out of earshot.

“Might be best if you just never remembered what happened in there, you hear me?” he said.

They wheeled me out to the ambulance, and loaded me into it. The female paramedic walked around to the driver’s seat, and the male paramedic climbed into the back with me. Just as he was swinging the doors closed, someone knocked on it. He swung the door back open, and a tall lanky, blond guy stood on the other side of it.

I smiled.

“Y’know him?” asked the paramedic.

“I think so,” I said.

“Nick Ericcson,” the blond man said.

“Boyfriend?” asked the paramedic, looking back and forth between us, eyebrows raised.

“That’s me,” he said and stepped up into the ambulance. “The boyfriend. I’m coming with.”

“I don’t know if that’s such a good idea,” said the paramedic.

Nick clapped him on the shoulder, friendly-like, but harder than necessary, as he sat down next him on the bench seat.

“It’s a good idea,” Nick said.

The paramedic sighed. He knocked on the divider that separated the back from the driver. “We’re ready,” he said.

Chapter 60

 

The Subaru wagon turned left into the parking lot and waited with the engine running under the only light. The light illuminated the car and left the rest of the parking lot covered in darkness. The parking lot belonged to a small office park—a dentist, an allergist, a take home and bake your own pizza joint, and a chain hairdresser. All closed up for the night.

Akio stepped from behind a tall row of hedges next to a collection of dumpsters. He walked out of the darkness and around the front of the car. He opened the passenger side door and leaned in. He was completely naked.

“You had to park under the light,” Akio said.

In the driver seat of the car sat a small-framed, young looking Asian man who burst into uncontrollable laughter at the sight of Akio.

“Shizaru, have a laugh, good friend,” Akio said. “Did you bring some clothes?”

Shizaru pulled a paper sack from the back seat and set it on the passenger seat.

“Thank you,” Akio said. He plucked the bag off the seat and opened it. He pulled out a pair of sweat pants and a t-shirt. The t-shirt read Keep Portland Weird. Once dressed, Akio got in the car.

“Where to?” Shizaru asked.

“Somewhere low.”

“I’ve got just the place.”

Shizaru made a careful three point turn in the parking lot, and then pulled out onto the dark street. They drove around for quite a while. Turning onto one street and then another. An intricate path of driving at least thirty minutes this way and that, around, up and under. The drive should have only taken ten minutes, and as the crow flies five.

Nonetheless, thirty long minutes later, Shizaru parallel parked outside a dive bar.

Portland was a Shanghai town back in the day. Unsuspecting young men were drugged by barkeeps and hauled through underground tunnels only to wake up on a boat in the middle of the ocean, two fingers of whiskey and a lifetime of indentured servitude. This bar was just one of the many, a painful semicolon or sometimes a period at the end of a man’s life.

Darkness oozed from the brick, gray and murky, spilling onto the sidewalk. Places like this could never really escape their dark pasts. Pain lingered and clung, digging in and never letting go. Sensitive people could sometimes feel it, a hole in the pit of their stomach, an unexplainable sadness, a natural aversion. Akio could always feel it. He could smell pain and fear, even just the shadow of it. He placed his hand on the door jam before crossing the threshold and left it there for a beat. He said a prayer for all the souls forever changed by crossing over the same threshold.

Shizaru was close on his heals, and he bowed his head and waited.

Once inside, the bar appeared empty except for the man behind the counter. He was tall, taller than Akio and thick. Thick head, thick neck, thick eyebrows, thick lips, he was thick all the way to the floor. He nodded upon seeing Shizaru, and Shizaru nodded back.

Shizaru led Akio down a back hallway that led to stairs. The stairs descended into a room that functioned as a stock room. Shelves lined the walls holding assorted dusty bottles of wine and liquor. A tall wooden bookcase was on the far wall. The bookcase was conspicuous because most of the shelves were broken and the ones that were not broken were empty. All the other shelves in the room were stocked to overflowing. Shizaru pulled the bookcase out and behind it was another door and yet another room.

A round table stood in the middle of this room, and around the table sat four men. At the foot of one of the men lay a dog. The men at the table stood when Akio entered. The dog half-heartedly lifted her head before letting it drop back to the floor with a grumph.

Akio faced each and bowed in turn, greeting Shizaru’s brothers Mizaru, Kikazaru, Iwazaru by name. The fourth man Akio didn’t know.

“You’ve gotten yourself into quite a mess it would seem,” said Mizaru.

The four men circled around a television. The television had multiple pairs of rabbit ears, although it was hard to believe that there was any over air reception in the basement. Each pair of rabbit ears was dustier than the next. Akio walked around the table and stood behind the men seated there so he could have a better look at the TV screen. A still photo of him, Bruce Denman, and Abby was displayed on the screen. The still was taken presumably from a security camera when they entered DenmanNoos earlier that evening. Another smaller picture of just Akio’s face alone overlapped the larger picture.

“Breaking News this Evening from the West side. Bruce Denman founder of DenmanNoos Enterprises was attacked this evening at DenmanNoos World Headquarters. The suspect, the man pictured here, escaped before law enforcement arrived on the scene. Once on scene, law enforcement officials found a badly beaten and unconscious Bruce Denman. Denman was rushed to hospital via ambulance. At this hour, he is listed in stable condition. Also found unconscious at the scene was twenty-nine year old Abbygale Neely. Ms. Neely regained consciousness shortly after the arrival of the police. She too has been taken to the hospital for follow up care. Charles Seamore is live at the hospital. Charles? Do you have an update on the situation?”

The scene flipped to a sandy haired man standing outside the hospital.

“Thank you, Linda. We have just heard from Lucius Toro, Bruce Denman’s right hand, that Denman has regained consciousness and is alert and answering police questions. We have no name on the suspect currently, but we have been advised that the suspect should be considered armed and dangerous. Stay tuned to Channel 2 for continuing coverage and late breaking news. Back to you in the studio, Linda—”

Mizaru picked up the remote and pressed the pause button. Ah, clearly no use for rabbit ears here. They must just be for decoration and dust collecting.

“What shall we do, Baku?” Mizaru asked.

“This is on a scale that I’ve not witnessed in a long time,” said Kikazaru.

Akio hung his head.

“May I sit?” Akio asked.

“Please do,” said Iwazaru.

Shizaru produced two folding chairs from a dimly lit corner, and he and Akio sat across the table from the other men, their backs to the television.

“What have you gotten yourself into?” asked Mizaru.

Mizaru rubbed his cleanly shaved face. The four of them, Shizaru, Mizaru, Kikazaru, and Iwazaru, were brothers nearly identical in every way, lean, young-looking, with runners’ builds. They all wore very serious looks on their faces, save for Shizaru, none of the others were smiling, but Shizaru’s eyes twinkled though his mouth remained a straight and dutiful line. That alone was enough to warrant a scowl from Akio.

The fifth man, the one with the dog, was mostly a boy, medium height, average build, brown hair and straight nose, completely average in every way. The dog, on the other hand, was beautiful, as much as any dog could be, copper shiny fur from head to tail. Her hind legs were speckled with darker copper spots and lighter copper spots ending with giant paws. She was large, all around large, with deep soulful eyes. She was unaverage in every way and a breed that Akio could not recognize. She looked at Akio. She raised one eyebrow then the other one before closing both eyes.

Akio looked at the fifth man and then at the other four.

“Arthur, this is Akio the Baku. Baku this is Arthur,” Shizaru made the introductions.

“Do you vouch for him?” Akio asked.

“We do,” they said in unison.

Arthur said, “Baku? Wow, I didn’t realize that you still existed.”

The dog at Arthur’s feet sneezed.

Akio cut Arthur a sharp look. He opened his mouth to say something but decided against it. He looked from Arthur to the others. Shizaru snickered. Akio shrugged, choosing to ignore the boy’s impudence and said, “We need to get arms around this situation.”

“Easier said then done, Baku,” said Mizaru. “You’ve made this much too easy for Toro.”

Akio scowled. He didn’t like to hear it.

“You know I’m right,” Mizaru continued. “Locking this situation up is going to take exceptional skill.” He steepled his fingers at the word skill.

“Yes, I understand,” Akio said.

“It will cost,” said Iwazaru.

Akio gritted his teeth. “Yes, I understand,” he said.

“Twice the usual price,” Kikazaru this time.

Akio shook his head. “Twice?”

“You are lucky it is not triple. Only a great fool would tangle with Toro.” He gave Akio a pointed look. “We are not fools,” Kikazaru said.

“No, Brother, you are right. It should be triple,” said Iwazaru.

“Upon reflection, I agree with you, esteemed brother,” Kikazaru nodded.

“Aye,” huffed Mizaru.

Akio was over a barrel, and he knew it. “I accept your terms.”

Had they asked for quadruple—quintuple—he would have paid it. Being a fugitive, wanted for attacking the most powerful and beloved man in the country, was bad for business.

“Draw up the contract, Shizaru. There is work to be done.”

 

 

Bruce Denman was attached to every tube, monitor, and sensor that the hospital could stick on, around, or in him. The hospital was not going to be responsible for letting anything happen to Bruce Denman, not if they could help it or monitor it or charge him for it.

Just inside the door of Bruce’s hospital room, Toro stood surrounded by four big men handing out orders. All the men in the huddle wore non-descript, black, athletic cut suits, reeking of sweat and Speed Stick and the sickly sweet scent of eagerness, eager to jump when Toro said jump. If the devil’s in the details, these were Toro’s Detail Men. Paul, Toro’s number one Detail Man, was not present; he was on-scene at DenmanNoos managing the situation there. Detail Men Two through Five were present, and that should be sufficient to get some shit handled.

The huddle dispersed and Two and Three took up their station outside Bruce’s hospital door. Both wore sunglasses, even though they were inside and it was the middle of the night. Both crossed their arms and stared straight ahead. Four and Five walked down the corridor to the elevator. Four stood guard at the elevator. Five got in the elevator; he had details to attend to elsewhere. This was the first time that he had been tasked with a something so important, all on his own. It was high time. He itched with the need to show Toro exactly what he could do.

Once his men had left, Toro sat down in a chair next to Bruce’s bed. He pulled out a Sudoku puzzle. He didn’t look up when Bruce came to, but he said, “I’ve been too lenient with you, Bruce.” On his puzzle, he wrote the number nine with a flourish. Toro always used a pen.

“Don’t be so hard on yourself,” Bruce said. He looked around the room, gathering his bearings. He found the remote that raised the top of the bed into a sitting position. The back of the bed rose comically slow, but Bruce said nothing while it lifted. He refused to talk to Toro lying down. Once he could look at Toro in the eyes, he said, “Good to see you, buddy. Thanks for coming. It means a lot.”

“Speaking of buddies,” Toro said. “I was under the impression that you understood that it was not in your best interest to be in contact with the Baku.”

“Don’t be jealous, you’re still my best friend forever.”

In an instant, Toro stood over Bruce, his giant hands around Bruce’s throat, a professionally manicured vice.

“I’m not in the mood for this,” he said. “I will choke you until the life leaves your eyes.”

“Spare the rod, spoil the child,” Bruce said, straining to make his voice heard.

Toro squeezed until Bruce saw stars and was on the verge of blacking out, he could feel the rubberiness of Bruce’s windpipe begin to crackle and give under the pressure of his hands. Bruce made no further objection. He didn’t try to fight him off. He waited. Toro released his neck and wiped his hands on his pant legs.

“Feel better?” Bruce said when he could manage it.

“Yes, a little,” Toro admitted.

Toro picked up the pink plastic hospital pitcher filled with ice water and poured water into a matching pink plastic cup. He handed the cup to Bruce.

“Here,” he said.

Bruce sipped at the water and hissed as it burned down his throat.

“This is fun,” Toro said. “Between you and the Sudoku puzzle, this is the most excitement I’ve had in a long time. It was getting tedious, wasn’t it? What an invigorating turn of events. I hardly feel my age. You keep me young, Bruce. I may miss this—you and I—were I to kill you, but I will kill you if you leave me no other choice. At the very minimum, I will have to punish you for this.”

“What will it be this time? Fifty lashes? Sent to my room without supper?”

Toro sat on the edge of Bruce’s bed. He took his phone out of his pocket. He held out his phone to Bruce. “This,” Toro said.

Bruce didn’t want to look at the phone. He didn’t want to see what was on it. Toro picked up Bruce’s hand and placed the phone in it. Bruce brought the phone closer, so he could see the picture on the screen. It was a picture of Amanda. She was wearing pajamas. Her hair was mussed. Detail Man Five had his arm around her. The look on Amanda’s face was confused and frightened.

“Amanda?”

“Amanda.” Toro confirmed. “Now, let’s have a conversation about what happened tonight. I want to know everything. No detail left out.”

Bruce breathed heavily. He closed his eyes and pinched his nose. “If I tell you everything, do I have your word that you won’t hurt Amanda? You can punish me another way.”

Toro took the phone from Bruce and slid it into the inside pocket of his suit jacket.

“You have my word,” he said. His teeth looked exceptionally white.

Chapter 61

 

The ambulance bounced down the hill on the west side of the city making its silent way to the hospital. No screaming siren or rotating lights for me.

My head was buzzy and thick, and my throat burned.

“I’m thirsty,” I said.

The male paramedic reached under the bench seat and pulled out a black backpack, tucked out of sight and out of the way. He handed me a small, unopened bottle of water. It was warm from being in his backpack all day. I was grateful for it, warm or not.

“Thank you,” I drank it slowly.

Nick sat on the bench seat looking around the back of the ambulance at everything and nothing in particular, at me when he thought I wasn’t looking. I caught his eyes, and his face reddened, but he didn’t look away. He smiled.

“Nick!” I practically shouted. I suddenly recognized him, and in that moment all of my recollections came rushing back like a tidal wave trying to squeeze its shoulders through the front door.

Oh shit.

“You’re not my boyfriend,” I told him.

“What now?” said the paramedic, looking back and forth between us, suddenly on edge.

The paramedic was on high alert having seen more than enough suspicious goings on at DenmanNoos. For all he knew, Nick was an accomplice of the Tiger Striped Man come back to finish the job. It might sound far-fetched if crazy shit like this hadn’t happened before. Not to him. To one of his buddy’s who coincidentally “retired” the day after an ambulance ride involving two test subjects for a scientific experiment became violent and nearly killed each other en route to the hospital. Anything that did happen always happened on the night shift, which is when most of the tests and scientific experiments took place. He hated the night shift.

DenmanNoos looked bright and shiny from the outside looking in, but there was darkness if you scratched the surface. He tried never to scratch the surface.

“Not for lack of trying,” Nick said and shrugged. It sounded way creepier than he intended. The male paramedic over-reacted. Standing abruptly, he backed away from Nick, and crammed himself into the corner. His head and shoulders stooped.

“What’s going on here?” he held out the metal clipboard as a shield.

“Relax, man,” Nick said.

I barely paid attention to the two of them. I was busy recalling all of the events that had happened to me in the past few days as my memory came rushing back. I felt bombarded, under attack. It was all new and terrible and none of it made any Goddamn sense. One thing I did know is that I had to get to Salem, or they were going to pull the plug on Ben. Wait, there were two things I knew, I needed to not fall asleep—ever again—if I could help it, for one and I needed to get to Salem, for two.

“Where’s my bag? Where’s my bag?” I looked around for it. Frantically.

Nick began looking too. The paramedic stayed backed into the corner, but the set of his shoulders began to relax a little. Nick found my bag and tossed it to me. I opened it up and tipped it upside down emptying the contents onto my lap. I grabbed the amber pill bottle that Bruce Denman had given me earlier.

“What are those?” asked the paramedic, suspicious again.

I tossed the bottle to Nick. “Open them for me.”

He complied.

“You can’t take those,” the paramedic said, “What are they?”

“How many?” asked Nick

“I don’t remember,” I said to the paramedic. To Nick I said, “I don’t know. Some?”

Nick gave me three pills.

Damn, I had drunk all the water. I tossed the three pills in my mouth and choked them down. I gagged them up and choked them back down again holding my hand over my mouth. I must have looked like a raving, crazy person. At least that’s what the expression on paramedic’s face conveyed. What I couldn’t swallow disintegrated in my mouth leaving a bitter aftertaste.

“Stop that! Spit them out,” the paramedic lunged at me. Nick jumped in between the two of us. His right hand pushing back on the paramedic’s chest.

The paramedic began to sputter, “What were those? What’s going on here? This is not acceptable—” He tried to grab the pill bottle from Nick’s other hand the same time the ambulance took a hard, tight left turn. The force of the turn knocked the two of them off their feet and on top of me.

“Y’all alright back there?” hollered the driver.

Chapter 62

 

“Okay,” Toro said. “Let’s start from the beginning. Before we begin, are you hungry? You look hungry?”

“No, I’m not hungry,” Bruce said.

“Thirsty?”

“No.”

“I told you no more interactions with the Baku. I made myself painfully clear on that one.”

“I didn’t go to him. He came to me,” Denman said.

“Oh? He came to you?” Toro’s eyes lit up. He raised his fist triumphantly. “I knew it. I knew you didn’t go to him. I can’t tell you how much better that makes me feel about this whole situation.”

Bruce sighed.

“What did he want?”

“The girl came to him in trouble. He thought it was a simple nightmare eradication procedure, but when he entered her dream, he found an anomaly. The anomaly was in her brain, her physical brain. He brought her to me, asked me to scan her brain as a favor, and that’s what we were doing at DenmanNoos. Brain scan.” Bruce spread his hands in a that’s pretty much it motion.

“What kind of anomaly?”

“She has more brain matter than a normal person. She has double of a particular section of the brain.”

“Interesting. That must have been very fascinating for you,” Toro said.

“It is. It was,” Bruce said.

Toro stood up and walked around the bed to the window. He looked out the window through the plastic blinds. One arm behind his back, the other hand pulling down, ever so gently, on one plastic blind.

“Why under cover of darkness?”

“Come again?” Denman asked.

“It all seems so benign. If I look past the fact that you haven’t been the sort of man to do anyone a favor—not for a very long time,” Toro turned to face Denman. He waved his hand in the air in an exaggerated circle. “So, I’m looking past that, but even disregarding that, it all appears so sneaky. Why so sneaky, Bruce?”

“It was time sensitive, urgent. The girl is in uncertain physical condition, and will likely die as a result of her condition.”

Toro smiled and sniffed. He wafted air to him and inhaled deeply like he was sampling the aroma of a fine wine. “I smell—what is it I smell? Borderline dishonesty. Not quite truth. You reek of it, Bruce.”

Bruce cut his eyes at Toro, “I’m answering your questions. I’m telling the truth.”

“That may be so, but your leaving something out, something you think is important. I have to confess. I’m getting more cranky than interested.”

Toro strode slowly back to the hospital bed, moving like a cobra about to strike.

“Paul says you used someone else’s key card.”

Bruce said nothing.

“What is the anomaly, Bruce?” Toro leaned in.

“Extra brain tissue.”

“A tumor?”

“No.”

“What do you think the extra brain tissue is?”

Bruce broke eye contact, looking down and away. Toro’s eyes gleamed black. If he had pupils, Bruce couldn’t tell. Toro’s eyes were black on black.

“The extra brain tissue is important to Bruce Denman because? Because why, Bruce?”

Bruce coughed.

Toro waited.

“She appears to have two consciousnesses. Her own and part of another.”

“Fascinating,” said Toro. “And by consciousness you mean? What do you mean by that word, Bruce?”

“You know what I mean by that word,” Bruce looked back at Toro, defiant and angry. Not like a man laid up in a hospital bed, too weak to move, not like a man sitting under the murderous, brimstone black eyes of Lucius—demon from hell—Toro. “I found it. I know where it is. I found it. The seat of the soul.”

Toro sat on the edge of Bruce’s bed, pulled his phone out of his pocket, and dialed, “The second ambulance from DenmanNoos, intercept it. Dispose of its contents.”

Toro hung up the phone. Something on his thumbnail caught his eye, and he rubbed it with his forefinger. He set his phone down on the bedside table.

“I feel proud,” Toro said after a long moment. His fingernail was distracting him, and he pulled a golden handled nail file out of his breast pocket. He slid off the shiny golden sheath that protected both the file and his elegantly made suit jacket.

“This was a gift,” he indicated the nail file. The canned, fluorescent lights glinted off of it. He began filing his thumbnail. “For what you ask? A job well done, of course. And the pride I feel, you ask?”

Although Bruce had not asked.

“I’m proud of you, Bruce. You’ve grown into such a man. You’ve become the man I always knew you could become. I hear the gratitude in your voice. So grateful you are for all that I’ve done for you. I’m humbled by your gratitude. I’m proud to work with you. Shoulder to shoulder. I’m more proud than I ought to be, but you are a fine human, cunning and ruthless. I respect that in you. We are more alike than different.”

“You killed my parents,” Bruce said.

Toro paused.

“I didn’t kill your parents. A man named Terrence Brown killed your parents, a terrible, down-on-his-luck fellow.”

“You paid him to.”

“He chose to. Money is just money. It means little in this world, and nothing in the other. Choices are what matter. Choices are the true currency of life, and Terrence Brown chose to close his eyes. He chose to allow his eighteen thousand ton semi-truck drift across the centerline of a highway traveling at a rate of sixty miles per hour, crushing the pickup truck your parents were driving. Terrence Brown is paying his price for his choices. In fact, he is paying as we speak. Does it comfort you to know that? That he suffers. Did it comfort you to watch him die?”

“I was just a kid,” Bruce said.

“Not just. Never just. You were a brilliant child. I knew you were the one. The special one. None of the others were as smart or as brave. A lot were as arrogant, but even in arrogance, you had a special kind.”

“Others? What others?”

“There are always others, Bruce. Plan B’s. Plan C’s. Plan D’s. Et cetera.”

“And Sarah?” Bruce needed to know.

“What are you planning to do now, Bruce, now that you think you know where the soul is?”

“Did you kill Sarah too?”

“I told you I didn’t kill your parents.”

“Semantics. Tell me one thing. Just one thing. Was she sleeping with Adam Beaumont?”

“No, she was faithful to you until the very end. We even enhanced him, made him even more attractive to her, and she still refused him. That should soothe your ego, no?” Toro said. He looked at Bruce kindly as he would a sad, lost little boy. “She’s been dead so long. Such a shame that you still care so much about the details.”

A roar filled Bruce’s head. It sounded like a freight train, but it wasn’t. It was guilt. Years of thinking the worst possible thing about the most beautiful and amazing woman he had ever known. Years of wondering why. Years of hating her. She had never betrayed him. It was he who had betrayed her.

In that moment, he wished he would die. Combust. Explode. So much pressure in his head and in his chest, surely he would just explode.

“And Dr. Harvey?” Bruce said.

“He wasn’t sleeping with Adam Beaumont either.”

“Everyone I loved. Everyone.”

‘Regrettable. All of it, but it had to be done to get you where you are today.”

“And where is that? Where am I today?” Bruce asked.

“You’re where you’re supposed to be. Look, Bruce, at the end of it all you’re a human. I get it. Humans are egocentric and self-absorbed, taking everything personally. Harvey, your parents, Sarah, et cetera, none of it was intended to be a personal attack on you though I’m sure for you it seems that way. It was simply the most efficient way to get you from there to here. It’s like that dreadfully boring game curling. Once the stone is on the ice, it cannot be touched directly. The players have to sweep and affect the ice around the stone in order to get the stone to travel the proper path and end at the proper destination.”

The phone rang, and Toro tapped the speakerphone button.

“The ambulance is here, sir, but except for an injured paramedic and the driver, it’s empty.”

“Bless it!” Toro cursed. In a flash, he brought his shiny, fancy nail file down, driving it to its golden hilt, deep into Bruce’s thigh.

Bruce cried out, but not from the pain in his leg. Toro could stab him a hundred times, a thousand times. Toro could do his worst if he hadn’t done it already.

He wailed for Sarah.

For his parents.

For Dr. Harvey.

For himself.

For being so dumb, the most brilliant, dumb shit in the universe.

Chapter 63

 

Nick and I stood on the side of the road.

“Do you think that’s covered by insurance?” Nick said.

We stood there watching the ambulance drive away. After we all piled on top of each other wrestling for the Modafinil, the driver had brought the wagon to a screaming halt and demanded that we get our dumb asses out of the back of the ambulance before she called the police. She ordered the male paramedic to shut his goddamn mouth, she was taking him to the hospital to get stitches for the cut over his eyebrow, and did he know he was bleeding all over the back of the ambulance? Did he know who was going to clean it up? That’s right fool, he was.

“Like I have insurance,” I said.

Before you think the worst of us, the male paramedic came upon the cut over his eyebrow honestly. When the driver took the hard left and we piled up, he hit his forehead on the side of the ambulance just so, and it split angrily. His blood poured down like a waterfall.

I hoped for his sake it wasn’t as bad as it looked. I, wonder of wonders, made it out completely unscathed. Nick wasn’t so lucky. The male paramedic had right hooked him in our struggle to right ourselves and before the driver had opened the door. His cheek was bruising where the paramedic’s fist had made contact.

Nick and I looked at each other, and I laughed a little. Sometimes in really uncomfortable situations, I laugh. I just can’t help it. I’m an idiot.

“What so funny?” he said. We were making our way back to DenmanNoos and Nick’s car, which, thankfully, was only a couple miles back.

“This feels like a dream or worse some shoot ‘em up, car crash movie that I’m stuck knee deep in. If I let the bus go below 50 mph, I’m going to blow up.”

Nick said nothing. He pushed his hand through his hair and chewed on his lip.

“Kaboom,” I said, looking for some sort of reaction, anything, but he didn’t react.

We walked some more. The night was warm and muggy, but thankfully there was a breeze. I was tired, but I could hardly tell through the Modafinil that was beginning to kick in.

“I think I’m going to die tonight or maybe tomorrow,” I said. Casually.

The silence had grown for long enough. I could tell there was something working a root on Nick’s mind, but he wasn’t giving it up. I felt pretty weighed down myself, and what he was working up to saying would probably just tip me right over.

“What?” That got his attention. He stopped short and turned to me, but I kept walking, leaving him behind me.

“Will you take me to Salem?” I asked over my shoulder.

“Okay, first things first. Why do you think you’re going to die? Why are we going to Salem? And if I drive you all the way to Salem, are you still going to die?” he took a couple long-legged steps to catch up to me.

“What does the Mama tomato say to the Baby tomato? Ketchup.” I asked and answered before shrugging my shoulders and saying. “You wouldn’t believe me.”

“Try me,” he said.

“You don’t have to take me,” I said, “but whether you do or not, I’m going.”

Nick grabbed my shoulder, the one not attached to the arm with the cast, and he turned me and pulled me to him. We stood almost eye-to-eye, as close to each other as we had ever been, like how in old timey movies when they only had one camera and had to get both actors in a shot. We were kissing close—and that’s just what he did.

He leaned in, his eyes open, brown and creamy. At the last moment, he tilted his head to the right, and he kissed me. He smiled into the kiss and kissed me again.

Before my common sense could stop me, I kissed him back. He wrapped one arm around my waist.

“I will believe anything you tell me. No matter how fucked up. Let me be that guy for you.”

I opened my eyes because I had let them close, and I inhaled him. He smelled clean.

He meant what he said. I could tell by the set of his jaw and the nakedness in his eyes, he was ready to jump onto my crazy train, and I’ll be damned, but I was going to let him.

“They’re going to pull the plug on Ben, and something in my gut is telling me that I need to stop them, that if I don’t something really, really bad is going to happen to me.”

“Done. Consider us already on our way.”

“Does your face hurt?” I asked. The bruise on his face looked hot, and it was swelling.

Nick touched his bruised cheekbone with his fingertips, “Hell, no.”

He grabbed up my hand and squeezed it and swung it, liked I’d seen kids do.

I laughed again, because if I didn’t laugh I would cry.

“Let’s go, ” he said, and we went.

Chapter 64

 

Akio paced back and forth. The basement room of the bar was beginning to feel like a jail cell. The great Baku’s nerves frazzled, and he felt ready to explode. The brothers were taking their time, and Akio was not one to sit idle and twiddle his thumbs. Apparently, Arthur of the Boring Brown Hair and Straight Nose was definitely one to sit idle. The boy sat engrossed in the television. Akio had not seen him move in the last two hours. He was completely calm, not sensing Akio’s rising tension or not caring.

“I cannot wait here much longer. My patience has worn thin,” Akio said out loud. Arthur did not respond or, for that matter, even look at him.

“What’s your dog’s name? She’s quite beautiful,” Akio asked. The sleeping dog opened her eyes and regarded Akio. She wagged her giant tree trunk tail. Arthur looked startled as if he was surprised that Akio was talking to him although there was clearly no one else in the room.

“Enid,” Arthur said.

He had to clear his voice several times before he could say the name without squeaking nervously. Akio felt some measure of pride at the young man’s nervous response. Here he was thinking that the man was ignoring him when clearly the ignoring must be a defense mechanism. He was confident there was no manner of man or beast that could so completely ignore him.

“What breed of dog is she?” Akio asked again. He had never in his many days come upon a breed of dog such as she.

The dog at the man’s feet yawned. Her tongue rolled out of her mouth. She smacked her lips a couple times, and licked her nose before settling her head back on her paws.

Arthur rolled his eyes and shrugged his shoulders.

“She is handsome,” said Akio to which Arthur nodded.

“Arthur,” Akio said, sitting down and leaning his elbows on the table. Arthur jumped again. “I’m going to have to get out of here. I can’t bear to sit here and do nothing. I have to do something.”

“Do you think that’s a good idea?” asked Arthur.

Akio slammed his fists on the table, and Arthur squeaked. Akio’s face softened, and he half-smiled. “I don’t have a choice. I think I may know of someone who might be able to give me answers.”

“You’re not thinking of going back to that Bruce Denman guy, are you?” Arthur asked.

“No. Until the monkeys have completed their task, it would be best if I stayed far away from Denman.”

“The monkeys?”

“Yes,” said Akio. “The monkeys. The brothers.” He opened his hands wide to indicate the four other chairs around the table where the brothers had sat. Arthur looked at him blankly.

“Those men that where here?”

Akio sighed exasperated. “Yes. The Wise Monkeys—Hear No, See No, Speak No, and Do No Evil—the illustrious Kikazaru, Mizaru, Iwazaru, and Shizaru. They vouched for you, and you’re not aware of who they are?

Who was there in the Between or the other world that did not know about the Wise Monkeys? They were the great fixers and balancers, moving silently and skilled through the worlds. Purely human eyes would never know they were there, so skilled were they in their maneuvers. There was not a single creature that did not know of the monkeys. When they cleaned a scene, it stayed clean. This was not the first time the brothers had cleaned a situation for Akio, but it was surely the most complicated. Things got exceptionally tricky any time beasts of the Lucius Toro kind were involved.

Arthur smiled mildly, “Oh yes,” he said, “Of course. What was I thinking? The monkeys.”

“How long have you known the brothers?” asked Akio.

“We go way, way back,” Arthur said, before turning back to the TV. “I’ve been hogging the TV. Is there something you want to watch?” He slid the remote across the table. He had the demeanor of a well-behaved child humoring the adults, although he himself was a full-grown man.

Akio’s brow lowered, and he sniffed the air, but he didn’t smell anything untoward about the young man. He smelled honesty and humanity—and of course, dog.

“No thank you,” said Akio and he slid the remote back across the table. “Watch what you wish.”

“Great,” said Arthur, and he began clicking through the TV channels. “I’m hungry. I wonder when we’ll eat.”

He stopped on a rerun of Perry Mason. “I love this show. I’ve seen them all.”

Akio sniffed again. Something was not quite right about this Arthur, but still he smelled nothing.

“Why are you in town, Arthur?”

“Enid has an appointment.”

Akio stood and bowed his head ever so slightly, “Well, young Arthur. I consider it a pleasure to make your acquaintance and watch television with you, but I must go. Please tell the brothers upon their return that I shall be in touch and thank them for their hard work.”

“Uh, okay. Sure,” said Arthur.

Enid low barked. Akio crouched down and patted her large head before leaving the room.

 

 

The sun had risen while Akio was in the basement of the bar. He blinked as he stepped out into the morning. He was on foot, which wasn’t so bad—and shoeless, which was bad only in the fact that he might make himself more noticeable walking around with bare feet.

He walked to the light rail station, which was only a few blocks away from the bar and stood among the early to rise crowd. No one paid any attention to him. They were headphoned and booked and newspapered, purposefully not making eye contact with the other travelers.

Akio was the only one without something to pour his empty time into, and the only one without shoes. Under normal circumstances, Akio would shake his head at the bubbles humans created around themselves and existed within, but today he was thankful. He sat on a guardrail and breathed in and out deeply, closing his eyes. He could feel the commuter train’s energy pressing on him long before he could hear it or see it. He had not paid for a ticket as he had no money on him, but that could not be helped, so as the thought rolled into his head, he let it roll right out.

Once the train stopped, he joined the small herd of commuters pushing themselves off the platform onto the train. He found a seat near an exit door. The doors closed with a whoosh, and the trained buzzed down the tracks.

Akio had only been where he was going one time that he could remember, but he knew the way. He wasn’t one to ask favors of anyone or anything, but he felt he had no other choice left. He had given Abbygale his word, and he was nothing without his word. Literally nothing. He was a beast manifested by the need of humanity. If they no longer needed him because they did not trust him, there was no telling how long he would survive.

Several stops passed in a blur of people getting on and off, jostling baby strollers, bicycles, backpacks, messenger bags. Not a one of them paid Akio any mind. He would have thought the monkeys had completed their assignment if he didn’t know for a fact that this job was as complicated as any job they’d ever had. No way the monkeys were successful so soon.

Two more stops and a transit cop came on board with the influx of passengers. Akio noticed him right away. He was the only one in the entire car that was alert and looking around, scanning faces, as he walked down the aisle. He had entered at the door that was next to where Akio was sitting, and luckily, he had walked away from him down the aisle in the opposite direction, so his back was to Akio. He carried a metal clipboard, and on that clipboard was a picture of Akio. Akio stood and just as the doors were sliding closed, he slipped through the back door.

The transit cop spun around, sensing irregular movement. He saw Akio out the window of the now closed doors. The train trundled out of the station. The transit cop locked eyes with Akio. He lifted his radio and talked into it. Akio turned and loped off across the street and into the neighborhood adjacent to the train stop. He picked up speed and ran the remainder of the way. He heard sirens in the distance behind him getting closer, but not close enough to worry about. Yet.

He ran and didn’t look back.

 

 

Akio thought for sure it was here, but all he could see were trees. The lot looked like a well-maintained park, but he felt certain it was here. He walked back and forth in front of the lot looking hard and still all he saw were trees and off in the far back corner—play equipment.

This wasn’t right. He felt it in his bones. There was something that he was not seeing. Why would it be hidden from him? Unless of course, this was the wrong place.

The park was empty. Too early for anyone to be playing on the playground. Dew clung to the grass, and although the grass everywhere else in the city had yellowed and shriveled under the sun, the grass in the park was lush and green. It felt soft and spongy under Akio’s feet. He had run a hard ten miles. He cut across the park diagonally, ignoring the paved path, and enjoyed the coolness of the grass.

He sat on the park bench that was next to the playground equipment. He leaned back and sighed. He decided that he was going to sit for a couple minutes before he kept looking for it.

He closed his eyes. He could sense the person that had walked up next to him even before he could smell him. They had approached the park the same way Akio had, but had chosen to walk down the paved path—slowly, meandering. Akio felt the bench sag ever so slightly as the person sat next to him.

“Arthur what are you doing here?” Akio’s eyes were still closed. He inhaled the scent of Arthur and the dog.

“This is where I’m supposed to wait,” Arthur said.

“Wait for what?”

“For him, I think.”

Akio looked the way Arthur pointed. He had not sensed or for that matter smelled the other man who was making his way across the park. He sat at attention, ready to spring to his feet.

The man was wearing running shorts and a tight running shirt. He came jogging down the path. Akio could see that he had a patrician face with a nose wrinkled in permanent distaste. He had skinny arms and legs to boot and looked nothing like a runner although he was running at a good clip. He slowed down as he got closer.

“Good morning, Enid and Arthur,” the man said. “You are not on the list, Baku. Be gone.”

“What list?”

“Please come with me, Arthur. May I?” the runner extended his hand, and Arthur gave the leash to him. “Enid.” The man said with reverence and bowed his head.

“What list?”

“He knows the girl,” said Arthur to the runner.

“Why am I not surprised? Whatever the mess du jour, the Baku finds himself in the soup pot.”

“Good to see you too, Bingham. What list?”

“You are not on it,” Bingham repeated.

Enid walked over to Akio and laid her large head on his knee.

“Oh, very well, I can see when I’m outnumbered, but do not expect the Master and Mistress to be well pleased to see you.”

“I expect nothing,” Akio said. He stood and followed Bingham as he led them back the way he had come.

 

 

The motley crew—Akio, Arthur, Enid the dog, led by Bingham, walked down the path which, instead of meandering its way back to the sidewalk, led them to a giant house surrounded by perfectly sculpted bushes, taller than Akio stood.

Here it was. He had felt it in his bones, and it was exactly where he thought it ought to be, he just couldn’t see it. The green hedge surrounded the house like arms in a protective embrace, and where the hands of the arms would clasp, there was a giant iron gate.

“The gate is new,” said Akio.

“Yes, it’s to keep out the riff-raff,” Bingham replied, looking at Akio pointedly.

As Bingham walked closer to the gate, it opened as if on command, fluidly and smoothly. They didn’t even have to slow their pace.

The house was beautiful. Large and graceful. It shone like dawn on the sprawling lawn. The air was cool and sweetly scented. A sense of calm, a hush, a sense of rightness welcomed them as they passed through the gate.

“I can only imagine the fury that you will be met with, Baku. The Master is on edge, as it is; your presence here unbidden may very well tip him all the way over.”

“And the Mistress?” Akio asked.

“She has turned her gentle attention to the matter at hand, and I’m sure will give you little notice—if any notice at all.”

“Consider me suitably warned, Bingham. Please do me the kindness and tell the Master and Mistress that I would not have come if I did not feel it was important.”

Bingham wrinkled his nose even more, if that was even possible. He found the idea of carrying any message from Akio to his Master and Mistress distasteful, to say the least.

“Please wait in the garden while I escort the invited guests in,” Bingham said.

Akio nodded and watched as Bingham ushered the boy and the dog up the lawns, onto the porch, through the massive front doors. He walked around to the side yard where the gardens could be found. The gardens were the most beautiful place on this world or any other, no comparison in Heaven or on earth.

The flowers, beautiful and brightly colored, dripped from the bushes. In the center of the gardens was a Japanese Zen sand garden, complete with a rake.

Akio picked up the rake and began making slow and deliberate patterns in the sand. He emptied his mind and lost track of time. He found calm in the simple movements and the intricate and beautiful pattern that emerged from the fingers of his rake.

Bingham appeared again without Akio sensing it. It irked him that Bingham could move in such a way and take him completely by surprise.

“Baku,” said Bingham.

Akio startled.

Bingham sniffed smugly.

“The Master and Mistress will see you now. Due to the nature of the conference and the diversity of the attendees, all the guests are requested to stay in their sociable form—regardless of how dismally they have attired it.” Bingham cast a disapproving glance at Akio’s sweat pants, too tight t-shirt, and shoeless feet. “The rules are as follows—no weapons be they instrument, deed, or word. The rules of hospitality apply to each and every guest; all grievances current and past are to be abandoned for the duration. Do you understand and accept these rules?”

“I do,” said Akio.

Bingham inclined his head, “Please follow me then, Akio the Baku.”

Bingham led Akio down a walkway paved with stones that glistened like gems, twinkling in the early morning light. Men, women, and animals lingered here and there, some in groups socializing, others by themselves looking contemplatively off into the distance. Arthur sat on the ground, his back against a tree. Enid the dog rested on her side, her head nestled next to Arthur’s leg.

Akio loped up the three steps to the grand porch that extended the entire front of the house and followed Bingham through the grand double doors that marked the entrance.

Bingham led Akio into one of the many formal sitting rooms. Standing side by side, silhouetted against the giant front window, stood the Master and the Mistress. They turned in unison as Bingham entered the room.

“Sir and Madame, I present the Baku,” Bingham bowed deeply then about-faced and left.

Akio likewise inclined his head and left his eyes lowered waiting to be reprimanded. Being unwanted and uninvited was reprehensible, but he would not have come if he did not think it was important.

“Akio, my love. Truly it is a great pleasure to see you after these many decades,” said the Mistress; she smiled. “Please let us sit. We have only mere moments before the conference begins, and we must be going about our duties as host and hostess. Let us hear and address your concern.”

The Master and Mistress sat on a small, silk upholstered settee. The settee was arranged with chairs opposite to make a conversational seating area. Akio sat in one of the opposite chairs.

There they sat, ageless, timeless. The Mistress was petite and graceful. Her beauty could not be compared to any one or thing, save the stars at night. The Master was large and formidable. He emanated power. She emanated calm, and together they were balance. Their stories told and sung across the ages, since the Beginning.

They had no name, but went by many. He—Dragon, Ryuu, Yang. Her—Phoenix, Houou, Yin. Together they were two halves of the whole. They were the great Yin and Yang.

To be allowed an audience with them was a great honor, Akio knew this. More than a century had passed since the last time he had found himself in need of their special guidance. Back then, Yin and Yang had spent a lot of time in the mortal world. It was much easier to pass among the mortals in the old days. Akio had found them in the guise of an old man and woman playing mahjong in a teahouse on the river.

Now decades had passed since Yin and Yang had last crossed into the mortal world. Technology overtook the simple ways of life making it harder for them to pass unnoticed among the humans. There was no longer time for fun, the work of balancing the universe left little energy for games and play.

In an effort to conserve their energy, Yin and Yang retreated to the Between to their palace, surrounding themselves with beauty, permitting only a few gateways to the world they strived tirelessly, endlessly to balance and maintain.

Now, they sat in front of him without any guise. Akio, having grown accustomed to humans, found their individual beauty hard to take and their collective presence practically unbearable.

He averted his gaze out of respect, allowing himself a moment to gather himself. He was among his own kind; his discomfort could be seen as shameful. Once he had collected himself, he looked upon them. Beauty not withstanding, a heaviness hung around them, a gravity and a weariness weighed down their black eyes, which Akio hadn’t expected to see.

Akio cleared his throat, “There is a woman named Abbygale Neely that I have sworn to aid and protect. She and I are under contract, and her mortal soul is in jeopardy.”

Akio looked at them. Yin and Yang sat motionless waiting for him to proceed. Akio cleared his throat again and continued.

“She appears to have two souls. Her own and the soul of another named Benjamin Morreau.”

Yin lowered her head, and Yang stood up and began to pace back and forth behind the settee.

“Yes, we have been made aware of this woman,” Yin said, her voice sweet and melodic. “Her fate is to be a talking point for the conference today.”

“A talking point?” Akio asked.

“Isn’t that a term the humans use? Talking point? Agenda item?”

“Yes, it’s a term, so my suspicion is affirmed? She has two souls?”

Yin said, “She is an unfortunate one, her and the one called Benjamin Morreau.”

“How does something like this happen?”

“It doesn’t,” said Yang.

“I’m not following. Please forgive me.” Akio said.

“It does not happen,” Yang’s tone was sharp.

“But it has.”

“Yes,” said Yin.

“How did it happen?” Akio asked.

“It doesn’t happen,” Yang repeated.

“I concede your point,” Akio said bowing his head. He forgot how easily he tired of the word games and the semantics involved with his kind. “It does not happen, but if it had, how might it have happened?”

Yang turned to face Akio having given up pacing behind the settee where Yin sat. He placed his hands on Yin’s thin shoulders and inhaled a deep, hot breath. When he spoke, he spoke slowly and measured, condescendingly. Akio bristled at his tone.

“If it had happened, it would have happened at the Beginning. As you are aware, at the Beginning, every seed on the Tree of Life is split in two, a perfect bisection. Each half to become its own unique being, with its own purpose and lessons to be learned, made in the perfect design of Yin and Yang. Mortals call the two halves soul mates or twin souls. Each a half of the whole, but unique and perfect and complete all on its own. Both half and whole at the very same time. Together they are balance. They are brought into existence and are reincarnated again and again throughout time. Sometimes together, sometimes apart, until the lessons of their souls have been learned, and they have earned their reward. The seed that contained Abbygale Neely’s soul and the soul of her soul mate, Benjamin Morreau, may have not been truly bisected. An anomaly. An impossibility. The woman possesses her own complete soul and a portion of another’s. She is an abomination.”

Yang paused and Yin continued, “Both souls are not in balance, and can never achieve enlightenment or reap their eternal reward. They are continually reincarnated, drawn to the other, destroyed against the other. Their mortal bodies succumb to the imbalance. The imperfect souls are reincarnated yet again to perpetuate the cycle. Nature abhors imbalance. Yet nature is powerless to fix it. Quite simply put, they should not exist.”

“What can be done?” Akio asked.

“There is nothing to be done,” Yang said.

“Well, there might be something,” Yin demurred. “We intend to address it at the conference.”

“What is it?”

“She could be unmade.”

“Destroy her?

“Not destroy her. Destruction alone does not bring balance. Take her fruit from the Tree of Life before she exists.”

Yang leaned over and kissed the top of Yin’s head. She looked at up at him and smiled adoringly.

“That would be a true kindness, my dear,” said Yang. “Your compassion humbles me. It humbles us both, doesn’t it Baku?”

“How is that compassion?” blurted Akio.

Yin and Yang stopped staring admiringly into each other’s eyes. Both their bodies tensed at Akio’s insolent tone, and they turned two sets of angry eyes on him. Their eyes had no pupils, black and deep like a void. Their eyes were disconcerting to look at especially when Akio was used to looking into human eyes.

“You are welcome to stay for the conference, but the mistress and I must bid you adieu.” Akio could hear the displeasure in Yang’s words.

Yin stood and took Yang’s offered arm. They made to leave the room.

“Something has to be done. Something other than unmaking her. Can’t you do something else? Anything else?” Akio too stood, but more abruptly almost causing the chair to tip backward. Akio hurled these words at their retreating backs.

“It is an impossibility,” Yang turned around to square off with Akio.

“It’s not right. None of it is, and since when has the impossible ever stopped the two of you? It must be true what they say, you are surely in a decline. No longer like the rising sun, the great and powerful Yin and Yang, your twilight is upon you. The horizon has its teeth into you, and if you do not fight it, it will swallow you whole.”

Yang sneered enraged, “Baku, you have become a sympathetic fool. You have grown too close to humankind. It makes you weak. Do not posture in my house. Do not attempt to goad and insult me into action. This woman is a human. She is nothing. And you? You are laughable. If not for the Rules of Hospitality, I would rip your head off and put it on a pike for talking to me in such a way.”

Akio wanted nothing more in that moment than to give into to his instinct, to fight and defend his honor. He wanted to lunge at Yang, but he didn’t. He like Yang had agreed to the rules of hospitality, but he trembled with the physical restraint of maintaining his composure.

“It is true, I may be a sympathetic fool as you say, but I would say that you have too far removed yourself from their world and kind. You dismiss them, but is it not true that we, you and I, exist at their whim? Were there no need for balance, there would be no need for you?”

Yang’s face had grown a shade of reddish purple.

“I exist at the whim of no one. Your insolence will not be forgotten, Baku.”

Yin stepped between the two posturing beasts who, without realizing it, had begun to circle each other.

“My Baku, my beloved Dragon, we may not come to blows over this. Akio, the Master is right, you are sentimental. I know full well that your word and honor are at stake in this matter, but you have grown impressionable and narrow in your view of the situation. You have no idea what it takes on a daily basis to balance the universe. The mortal world with its technology, war, famine, pain, spins more and more out of control. It is an endless battle. A losing battle, and yet the Master and I tire every day fighting it, engaged in a war that is unwinnable. I fear that you are right that I may be lost to it. I do feel as if my twilight is upon me.”

At this Yang lowered his head and clenched his jaw. He stood at least a foot and a half taller than Yin. She seemed so tiny and fragile by comparison.

“Do not speak it,” Yang hissed. “You are the great Phoenix, my beloved. I would be nothing without you.”

“Regardless,” Yin said. “Even if we had limitless energy, limitless resources, we could still not rectify the matter of Abbygale Neely in any other way. We did not cause this problem, and we cannot bring it to balance as it stands. Either she exists and remains in constant imbalance with nature, or she is made to never have existed, and balance is restored. There is nothing else that we can do. It is out of our purview. Human souls once brought into existence cannot be tampered with. Humans and humans alone direct their own souls. It is the great flaw of free will. Even to unmake her as I propose may be outside the realm of possibility, which is why Simorg has been called into attendance. But none of this means that there is nothing you can do should you be so inclined to do something.”

“What can I do? I’ll do it,” Akio said.

“That is only for you to decide. Are you not the mighty Baku, devourer of nightmares and demons? Resourceful and wily?” Yang asked in a mocking tone. “Or is your twilight upon you as well?”

“Should you choose to do something,” Yin added. “It must be done before she loses this life. If her seed can be plucked, it will be done before she passes onto the next one.”

With this last remark, the Master and Mistress left the sitting room. Before following, Akio walked around the room looking at the items that they had collected over the centuries. The art of great painters from a century ago hung on the walls. Delicate hand loomed rugs sprawled across the floor. Everything was placed with such care and thought. Akio noticed that there was a definite lack of items from the current century.

He picked up a hand blown glass vase. Delicate and light, it felt like holding air. Its fragility saddened him. Humans were no less fragile. Full of hopes and dreams, light as air, and just as breakable. Were the vase to shatter, it would fall into a million pieces never to be the same. He set the glass vase down gently.

He walked out of the sitting room, into the hall. All sorts were milling about waiting to gain entrance to the auditorium for the start of the conference.

“Akio!” Arthur called from across the room. He beckoned Akio over.

Arthur was talking to a young fellow dressed in what appeared to be an armored kilt with a matching armored breastplate. The armor shone like gold. His hair shone similarly, blond but more like strands of spun gold.

“Akio, have you met Theo?” Arthur said introducing Akio to the golden soldier boy.

“I have not,” said Akio. “I’m honored to meet you.”

“And I, you,” said Theo. “A Baku! I did not realize you still existed.” Surprise and glee lit the boy’s face.

“That’s exactly what I said,” said Arthur.

Akio said nothing.

“Akio, were the Master and the Mistress able to help you with your problem?”

“I wish I could say they had,” Akio said.

“Theo, Akio is here about your Abbygale Neely.”

“Oh? Is that so?”

“Theo is Abbygale’s guardian angel.”

“Not quite right, Arthur,” said Theo. “Abbygale’s angel is with her. I am here in her angel’s stead and at the request of I Am That I Am. Such a sad, tough case.”

“Has anything like this happened before?” Akio asked.

“Not before or since,” said Theo. “Or ever. This just doesn’t happen.”

“So I’ve been told. Have you any idea, how I can help her?”

“Human souls and free will,” Theo’s voice was light but darkness clouded his clear blue eyes. “I Am That I Am has given his pets the greatest gift. My brothers and sisters and I had to declare our allegiance and devotion the moment we were created; yet humans get to choose and choose again every day. I Am That I Am has been generous with them—to a fault, some might say. In this sad case, the greatest gift has become the greatest curse. This woman has earned her eternal reward, but alas our hands are bound, we can’t intervene, nor can any of the heavenly host. Evelyn, her angel, has been with her since the beginning, and she has grown so weary, she weeps for her. Abbygale in turn is Evelyn’s curse. Ha ha, poor, poor, Evelyn. Better her than me,” Theo raised his eyebrows at Arthur and continued in a low, conspiratorial voice and as an aside, “I often wonder what Evelyn did to deserve the short straw. We all wonder and speculate, but no one knows. I’m sure whatever it was, it was just short of being cast out.”

Arthur laughed.

Enid, the dog, snorted.

Arthur stopped laughing.

“I’m sorry,” he said looking down to Enid.

Akio looked at Enid again, more carefully than he had before. She looked at him as well. Her eyes were wide and gentle and ancient.

“Are you staying for the conference?” Arthur asked Akio.

“No. I’m leaving. I have to try to do something to help. I cannot stand by and watch. It’s not in my nature.” Akio smiled sharply, and Theo nodded his head sympathetically, as if to say we are all slaves to our nature. Akio’s smile dropped off his face, “I’m afraid I’m running out of time.”

“Time—speaking of curses,” Theo laughed convivially. “If I had to choose between free will and timelessness, free will would lose every time. That is of course, had I been given the choice.”

Arthur nodded sympathetically.

“What is your plan, Baku?” Theo asked. He took a long swig out of a glass chalice.

Butlers circulated with trays of food and drink. They looked to be some sort of cat thing, walking bipedal, small and lithe.

“I have no plan,” Akio said shaking his head and declining a beverage that a cat butler offered him. Theo took another so that he held a chalice in each hand.

“My advice—” said Theo, “—is to use mortals as chess pieces. I’m forbidden, in any way, from influencing the minds of men, but there are some that can and do. My Fallen brothers and sisters do it all the time, so it can’t be that hard, if you know what I mean.” He took another swig from his glass, the one in the right hand.

“Enid wishes you success in your endeavor,” Arthur said.

“I wish to be formally introduced to Enid,” Akio bowed his head.

“My mistress Simorg, great dragon protector of the Tree of Life, Guardian of Souls, please make the acquaintance of Akio the Baku, Devourer of Dreams and Demons,” Arthur said formally.

Akio bowed low. Enid blinked.

“When we travel, she wishes to remain in this form as Enid the dog. I am her conduit, I speak for her.”

“I’m honored and humbled,” said Akio before he raised his head.

The two great trees, the Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge and Wisdom, could be found deep in the heart of the Garden of Eden. The Tree of Life connected the heavens, the earth and the underworld. The souls of the living hang heavily on its branches. Since the beginning of time, Simorg has guarded the tree and stood as protector over its fruit. It would be she, should the determination be made to pluck Abbygale’s soul, who would have to perform the task.

“She wishes me to convey to you and impress upon you that humans are stronger than they appear. Their will to live is powerful and something to be admired. They will fight for their souls until the bitterest of ends.”

“And so they should. Thank you for your wise counsel,” Akio said to Enid.

Akio excused himself and walked out of the house just as the rest of the attendees were being called into the auditorium by Bingham’s loud voice, ringing like a bell over the din.

He loped down the three porch steps and strode across the great lawn of the house until it morphed into the plush verdant grass of the park.

He saw a woman pushing a little boy on the swing. She looked up at him and smiled. She looked tired, dark circles under her eyes, but happy. She smiled and laughed as the little blond haired boy giggled with every swing.

At Akio’s sudden appearance in the park, a squirrel chattered loudly at him from a tree limb just above his head, rebuking him for his lack of discretion.

“No one asked you,” Akio said to the squirrel. Squirrels were so disrespectful not to mention rude. They always thought they knew the better way and were not shy about sharing their opinions.

Akio worked himself into a run as h