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Unlocked

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

UNLOCKED

by Rebecca Barnes

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter ONE—SATURDAY MORNING

 

Clara awoke at the usual time on Saturday morning unaware that her life was already gone. She lay in bed to give the sleepiness time to fade away, and stretched her body from head to toe in a quiet groan the way a person who has had a perfect night of rest frequently does. She thought about Michael, the boy who sat across from her in geometry class. She liked the way he smiled. Not only did the corners of his lips turn upward, but so did the corners of his eyes. He smiled this generic but handsome smile publicly and often, but Clara especially appreciated his subdued half-smile. This smile, she had observed, was reserved for times when he found something genuinely funny. She liked this one better. Clara stretched again and thought of the crack in his voice when he nervously answered a question in class. She thought of the way his dark hair bounced in his steely eyes as he frantically looked back and forth between his scribbled notes and the whiteboard, while his left hand made futile attempts to keep up with Mr. Wilkinson’s lectures about the Pythagorean Theorem or how to calculate the area of three-dimensional shapes.
I will help him, she thought as she rolled over to one side, I’ll text him today and offer to study with him; surely he’ll agree. That boy needs all the help he can get. She already had his number from a class project last month; all she needed was the guts. Clara slowly sat up and reached out toward her nightstand for last night’s glass of water the way she always did in the morning. “A little hydration goes a long way,” her mother always said. Clara rolled her eyes and sipped.
When Clara’s feet finally found the floor, her toes sank into the rug that covered her creaky hardwood floors. She hated when her feet, toasty from being under her heavy down comforter all night, made harsh contact with the cold, bare floor, so she had chosen a new rug when she had recently redecorated her room. For a moment, Clara had a fleeting thought beneath the surface of her consciousness that the thick zebra print rug possessed a slightly different texture than usual, but the idea was gone before it ever fully formed. She rose and made her way to the upstairs bathroom which was just down the hall from her brightly painted bedroom. Her mother had thrown a fit when Clara had chosen hot pink and aqua, and she certainly did not approve of anything boasting zebra print, but it was Clara’s 14th birthday, so with reluctance, she relented and had allowed her only daughter to ruin her pretty pale walls with a more “grown up” decor.
Clara absent-mindedly stepped off of her soft, warm rug on to the icy floor the same as every morning. Startled, she pulled her foot back and slipped on her cozy, pink slippers. With her feet protected from the bare floor, Clara scuffed her way across her room to her door which she found slightly ajar, figuring she must have forgotten to close it when she came in from babysitting late last night.
The Coolson’s kid was cute, but he was wild. Carson was a five-year-old shooting ball of energy. The boy never stopped moving, and neither did his mouth. Occasionally, Clara would test him to see if he could stand still while telling her one of his many endless stories, but he simply could not do it. He would start mindlessly shifting from one foot to another, progressively moving more and more until he was literally walking and talking in circles. “The quicker the walk, the quicker the talk,” his parents told her when she had first come to babysit Carson a few months before. That was no lie.

In the few hours she had spent babysitting him last night, he had convinced her to play airplane by lying on her back and lifting him off the ground with her feet so that he was “flying” through the air. When he wasn’t an airplane, he was a wrestler, and he had practiced pile-driving profusely on Clara.

At least they pay well, she shrugged, noting the soreness in her shoulders as she pulled her door the rest of the way open, making her way slowly and silently down the hall save for the shuffle-and-scuff of her favorite slippers. Clara pulled open the bathroom door and closed it behind her. She twisted the lock and opened the medicine cabinet above the porcelain pedestal sink. She slung her wavy brown hair up into a loose ponytail just like she always did before she brushed her teeth. She hated finding minty-fresh strands of hair during 2nd hour English. When she raised her hands above her head to complete this task, she noticed soreness in her triceps in addition to her shoulders and decided she had participated in a bit too much aviation and wrestlemania with little Carson last night.
As she reached for the knobs to turn on the water behind the muted lavender and cream shower curtain her mother had chosen, seemingly in retaliation, the same day Clara had chosen her rug and new paint colors, she realized her calves were aching too. Instead of her usual quick Saturday morning hose-down as she liked to call it, she opted instead for a long, hot bath. She quickly twisted her ponytail up into a bath-time bun and inspected her body for soreness. Her arms and neck ached, she already knew that, and her calves were tight and crampy. Clara twisted her back slightly to find mild stiffness there too. She undressed and sat on the side of the oversized tub waiting for it to fill. She dipped her sore legs into the warm water and wondered if this is what old people meant when they said, “this body isn’t what it used to be”. She sunk the rest of the way into the sudsy water to soak her aching body. Well, at least I got twenty-five bucks out of the deal, Clara thought to herself and half-smiled.
Instantly, her thoughts turned again to the dark-haired boy in geometry. Michael played, and played well, on the basketball team, but he wasn’t a “jock”. He was quiet and shy. He tried to succeed in school but despite his best efforts never did very well. He was different from the other boys at Edison High, and Clara liked that about him. He didn’t speak much, except to stutter incorrect answers to questions when he was unexpectedly called on, or when he politely raised his hand and asked to be excused from class to use the restroom, which he frequently did. He was awkward, but handsome. Somehow, that combination had made Clara’s heart flutter, her knees go weak, and all that other stereotypical stuff. It was the perfect combination to make her fall in love with him. Now she just needed to tell him.
The thought of revealing her feelings for another human being made Clara shiver, even in the steaming water that covered her body. She longed to be close to people, but she moved so often that in the end, it was easier to be detached, to avoid making connections. Every time she made a real friend, the kind you could tell anything to, her father’s job relocated him and his family to another town, in another state, which may as well have been another planet as far as Clara was concerned. The older she grew, the harder it became to make friends. By fourteen, people already had their friends, and it was difficult, impossible, really, to integrate into an already formed social group. And besides, getting close to someone just meant losing them. It always ended with tears. Always. It was unfair, but it was life. Clara’s friendless, lonely life. Clara’s boyfriendless, lonely life.
The water felt amazing and soothed her aches. Clara was beginning to feel a little more refreshed and awake. A little more like herself. As this happened, it made her realize how drowsy she had been this morning; how fuzzy her mind had felt, extra fuzzy…like her zebra print rug. I said I would text him and I will, she thought. But what will I say? “Hey, I noticed you suck at geometry. Want me to help you not suck so bad?” or “Finals are next week. You’ll never pass without me!” That’ll be great, Clara mused sarcastically. But I will text him. I will.
When Clara was satisfactorily shriveled from soaking the stiffness out of her muscles, she toweled off and slipped into the robe she kept in her bathroom. She dropped her dirty clothes down the laundry chute in the hall as she padded her way back to her bedroom to dress.
Clara slipped on her favorite Saturday attire. She had no real friends and therefore no real plans other than to binge watch The Secret Life of the American Teenager or engage herself in an 80’s movie marathon, so she donned her softest gray yoga pants, fuzzy socks, and an old college sweatshirt that had belonged to her dad twenty years ago. She left her hair in its bun and went to scope out the kitchen for something teenager-y to eat—cold pizza leftover from dinner on the run a few nights ago or Pop Tarts, whatever she could scavenge that wouldn’t take too much effort.
Clara paused by her bed to pick up last night’s glass of water. She took it downstairs to the kitchen in her fuzzy-socked feet. Her mother hated when she left dishes in her room, even when it was just a glass of water. Bacteria, or something.
“Germaphobe,” Clara grumbled aloud. She didn’t understand why her mother was so worried about germs. Clara had never been sick a day in her life. Seriously, like ever.
“That’s because I make you take care of yourself, Clara,” her mom would argue.
“Whatever you say, Mom. Whatever you say,” would be the answer.
Clara entered the empty kitchen and placed her water glass in the sink subconsciously aware of the television hum from another room. Her parents typically didn’t watch tv in the morning. Her father usually scanned the headlines online, and her mother refused to watch the news at all. She said there was too much violence in the world, and she didn’t want it gunking up her home. Yet, it was the news that was humming.
Clara pulled opened the fridge. Her first choice for breakfast was slightly stale pepperoni pizza from two nights ago. She knew it would still be in there waiting for her, since her parents had gone out to dinner together last night while she babysat. They didn’t typically eat leftover pizza, anyway, but when the door swung open and the light clicked on, there was no pizza to be found. With her head still in the ice box, Clara called to her mom.
“Mo-om! Where are the leftovers from Luigi’s?”
No answer.
“Mom!”
Still, no answer.
“Did you throw out the pizza? I was going to eat it!”
A voice so near it startled her and caused her to jump, bumping her head on the freezer door, chastised, “Clara, honey, that pizza was stale. It was probably crawling with bacteria. I got rid of it this morning.”
“Ugh!” Clara snorted, her head still in the fridge scavenging for sustenance. The back of her skull was throbbing and already forming a goose egg. “Well, now what am I supposed to eat?”
“Sit down, and I will make you something.”
Clara was slightly surprised by the offer, but didn’t argue. She sat down at the island and pulled her phone out of the waistband of her yoga pants. She stared at it for the longest time while her mother banged and rattled in the kitchen, fumbling with breakfast. I said I would text him, and I will, she thought. Right now. I will. Still, she gazed at the phone, unmoving.
Finally, after several minutes of working up the courage to text him, she entered her passcode to unlock the phone and searched her contacts. Rather, she tried to search them. Once she clicked the icon and pulled up an empty file, she realized her phone must have crashed. Her contacts were empty—the few she actually had were gone.
Great, Clara thought, Just wonderful. I finally get the guts to say something to Michael, and my phone loses his number. What is it with the universe!
“Mom!” Clara grumbled, not looking up, “ My phone crashed. All my contacts are wiped out.”
“I’m sure it’s fine. Just restart it,” answered her mother as she scooped scrambled eggs onto a plate and began buttering the toast that had just popped up.
Clara was too busy to notice. She was still fully engaged in trying to fix her phone. She popped the battery out, back in, and restarted her phone. “Nope. No contacts.”
“Let me see it, Clara. I’ll see if I can fix it.”
“Really, mom?” Clara questioned in her patented fourteen-year-old-girl tone.
“Really, Clara.” Her mother said, mimicking her frustrated daughter. “Here, trade me.”
Clara used her inborn teenager superpower to expertly navigate her way through the kitchen without taking her eyes off her phone. She intended to trade her currently useless piece of so-called “technology” for the hot plate of eggs and head over to the table to eat them. She met her mother near the toaster where she waited with the breakfast she had just prepared for her daughter. Clara took the plate and began to hand the phone over to her mother after pressing a few more buttons in the hopes of restoring her contacts. Finally, she looked up from her malfunctioning device.
The heavy white dining plate Clara had just been handed shattered on the porcelain tile at Clara’s feet. The eggs splattered her fuzzy socks and the surrounding area; a few pieces even smattered the front of the stainless steel dishwasher and began to slide down it. Clara’s phone crashed to the floor as well, shattering the screen and sending the newly replaced battery skidding into the island where she had just been sitting perfectly safe and perfectly content, except for the fact that her phone was a useless hunk of junk, moments before.
The woman standing before her in the kitchen, the woman who had just cooked her breakfast, the woman who answered to “Mom”, was most certainly not Clara’s mother. The woman standing before her was a complete and total stranger.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Two—Clara’s Beginning

 

PUSH!

Melanie Marcel had endured a grueling thirteen hours of labor. Hard labor. Before that, she had labored silently, calmly, secretly for another seven, contracting and counting and breathing. Mark had thought his pregnant wife was still sleeping when he slipped out of bed that Friday morning, showered, dressed for work, and poured his freshly brewed Folgers. Just as Melanie heard the front door close behind Mark, she felt another wave of pressure in her swollen belly. She smiled to herself, hoping this was it…the real deal. She held her tight abdomen, let out a sigh and thought with a nervous, sleepy smile, I’ve waited so long. So, so long.

Mark had been employed by BioTech, a fertility research lab, since he had graduated from Duke University with a Master’s in Animal Reproductive Sciences at the age of twenty-four. He met Melanie in the fall of his first year at BioTech. She was an office assistant at the lab where he had been hired. She was tall and strikingly beautiful. He was instantly in love. He wasn’t sure if it was because he hadn’t had time to so much as look at a girl for the six years he’d spent at Duke, or if it was because she was so gorgeous, not to mention sweet-natured and intelligent, but he didn’t care. He dated her, married her, and wanted to have children with her.

Ironically, they had struggled with that last part of the plan for years. They visited their primary doctor who determined that if there was a problem, it lay with Melanie, so he referred her to her OBGYN for further testing. After lengthy and invasive procedures, her OB realized Melanie’s infertility issues were out of his scope, and he then referred her to a fertility specialist. After Clomid, hormone injections, and three failed In-Vitros, Mark and Melanie were ready to call it quits. Not only was the whole process leaving them emotionally bankrupt, they were in danger of financial bankruptcy as well.

“We could always adopt,” Mark offered, knowing that’s not what either of them really wanted. They had nothing against adoption, and eventually would probably grow to love the idea and wonder why they didn’t think of it sooner, but now, in this moment, after investing two years in fertility treatments and another year trying naturally before that, they wanted nothing more than to conceive their own child. They were too invested to look at other options.

When they had all but given up on Plan A, Mark called Melanie from work. She had taken the day off to wallow. One good, long day off lying in bed, eating a carton of ice cream and watching the Lifetime Movie Network until she couldn’t cry anymore, and then she’d be fine—back to work Tuesday with a smile on her face despite her barren womb. It was well into Monday afternoon, and when Melanie saw that it was Mark calling, she began to worry knowing his cell didn’t get good reception in the lab and he normally didn’t have time for personal calls, anyway. She took a deep breath and answered, half expecting to hear mayhem and destruction in the background. She didn’t.

“Mel, you’re not going to believe this. The trial at work, the one we keep trying to get into?” Mark yipped breathlessly into the phone.

“Yeah…?” Melanie hesitated, not wanting to get her hopes up. She had almost lulled herself into accepting that she would have to let go of the last of the hope she had been hanging on to.

“Melanie, we’re in. You need to come in right away. I’ve already called the fertility specialist’s office and requested your file to be sent over. I’ve just sent Karen to pick you up. Melanie, can you believe it?”

He was answered with Melanie’s silence, which was dabbed with the murmur of bad acting in the background.

“Mel? Are you there? Did you hear what I said?”

More silence. More bad acting.

“Melanie!” Shouted Mark, concerned about what might be happening on the other end of the line.

“Is this real life? Mark, is this really happening?” Melanie asked, too shocked to believe what she was hearing. This was their last hope at conceiving a child on their own. BioTech had been working on innovative new fertility and DNA treatments for years, and this new trial was promising. Mark wasn’t working directly on the trial, except to run some labs occasionally or crunch some numbers, but he knew enough about it to know that it had already proffered definite success. They had applied, and applied, and reapplied, being denied each time due to the fact that they were both employed at the company. Finally, after months of paperwork and denials, they were in. Finally. “How?” She questioned, “Why now?”

Reluctantly, Mark explained that the misfortune of others is what led to Mark and Melanie’s good news. “Turns out, three women were unsuccessful during phase two. They need healthy, primed candidates to take their places pronto. You’re healthy. You’re primed. So, they asked if we were still interested.”

“What’d you tell them?”

“I said of course, we are! How could we pass up this opportunity? Listen, Mel, Karen should be there shortly to pick you up. She’s bringing you here to get started. Now. Today. Can you believe it?”

She couldn’t.

“Pack extra clothes just in case. I know they keep some of the candidates overnight. And when you get here, we’ll have a ton of paperwork. They suggested we bring a lawyer, so that’s why I’m sending Karen to get you. She’s just as excited as we are, and she can decipher all that legal mumbo jumbo for us. Win, win, right?”

“Is this real life?” Melanie asked again, frozen.

“Yeah, Mel. It’s happening. One more chance,” Mark convinced, “Mel, I gotta get back to it. See you soon.”

“See you soon.” Melanie replied and clicked the receiver into its place. She stood there staring at the phone for several minutes, still not entirely sure she believed what had just transpired. She began to let the information wash over her in gentle waves, taking it all in little by little. The trial, she thought, I’m in. Could it be possible? Could the trial work? Could I actually conceive, carry, and deliver a healthy baby? As she said these things in her mind, her right hand moved across her flat stomach and rested just below her navel. She smiled dreamily. Eventually, Melanie was startled out of this dream by a loud knock at the door.

“Karen, is that you?” Melanie called as she crossed to the front entrance.

“Yeah, Momma! It’s me! Let me in so we can go get you a baby!”

Melanie liked the way that sounded. Momma. She unlocked the deadbolt and ushered Karen in. They weren’t usually the hugging type, but this situation called for an embrace. The women squealed for a moment and even bounced up and down in the threshold like teenagers, which was also a little out of character for them, but celebrate, they must.

“Is this real life?” Melanie asked wide-eyed for the third time since hearing the news. “Karen, is this for real?”

“Of course it is! Let’s get you packed. C’mon.” The women made their way down the hall to the master bedroom. Karen flung open Melanie’s closet doors and started grabbing clothes.

“Karen, I only need a change of clothes. Mark didn’t tell me to pack for the whole pregnancy. Slow down!” Melanie laughed.

“Well, just in case. Better to over prepare rather than under prepare, right?” Karen retorted as she pulled another shirt off its hanger and stuffed it into the bag. “You’re going to need comfy clothes too.” Melanie opened her dresser drawer, pulled out two pairs of sweat pants, two t-shirts, two sets of intimates and four pairs of socks. Melanie loved clean socks. Sometimes she’d change her socks two or three times in one day. She neatly refolded her clothing and rearranged it in the bag Karen had stuffed. She packed her toiletries, and the friends set out for BioTech Medical Research Facility.

#

“PUSH!” screamed the nurse again. This time, Melanie bore down and her miracle emerged.

“It’s a girl!” announced the obstetrician who had stepped into the room only moments before Melanie’s daughter was born. He cut the cord and left as hastily as he had entered. The team of nurses tended to the rest.

The room became a buzz of excitement and activity. Melanie only saw her infant daughter for a fraction of a second before they whisked her away to the incubator and wheeled her out of the room.

“What’s happening? What are you doing with my baby? I want to hold her. I want to see her.”

“Mrs. Marcel, please relax,” a nurse instructed.

“I just want to see my baby! Is something wrong with her? Why won’t you let me see her?” the new mother pleaded in desperation. She had waited nine long months to hold this precious child in her arms. Actually, she had waited four long years. Fertility treatment after fertility treatment. Shot after shot. Prayer after prayer. And finally…finally…she had a child. A child no one would let her see. “Mark, where is our baby? Go find her.”

“I can’t leave you, Mel.” He responded, unsure which of the women in his life he needed to care for at this moment in time.

“Mark. I’m fine. Go. Find our Clara. Make sure she’s okay.”

Mark kissed his wife’s forehead and did as he was told, still feeling torn. Melanie was able to fend off the sobs that had been threatening her until after Mark had slung the privacy curtain to the delivery room closed and set out for the nursery.

“Ma’am, I assure you that your baby is fine. But, because of the trial, we’ll need to run tests and observe her for a period of time before you can hold her. Remember? This was all discussed with you when you and Mr. Marcel agreed to be a part of this study,” a young nurse explained. She was kind but lacked sympathy in her tone. Melanie guessed she was not a mother herself. Hell, Melanie thought, I’ve only been a mother myself for five minutes.

“I don’t ever remember discussing that my baby would be taken away from me upon birth!” Melanie screamed. At this point, Melanie was hysterical. “Bring me my baby!”

“Mrs. Marcel, Melanie,” the nurse softly attempted to pacify her patient, “Melanie, remember all those papers you signed?”

Melanie remembered: stack upon stack of medical and legal jargon. She had signed at every X, initialed every box, and scribbled her name across every dotted line, only thinking baby, baby, baby.

“Yes.” Melanie sobbed, defeated.

“It was all in there. Upon birth, it was explained that the baby would be removed from the parents for a period of time so that the proper tests could be administered. We need data for our trial. You are helping future mothers just like yourself, Melanie. That should bring you some relief.”

It did, but just a bit. Melanie was exhausted, emotional, and just wanted to hold her beloved and long-awaited daughter in her weary arms.

“What kinds of tests?” Melanie asked, calming slightly and wishing she had read all the fine print when she had signed those papers last year.

“She’ll be fine, Melanie. I promise. You’ll be holding her in no time.”

“I just want to know what they’re doing to my baby.” Melanie pleaded.

“Well, they will be doing all the routine testing that we do on all newborn babies. This includes drawing blood; the Apgar assessment which will evaluate your baby’s heart rate, breathing, muscle tone, reflex response, and color; in addition, they will run an MRI to check for any abnormalities in the brain or body; echocardiogram to ensure a healthy heart, and of course a hearing and vision test.” The young nurse explained all of this as if she was reading the menu selections to an elderly patron at IHOP. She acted as if this was an everyday run-of-the-mill delivery. For her, it probably was. She probably delivered many babies who had been a part of this fertility trial, but as far as Melanie was concerned, she was the only mother of the only baby that mattered. This was her first experience with any of this and she didn’t like it one bit. “Let’s get you cleaned up and into your room, hon.”

“Hon,” Melanie privately scoffed. She hated when perky little things much younger than she called her “hon”. Insult to injury, she thought. Insult to injury.

An hour after delivery, Melanie Marcel still had not seen her newborn daughter, other than the brief glimpse before they stole her away in the delivery room. Her long-time friend, Karen, had joined her and set to work calming the new mother.

“She’s fine, and you know it, Mel-Bel,” Karen assured. “If something was wrong, you’d know it, they would have told you.”

“I know, but…she should be here. With me. In my room. In my arms.” Melanie argued, feebly of course. She had yet, in all their years of friendship, to win an argument with Karen.

“Listen, hon…”

While it didn’t infuriate Melanie the way it had when the nurse had called her “hon”, she still found herself mildly annoyed by the moniker, as if it inherently held condescension within its three short letters. Who knew two consonants and a vowel could automatically make someone sound like a know-it-all asshole? Melanie thought.

“I was with you when you and Mark filled out the paperwork for this fertility trial. We pored over papers for hours. As your lawyer, I explained all of this in explicit detail. You said you understood what you were signing up for, but all I saw were babies in your eyes. You would have signed away your soul if it meant getting a baby in return, wouldn’t you?”
Melanie let out a short laugh, but inside, she wasn’t amused at all. Karen didn’t have children. She couldn’t understand what this felt like. What it felt like to have your very heart ripped out of your chest.

“Besides, you’re going to have to get used to it, hon. She’ll be involved in this study until she’s eighteen: Weekly checkups and blood draws for the first year, monthly tests and wellness checks until age five, and quarterly medical and fitness evaluations until adulthood. This is what you signed on for, Mel-Bel, but you have a baby now! Enjoy it.”

Melanie remembered most of this, but the reality of her empty arms made it all hit home in a heavy and unexpected way.

“And don’t worry. I’m sure Mark’s with her.”

This reminder eased Melanie’s troubled mind somewhat. “Have you heard from him? Did you see him on your way in?”

“No, but if you want, I’ll go check. I can see what’s—”

As if on cue, Melanie’s phone chimed. It was muffled, having been packed in the side pocket of her overnight bag, but both women heard it. Karen, who was the more able-bodied of the two, crossed to the tall thin locker-style closet and opened it. Inside Melanie’s immaculately packed floral canvas bag, her phone chimed again.

“It’s Mark,” Karen beamed. “Here.” She handed the phone to her friend.

Melanie flipped open her phone and read the first of two messages from the father of her child: She’s beautiful. She’s beautiful, and healthy, and perfect. She clicked on the second message. It took a moment to open, but when it did, Melanie was in love. It was a picture of her darling, sweet, baby girl. Melanie gazed at the picture and longed to hold her baby. She smiled at the sight of her gorgeous girl.

“Well!? What did he say?” Karen insisted.

“Look!” Melanie held out her phone.

“Awwww, she’s perfections Mel-Bel, just like you. Good job, Momma!”

Momma, thought Melanie. I like that.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Three—Saturday Evening

 

“Stay calm, baby.” Melanie soothed in the most motherly voice she could muster. Don’t try to fight. Stay calm, and we will try to do everything we can to help you, honey. We love you so, so much.”

Clara, whose eyes flitted frantically between opened and closed, couldn’t understand why she felt like lead—her eyes, her body. Her vision was blurry behind her half-closed lids and she was immediately aware through the haze that her throat was parched. She tried to speak, but when she did, all she could muster was a weak groan. As her mind cleared little by little, she began to panic.

“Clara, don’t try to speak. Mom will get you some water.” Mark nodded to Melanie, indicating the instruction.

“The drugs are making you thirsty,” her father explained as Melanie left the room to pour some water in the kitchen and quickly returned.

“Drugs?” Clara thought? What drugs? What’s happening?” Her eyes continued to flutter and focus for what seemed an eternity. When she was finally able to hold them open, what she saw horrified her. She was back in her upstairs bedroom, in her own bed, under her own down comforter. Except it was not her own parents attempting to quiet her. It was strangers who hovered over her. As Melanie offered the glass of tap water to her daughter, Clara rallied the energy to scream so loudly that her mother dropped the glass which shattered on the hardwood floor below. She felt a sting on her arm, in addition to the sting in her throat caused by the shrieking. Maybe it was a glass shard, maybe a needle, but before Clara could decide, she was out.

When she roused again, it was early Monday morning, and she was just as groggy as the previous day. Her body was heavy like never before. For a few minutes, she allowed herself to believe perhaps she was just very sick. Maybe she was running a ridiculous fever and that was the reason her body was heavy, her mind was foggy, and that maybe, just maybe, she was having incredibly vivid nightmares or even hallucinating. Clara kept her eyes closed for as long as she could for this very reason. She clung to the hope that none of this was real, but eventually, she knew she was going to have to open her eyes and face reality.

Ultimately, she willed her lids to separate. Relief washed over her exhausted body. She examined the room around her—the fluorescent lighting, mild greenish stark walls, a single window, and a curtain suspended from the tiled drop-ceiling that served as a privacy curtain between her railed bed, which she was just now determining was very uncomfortable.

Thank God, she smiled, I am sick. I am in a hospital. Still weak, Clara relaxed and closed her eyes again. She knew she had never been sick a day in her life, according to her germaphobe mother, anyway, so she figured now that she was finally sick, she was getting fourteen years’ worth. It must be something awful to be admitted to the hospital, she concluded.

I wonder where my parents are, Clara thought, but judging by the bright morning sun that was penetrating her closed lids, she figured it must be early the next morning. They were probably at the cafeteria grabbing a quick breakfast or in the lounge pouring themselves some coffee. It’s probably been a long couple of days for them too, she mused, but still wished they were here, by her side.

She must have dozed off again—she wasn’t surprised as tired as she was—because when she awoke, the sun had moved across the sky and was no longer shining directly on her. She opened her eyes and noticed that in fact many hours had passed and judging by the shadows creeping across her dim room, she presumed the sun must be sinking down over the other side of the building. She smiled a lazy smile, knowing her parents would be somewhere in the room ready to welcome her back into the land of the living. She twisted her sore neck to the right and then toward the left, surveying the room, but there was no sign of them. She tried feebly to sit up in bed, but she was too weak. After a moment of rest, she raised her right arm to feel for the button on the side rail of her hospital bed so that she could raise the bed instead of attempting to raise her body. When she reached for the rail, her arm caught on something. She reached over with her left hand to untangle whatever wire or tube was holding her back, but when she did, her left arm stopped short too. Clara opened her bleary eyes and saw that she was not tangled in medical equipment; she saw that both of her arms for unknown reasons were restrained.

At some point, fatigued from her attempt to free herself, Clara must have fallen asleep—blacked out, more likely—again because when she woke, the sun was once again shining brightly through the one small window in her sterile little room. She was mentally aware enough to know that it must now be Tuesday morning, but she couldn’t be one hundred percent sure in her current cognitive state.

“MOM!” Clara screamed at the top of her lungs despite the pain. “MOM? DAD?” She screamed again, louder this time, but no one came. Where were they? Why weren’t they by her side? Why was she restrained? These were the questions racing through Clara’s mind as she pulled against the restraints with all her might, which was less than impressive since she had been sedated, or at least she assumed she had been sedated given her grogginess and general malaise.

“Someone HELP ME!” She shouted and began to sob uncontrollably, but still, no one came. She wondered if anyone could hear her. Were they watching her? Were her parents even in the same building? And what about the strange dreams she had had? Oh, God, she thought. What if they were somehow real?

Clara quickly pushed that thought out of her mind. It couldn’t have been real. But still, she wondered frantically, where am I and why am I here? With that thought, there was soft knock at the door of her empty room. She waited for a long moment, and then she heard the knock again. Louder this time, but still gentle and unobtrusive.

“Who….who is it?” Clara asked, nervous and not having a clue what or who to expect. She knew it would not be her parents. They wouldn’t have knocked. She hoped it was a doctor, or better yet, a nurse—in her experience nurses always knew more about what was going on than the doctors anyway—who could explain what was happening.

“Clara?” A gentle voice answered. “Clara, my name is Dr. Lydia Lindenhurtz. I’m a psychiatrist associated with this hospital. May I come in, please?”

A psychiatrist!? Clara thought. Oh my God, what happened that I need a psychiatrist!? The idea of being tied down in a hospital at an unknown location with a psychiatrist knocking on the door and asking to enter left Clara utterly terrified.

“Clara?” the pleasant voice called again.

“Come in.” Clara answered with reluctance and apprehension. Clara heard a buzz and a bolt automatically unlock before the door opened. Dear God, was she locked in this room as well? The door swung open and Dr. Lindenhurtz entered. Clara still could not see her; she was standing behind the privacy curtain that was pulled between Clara’s bed and the door.

“Clara, may I come the rest of the way in? I’d like to meet you face to face if that’s okay with you.” Her words seemed sincere.

“Umm, yeah, I guess…” Clara answered, but her words turned upward creating more of a question than a statement.

Clara heard the door latch behind the woman. Gentle footsteps approached the curtain, pulled it aside, and proceeded to the only chair in the room which sat across from Clara’s bed. Tears streamed down her cheeks as she watched this stranger entering her room.

“Clara, may I sit?” the woman requested, motioning to the empty chair. Her tone was one of caution. Through her tears and foggy head, Clara observed that she was of average height, maybe 5’6 or so, with plain brown hair, and small glasses. She wore a heather gray pants suit with black flats. Her features were common and friendly. She had that girl-next-door-vibe. Clara could relate. She was a girl-next-door type too, she thought.

“I guess.” Clara answered, sniffing. Since she was restrained and therefore unable to wipe her tears away by hand, they tickled her cheeks as they trickled down them and dried in salty tracks. Dr. Lindenhurtz sat.

“Clara, I understand you must be confused in addition to being scared. Take a few deep breaths, and try to calm down, try to center yourself. I’m going to explain everything. I’m going to help you find your way back.”

Clara’s eyes widened. Lydia instantly realized what she’d said.

“Clara, you are confused right now, right?”

“Yeah…”

“It’s my job to help you sort out the confusion. Do you think you can let me help you do that?”

“Umm…yeah. I mean…I guess…” Clara offered, still sounding unsure. She still didn’t understand how all this was happening, or why for that matter. Fortunately, Dr. Lindenhurtz’s presence was calming and reassuring in this time of chaos and disorientation. Sure, she was a stranger, but Clara needed something, anything, to hold onto during this storm, and Lydia was the only semblance of a life preserver she had at this point. Clara decided she’d better hold on for dear life.

“Let’s start by finding out what you know about what is happening. Is that okay?” Lydia was fumbling through her bag as she asked this. Clara watched as she drew out a small recording device in addition to a legal pad and a pen. “Clara, do you mind if I record this? It may help in the future.”

“Um, sure. If you want.” The recorder made Clara feel awkward. Lydia noticed Clara’s uneasy body language as she stared at the device.

“You know what, Clara? We don’t need to record today. I’ll put it away for now. Do you mind if I take notes?” Lydia asked, hopefully.

“No, go ahead, Dr….” Clara’s concentration wasn’t quite up to par yet. She knew the woman had introduced herself, but for the life of her, Clara couldn’t remember what she had said her name was.

“Lindenhurtz. Dr. Lindenhurtz. If it’s easier, feel free to call me Dr. L.” Lydia smiled. “So, do you mind to tell me what you know about your situation?”

The tears which had subsided flowed freely again, but they were silent and Clara was able to speak through them. “I don’t know where I am or why I am here. I don’t know where my parents are,” Clara whispered.

“Clara, I’m sorry. We’ll get there, but first, focus on what you do know, not what you don’t know. Tell me facts and we’ll sort the rest out together.”

“I know that I woke up yesterday, or maybe the day before, really I don’t know when for sure—“

“Remember focus on what you do know, Clara.”

“Okay. I know I woke up in my own house, I walked downstairs into the kitchen, and I talked to my mom. But, when I looked up, it wasn’t my mom at all. It was some stranger, pretending to be my mom.”

“That must have been a terrifying experience for you. What else, Clara?”

“I know that when I woke up, I was in my room, but when I opened my eyes, strangers were standing there. This time it was the woman from the kitchen and a man. I think…I think they drugged me. And when I woke up again, I was here…with these.” Clara raised both of her arms up until her restraints stopped them short. Clara’s tears erupted into anger. “What am I doing here!? Where are my mom and dad!” She wailed.

“Clara, I’m going to help you get to the bottom of all of this. I promise. First of all, I will tell you where you are, so that we can get that out of the way. As you have already probably figured out, you are in a hospital. You have been brought in to the Breemont Facility. You are in the psychiatric wing here, and I have been assigned to your case.”
“My case? What do you mean my case? What case?” Clara angrily sobbed at her new doctor. The answers she was receiving only created more questions.

“It seems that undue stress has caused you to suffer a psychotic break, Clara. Your mind has separated itself from reality. I’m here to help you get your life back in order.”

“A psychotic break?”

“Yes. Patients suffering from a psychotic break have an impaired relationship with reality; that is, they are unable to distinguish personal subjective experience from the reality of the external world. They experience hallucinations and/or delusions that they believe are real, and may behave and communicate in an inappropriate and incoherent fashion,” Lydia regurgitated what she had read time and time again. She had studied this type of disorder endlessly after failing with a previous patient with the same problems Clara is having now. In fact, she couldn’t believe it when Breemont administrators put her on this case just a year after her utter failure with Stanley.

“We assume this has been caused by all the moving you have done in the last fourteen years. You have been constantly uprooted throughout your life, and this is sometimes a contributing factor to this type of episode; however, while you are here at Breemont, we plan to do all the proper medical testing to rule out other precipitating factors, both biological and otherwise.”

Clara fought back terror. She knew there was no way to physically escape the situation she was in, and tried to convince herself that things like this don’t happen for no good reason. It’s not like to movies where someone gets mistakenly locked up. That kind of thing didn’t happen in real life, in her life. She took a few more deep breaths, the ones Dr. Lindenhurtz had instructed her to take earlier. They seemed to help then, so she hoped maybe they would help now too. They did. Clara forced herself to stay calm, or at least calm-ish.

“A psychotic break?” Clara asked.

“Yes, Clara. It seems after your most recent move, you exhibited uncharacteristic behaviors. Your parents stated that you became increasingly confused, and finally stopped recognizing them altogether. That’s what brought you here.” Dr. Lindenhurtz explained carefully. She remained professional, but tenderness seeped through her voice.

Dr. Lindenhurtz could see the wheels turning in Clara’s mind as she remembered bits and pieces of the last few days of her life. She had gone to bed after babysitting with one set of parents and woken up the next morning with a completely new set of parents. The psychiatrist tried to wrap her head around what that must be like for her new patient. “Clara, I know this is hard. It’s my job to help you through the hard stuff, okay?”

Clara was silent for a long time. “Okay,” she answered reluctantly.

“I don’t think you need those anymore,” Lydia stated as she rose from her chair and motioned to the restraints on Clara’s wrists, “would you like me to remove them?”

“Yes, please.” Clara responded urgently, holding her arms out as far as she was able.

Lydia approached with caution and purpose. She locked eyes with her patient and smiled, hoping to form a bond. “May I?” She asked as she reached for Clara’s right arm.

“Yes.” Clara replied, eager to be free, to wipe away the salt trails, to scratch above her left eyebrow where an itch had grown unbearable.

Lydia carefully untied the restraint and moved to the other side of the hospital bed before freeing the left arm. When both arms had been liberated, Clara first scratched the itch on her forehead with long-awaited satisfaction and then proceeded to rub her wrists. The restraints hadn’t been all that tight, but they had been uncomfortable and, well, restraining. It felt good to be free from them. Clara sighed a small sigh of relief, celebrating a small victory in the midst of confusion and loss.

Dr. Lindenhurtz returned to her chair and waited. She allowed time to pass. She waited for her patient to speak or move. Finally, Clara broke the silence: “How long have I been here?” she asked, scared to hear Dr. Lindenhurtz’s response. She thought she knew the answer already, but in her current state of confusion, she wouldn’t have been surprised to find that she was wrong.

“Your parents first noticed an official break with reality on Friday night after you came home from babysitting. They said you acted strangely before bed, but they thought that maybe you were just tired. When you came down for breakfast Saturday morning, your mother said you didn’t recognize her at all, that you screamed and fainted when you saw her. She and your father took you up to your room to rest. You slept all day and all through the night, but they said you clearly weren’t any better by Sunday morning. They had sat by your bedside the entire time, and when you woke, you still didn’t recognize them. They didn’t know what else to do, so they brought you here, to Breemont. You arrived in the early morning hours on Monday. You’ve been sedated and resting since then. Today is Tuesday.”

“So I’ve lost three whole days of my life? The last normal thing I remember is babysitting Friday night.”

“I suppose so.” Dr. Lindenhurtz answered.

“And my parents? Where are they?”

“They are in the facility. Waiting. Would you like to see them?” Lydia asked.

“Depends. Which parents are they?”

“There’s really no way to tell which parents you will perceive until you are face to face with them. Would you like me to page them?” Lydia asked.

“No. No, not yet. I want my parents, but I’m scared it won’t actually be my parents when they walk through that door. I can’t handle that right now.”

“That’s what I’m here for, Clara.” Dr. Lindenhurtz reassured.

“Clara, I’d like to show you something if that’s alright.”

Clara looked at the psychiatrist studying her, “Alright, what?”

I have a photograph your parents gave me. It’s of the two of them with you. Instead of seeing your parents face to face, would you like to test the waters with this photograph?”

“Let me see it,” Clara held out her hand, dreading what the doctor might lay in it.

“Be prepared, Clara. Expect the best and prepare for the worst, that’s what my father always told me, and it’s saved me some turmoil a time or two.” Lydia placed the photograph in Clara’s hand and stepped back, waiting for her to look. Lydia would be able to tell by Clara’s reaction which direction this treatment would need to take.

Clara held the photograph in her hand for the longest time, but never laid eyes upon it. She just held it.

“Clara, look at the photo. What do you see? Who do you see?” Lydia urged.

Clara, still not looking, crumpled the photo up and threw it at Lydia, narrowly missing her. “I don’t need a picture to tell me who my parents are. I know my parents. Whatever is on that paper? Whatever is in that photograph…is a lie!

Clara and Lydia sat in silence for over an hour before Lydia deemed it time to go. In that time span, an orderly came by with lunch and meds. He waited for Clara to swallow her pills, but she hadn’t touched her food.

“I’ll see you tomorrow unless you ask for me sooner. Try to get some rest this evening, Clara,” Lydia said as she tucked away her yellow legal pad and rose to go. “It was nice meeting you,” an obviously sincere sentiment.

Clara didn’t respond. She was too spent from a morning of trying to remember and trying to forget all at the same time. She missed her parents and was full of worry and doubt about what the future may hold. Dr. Lindenhurtz slung her bag over her right shoulder and tossed a friendly smile in Clara’s direction before buzzing herself out. Clara was now realizing that she was locked in this room. She couldn’t even roam the halls if she wanted. Clara tried to force a smile back in Dr. Lindenhurtz’s direction, feeling embarrassed by her earlier outburst, but the smile turned out to resemble more of a painful wince. The door opened and Lydia was gone. Clara was alone. The room was quiet save for the hum of the overhead lights and the ticking of the clock on the wall. Clara listened. Clara wept.

When she was all cried out, she sat up in her bed. Clara was finally getting her faculties about her. Whatever drugs they had originally given her must be wearing off, though she still felt fuzzy, probably from whatever pills they had given her at lunch. Speaking of lunch, Clara realized she was starving. She guessed being heavily drugged and carted off to an insane asylum really took it out of a girl. A painful chuckle escaped at the sheer ridiculousness of the situation she was in as Clara swung her feet out of bed. She steadied herself and pulled the tray with food on it nearer to her bed so that she could see what kind of cold mush they had left for her. A cold turkey sandwich, green beans, and a cup of what was probably very melted ice cream. She felt the bread: stale from sitting out for so long. She expected to be disgusted, but as she chewed the bland turkey topped with processed American cheese and stale bread, she was comforted. It reminded her of the last school she had attended. On sandwich day the lunch ladies would begin laying out bread and constructing the sandwiches as soon as they had cleaned up the breakfast mess, so by the time lunch rolled around, the bread had a hard crust where it had been exposed to the air. Who knew hospital food could make her feel so…at home?

She choked down a few more bites, skipped the mushy, cold green beans, and removed her straw from the unsweetened iced tea on her tray. The condensation from the plastic cup ran down and pooled at its base creating a wet ring on the tray’s paper liner. Clara pulled back the cardboard tab that sealed the ice cream cup, placed the straw inside, and sucked down a room temperature milkshake. Gotta make the best of what you’ve got. That was Clara’s philosophy. Her mother’s philosophy, actually, but whatever.

She set about exploring her room. She was dressed in a hospital gown, and when she slid out of bed and her feet hit the cold tiled floor, she longed for her warm, fuzzy slippers, but of course, they were nowhere to be found. She checked the locker in her room. Inside, she found a pair of pajama pants, a plain t-shirt, and a pair of skid-resistant socks. Anything was better than the gown she was wearing, so she quickly dressed. Her mouth was dry and she could tell her breath reeked. It has to be pretty awful if I can smell my own bad breath, she thought. At the sink in the middle of the wall opposite her bed, she found an unopened toothbrush, new travel sized tube of off-brand toothpaste, and a Dixie cup. After untangling her long hair with a comb she found on the counter, she tied her hair back in a ponytail and then opened the hygiene products and began brushing her teeth. She studied herself in the mirror. Her face was warbly like in a fun house or mirror maze. The mirror was probably made of plastic so that the occupant of the room couldn’t break it and use it as a weapon against someone…or against him or herself. She noticed dark circles under her eyes, and her whole face seemed puffy. Probably from all the crying, she figured.

After brushing her teeth, she felt minutely refreshed. She traveled the length of the room, counting steps. She was reminded vaguely of a Poe story she had read in English class last year. A man falsely accused of heresy is sentenced to a punishment more horrible than death. He wakes up in an unknown chamber and can’t see anything, so he tries to walk the perimeter to get a feel for his surroundings. This is what Clara was doing now. She counted roughly fifteen heel-to-toe steps wide and eighteen or so heel-to-toe steps long. She did notice on step twelve that she had her own bathroom along the wall with the sink. This was a huge plus. She had always wanted an en suite, but she had never really planned for it to happen like this. When she had traversed to the door that led to the hall, she reached for the knob, only to find that there wasn’t one. She knew from the sound of Dr. Lindenhurtz entering and exiting her room that the door was locked, but the fact that the door didn’t even have a handle on the inside made reality all the more clear to Clara. She was not getting out of here unless someone let her out. There was no window on the door, so she wasn’t even able to assess the situation outside of her room.

Defeated, she crossed to the window on the opposite wall. She tapped on it and noted that it was too thick to break, safety glass maybe. She peered out, though there wasn’t much to see—some buildings, a freeway, and the backs of a couple of billboards. She watched the cars pass by below, longing to be in one of them going anywhere. Anywhere but here.

Ultimately, she approached the chair Dr. Lindenhurtz had sat in during their time together this morning. She sat in the chair and drew her feet up underneath her. She wondered what it was like from Dr. Lindenhurtz’s point of view earlier today. Just how crazy had Clara looked to her? She leaned to the side and rested her temple on her right hand, staring blankly at the floor when something caught her attention. She reached down and picked it up. It was the photograph Dr. Lindenhurtz had brought in. Clara hoped beyond hope as she delicately opened the wadded up paper. Once uncrumpled, she placed it face down on her pajama pants and smoothed the picture as best she could. She closed her eyes, turned the photograph over, and took a deep breath. When she finally opened her eyes, all hope instantly vanished.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Four—Clara’s Parents

 

Back in the consult room while Clara was elsewhere picking at her turkey sandwich, Dr. Lindenhurtz met with Clara’s parents. Melanie and Mark were leaning into one another, hands clasped. They were still wearing the same clothes they had been in on Monday morning when they had arrived with their daughter. Melanie had been crying, but Mark was stoic. When Lydia entered, they both sat forward, wide-eyed in anticipation. Dr. Lindenhurtz could see that the couple was torn about bringing their daughter in and signing her over into Breemont’s custody, even if it was only temporarily.

The parents, too tired to speak, waited for the doctor to begin. “Mr. and Mrs. Marcel, I know this must be excruciatingly difficult for you, but I assure you, your daughter is in excellent hands. I’d like to get a history from you if you feel up to it, and then we can discuss Clara’s mental status and tentative treatment plan. Are you able to answer a few questions about your daughter for me?”

“Sure,” Mark answered, weary but eager. Melanie nodded an affirmation.

“Alright, then. Here’s what Clara remembers. Perhaps you can fill in the blanks for us. She babysat on Friday evening, returned home and went to sleep, came downstairs the next morning, and didn’t recognize Melanie. Did either of you notice any strange behaviors leading up to Saturday morning’s break?” Lydia had once again dug out her legal pad, so that she could write down any pertinent information.

Mark spoke up first, “No, not really. I dropped her off at the Coolsons’ that evening, and she seemed fine. Completely normal. We talked about how she needed to start saving her babysitting cash for a car because her mother and I would not be buying her one when she turned sixteen. She groaned a little, but what fourteen-year-old wouldn’t?”

“Actually, Mark, remember that morning? She called down to us from upstairs. She said something about how she had forgotten where she had put her algebra book and that she’d be down in a minute.”

“Oh, yeah…but all kids lose things. It’s not uncommon that she would misplace her—”

“She’s not taking algebra this year. She’s in geometry. And two days before that, she called you Mark.”

“Teenagers. Hormones. She was probably being angsty.”

“But it’s unlike her. Any information could help, right doctor?” Melanie looked at Dr. Lindenhurtz, hopeful that this detail, any detail, would be the key to bringing their daughter back.

“Of course, Melanie. Thank you for your input. That’s helpful.” Lydia scrawled across her pad.

“She had developed a little attitude lately, Mel. It used to not be like her, but she’s a teenager. We knew this would happen eventually. The attitude, I mean.”

Dr. Lindenhurtz sensed the parents were overwhelmed and on the brink of lashing out at one another, so she interjected. “Okay, so she was fine when you dropped her off. Who picked her up?”

“Actually, she walked home. It’s only a few blocks away, and Mel and I were out to dinner.”

“And what time did you arrive home?” Lydia asked.

“Umm…around 10:30 I think?” Mark looked to Melanie for approval. She gave it.

“And what happened then?”

“Melanie went up to Clara’s room to check on her and make sure she made it home safely. But when she opened Clara’s door, her room was empty. She called down to me, so I checked the downstairs while she searched the upstairs. When neither of us could find her, I called the Coolson residence.” Mark paused and rubbed his eyes. He took a deep breath and continued, “Jonathon, the kid’s dad, confirmed that Clara had left their home no later than 9:45 p.m., so she should have been home. Melanie continued to call Clara’s phone, which was going straight to voicemail, while I set out to trace Clara’s steps to the Coolsons’.” Mark paused again and glanced over at his wife who buried her head in her hands and wept. “I wasn’t two steps out the door when I saw her. She was on the sidewalk directly in front of our house. She hadn’t been there five minutes before when we had pulled into the driveway. I called to her and told her to get her butt inside, but she didn’t budge. She was just standing there staring at the house. I went out to her so I could see what she was doing. She had a blank look on her face. I shook her, gently, and said ‘Clara, what’s wrong? What are you doing? Come back inside.’ and she looked at me and started screaming. I picked her up and carried her over my shoulder. I didn’t know what else to do. She was beating my back with her fists and kicking wildly. If we’d had close enough neighbors, I would have worried that they were going to call the police. The whole scene was bizarre. She started yelling about how something bad was going to happen, she couldn’t go back inside because something bad was going to happen in the house. Have you ever seen someone cry herself to sleep?” Mark asked. “My daughter? My daughter screamed herself to sleep that night.”

Lydia continued to scrawl. “Thank you. Now, by Clara’s account, she woke Saturday morning not remembering any of what you just related to me. She claims that she awoke normally and went downstairs to find strangers in her kitchen.”

“Well, in the middle of the night, Clara woke up on the couch. Melanie and I waited up, watching her for as long as we could but eventually, I guess we had dozed off on the loveseat with the television on. Clara woke us up and told us goodnight before making her way upstairs to her room. She acted as if nothing had happened. After she was sleeping again, Mel and I decided to act normally the next morning, until we could get a feel for what was going on. We didn’t want to alarm her for no reason. We crept into our own bedroom and grabbed a few hours of sleep. We were up early and when we heard her stir upstairs, we waited. She spent her morning like she spends most Saturday mornings, so we thought everything was back to normal. We figured we’d talk about it when she came downstairs. Obviously that didn’t work out.”

“Mr. Marcel, our time is almost up. I’ll need to be going soon, but I’d like to ask something of you and Mrs. Marcel. I’ll need you to keep your distance. Clara is obviously overwhelmed right now and is in a fragile state. Any more stress, and she may spiral deeper into this chasm. Can the two of you hang tight until she is ready to see you?”

Melanie and Mark looked and each other uncomfortably. Melanie shifted in her chair.

“Mr. and Mrs. Marcel, I’ll be updating you regularly, of course. It will be the next best thing to actually being there with her. Can we make this happen?”

“I think so. For now anyway.” Mark looked at Melanie again for approval. This time, she didn’t give him an affirmation, but still, she didn’t argue either. “Yeah. We can do that.”

“Also, to help Clara along, I’ll need you to put together a photo album full of fond memories, anything you think that will help Clara remember. Is this something you can do? I feel it will be therapeutic for the both of you as well; I’m sure this is quite traumatic for you as well.”

This time it was Melanie who responded: “Yes. We can do that. We’ll be happy to do that. When do you need it?” Melanie offered, eager to help in any way she could.

“As soon as possible. The sooner, the better.”

“We’ll bring it in tomorrow morning.” Melanie chimed in almost before Lydia finished her sentence.

“I just want my baby back.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Five—Wednesday

 

Clara spent much of Tuesday evening in tears. Supper was a rubbery pork chop. She had attempted to cut off a bite sized piece with the plastic fork and knife she had been given, but when she started sawing away, two of the plastic prongs broke off. One sailed across the room while the other remained lodged in the inedible hunk of meat, so she gave up on supper entirely. She was able to sleep for several hours during the night thanks to the double dose of the same sedative the same orderly had given her with her lunch earlier that day. When she woke, she could see that it was still dark outside of her tiny window, so she rolled over and closed her eyes again. She tried to remember more of what had taken place over the last few days, wondering how she could have lost so much time. Much to her dismay, she couldn’t remember any additional details.

Wednesday morning came, and along with it, more meds and another visit from Dr. Lindenhurtz. She was as polite as the day before, knocking and asking for permission to sit. Clara had been awake since before dawn, so she was already dressed, if you want to call it that, in a fresh set of pajama pants and a tee shirt. She had combed her hair and brushed her teeth before curling back up in bed.

Dr. L asked Clara how she had slept to which Clara shrugged her shoulders and replied, “Fair.”

“Is there anything you need to make you more at home?” Dr. Lindenhurtz asked.

“Yeah, actually, I would like to go home to my real house with my real parents. That’d make me feel more at home.” Clara snapped. Apparently being institutionalized didn’t bode well for her usually upbeat attitude.

“Clara, I spoke with your parents yesterday after you and I met. They are concerned for you, as any parent would be. They also said that your break with reality actually started after babysitting Friday night, not Saturday morning like we had first thought. They found you on the sidewalk staring at the house, screaming that something bad was going to happen in the house and that you didn’t want to go inside. Do you remember anything about this?” Lydia waited for Clara to answer.

Clara shook her head no, confused. “I don’t remember. I mean, I don’t even think that happened.” Clara chewed at her fingernails. “I would remember that, right?”

“It’s hard to say. We’ll put the pieces back together. I promise.” Lydia placed her pad and pen in her lap and folded her hands on top of them. “Clara, would you like to see your parents?” Lydia asked.

“No,” answered Clara, “I saw the picture. Last night, when I was alone. Those people aren’t my parents. I don’t know who they are, but I don’t want to see them.”

“Clara, they’ve agreed to keep their distance while we sort this out. When you decide you are ready, let me know. They’ll be waiting.”

Clara answered with silence.

“I’ve asked your parents to put together an album of photographs. During Phase One, we’ll talk about what led up to your stay here at Breemont, and we’ll try to jumpstart your memory with pictures of the past, so you can remember who you are and go back to being her.”

“But, that’s the thing, Dr. Lindenhurtz. I know who I am. I don’t feel lost. I haven’t forgotten the past. I just have the wrong parents. I shouldn’t even be in here! Isn’t there anything you can do?” Clara pleaded.

“Clara, I know you are frustrated and scared. But I can assure you that all the paperwork is in order. All the documentation is in place. Your parents provided identification for themselves as well as for you. I can say with certainty the people who brought you in are your parents.”

Again, Clara answered with silence. After several futile attempts at opening a dialogue, Lydia joined Clara in that silence. They shared nothing but the room for the remainder of their session. Finally, Lydia stood to leave. “I’ll see you tomorrow, Clara.” Lydia smiled and clicked the buzzer to be let out. Clara didn’t respond.

Later that day, she picked at her lunch, made her bed and then sat on it, moved to the chair, took a shower, wished she had tv, combed her hair, paced the floor, wished she had tv, picked around at her supper, crawled back in bed, under the covers this time, wished she had tv, and rolled over. She lay on her side and positioning her pillow long ways in the bed in order to snuggle it. She reached into her pillowcase where she had hidden the picture of the imposters. She held it in her hand while she lay in bed and cried for what she had lost, or at least what she perceived to have lost.

She wasn’t sure how much time had passed…an hour maybe? She rubbed her face on her pillow to dry it and pulled her arm out of the pillow case. She was holding the heavily creased photograph in her hand and forced herself to look at it. There, in the picture was a younger Clara being held by her parents. Not the imposter parents, she was looking at the parents she remembered. Clara sucked in her breath in astonishment and began to wonder if she really was crazy, after all. She fell asleep holding onto all she had left of her family.

#

Lydia slipped off her shoes and placed them in the shoe rack in her closed. She sat down on the bed, already occupied by Dylan.

“Long day?” he asked, but didn’t look away from his laptop.

“Yes. Very long day. Very long week, actually.” Lydia sighed. “I stopped by Frank’s to pick up some Alfredo.” Recently, Lydia had found out that Frank’s always had half price pasta on Wednesdays, so that’s what was becoming her go-to hump-day dinner. “Want some?” Lydia was rubbing her neck muscles and rolling her head from side to side.

“Nah, when you didn’t make it home for dinner, I grabbed a bite and watched the game with Court at The Pub.” Lydia didn’t much care for Court and she wasn’t in the mood for company, so she was glad they had gone out and not gotten together for pizza and beers at the apartment. If they had, she knew they’d still be here, and she didn’t feel like cleaning up after them after the day she had had.

“I met with the new patient again today. It’s a rough case, poor thing. It’s only day two and I’m already exhausted. For the last two days, I’ve had to meet with the parents after talking with the patient, and then I’ve had to meet with the staff that will be caring for this patient when I’m not working with her during her stay at Breemont. This is all after that incredibly awful interview process I told you about on Monday. It’s been utterly exhausting. Then after all of this, I went over her file with a fine tooth comb for the second night in a row. I don’t want to miss anything. I really feel like…I feel like I could redeem myself with this one, ya know?” Lydia knew she couldn’t give specifics about Clara, but it was safe to share general details about her cases.

“Mmmhmm,” Dylan sighed.

“And first thing tomorrow morning, I have to be in to see her. I’d really like to see if there is any difference in an early morning session fresh out of a good night’s sleep and—”

“Lydia, hon, I’m sure everything will be fine tomorrow, and I’m kinda in the middle of something here.” He gestured to his laptop.

“Yeah. I see that.” Lydia replied and slipped into the bathroom to change into something more comfortable. A moment later, she left the bedroom and headed for the kitchen. She was starving and the Alfredo was calling her name. She opened the bag and pulled out the round aluminum tin. She pried open the sharp edges and removed the plastic top. It was still fairly warm, so she placed it on the table, took an opened bottle of Pinot Grigio out of the fridge, and poured herself quite the generous glass. She opened Clara’s file—the one she had been reading all evening, sat at the table alone, and ate and drank and studied.

#

Much to Lydia’s surprise, Breemont had called her in to screen her early Monday morning explaining that the patient in question had suffered a psychotic break with reality and no longer recognized her parents. Lydia worried that perhaps the hospital didn’t know about her past experience and her epic and heart wrenching failure with Stanley just a year before. They couldn’t know about this and still want her to treat this patient, who was suffering from similar psychiatric ailments. She was wrong.

Nervous, she had called Dylan hoping for reassurance before the meeting but didn’t receive any. He did, however, wish her good luck. During the interview, they brought up Stanley. Lydia thought she had been found out, that they were exposing her for the fraud that she was.

“Dr. Lindenhurtz,” a member of the three-person panel began. He was a tall, thin, handsome-ish higher-up of the Breemont Facility. Before the interview began, he had introduced himself as Duke Elliot. “I understand you treated Stanley Bedford from the end of December until June of last year. Is this accurate?”

Dammit, thought Lydia. An uneasy smile crept across her face as she began to answer. “Yes, this is accurate information.” She steadied herself and awaited the next question.

A second member looked down at the paperwork before her and then asked, “And Mr. Bedford, then aged seventeen, was suffering a psychotic break at this time?” Lydia nodded. “And during treatment for this affliction, he stated that certain family members were strangers? He did not recognize his parents or his brothers as being familial relations?”

Lydia nodded again. “Yes, this is all correct.” Her face burned with embarrassment and shame. She prided herself on doing things by the book, following procedures, rules, expectations. She was exceedingly professional, to a fault even. But Stanley’s case was so…believable. He was so genuine. She had gone with her gut, and her gut almost led her to ruin. As a result of her actions, she was fired from her job, almost lost her license, and was forced to move to a new town to make a new start. Now, here she was in that new town, being interviewed by strangers. Sure, they worked at Breemont, but it was such a large facility that there was no way to know everyone. Two interviewers were in the room: Duke Elliot and Rob Schneideker. The other, Kay Crider, an affiliate with BioTech Research, was on speaker phone. All were asking her about Stanley Bedford. Fresh start, huh? She thought.

“And as his doctor, you made decisions about his healthcare? You decided when he would complete treatment?”

“Yes.” She was beginning to feel like she was on trial.

“And during this time, you allowed the patient to believe his thoughts and feelings about his family were true? You encouraged his behavior and sided with the patient against his family?”

Lydia imagined the woman on the phone. She could almost see her peering disapprovingly over her small-framed glasses at Lydia, seemingly judging her both as a person as well as a medical professional. Lydia was glad she wasn’t in the same room. Her voice was accusatory enough.

“Yes. At the time, I saw many indications that the patient was telling the truth. His family couldn’t and/or wouldn’t produce proper documents. They claimed everything had been lost in a fire. They were asked to request new documentation, but they flat out refused. The patient had grown increasingly suspicious. He believed he had been taken years before by another family and brainwashed, and many of his accusations rang true with news and police reports around the time of his disappearance. At the time, I—”

“Dr. Lindenhurtz,” the third member of the team interrupted, “What happened as a result of your poor judgement?”

Lydia wondered why they had even brought her in. She was in front of a firing squad and there was no escape. There was also no chance she would ever be assigned to this case, so why were they even bothering to waste their time?

“Stanley Bedford took his own life on June 22nd.”

“After?”

Lydia was reluctant to answer. Despite her professional exterior, tears were stinging her eyes. She hoped no one noticed. “On the evening of June 21st, Mr. Bedford had dinner with his family at their home. His parents and younger brothers, age twelve and fourteen, watched a movie together in the family room. Later, when everyone was asleep, he snuck into their rooms, and one by one, he strangled them. He hung himself in the closet of his own room sometime in the middle of the night. Their bodies were discovered after the police performed a check the well-being when Stanley failed to show up at his appointment with me on Monday, and my secretary couldn’t reach the family by phone. I had mentioned something the previous week about helping him find a way out. He found one on his own.” Her voice ended in a flat tone. She had taken full responsibility for his actions, though no formal accusations were filed.

“So, after this incident, you were terminated, you relocated to the city of Breemont, and you are now employed and in good standing at Breemont Medical Facility at 417 Canal Street?”

“Yes.”

“And I understand that you not only treat patients, but you are also in regular counseling yourself due to your past experiences. Is this so?”

Now Lydia was sure she wouldn’t get the case. Who wants a whack-job trying to help a whack-job? She had already proven it doesn’t work and is in fact quite detrimental to the patient and those around him or her. She thought about walking out of the interview, but she needed the job. Even if she didn’t get this case, she still needed the job. If she walked out, Breemont would have no choice but to terminate her employment. So, instead of throwing her hands up and leaving, she looked her interviewers in the eye and answered as confidently as she could, “Yes, I am seeing a fellow psychiatrist at Breemont for an hour once a week. It was a stipulation when I hired in.”

The voice from the other end of the phone switched gears: “And how would you treat the patient in question?”

“I would use my past experiences to guide me. People learn from mistakes, and I most certainly will never make the same mistake again. I would rely solely on facts, nothing more, and I would be sure to present those facts to the patient during treatment.”

The woman, Kay if Lydia remembered correctly—she was terrible with names, straightened her papers, causing a loud shuffle, and a sharp tap, tap, tap to echo through the phone. Rob Schneideker took off his glasses gave his partner a look. They nodded. Rob stood and thanked Lydia for her time. The research lady from BioTech, Kay Crider, hung up, and Duke Elliot, joined Rob in a standing position. Lydia stood and allowed herself to be shown to the door. She was sure the interview had been in vain. It was the second most awful experience of her life, though a distant second from the Bedford incident which would now and forever be number one.

Lydia took the elevator back down to her office in Breemont. She sat at her desk and shook her head. It had been such a defeating day. She really wanted this patient. She needed to prove to herself that she was a good doctor. She knew it wouldn’t erase the mistakes of her past, but she hoped to somehow regain some credibility. She looked over her patient load. It was light. She had a few regulars, but she hadn’t been able to build up her practice as much as she would have liked. She filled in her calendar with upcoming meetings and patient sessions and then filed some paperwork she had been putting off, trying to push the awful interview experience out of her mind. She had tidied her desk and removed her purse from her desk drawer in preparation to leave for the day when the phone on her mahogany desk—the phone she had just aligned perfectly with the corner of that desk—rang.

“Hello, this is Dr. Lindenhurtz,” she answered as cheerily as she was able in light of this terrible day.

“Dr. Lindenhurtz, I’m glad I caught you,” Rob Shneideker’s voice came through the receiver. “I’ve just gotten off the phone with Ms. Crider and Mr. Elliot. The three of us along with the patient’s parents believe you are a good fit for this case.”

Mr. Schneideker’s voice reverberated in her ear. She wasn’t sure she had heard him properly. When she didn’t respond, he continued, “We all feel strongly that because of your past with the Bedford boy, that you are perfectly suited for this case. Like you said in your interview, there is no way you will make the same mistake twice. The patient is sedated now. You’ll meet with her tomorrow when the grogginess wears off.”

“Th-thank you, Mr. Schneideker,” Lydia stammered. “I look forward to meeting her.” Lydia’s wide eyes were no match for her gaping mouth.

“Yes, Dr. Lindenhurtz, I’ll be in touch tomorrow.”

Lydia hung up the phone and collapsed in her chair. She was still for a long while and then broke into wild laughter. That was ridiculous, she thought. When the laughter subsided, she left her office and drove home. Lydia had been sure after that disastrous interview, she had no chance of landing the case, especially taking into consideration her past…mistake. As it turned out, the administration at Breemont put her on this case because of her previous experience, not in spite of it.

When she came through the door after an uneventful commute, she was bursting with excitement but found no one home to share it with. She texted Dylan to find where he was and when he was coming home. She wanted to celebrate. He responded over an hour later, which annoyed Lydia since she knew on most occasions he couldn’t bear to pry his eyes away from his phone. He was around the corner at The Pub, and by the typos in his reply, she figured he’d been there a while. She changed into some yoga pants and an oversized shirt, and started to hope she’d be asleep before he dragged himself home and into bed later.

She instead opened a bottle of already chilled Pinot Grigio, pouring a glass for herself. If he wasn’t around to help her celebrate, she would celebrate alone. In her sweats. She sat down on the sofa and stared out the window at the lights of their little town. All those buildings, all those homes. By the bottom of the first glass, she began to think of all of them as individual human minds. You could see the buildings. You could see the lights through the windows. Sometimes you could even see a spark of activity within, but a person could never really see into them—not into the corners and crevices, not into the hidden closets in the back of the room. The majority of what lay inside would never be seen or understood by anyone who didn’t live there. She thought of her new patient, Clara Marcel. She figured that sometimes even the person who lived in the house could manage to lose a thing or two. She’s misplaced something—her memory, her family—somewhere inside. I’ll just have to help her find it, Lydia thought and poured another glass before putting the stopper on the bottle.

Dylan, on the other hand, poured himself into bed around one a.m. First he stumbled around a bit in the bathroom, waking Lydia, and bounced in between the sheets a few minutes later. She rolled over and said, “Guess what. I got the case. Can you believe it?”

“Not really, hon. I guess they’ll let anyone shrink a head these days,” he snorted and slurred.

“That’s not funny, Dylan.”

“I was just playing around. Seriously, congrats,” he mumbled and moments later, he began to snore.

Clara’s file was fairly small, as she had only been a patient at Breemont for two days. However, Mr. Schneideker said they’d be getting another file on Clara from BioTech as soon as it had been updated. Apparently this patient was a part of a study BioTech had been working on for almost two decades. He explained there wouldn’t be much information there. The file would contain backgrounds on both parents, as well as the child conceived as a part of a fertility trial. It would also contain routine medical information from all the study-related doctor visits and testing. Mr. Schneideker didn’t think there would be any pertinent information in this file, but he wanted his new employee to be as prepared as possible to treat this patient. Lydia finished her wine and finished reading the file. She fell asleep thinking about Clara Marcel, nervous but excited about what the future would bring: Success, redemption, and an empty lost and found bin in her patient’s mind, she hoped.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Six—Thursday

 

Lydia walked into at Breemont at six a.m. She was hoping that by arriving before her patient awoke, she’d catch her with her guard down, and she’d be more willing to talk. She felt Clara trusted her enough to not be upset by this. She hoped, anyway. An orderly buzzed her in to Clara’s room. Lydia had planned to sit quietly in the same chair as the previous day until Clara woke up naturally, however, when the door buzzed, Clara began to stir. Perhaps this was for the best.

“Good morning, Clara.” Dr. Lindenhurtz greeted her patient in a cheery but hushed morning tone. She padded toward the chair and sat down. Clara gazed at her with a drowsy haze.

“Umm..Good morning.” Clara responded, sleepily. Suddenly, remembering the photograph, she shot up in bed. It was still clasped in her hands. “Oh my God! Dr. Lindenhurtz! The picture! I looked at the picture! It’s them. It’s really my parents. Look!” She commanded, as she herself looked down at the photograph then stopped short. Her face twisted in agony. “What! No! It was them. I swear it was them. These are not the same people from the photograph I saw last night!”

Terror swept across her face as she ripped up the strangers in the picture. Lydia approached Clara’s bed and scooped up the remnants. From what she could tell, the people in the photograph were in fact Clara’s parents, the same parents who were waiting as patiently as they could for their only daughter to recognize them.

“Clara, that’s the same picture I gave you. It has the same people in it. They haven’t changed. What changed was your mind, the way you viewed it. You saw what your mind wanted you to see, what it had created. Does that make sense?” Lydia broached the subject tenderly.

“No!” Clara screamed. “No, it doesn’t make sense! I know what I saw. I saw my parents. This morning,” she seemed unsure, “this morning it’s different. The picture changed overnight!” Clara’s voice trailed off on the last sentence and she grew quiet. She was becoming aware of how…crazy…that sounded.

“The mind is the most interesting element of the human body, Clara. It is capable of so much more than you or I realize. The human mind’s vastness never ceases to amaze me.” Lydia was careful not to insinuate that Clara’s own mind was sick or impaired in any way.

Clara chewed her thumbnail. Eventually, she looked up at her psychiatrist. “Am I…am I crazy?” She whispered the last word, embarrassed by it. She had always been intelligent, intuitive, and headstrong. She didn’t like the fact that all of that may be crumbling before her very eyes, or rather, behind them.

“Clara, you are not crazy. You are just…sidetracked. I’m confident that we can get you back on track, though, okay?” Lydia attempted to reassure her patient.

“I don’t…I don’t feel sidetracked. I don’t understand what’s happening. The only part that feels crazy is the fact that I’m here and those people aren’t my real parents. I can’t explain it. I just know that’s what’s true. But that picture…I can’t explain that picture.” Clara’s voice cracked and she looked down. She pulled at a frayed thread on her bleach-scented blanket.

“Clara, let’s entertain other options. I’d like you to explore the idea that, in fact, this picture,” Lydia held out the pieces, “didn’t change. Let’s imagine that not only did it not change, but that what is represented in the picture is true.”

Clara looked up from her blanket, unsure of how to respond. She raised her eyebrows and shrugged her shoulders. It’s a start, Lydia thought. At least she’s not screaming or completely rejecting the idea. Not yet, at least. Lydia allowed what she had said to her patient to sink in. She granted Clara a few silent moments to marinate in the idea that her world was not as it seemed.

At length, the silence was broken by the door buzzing again. “Dr. Lindenhurtz?” an orderly beckoned. Lydia stood and walked to the door. After a few whispers, she thanked the orderly and closed the door, returning with a tray of food and a cup with pills.

She approached her patient, sat down her tray, and spoke: “Clara, your parents have put together a scrapbook for you. It’s been dropped off at the nurses’ station. You don’t have to look at it today, but I would like to get it for you, so that it is in your room when you decide you’d like to see it. Your parents are here and would like to speak with me. I’ll only be gone for a bit. They’ve already brought your breakfast,” she said motioning to the food she had just placed on Clara’s side table, “I should be back by the time you finish, and we can continue talking. Does that sound okay?”

Clara’s heart raced at the mention of the scrapbook. What secret life lay inside, she wondered. Which parents would she see? How would she react to seeing herself with people she didn’t know? She knew she wasn’t ready to find out, but was happy that the book would be in her room just in case. “Yes, that sounds okay,” Clara answered, though she sounded hesitant.

“I’ll be back soon..” Lydia said but paused guiltily. Clara understood Dr. Lindenhurtz’s delay. She threw back the pills and swallowed them with no water, thereby allowing her doctor to leave the room.

Mark and Melanie were waiting for Lydia as expected at the nurses’ station. The doctor noted that Melanie clutched the book to her chest. She couldn’t hold her daughter, so the book was the next best thing. A poor substitute, Lydia thought, but didn’t know the extent of that pain since she wasn’t a mother herself.

“Mr. and Mrs. Marcel, thank you for coming in, and thank you for bringing the scrapbook so quickly. It will prove to be a great tool during therapy.” Lydia greeted the grieving parents. “If you’d like to talk, we can go to the consult room again.”

“Yes, please,” replied Melanie with urgency in her tone.

The trio wound their way through the halls to the nearest consultation room. It was the same room they’d been in the previous two days. It was cramped, and there was only enough room for the three of them. Lydia pulled her chair to the corner so that she was sitting at an angle to them rather than directly across. She didn’t want to seem confrontational or appear as an adversary to Clara’s parents. She needed to form a good bond with them too. So far, so good.

“So, do you have questions? Is there anything pressing you’d like to discuss this morning?”

“Yes,” Mark responded, “Have you seen her this morning? Did she remember us? Did the early session help?” He queried eagerly, hopeful to have some sliver of his daughter back.

“Mr. Marcel, this will take time. I would like to let you know that she thought she recognized you both last night in the photograph, unfortunately this morning, that recognition had disappeared. She’s a little confused right now, just trying to sort things out.”

“A little confused? My own daughter, who I’ve raised for fourteen years, doesn’t even recognize me, her own father. She’s more than a little confused.”

Lydia detected the subdued anger in his voice. It was to be expected. Perhaps Lydia could have used better language to explain the incident.

“You’re right, Mr. Marcel. I apologize. Clara’s mental state is fragile right now. After realizing the photograph showed the two of you, the “strangers”,” Lydia used air quotes here, “this morning, she became extra agitated. She’s been fairly calm and collected throughout this experience, and this morning, she lost her cool for a moment. I believe that last night, she saw the photograph and recognized you and Mrs. Marcel as her parents, that she had a moment of clarity, but this morning that clarity was gone. It’s a start.”

Melanie looked at Mark longingly, “Do you think she really remembered us?” She asked, tottering on the cusp between doubt and hope.

“I hope so, Mel. I really hope so.” He answered as he brushed her hair out of her face.

Melanie sat up and addressed Lydia, “Dr. Lindenhurtz, here is the book we’ve put together. We put everything we could think of in there. Even pieces of clothing and her locket. She’s had that locket since, gosh, I think she was seven or so. She wore it every day, but when she was admitted, they took all of her belongings and boxed them up. They gave them to us when we left, the world’s worst parting gift.” She attempted to laugh, but when it came out it was more of a smiling moan. “There are pictures of all of us from Clara’s birth all the way up through a few months ago.”

The book was bursting at the seams and expanded much farther than the binding should have allowed. There were items sticking out here and there, and when Melanie handed over her memories to Lydia, the book was heavy. Some memories are heavy, Lydia contemplated, thinking of Stanley Bedford.

Melanie offered, “Is there anything else we can do to help? Do we need to be doing anything at all? Maybe we should go in and talk to her, you know, just for a minute. Maybe she will remember us if we just talk to—”

Mark cut her off gently by pushing down her arms. She talked with her hands, so this was his way of silencing her. “Melanie, we tried that, remember? It didn’t work. We have to let Dr. Lindenhurtz take care of Clara now. She knows what’s best, right, Doctor?” He pleaded with his eyes.

“Yes, Mr. Marcel. I can guarantee that I will give your daughter my very best, and I will do everything in my power to get her home to her family as soon as possible.” Lydia promised but felt uneasy about it. She was still thinking of Stanley.

“Thank you,” Clara’s parents responded in unison.

“Is there anything else?” Lydia asked, itching to get out of that tiny room.

Mark and Melanie looked at each other, using that silent language married couples sometimes have, and shook their heads no.

“Okay, well if you think of anything, give me a call. Clara has probably finished her breakfast by now, so I’ll finish my session with her.” She stood. “Thank you again,” she said as she held up the book and subsequently vacated the room.

Mark and Melanie Marcel exited the room then exited the building. They walked to their car in silence. Mark spoke as he pulled out of the parking space, “That book should help, right? That’ll do the trick?”

“That’s the plan,” replied Melanie as she clicked her seatbelt and they drove out of the lot.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Seven—Diagnosis

 

Back in the patient’s room, Lydia placed the book on the nightstand. She and Clara exchanged glances, and it was understood that Clara was not yet ready to open it. Lydia paused giving Clara a chance to speak. As she waited, she noticed that Clara had eaten some of her grapes and a few bites of toast, but the rest of her breakfast was still bedside. At least she’s eating something, Lydia thought. Clara was sitting in her bed, combing her hair. Finally, she said, “I’d like another chair in here. Is that possible? I don’t like sitting in this bed when you’re here. It makes me feel sick.”

“Sure. Let’s buzz the station and ask.” They pushed the button and a chair was brought in and placed by the window a few moments later. Clara rose from her bed, adjusted the chair so she could see out the window and see her doctor at the same time, and she sat.

“Dr. Lindenhurtz, I’ve been stuck in here for almost a week. I don’t have television. I don’t have my phone,” Clara cringed as she remembered the last time she held her phone…when her world shattered, “I don’t have my parents, and I don’t have any contact with the outside world or human beings for that matter except for you and the nurses and orderlies who only come in when it’s time to give me food or meds.” Clara chewed at her pinkie. “Can I at least leave this room? I’m feeling claustrophobic.”

“Soon, Clara. I can’t necessarily make these decisions on my own. There’s a team of people looking out for you, and I need to run certain things by them.”

“But you’re my doctor! Why can’t you decide?”

“Well, Clara, on most things, I can. But with big decisions like lifting your room restrictions, or graduating to office visits, or—”

“Wait, office visits?” Clara prodded. “What do you mean office visits?”

“Well, as we progress through treatment, you will eventually be well enough to come visit me at my office. And after that, you’ll be released to home visits.”

Clara was both nervous and excited. She didn’t like it at Breemont and wanted to get out of there as soon as possible. Unfortunately, the alternative would be to go home with strangers. Clara was hopeful that if she, in fact, was crazy, that she’d be well enough to recognize her parents sooner rather than later.

Clara turned her head toward the window, aching to go outside. “How long will it take to find out if I can leave my room?”

“I’ll have an answer for you tomorrow.”

“Tomorrow’s Friday?”

“Yes, Friday.”

Clara bit her thumbnail and then rubbed her forehead, obviously troubled. Lydia noticed. It was a job requirement. “Clara, what’s wrong?”

“Tomorrow’s Friday. That’s exactly one week since I last remember my life being normal. Just one week ago, seven days ago, I was thinking about a boy in my geometry class; I was worried about if some guy liked me or not. Today I’m locked away in an asylum, and I’m worried about if I’m a stark-raving lunatic or not. How could so much possibly change in one week?”

Lydia was aware that Clara wasn’t really seeking an answer and that the question had been strictly rhetorical, so instead of responding, she smiled reassuringly and allowed her patient to continue.

“My whole world is upside down. I don’t know if I’m coming or going. My mind feels strange. Foggy. Fuzzy. And my body feels like it’s not my own. I just…I don’t think this is my life. This isn’t where I’m supposed to be.”

Lydia did not want to distract Clara by digging for her legal pad, so she kept mental notes as accurately as she could. She nodded, encouraging Clara to go on.

“Even before I “went crazy” or whatever, I felt strange, like I didn’t belong…” Clara trailed off, realizing that she had been stressed lately, and wondered if that had contributed to her alleged psychotic break. Surely that was just a teenager being a teenager, she thought, fighting the ideas that were entering her mind. Ideas that made her doctor and her fake parents right. Ideas that made her…crazy.

“How so?” Lydia asked.

“I just felt…different. I can’t explain it. I felt like I could see more, hear more, do more.” Clara explained nervously, aware that she sounded nuts. Her doctor kept her poker face, which didn’t allow Clara to know whether or not Dr. Lindenhurtz thought she was nuts too.

Lydia realized that her patient was finally opening up. She decided it was time to start getting a patient history from the patient herself to add to what Clara’s parents had already offered. She was careful not to be too pushy. She didn’t want to demolish the progress they had just made.

“Clara, may I ask you a few questions?”

She shook her head. Lydia took advantage of the pause and pulled out her legal pad. She knew she’d need to write down this information. She thought about recording the audio, but she remembered how Clara had been uncomfortable with it before. Another time, she thought.

“Clara, let’s think about the last six months. Try to answer all questions honestly and as accurately as you can, okay?”

“Sure.”

“In the last six months, have you become withdrawn from doing things with others?” Lydia began.

“Well, yes. And no. I mean, I’ve always been a bit of a loner. When you move twenty times a year,” she exaggerated, “you kinda hafta be.”

“Alright.” She scratched the paper with her pen. “Do you tend to be uncertain and shy when dealing with other people?”

“Sometimes, I guess. I was pretty shy at my last school, especially around Michael.”

“Who is Michael, if you don’t mind my asking?”

For the first time since she had met Clara, Lydia saw a real smile spread across her patient’s face. “He’s the boy from my geometry class. I had a huge crush on him. I had finally worked up the nerve to invite him over to study when everything went haywire.”

“I see.” Lydia smiled back, relieved that she was finally building a rapport with Clara. “How about your frame of mind? Have you felt depressed, sad or uncertain over the last few months?”

“Well, I’ve been sad and depressed for the last week. Does that count?” The smile faded from her face. “But over many weeks? No. Not really. But, I guess, I’ve sort of been uncertain for a while. I’m not even sure about what. I guess I’m uncertain about what I’m uncertain about.”

Lydia continued to write as quickly as her hand would move. She could have just written down “yes”, but that wasn’t as accurate. She preferred to record direct quotes to get a more personal, detailed feel for the patient’s mindset. “Has your sleep pattern changed? For example, do you have difficulties falling asleep, sleeping through the night, or waking earlier than normal?”

Clara thought for a moment before answering. “I think I’ve been sleeping fairly normally, except for the last week. The pills they give me make me so tired. You’re my doctor, can’t you change that?”

“I will most certainly see what I can do.” Lydia confirmed. “I’ve got to work together with the team, but I’ll go over your meds list with the Breemont staff tonight after BioTech sends your medical file over. We all need to be on the same page before we go switching up your medicine.”

“BioTech? Like, where my dad works? Why do they have a medical file on me?” Lydia was caught off guard. Did Clara not know she was part of a trial? She erred on the side of caution explaining that her dad kept her records at work for easy access in case anything ever happened, and that it would be easier and faster to get the file directly from him rather than from the doctor. Lydia wondered why Clara’s parents would keep that information from her, she guessed that maybe it was for the same reasons some parents waited to tell—or never told—their children they were adopted. She made a note on her legal pad to ask about it when she saw Mr. and Mrs. Marcel again.

Clara, sharp-minded in spite of the fact that she said the meds made her foggy, immediately questioned her doctor: “Well, then why wouldn’t he have brought it over already.”

Quick-minded herself, Lydia didn’t miss a beat, “He had to copy it all, and he and your mother were so busy making this,” she motioned to the scrapbook, “that it slipped his mind. We should have your file any time now.” Clara looked as if she believed her doctor. This relieved Lydia.

“Moving onto the next question: Have your movements, thoughts and speech become noticeably slower?”

“Actually, no. The opposite is true. I feel like I’m moving more quickly and thinking more clearly,” Clara proudly stated, “Until they started drugging me, anyway. My speech is the same, though.”

“Has your stamina and motivation at school and during leisure time activities decreased noticeably?”

“No, I guess it’s about the same. I’ve always gotten good grades. Studying comes naturally, and I have really good test taking skills. Or at least that’s what my teachers tell me.”

“Okay, are you often nervous, uneasy, or tense?”

“Yes. Lately, I have been. I’ve just felt…off. I can’t really explain it.”

Lydia was pleased with how well this was going. Clara was really putting herself out there, and Lydia was able to get a glimpse into the months leading up to Clara’s break with reality. She noted the answer dutifully and moved on to the next question: “Do thoughts in your head often become mixed up?”

Clara laughed uneasily, “Well, yeah, I’m here, aren’t I?”

“Yes, Clara, but what about before?”

“Yes, sometimes. Sometimes I’d forget how I got somewhere, or I’d think someone was talking to me when they weren’t. Not often, though. Not like some weirdo. Just sometimes.”

“Do you have the feeling, more often than before, that people want to trick you, use you, or cheat you?”

“Yes, but that’s only been the last week. I feel like my parents,” Clara choked out the word, “are lying to me. I don’t believe they are really my parents.”

“Clara, in the last six months, have you had the impression that certain everyday events that occur, for example the wording on street signs or a commercials on television, are personally related to you or are meant for you alone?”

“Like a sign? Like a personal message from the universe? Straight out of the tv or off of the radio?” Clara scoffed. “No, I’m not a loon.” Clara was clearly embarrassed and offended by the question.

“Clara, I’m only asking a set of predetermined questions. And this,” she motioned to the space between them, “is a no-judgement zone. Whatever is said between us,” she motioned again, “is safe.”

Clara’s posture seemed to loosen. She thought about signs from the universe. All teenagers looked for them, especially teenage girls, she thought of all the phrases she’d recited over the years, I wish I may, I wish I might; he loves me, he loves me not; find a penny, pick it up the next song that comes on the radio will determine if he’ll go out with me or not. Didn’t all girls do that? She tried to think if there were any instances where she was given a sign she hadn’t asked for. She couldn’t remember any.

Lydia began to speak again, “Do you observe sounds or colors in your environment as being unusually intense or clear?”

“Well, like I said earlier, I feel like I see and hear better. Like, everything’s clearer or something. I don’t know.” She explained, blushing.

“Do you sometimes feel your thoughts are being interrupted or disturbed by others’ thoughts?”

“Like, can I read minds? No. I can’t read minds. I don’t need a tin foil hat, and I don’t believe the government is watching me!”

Clara’s outburst startled both of them. Finally, Lydia said, “Clara, I know you are frustrated. We only have one more question, okay?”

Clara nodded and continued, “I’m sorry.” She meant it. “I just…I just don’t like the idea that people think I’m crazy. To answer your question: No. I’ve always been really good at reading people by their actions and the tone of their voice, but as far as reading their minds? No, I can’t do that.”

Lydia made notes and moved on, “Last question: At times do you feel that you are being especially observed, followed or threatened by something?”

Clara chuckled at the question, “Well, I think I already answered that. Didn’t I just say I didn’t think anyone was watching me—not even the government.” Lydia returned Clara’s smile.

#

Lydia briefly met with Clara’s parents who had waited around to see if Clara had looked at the book.

“No, I’m sorry, she didn’t” Lydia had answered when Melanie asked.

“But you said…” Melanie pleaded.

“I said it would probably help. I didn’t say when she would feel comfortable enough to look at it. I’m sorry, Mrs. Marcel, Mr. Marcel. We can’t rush this; that will do more harm than good. If we rush, we’ll have setback, and setbacks will cost you precious time away from your daughter.”

“We understand,” Mark answered, “Can you at least tell us how things went today?”

He was hoping for good news and Lydia was pleased to give it to him. “Actually, Mr. Marcel, things went very well today. Clara really opened up and answered all of the intake questions I asked. She offered some very helpful information, and I feel that she and I are in the beginnings of forming a good doctor-patient bond.”

Mark winced as if in pain. Lydia realized it must be hard to hear that your daughter who claims to not know you is easily bonding with a complete stranger. She was about to apologize for her faux pas when Mark said, “Good. I’m glad she’s got someone she can trust right now. My girl needs someone she can lean on. I just wish it was me. No offense.”

“None taken, of course.” Lydia responded guiltily.

After giving them a rundown of the day’s proceedings, doctor and parents parted ways.

“Dammit,” she whispered harshly to herself thinking of the word BioTech with a question mark at the end on her legal pad that she had circled over and over again, “I can’t believe I forgot to ask them about that.” She continued to admonish herself while she walked toward the exit.

She thought of Clara’s ability to laugh at herself in light of her situation when she had been asked about being watched. “Not even the government,” she had said with a smile. On her way out the doors of Breemont, Lydia spied a potted plant in decorative gravel. She snuck a piece and bounced it in her hand until she was out of sight of anyone who might be watching from the Information Desk. She whispered to the rock, “You’d get a kick outta this one, Ollie,” and tossed the pebble into the gutter, reminiscing about the first time she had met her eccentric friend.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Eight—Lydia’s New Friend

“That’s the last of the boxes, I think.” Lydia said to Dylan who was supposed to be helping her move. Instead, he was scrolling on his phone, forever scrolling on that damn phone. Sure, he had done a lot of the heavy lifting, but she had packed everything in both his and her apartments, sealed every box with tape, labeled everything herself, rented the moving truck,paid for the moving truck, paid the first month, last month, and hefty deposit, and now she was unpacking all the boxes she had packed alone, filing cabinets and drawers and closets with their stuff. She was happy he had suggested they move in together, but Lydia rarely enjoyed happiness without a price. She felt as if she was already beginning payment on this one.

She hadn’t really wanted to move, but when she lost her job after the…incident…Dylan had suggested not only that they move in together, but that they relocate. “It’s the only thing that makes sense,” he had convinced her. “Besides, you have plenty of savings to get us through.” This was true. Lydia was a saver, not a spender, but she hadn’t planned on solely funding this “new adventure” with every last cent of her savings account. Dylan, on the other hand, spent enough for the both of them. He picked up odd jobs here and there that usually made ends meet, but he mooched off of Lydia when he came up short. He had a lead on a job in Breemont, and so they moved. Lydia was in too fragile a state to argue or suggest an alternative. Quite frankly, she was ready to move on.

“I’m beat.” She sighed as she flopped down on the couch beside him.

“Me too,” he mumbled, not looking up from his phone, “Who knew moving could be such hard work.”

“Right. I’m going to jump in the shower, and then I think we should go out and explore the neighborhood…find somewhere to eat. I definitely do not feel like cooking.”

“Uh oh. Day one and you’re already slacking!” His face suggested he was teasing—what she could see of it since he hadn’t looked up when he said it, but his tone seemed accusatory. At any rate, it rubbed Lydia the wrong way. She was educated, employed, and paying all the bills. She knew she would be paying for dinner too, so why should it matter whether she was the one who cooked it or not?

“It will be nice to go out. We can get a feel for where we live. Maybe while I’m in the shower, you can search for a little bistro or something, find us somewhere to eat.” Lydia suggested as she rose from the sofa and crossed to the other side of the apartment.

“Sure,” he murmured.

When Lydia was freshly showered, which took a little longer than usual because she decided to organize the bathroom while she was in there, hanging towels and unpacking the box of toiletries she had slid in front of the sink and forgotten about earlier that day, she felt refreshed and ready to explore. She slung her hair up into a white towel, wrapped another around her small frame, and opened the bathroom door.

“Where are we eating?” Lydia called. Because of the open floor plan, she could see from where she was that he hadn’t budged since she left him sitting there at least a half an hour before. “I am absolutely famished!”

“Oh. Ya know, I’m tired and I don’t really feel like going out. I just called in a pizza. Should be here soon.”

“Dylan, I’m exhausted too, but I really wanted to check out the neighborhood…and commemorate this big day. We just moved in together!” Lydia was annoyed and disappointed, but she had gotten used to that. No relationship is perfect. She knew that better than most due to her profession as a psychiatrist.

“Yeah, we just moved in together. Let’s relax in our new place. We can enjoy an evening in. Doesn’t that sound nice too?” Lydia admitted to herself that after a long day of moving, it did sound nice to stay in, but for weeks, every time Lydia suggested they take a weekend trip to the new neighborhood to scout it out, he put her off, promising that as soon as they had officially moved in, they’d do exactly that.

“I think I’ll go check things out myself.” Lydia threw this out with the hopes that Dylan would reconsider. He didn’t.

“Alright. Maybe you’ll be able to weed out the bad restaurants before I waste my time with them.” Lydia sighed and stepped back into the bathroom. Behind the closed door, she wiped the fog from the mirror and looked herself in the eye. She shrugged her shoulders and began drying her hair. She dressed and began to leave her new apartment…and her new roommate who was still on the couch entranced with his phone. When she opened the apartment door a uniformed teenager held out a pizza.

“$16.42.” a flat voice stated.

“Hon, since you’re up, can you pay him.”

Lydia hid her disgust and opened her pocketbook. She handed him a twenty and squeezed by him. “Keep it.”

As she made her way down the hall, she heard Dylan muttering something about how he guessed she wasn’t going to bother to bring the pizza in, apologizing to the pizza boy.

She let out one irritated chuckle and continued down the hall.

She meandered through the streets. They were busier than she had originally thought, but it was still a much quieter area than she had lived in previously. The shops were cute. There was a clothing boutique called Chartreuse You, a happy little salon with the word “Hair-etige” painted in white across the glass pane on the door, and a couple of restaurants. She stepped inside “The Rare Bird”. It had a charming outdoor seating area, and the name made her giggle. Why “The Rare Bird”? she wondered. Undercooked poultry sounded less than appetizing. But despite the strange name, it was close, cute, and smelled delightful, so she sat down and ordered.

She ate in solitude, which was generally okay with her. She enjoyed time spent alone, though this time, she wished Dylan had joined her to celebrate their milestone. When she returned to the apartment building after filling her belly and people watching, she stopped at her mailbox in the lobby, not because she thought she would have mail yet, but because she was polite and wanted to be sure the previous tenant didn’t have any residual mail being delivered.

As she located the number H5 on the metal grid in front of her and turned the key, she heard shuffling and agitated mumbling behind her. When she spun around to investigate, she saw a man, presumably in his late fifties, though she wasn’t sure since his back was turned, and he was digging through a rather large potted plant. His face was buried in the fanned leaves as he pushed them this way and that in search of lord knows what.

“Excuse me sir,” Lydia announced, “I don’t mean to interrupt you, but can I help you find something?”

“What? Huh? Oh, no. No thank you. I’ve got it handled. I’ve got it all handled. It’s best if you don’t get tangled up in this mess too. Carry on, young lady. Carry on.” He spoke in hurried sentences and nervous phrases.

“What are you looking for? Maybe I can help you find it.” She offered again.

“Oh, no, no, no. No need for you to get yourself into a mess. I’ll have to find it on my own.”

Lydia watched him and he dug and muttered, muttered and dug. His dingy trench coat stretched tight across his shoulder blades, limiting his movement a bit. She decided to check the mailbox and leave. She slid the key into the lock and turned it, and when she opened the small square door an official looking envelope greeted her. Much to her surprise, it was not addressed to the old tenant. Across the top line, it read: Dr. Lydia R. Lindenhurtz, and below followed her one-day-old address. She studied the return address. It was from Breemont Medical Facility located at 417 Canal Street. Just before she had packed up her old apartment, she had sent out resumes to every hospital, doctor’s office, and clinic in a fifty mile radius of her new address, and this one was just across town. Thank God, she thought. My savings is running thin, thanks to Dylan, and I definitely don’t want to waitress again. Ever.

As she began to tear open the envelope, the rustling behind her faded. “EUREKA! I found it!” the man shouted and he pumped his closed fist in the air. Lydia, shocked by the sudden commotion, dropped the envelope and letter she had opened but not yet had the time to read, and it fell to the stained carpeted floor beneath her.

The hallway was dim and musty. When Lydia had first visited this building with her real estate agent she almost didn’t make it past the lobby. She told Rhonda, an agent with Loughborough Real Estate, that this was not quite the building she had in mind. The fountain outside was beautiful, but this lobby was awful. The agent urged her on as any good agent would, and Lydia was glad she did. When she opened the door to the vacant apartment on the fifth floor, Lydia was sold. It was bright, airy, and had the open concept she had been dreaming of. It was a stark contrast with the dank lobby below.

When Lydia circled in the direction of the triumphant shout, she chortled in amusement. The man, whom she had only seen from behind with his face buried in a plastic plant, was now facing her, trenchcoat-clad over his button down shirt and rumpled brown vest. He wore crinkled khakis and with his fist skyward, he couldn’t have looked more “Breakfast Club” if he had wanted to. Unless of course, he was tall, thin, and young, and not short, squat, and old.

“Found what?” Lydia, still snickering but intrigued, asked. Of all the interesting introductions she’d ever been a part of, and there had been quite the lengthy list of interesting introductions during her time as a psychiatrist, this was the pick of the litter.

“This!” the man exclaimed proudly and opened his fist into the shape of an “okay” symbol, holding a small white pebble. Lydia, confused, looked at the potted plant. Under the leaves she could see an entire layer, perhaps an entire pot, filled with those same small pebbles.

Hoping not to get drawn into whatever was going on here in this weird lobby with this weird man, Lydia congratulated him on his “find” and bent to pick up the papers she had dropped on that awful carpet.

“Oh me, oh my. Where are my manners?” cried the man. “Please, allow me to assist you.” Before she knew what was happening, he was in front of her retrieving her mail. He stood up and as he handed the letter back to her, he caught a glimpse of who it was from.

“Oh no. No, no, no. This will never do.” He had not yet let go of his side, and he tried to pull the letter back. An appalled Lydia would not allow it.

“Excuse me, sir. Please let go.” Lydia ordered in her professional voice. She was clearly dealing with someone who at least should be a patient, so she would speak to him as such.

“With all due respect, madam, please don’t read this. Please remove yourself from having anything to do with these “people”. His voice tightened on the last word.

“Sir, this is none of your business. This letter, addressed to me, in my mailbox, is mine. It’s my business. Now, please let go.” She tugged again, this time freeing the envelope.

“Madam, you don’t understand. This place is bad. You don’t want to get involved with them. I wish I could tell you more, but I can’t. See?” He held the rock out toward her. See? See what? A rock, she thought? The normal, everyday, apartment tenant who was beyond drained from a weekend of moving wanted to ignore him and pretend this exchange never happened. Unfortunately, the doctor in her was intrigued and wanted to help in any way she could.

“Sir, I’m sorry. That’s just a rock. It doesn’t have any bearing on this situation.”

He began rolling the pebble quickly between his hands as if he were building a fire with a stick as he began to speak, quickly and efficiently: “No, madam. This is a recording device. They’re everywhere. I knew they had planted one here.” He paused, and snorted amused by his words, “Ha…planted.” When his speech ceased, so did the palm rubbing.

“Sir, I’m very certain that that isn’t a—“

“Eh-eh-eh,” the man cupped the pebble in his hand and shook his finger at her as he said this. He began rubbing his palms again. “Now, what were you saying?”

“That’s just a rock. Look, there are others just like it.”

“No, not just like this. This one records. Those don’t.” he responded triumphantly. “Let me get rid of this.” He ran outside, where the decorative fountain cheerily and misleadingly greeted tenants into the building, tossed in the pebble, and scurried back inside through the less than inviting lobby.

“There. Now we can speak freely. My name is Oliver John Ragsdale. But please, Madam, call me Ollie. I’m not for formality, and my name is just too formal for its own good.” The man, Ollie, cheerily extended his hand in a friendly gesture. Lydia, raised with decorum, was unable to deny him.

“Lydia. Lydia Lindenhurtz. It’s nice to meet you.” I think, she added in her head.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Nine—Thursday Afternoon

 

Lydia entered her office, and in her fax machine lay a heaping stack of papers. When she rounded her desk, she saw that the tray had overflowed and several papers lay on the floor. Surely this isn’t Clara’s file, she thought as she bent to collect the stray papers. She inspected them as she picked them up. Sure enough, it was. She wondered why on earth she needed so much medical attention since she was in perfect health, other than her mind of course, for a fourteen year old girl. She straightened the papers and placed them on her desk. She sat down in her rolling chair behind her thick, stately mahogany desk and then, before reading the file, she leaned back and closed her eyes.

What a trying couple of days it had been, and there was no end in sight. Thinking of the enormous stack of information waiting for her, she grabbed her phone, held it up over her face while she remained reclined, opened her eyes, and dialed Dylan’s number. No answer. Instead of leaving a voicemail, she hung up and sent him a text: I’ll be late again tonight. There’s leftover Alfredo on the bottom shelf of the fridge. Again, no answer. Lydia put the phone down and peered at the ceiling. In the solitude of her office, Lydia spoke aloud: “Clara. Clara, Clara, Clara, what is going on with you?” She closed her eyes again and let out a long exhausted sigh.

A small voice crept into the darkness, “My name is Clara Louise Marcel, and those people are not my parents.”

Lydia bolted upright in her chair and her eyes shot open. What the hell was that? she wondered and then angrily reprimanded herself, Jesus Christ, Lydia. You’ve been on the job for four days and you’re already trying to screw it up! Don’t you remember what happened with Stanley? God help you. Lydia hated when people spoke in the third person, however she felt this time it was warranted. She couldn’t believe she had let her mind go there. She pulled the stack toward her and began to read.

#

It had been hours since Dr. Lindenhurtz had left Clara alone in her room. Clara showered, took the pills the orderly brought, and ate lunch. Today’s special had been chicken tenders and baked fries with fruit and green beans. She actually liked it, so she scarfed it down, feeling satisfied, at least where her hunger was concerned, for the first time since she had arrived. Someone came back to take her tray, and as he did, he noticed her nightstand. “Cool book,” he said cheerily, nodding toward it.

“Yeah, I guess.” Clara replied.

“What’s in it?” He asked.

“Not sure. I haven’t opened it yet.” She shrugged.

“Looks like it might be worth checking out,” the young man, whose nametag read Jamil, suggested as he was buzzed through the door.

Clara was sitting in the extra chair that had been brought in at Dr. Lindenhurtz’s request earlier that day. She stared over at the book that lay where Dr. Lindenhurtz has placed it. The book itself seemed chaotic. It fanned upward instead of closing neatly and naturally due to how overstuffed it was. Clara knew her mom and knew that Melanie Marcel was orderly and precise: “A place for everything and everything in its place,” Clara recited one of her mother’s many mantras aloud. Still, though, she wondered what secrets that book held and if it would help her remember. “Knowledge is the key to unlocking the past,” Clara spoke another mom-ism.

Clara sat eyeing the book for much of the afternoon. It’s not like she had anything better to do other than to look out the window. She really hoped that Dr. Lindenhurtz would be able to get her out of this room or get her a television as quickly and as easily as she had procured the extra chair. Finally, after working up the courage, Clara stood and dragged her seat noisily to the nightstand. She touched the outside of its smooth, leathery surface, but did not open it. She wasn’t ready. She was afraid of what was inside. Unable to look, she carefully ran her fingers along the outside edge of the overflowing pages. She felt some of the items that overlapped the pages. Items that her “mother” had placed within the pages, not pictures, hard things, soft things, jingling things.

Clara tentatively pulled at a loose item which was jutting out from the bottom corner. It caught about halfway out, so she had to force herself to look down at it. It was purple and she knew it well. It had been her favorite blanket turned handkerchief, and she’d had it since before she was born. She held it up to her face. It was softer than ever due to years of wear and tear and softening of the material. She pulled it away from her face and caressed it between her fingers. Her mother had told her that as a baby, she and that blanket had been inseparable. She couldn’t sleep a wink without it. She said it wasn’t so much that she snuggled with it, it was that she wrapped the corner of it around her index finger and rubbed it gently back and forth under her little button nose. Her mother said she wasn’t sure if it was the scent of it, or the fuzzy tickle, or a combination of both that soothed her, but whatever it was, she’s glad it did the trick.

Clara didn’t remember which it was either, she had just been a baby, but she did remember carrying it around with her as a toddler and a young child. It was soft and cozy and smelled like home. She raised it to her nose and sniffed. It smelled musty, and it should. It had been packed away since Clara was about ten. Clara remembered how she cried when her parents told her at five years old during the summer before she started kindergarten that she was too old for a blankie and would need to learn to sleep without it. They felt guilty for threatening to take away such a huge part of their baby’s life, and mostly, they just didn’t want to accept the fact that she was growing up either, so they worked out a compromise. Clara had agreed that they could cut her blankie down to the size of a square handkerchief. Her mother wasn’t super crafty, and really wasn’t an expert seamstress, but this job was simple enough, so she cut and sewed a pocket-sized blanket for her baby girl.

Upon entering kindergarten, she was able to tuck her hankie-blankie away into her backpack so that the other kids wouldn’t see or make fun of her for it, and at night, she pulled it out and fell asleep with it pressed into her Cupid’s bow. As she reminisced, Clara folded the hankie-blankie in half catty-cornered so that it made a triangle. She folded it over itself a few more times until it was about an inch or two wide. She held one end in each hand and pulled it around her head and tied into a Rosie the Riveter headband. Finally, some flare. The gray sweats and t-shirts just weren’t doing it for her.

She remembered everything about this treasured possession, except the person who claimed to have given it to her. Clara still believed that when she finally did look at the pictures, she wouldn’t recognize the people in them.

She ran her fingers around the edges again and felt something small, thin, and cold. She tugged at it, but it wouldn’t move. Clara delicately ran her fingers along the threadlike object which disappeared about halfway…on the page? Through the page? She felt the back of the page. It was there too. She started to think she knew what it might be, and if she was right, she was desperate to get it out. She turned her attention to the front of the page again and followed the thin line down until, yes! She felt a metallic oval! She steadied the book and holding it partially open with her left hand, and ripped the page out of it with her right hand. She clutched the page to her chest and felt her heart racing. When she pulled the page away, holding it with both hands, she cried. It was the closest she’d felt to her mother since she had last seen her before babysitting Friday. In her hands, threaded through the page was a locket her mother had given her seven years ago after Aunt Karen had found it in a flea market for Clara’s mother who collected old lockets. Other than to shower, Clara hadn’t removed that locket for those seven years and she had felt naked and alone without it for the past week. She unclasped it and pulled it through the holes it was threaded through on the scrapbook page. Written on the page were the words “Plunder Palace, Pennsylvania. Karen, Mom, and Clara, age seven.”. Above where the necklace was attached was a picture. Clara was reluctant to look at it, but made herself do it anyway. It was not a picture of her mother, not even the fake one. It was a harmless photograph of Clara sitting on Aunt Karen’s lap wearing the locket. Clara thought she remembered when that picture was taken. It was the same day her mother had bought the locket. Her mother, Aunt Karen, and Clara had gone to eat lunch after hitting the flea markets, a “family” tradition between Clara, Melanie, and Melanie’s best friend, and while they were waiting to be seated, Clara had crawled up into Karen’s lap to thank her for finding the locket. It was so sweet that Melanie just had to snap a photo, so she did, and that’s what Clara was looking at now. Clara placed the chain over her head and clasped the oval in her hand feeling as if her mother was right there with her. The locket itself had never opened, and that was okay. Clara figured some secrets were meant to be kept.

So far, so good, thought Clara. I remember both of these things, happy to be wearing two comforting memories. And the picture was a picture she remembered too. She wondered where Aunt Karen was, and if she saw her, would Karen look different too? Maybe this photograph was playing tricks on her just like this picture of her parents had. Clara cringed at the thought. Clara gathered her courage and opened the cover of the book.

“Mom!” She screamed, unable to contain her excitement. “Dad!” There were three photographs adhered to the first page. Her eyes darted back and forth from one to the next while she laughed. “Oh my God! It’s you!”

When she was finally able to focus, Clara studied one picture at a time. The first picture was of Mark and Melanie at home. The caption beneath the photo read Delaware, eight months pregnant with you. Daddy hugging both of his girls. Clara noted the joy on her parents’ faces. Melanie was standing near the refrigerator in the kitchen, round with maternity, and Mark was standing behind her with his arms around her belly. Melanie’s arms rested on Mark’s.

The second picture was of Melanie being pushed in a wheelchair by Mark holding what looked like an oversized burrito. On our way home with Clara Louise. Finally a family! Clara wondered who took the picture. Aunt Karen, probably. She wouldn’t have missed the birth.

The final photo on the bottom was blurry, but she could make out a baby Clara lying on her blankie, the hankie-blankie she now wore on her head, and the woman she assumed to be her mother, lying on the floor face to face with Clara. Tummy-time, 3 weeks, so strong! Clara remembered her mother telling her she rolled over early, walked early, talked early. Clara sometimes wondered if because her parents had waited so long for her, or if they exaggerated her abilities sometimes. Regular parents did that all the time. She figured parents who waited years for a baby would do the same, wanting that long-awaited baby to be spectacular, extraordinary. She smiled, feeling a bit of comfort amidst all this turmoil. She turned the page, and all was lost.

Clara’s eyes widened in horror and the muscle in beating in her chest seized. She opened her mouth to scream, but no sound came forth. What she saw on the page destroyed any sense of well-being she had built up in her mind over the last several minutes. The pictures on page two were of Clara, but her parents were once again strangers. She immediately flipped back to the previous page: real parents. She flipped to page two: fake parents. She continued back and forth: real parents, fake parents, real parents, fake parents, until finally, the scream that had been lost somewhere in the depths of her being roared out of her gaping mouth. She swept the scrapbook off her nightstand, and it thudded heavily to the floor, sliding a few feet before stopping. She ran to the door and reached for the knob before remembering there wasn’t one. She beat on the door until her arms ached and screamed until her throat was raw. The last thing she remembered was the door swinging open, the face of an orderly, and an increasingly familiar sting.

 

 

 

Chapter Ten—Friday

 

Clara awoke Friday morning to find herself restrained. Momentarily, an orderly entered, the same young man who had commented on her book the previous day. She scanned the room but saw no sign of it. She was both relieved and confused by this. How could they have known that’s what had set her off? For that matter, how had the orderly have known she was now awake? Were they watching her? Probably not. She was just being paranoid. The book had been flung across the room, so they probably assumed it had been the root of the outburst. And the orderlies came in and out periodically throughout the day. Who’s to say Jamil hadn’t already stopped in a time or two to check on his patient. She was relieved by the fact that they had left her locket and bandana behind. She supposed they had removed them from her head and neck at some point, because they were both on the nightstand.

She wound the chain around her open hand twice, allowing the locket to dangle gently before winding it a third time and closing her fist around it. The handkerchief was folded neatly in half and then in half again next to where she had picked up the locket. She’d put her headband back on later, but for now she placed the locket around her neck, happy to still have it.

“Meds,” he said evenly. He wasn’t rude, Clara thought, just awkward. She liked awkward. She was awkward too. She held out her hand and he gave her the tiny paper cup. It reminded her of what she squirted her ketchup into at McDonald’s. God, what she wouldn’t give for a burger, even at eight o’clock in the morning. Or a slice of Luigi’s pizza. Her heart sank on this last thought, reminding her of her final moments of sanity, digging through the fridge for leftovers.

“Thanks,” she almost said, and then thought better of it. She didn’t want to thank someone for forcing her to take pills that made her feel so tired. She reached for them without thinking, but her arm was caught mid-air before she could take the cup.

“They said I could take these off. Is that okay?”

Clara just looked at Jamil as if to ask, “Are you crazy? Of course it is!”

He removed her restraints and then placed her breakfast tray on her rolling side table and pushed it within her reach. To this, she did say thanks. Don’t bite the hand that feeds you, she thought.

On his way out the door, Jamil turned back toward the Clara. “Oh, hey. I found this in the floor. Is it yours?” He crossed toward her holding out a photograph.

Clara steadied herself. No more fits, or they’d strap her down again. She took the photograph from Jamil, sucked in a deep breath, and looked at the picture. It was only a lake scene, nothing more. “Oh my God, yes. It’s mine!” Clara smiled as she remembered many childhood summers spent where this photo had been taken. “It’s Lake Cromwell. It’s my family’s favorite vacation spot. No one around for miles. I wish I was there now.” Jamil smiled, Clara took her pills, and Jamil exited the room.

Breakfast wasn’t too bad. The bacon was crispy but cold, and the eggs weren’t too dry. She buttered her toast and looked out the window. She remembered that she had finally dreamed last night in spite of the heavy sedation that usually brought heavy, black sleep. In the dream, her mother was speaking to her. She was in the dark, unable to see her mom, but she knew her voice. Clara laughed out loud when she thought of what her mother was saying. She stopped and looked around, relieved that Jamil had left and didn’t see or hear her laughing at what appeared to be nothing. Her mom wasn’t making any sense in the dream. She just kept reciting some of her mom-isms that Clara always made fun of her for: “when a door closes, another one opens; knowledge is the key to unlocking the past; you can’t have a rainbow without a little rain; begin again.” God, my mom is a dork! Clara thought and chuckled again. As much as she teased her weirdo mother, she loved hearing those things. Some of them even made sense sometimes. Except “a little hydration goes a long way”. That one was stupid, Clara decided. The dream was random and meaningless, but it meant the world to Clara. At this point, she was willing to take anything she could get.

When Lydia arrived, she knocked as usual and asked to be seated. She sat in silence for quite some time waiting for her patient to speak. Clara knew what her plan was, and refused to speak first. Worried that she was losing ground with her patient, Lydia finally spoke.

“How have things been since I last saw you?” She asked, knowingly.

“By the sound of that question, it looks like you already know,” Clara spat a little more angrily than she had meant to.

“I’d like to hear it straight from you,” she answered.

Clara sat mute for several minutes. She chewed hastily at her fingernail and finally said, “It happened again.”

“What was it that happened again, Clara?”

“Yesterday, after you left. I put it off for several hours, but that book…I just had to look at it. I pulled a couple of things out of it: my old blanket and my locket, and when I finally looked at the first page, I was so excited. It was my parents. But,” she looked down and picked at her fingernail, “when I turned the page,” now she looked up directly into Lydia’s eyes, “when I turned the page, it wasn’t them anymore.” She began to cry quietly.

“Clara, I need you to know this. They showed me the book. I looked through it. Every picture is of the same people I’ve been meeting with. Every picture I saw in that book was a picture of the Mark and Melanie Marcel that I know.”

“But…” she faltered, “then why am I seeing different people?” She asked knowing that the answer meant that she actually was crazy and that there was no way out of this other than to accept it and move on.

“Clara, I think your mind is playing tricks on you. I think that your brain works so hard to recognize them, that it finally does, but it’s too much to continue to focus, so your mind travels off course. Do you understand?”
Clara shook her head from left to right, drying her tears with the palm of her hand.

“Clara, the photographs aren’t changing, your perception of them is. This is actually a good sign, a move in the right direction. When you recognize the people in the photograph, you are seeing your parents. Now we just have to make it so that you recognize them in all of the pictures. We have to stop your mind from altering its perception.” Lydia explained hoping that her patient understood. It was a lot even for Lydia to wrap her head around, let alone a mentally unstable and frightened teenager.

“Last week, I was a sophomore at Edison High. I was studying and babysitting and dreaming of boys I’d never have.” As if Clara could read Lydia’s mind, or more realistically, see the quizzical look on Lydia’s face, she continued, “I was younger than everyone in my class. In elementary school, I skipped a grade. They didn’t need to teach me to read or write. I just…knew. Math was simple too. They wanted to move me ahead another grade, but my parents wouldn’t allow it. They wanted me to be around kids my age, or close to it anyway. I just don’t understand.” She paused. “I don’t understand how I could be so worried about who was going to prom with who last week, and now…now I’m here…in this place…worrying about if I’m bat-crap crazy or not. It’s not fair!”

“You’re right, Clara. It’s not fair. You should be living a normal life, doing normal teenage things, and not sitting here at Breemont with me. Clara, I’m here to help. If you work with me consistently, and if you are open to our discussions and therapy plan, if you are compliant while here, together, we can get you back to that life. The sooner you let me help you, the sooner you won’t have to see me anymore.”

Lydia said this with a smile, hoping Clara would do the same. She almost did, but when she spoke, he voice was flat.

“So, if I work with you to become “sane” again, and when I recognize my parents, I can go home?”

“Yes. There’s much more to it than that, but yes, the sooner you get better, the sooner you get to go home.” Lydia answered.

“Well, then I guess we had better get started.”

“Okay. Let’s do that.” Lydia smiled, reassuringly. “Clara, I know you must feel anxious about what is happening. It’s a very unnerving experience. I just want to reiterate that this is a no-judgement zone. Anything you say here will be safe. I’m here to listen, okay?”

“I understand.”

“Is there anything you’d like to say about how you are feeling?”

“Just that this sucks. It’s scary, and I don’t understand why it’s happening and why it feels so real. I feel like I went to bed normal and woke up a crazy person. I don’t feel crazy at all, and that’s the most terrifying part of it all.”

“It would be scary. And I know that it feels real to you. I promise, we will get through this together. I’ll help you guide yourself back. You just need to trust me. I’ll try to earn that trust.” Lydia was hoping to further build the bond with her patient. She knew that in order for Clara to come back to reality, she was going to have to trust someone. So far, so good. “I’ve been in touch with Breemont, and they had originally agreed to allow you out of your room today, however, after your incident yesterday, they’ve retracted that decision. I’ll see what I can do about taking you on a tour on Monday, okay?”

“Monday!? You’re not coming tomorrow?”

“I’m sorry Clara, we are set up for sessions Monday through Friday. As of right now, I will not be seeing you on weekends.”

Clara’s face was one of horror. “But, Dr. Lindenhurtz, that’s two days from now! No one comes to see me except you…and the orderlies…but they only come in long enough to throw down my slop and babysit me until I swallow my pills!”

“Clara, they won’t allow me in if I come tomorrow. You are only cleared for three visitors: your mother and father and me. And I’m only cleared to see you on Monday through Friday. I will do what I can to come in tomorrow, okay? But I can’t promise you anything.”

“But in my fragile state,” she said mockingly, “don’t I need some stability?”

“That’s very true. I will see what I can do, Clara. But one thing I do know is that when I come back Monday, barring any issues that may arise, I will be taking you on a tour of the facility. You’ll actually get out of your room on Monday.”

Clara was excited about this. She wasn’t happy about being locked away with no visitors, but she was relieved to know she’d be seeing the outside of this veritable prison in which she was being held.

“I’ll need you to be very clear and upfront with what you are feeling and thinking, even if it’s something you’d rather not discuss. Anything you say can help.” Clara nodded in comprehension. “The first thing we need to do is discuss anything you haven’t already told me about your symptoms, whether it was something that happened before Friday, or things that have been happening since you’ve been in Breemont.” Clara nodded again. “Another activity I’d like you to practice is to keep a detailed journal when I’m not with you. You can write anything in it: how you’re feeling, what you’re thinking, and day to day happenings. I want you to write anything and everything. This journal is yours to do with as you please. I won’t read any of it unless you’d like for me to. I will ask about it from time to time, though, if that’s ok.

Clara had always enjoyed writing. And drawing. She wasn’t thrilled with the reason she had to keep a journal, but she was happy to have an outlet. She wanted to get her thoughts down on paper, so this was perfect. Lydia opened her briefcase and pulled out a notebook. It had a hard front and back cover with zebra print, which Clara loved because it reminded her of her rug in her room at home and a quote on the front outlined by a pretty drawn frame:

THE FUTURE BELONGS TO THOSE

WHO BELIEVE IN THE BEAUTY OF THEIR DREAMS.

–ELEANOR ROOSEVELT.

She liked it. Lydia presented the journal to Clara along with two sharpened pencils.

“Can I have a pen instead? I hate when my pencils go dull.”

“I’m sorry Clara. This is all they would allow me to give you. Hospital rules, I guess.” Lydia answered, apology in her tone.

Clara took the pencils and the journal, holding them as she spoke. “These are fine.” She said reluctantly. “Thank you.” She forced a smile.

“Use them, okay?” Dr. Lindenhurtz said. Clara agreed that she would.

When Dr. Lindenhurtz had left, Clara opened her new journal and stared at the blank page. Finally, she began to write.

Saturday, May 23^rd^

This is stupid. I don’t even know what I’m supposed to be writing about. It’s a…diary….what? Like I’m supposed to write about cute boys and mean girls I don’t like? No. I don’t think so. Dr. L told me to write about anything I was thinking or feeling. You know what I’m thinking? I’m pissed off. I don’t want to be here. I don’t deserve to be here. And you know what? I’m scared. Lonely. Bored. I just want to go home. To what I remember, to what I know.

“Knowledge is the key to unlocking the past.” God, I wish my mom was here to say something like that to me. Some silly saying that would make it all okay…or at least make me laugh at her.

But…what if what I remember isn’t even real? Seeing those pictures was really freaky. The way they changed. It made me wonder if I really am crazy. Surely not, though. I mean, I don’t feel crazy at all. But I guess most crazy people don’t feel crazy either. A lot of people probably have no idea they are crazy. Maybe I’m one of them.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Eleven—Friday Evening

 

Where in the hell is he? Lydia wondered as she sat at The Pub waiting to order dinner. Any other damn night this is where he’d be, but tonight, when he’s supposed to meet me for dinner, he’s nowhere to be found. Figures. Lydia looked at her watch—old habits die hard—and then checked her phone to see if Dylan had texted back. He hadn’t. She threw a peanut back in the basket and grabbed her purse. She kept her head down as the left The Pub which was packed with its regular Friday night crowd, trying to avoid embarrassment.

Once back at in the lobby, she paused to check her mail. “Oh, hello, Lydia.” Ollie whispered. Lydia had just entered the building and Ollie was just inside the doors.

“Good evening,” she replied making her way to her mailbox in the lobby looking troubled.

“Oh, shhhh!” Ollie warned, his eyes wide as he pointed to the ceiling with one hand and his ear to the other.

“Ollie, why are you whispering?” Lydia asked, unable to stop herself. Curiosity had gotten the best of her lately, and she had begun inquiring when Ollie said something strange, which was quite often. When he wasn’t saying something strange, he was doing something strange. Just last month, he had disappeared for almost an entire week and then came home as if nothing had happened.

Ollie grabbed Lydia and gently pulled her back outside near the fountain. He continued to whisper, “Shhh, Lydia, they’ll hear you. Didn’t you see them working on the ceiling last week?” Of course she had. They were patching and repainting, and she was glad of it. That awful lobby needed a facelift. “It was them. They installed listening devices. Anything we say will be transmitted back to them.”

“Ollie, I don’t think that—”

“Lydia, trust me. They weren’t painting the ceiling. The only thing they were painting is a picture of what they want us all to see. At least it’s just the lobby. And probably the elevator. I haven’t seen them on our floor yet, so for now, we’re safe there.”

Lydia refrained from telling him that they in fact had been on the fifth floor. They as in the Orkin man and his assistant, anyway. Routine maintenance was all. Sprucing up the place, scheduled spraying, all buildings did this kind of thing. But, Ollie, poor paranoid Ollie, she thought.

“Listen Oll, I’ve gotta get home. I’m starving, exhausted, and I just want to put my feet up. I’m sure everything is fine, but if you insist, I’ll be as quiet as a mouse.” She mimicked sealing her lips and tossing away the key and smiled in the hopes that it would reassure Ollie. Judging by the troubled expression on his face, she wasn’t sure it had. She’d stop by and check on him later maybe to make sure he was alright, but right now, she just needed a few minutes to herself to relax and to forget the embarrassment of being stood up by her live-in boyfriend.

Lydia pushed the elevator button and when the doors opened, she stepped inside and tapped the “5”, but it didn’t light up. She pushed it again wishing the maintenance men that had been around would do a better job of maintaining. As the doors finally closed, a hand reached through the shrinking opening and startled Lydia. She gasped and clenched her arms to her chest, but relaxed when she saw that it was just Ollie crossing the threshold as the doors bounced open.

“Oh, hi again, Ollie.” Lydia greeted breathlessly. Her mood cheered slightly at the comedic sight of him overloaded with grocery bags. Though, he hadn’t had groceries a moment ago.

“Good evening again to you, Miss Lindenhurtz. I didn’t mean to frighten you. I had put my bags down in the corner while I inspected the lobby. I almost forgot them.” He shifted his weight to better balance the load he was carrying.

“Let me take one of those for you.” Lydia offered.

“Oh, no, Miss Lindenhurtz, no, no, no.” He bounced a bag on his hip, and it ripped open. Fresh produce tumbled out and rolled across the elevator.

“Well, I insist, Ollie. And please, call me Lydia. I insist on that as well.” She bent to pick up what she could and placed it carefully inside the bag, while holding the rip closed.

“Oh, thank you Miss. Lin—dia. So clumsy.”

“You just have your hands full is all. I’m happy to help. These tomatoes look delicious. Where’d you get them?”

“At the whole foods store on Wash’ Ave. I only buy fresh produce. None of that canned garbage. No siree. The government is poisoning us with that stuff. Want to malnourish us and keep us weak.”

“Uh-huh. Well, what are you making?”

“Spaghetti. My mother’s recipe, God rest her.”

Lydia gave a sympathetic nod and then said, “That sounds delicious. Or maybe it’s just that I’m starving. I already had pasta this week.”

“Well, there’s plenty for you. Come on over. I’m just across the hall, ya know.”

“Oh, no. I couldn’t impose.” Lydia replied guiltily. She hadn’t meant to sound as if she were begging.

“No, Miss…Lydia. You aren’t imposing at all—the company will be nice for a change. If it makes you feel better, you bring wine. I’ll start cooking right away.”

“I’ll think about it, Ollie.”

“This time, I insist, young lady. Come early and help me cook. Earn your keep,” he teased, “No sense in us both eating alone.”

Lydia wondered if Ollie was aware that Dylan stood her up more often than not. Did he see that most nights Dylan was out with friends while she came home to an empty apartment? She blushed with embarrassment. She never did feel quite like she was living a real life…like she was a real grown up.

“I just couldn’t, Ollie. I’m sorry,” she guiltily explained. “Maybe another time. Thank you so much for the invitation, though.”

The elevator dinged signaling that they were on the fifth floor. After he unlocked his door—two deadbolts and the knob, Lydia handed the ripped bag of groceries to Ollie and entered her own apartment which was catty-cornered across the hall to his. She checked her phone again before entering in the hopes that Dylan had arrived at The Pub and was now waiting for her; still no answer. Feeling alone and desperate for good conversation, or any conversation for that matter, Lydia closed the door.

“I’m home,” Lydia called sarcastically to what she thought was an empty apartment.

“Hey, Lyd!” Dylan yelled and surprised her almost as much as Ollie had in the elevator. She had half hoped that Dylan was home, and was pleased to find him there. That was exactly what she needed: a night in with him ordering pizza and watching bad movies on Netflix on the couch.

She passed through the open living area to the bedroom to change. She hadn’t made it far when she saw that they weren’t alone. Dylan had company. Rick and Court had made themselves at home in what should have been her spot on the couch. Rick was okay on his own, but she didn’t care for Court. She just didn’t think she could trust a man with a woman’s name. Who names their son Courtney, anyway? He had a confrontational and downright rude demeanor. Lydia figured it came with three decades of living with a girl’s name. Lydia just plain didn’t like him, and she especially didn’t like when all three of them were together. She could deal with one slob, but after a stressful day three slobs was pushing it.

“Didn’t know we were going to have company, Dylan.” Lydia could feel her temperature rising.

“Aw, c’mon, “Lyd”,” Court mocked, “you know you love us!”

Lydia fake-smiled and excused herself to change clothes.

“Hey, Lyd, when you come back in, bring me a beer, would ya?” Dylan called before she had even slipped her shoes off.

“Me too,” echoed Rick.

“Me three,” yelled Court.

“Get them yourselves,” Lydia answered through the door. No way was she catering to them tonight. The men argued over who was “buying” the next round, and Rick lost.

From the kitchen, Lydia retrieved a bottle of Cabernet from the wine rack and headed for her neighbor’s apartment. There was no way she was staying in with these people. She had said any conversation would have been better than none, unless it was a conversation that involved Court. That was something she would avoid at all costs. Besides, she hadn’t cooked in what seemed like ages, so she thought helping Ollie prepare dinner would be therapeutic. She laughed at herself, Always trying to fix someone, aren’t you, Lydia. At least this time, it’s you. Lord knows you need all the help you can get.

Lydia’s thoughts turned to Clara. She hoped she was using the journal she had given her. It would be a good tool to getting to the root of her problem. Stop thinking about work, Lydia! She scolded herself and then walked out the door.

Lydia knocked and was cheerily greeted. She held up the bottle of wine and shrugged her shoulders. Ollie took the Cabernet and invited his guest in.

Inside Ollie’s apartment, he had just finished washing the tomatoes. He got right down to business ordering Lydia around. She didn’t mind; she’d never made homemade sauce before. She was usually a takeout or an open-a-jar-and-pour kinda girl. Like her mother before her, she was clueless.

“Put on some water to boil. Score these tomatoes. Rinse this basil.” He instructed as he browned ground beef and chopped onions and minced cloves of garlic. She enjoyed the bustling activity in the small kitchen. It was almost a dance, she noticed, though she admittedly was a terrible partner; but, he led, she followed, and the meal prep and the wine flowed nicely enough. They didn’t speak much while they cooked, other than when Ollie requested the butter or a clean knife, or when Lydia questioned whether he wanted the big silver pot or the smaller, wider cream-colored pot with the lid.

Ollie seemed to enjoy the company too. Lydia had never seen him with friends, and he definitely lived alone—no women ever came to call. She wondered if it was because of his eccentric nature, or if he just preferred to be alone most of the time. She looked around his apartment for the first time since she had stepped foot inside. She had been too busy in the kitchen to really look up and observe. This was unlike her; typically, she was a keen observer. It had the same open floor plan as her own apartment, but where she had light colored modern furniture, Ollie’s was old, like, seventies old, with horrible brown plaid cushions on a wooden framed couch with a matching chair, a thick oaken coffee table, and a box television. Aside from a frayed blanket slung across the back of the couch, there wasn’t much in the way of decoration. As she continued to scan the room, an open door drew her eye. From what she could tell, the room looked like an office and on the wall was an oversized and overloaded bulletin board. It was covered in newspaper clippings, photographs, handwritten notes, a map, and string. Lydia thought of every movie she had ever seen with a disturbed psycho keeping track of all of his kills, or a kicked-off-the-force cop searching for the serial killer who had brutally murdered his wife. She wondered if Ollie would have been the cop, or the serial killer in this scenario, which caused her to second-think her decision to have dinner with this man. Maybe she should have brought Ollie a nice Chianti instead. She turned to watch him stir the sauce he was simmering. He noticed her looking and smiled, not just with his mouth, but with his kind and gentle eyes. She returned his smile and figured he was harmless. She poured herself and her friend another glass of wine.

When the instructions ceased, and the garlic bread was in the oven, the real conversation began. Lydia, ever the interviewer, asked, “So, how long have you lived here, Ollie?”

“Not long,” came the reply, “I’ve been in the apartment for about six and a half months. I moved from out of state.”

“Oh, really?: Lydia had thought he seemed like a fixture of the building when she had first met him. “From which state?” Lydia was interested in travel, though she never took any trips.

Ollie sipped his wine, “All over really. Most recently I was in Virginia.”

“All the way from Virginia to Washington? That’s quite the move.”

“Yes. I’m a nomad. I like to move from place to place. I don’t like to dig my roots too deep, you know. No, no. That’s how they find you.”

Despite a desperate desire to ask who they were, Lydia refrained. She had worked enough in the last week to last a lifetime. She was looking for a friend, not another patient, so she nodded.

“And you, dear lady, what brings you here?”

Lydia cringed internally. She gulped her wine and half-lied, “Work.” Technically it was work that brought her here, she reasoned. It was the fact that she was fired from work, anyway. She and Dylan had decided to move in together to save on living costs. She had assumed they would each be paying half the rent, half the bills. Turns out, he just figured she’d use her severance package and her savings to pay everything while he used what little income he had on video games (yes, at 34, the boy-man still played video games) and pizza with his friends. Not pizza with Lydia, oh no, with his friends. Not that she was bitter. She seriously began to wonder what she saw in him. He was company sometimes. But only sometimes. She was finally realizing that she was only “not alone” a smidge less than when she actually was alone. She gulped her wine again. Luckily she had received a job offer right away. Of all the hospitals and medical facilities she had sent her resume to, the only one that responded had been Breemont, and she was glad they had. The only thing worse than supporting your live-in boyfriend was not having the financial fortitude to be able to support your live-in boyfriend.

“What do you do for work, Ollie?”

“Oh, a little of this, a little of that. I don’t like to be tied down, so I pick up odd jobs where I can. Maintenance, computer repair, that sort of thing.” Ollie stirred his sauce again before draining the freshly made pasta and pulling the garlic bread out of the oven. Instinctively, Lydia topped off their wine glasses, carried them to the small round table in the nook, where she happened upon a better view of the office and what lay inside. She returned to the kitchen and began rummaging through cabinets for plates, surprised at her familiarity and the fact that she was making herself so at home. Ollie, kind and inviting Ollie, just had that effect on her, she supposed.

“Hey, Ollie? What is all that?” Lydia inquired motioning toward the open door as she searched cabinets.

“Oh. My, my, my. No, no. Nothing. It’s just a hobby of mine is all. It’s nothing, really.” Rushing across the room to shut the door. “No need for you to see that mess.” He explained.

Lydia was now swaying toward serial killer, but Ollie’s eyes told a different story, so she pushed the thought out of her head. She had observed a few strange behaviors in their encounters together: the pebble when they first met, the strange mumblings in the hall, the disappearances, and now the board of mystery hanging over a makeshift desk against the wall in his office. Paranoid Personality Disorder, she mentally diagnosed as she found the dinnerware and set the table.

Ollie brought the pasta and bread to the table. “Sorry there’s no salad. I’m not much on rabbit food. If I’d have known I was having company, I’d have picked up some fresh greens.” Ollie said guiltily. “I’d also have tidied up a bit.”

“Oh, it’s fine, Ollie. I’m just happy to have the company.” Lydia surveyed the apartment. Aside from the horrendous furniture and a few dirty dishes, it actually wasn’t too bad for a single man’s apartment. “It’s nice to chat with someone over dinner. Thank you for inviting me. And for insisting.” She smiled.

“No worries, dear Lydia,” Ollie returned the gesture as he pulled out one of his mismatched chairs and motioned for Lydia to sit down. “I don’t usually invite people over. I’m not much of a people person. You can’t trust ‘em, ya know?”

Lydia ignored the comment as she had the previous one about them. “Truth be told, Ollie, I’m not a big fan of people either.” She swirled organic spaghetti on her fork. “I mean, I do work with people all day. That’s my job. But outside of work? I guess I’m done with people. People are exhausting.”

“Agreed. What do you do?”

“I’m a doctor.” Ollie’s eyes widened in awe. “A psychiatrist, actually.”

“Oh, I’ve known a shrink or two in my day.” Ollie laughed.

Lydia was mildly offended and not at all surprised that he knew a “shrink”. Ollie was an odd duck. “Well, “shrinks”—”

Noticing her tone, Ollie explained. “Oh no. No, no, no. Miss Lydia, I meant no offense. It’s just that I didn’t have very good relationships with the shri…psychiatrists I’ve known. You seem quite wonderful as a person, so I’m sure you are quite wonderful in your profession as well. Some people are not kind. Some people are arrogant. Some people haven’t got a speck of trust or good sense in them. I’m sure you are not one of those people, dear.” Ollie apologized. She could tell he was sincere.

“I was just going to say that I agree. I don’t like “shrinks” either. “Shrinks” are worthless. That’s why I’m glad I’m not one,” she winked, “I’m better than that,” Lydia informed, lifting her glass. “How about a toast: Down with shrinks.” She laughed.

“Here, here,” Ollie joined, clinking her glass with his.

When the dishes were done and Lydia was back across the hall at her own apartment, Ollie went to his office. He sat in a wobbly wooden chair at his undersized and overfilled desk and stared at his map. With his eyes, he followed the string and red circles from one town to the next, pausing to say each city name aloud. For the last few years, he had been chasing down a theory, a theory involving human trafficking. He had traveled from city to city—sometimes living there, sometimes only visiting on what little funds he had, but he always found himself two steps behind. That was Ollie, always a day late and a dollar short, but here in Washington, he felt close. Close to answers, close to solving a great mystery. Ollie had felt like this many times before. He had even “solved” mysteries a time or two, but he had always been a laughingstock at every police station he had ever scurried into crying “conspiracy”. Usually the cops had a good chuckle as they explained, “No, Mr. Ragsdale, the city always does street cleaning on the second Wednesday of the month,” or “Of course, Mr. Ragsdale, we will most certainly look into the Happy Cab company to ensure they are not part of a multi-national drug ring.” He really knew he had been right most of those times—the way those cabbies looked at him or spoke foreign languages on their cab to cab cb’s.

Ollie also admitted to being wrong occasionally too. Like the time he tackled a security guard at the mall. Ollie had been watching him all afternoon, following him. When the chubby uniformed man reached into his pocket, Ollie sprang to life and jumped on his back in an attempt to detain him. Though he was overweight, the man was strong and Ollie’s added weight didn’t faze him much. He stumbled around in front of a half-naked poster of Behati Prinsloo in the window of Victoria Secret. Other mall-goers stared in disbelief. Finally, the security guard took a few heavy footed steps, turned clumsily around, and plopped down on a bench pressing his full weight against the parasite on his back. Ollie, a smallish man, finally relented. After hours of questioning and police presence, Ollie realized the man was in fact reaching for his nightstick as Ollie had suspected. However, he was planning to defend himself from the creepy guy who had been following him all morning—Oliver Ragsdale. The security guard felt no ill will, but instead pity on the mistaken old man, and opted to press no charges. An embarrassed Ollie slunk back home, defeated.

You can’t win ‘em all, he had thought. It had begun to rain, and he thought about hailing a cab instead of slopping through the flooded sidewalk, but, well, he didn’t want to get caught up in all of that after the day he had just endured.

Ollie had traced the trafficking ring to the city in which he now lived, but he was stuck. He couldn’t locate the people he believed to be involved, and so far, he had heard of no missing women or children , with whom the traders primarily dealt, in this town. He had newspaper clippings from east coast to west coast pegged into a bulletin board: Missing Teen from Oakmont, CA; Mother and Young Daughters Vanish in Cuba, MO; Hartford, CT Father Wakes to Discover Teen Girl Gone. These traffickers dealt with people from all over the country.

“No one is safe anywhere,” thought Ollie. “When I see Lydia again, I’ll need to warn her. They’re here in this town, and she needs to be aware. It’s too close. It’s too dangerous for her not to know.” He removed his tweed jacket and placed it across the back of his wobbly chair which squeaked in disapproval as he twisted in the seat. He rubbed his blue eyes and switched on his 1991 Macintosh Classic. He refused to upgrade: anything made mid-90’s or later had microchips with monitoring capabilities in them. He didn’t want to risk his privacy for a fancy new machine, so he held on to his old one. He was handy enough with electronics that he could perform his own routine maintenance on it. He didn’t trust anyone else to do it, anyway.

Once the old girl had come to life, he began his search: MISSING PEOPLE+BREEMONT, WA; STRANGE HAPPENINGS+BREEMONT, WA; BREEMONT, WA+YEARLY CENSUS.

His searches didn’t turn up much in the way of information—they usually didn’t. He mostly had to go with his gut or trust a hunch to get answers. This was what usually got him classified as a certifiable whack-job. Something did finally strike his fancy on the last search, though. He pulled up the most recent census and saw a slight increase in population. That, coupled with the fact that the number of post-secondary educated residents had also increased accordingly, raised red flags for Ollie. These people were smart. Sure, he couldn’t find that anyone had been taken yet, but it was just a matter of time. It’s always just a matter of time, he thought and continued his research into the early morning hours.

#

As Ollie had begun working earlier, Lydia was returning home. To her dismay and general disgust, the guys were still in full swing. She threw a few dishes noisily into the dishwasher and wiped down the counters. “I think I’ll head to bed. I need to be up early tomorrow, anyway. Can you guys please try to keep it down out here?” she asked as politely as was possible through her tightly gritted teeth.

“Sure thing, Lyd,” answered Dylan.

“Sure thing, Lyd,” Court mocked.

Aggravated, she swung the bedroom door closed and didn’t come out for the rest of the night. When Dylan’s company finally left and he came to bed, Lydia was still awake.

“Why didn’t you hang out, Lydia?” he asked.

“I wasn’t in the mood. When you stood me up at The Pub, I was furious, but when I came home and you were here, for a second I was happy. When I saw you were staying in tonight, for a moment, I thought it would be just you. Just you and just me. Obviously, I was mistaken.”

“So, what? I can’t have friends over?” He slurred defensively.

“No, you can have friends over whenever you want. I would just like to know about it before I walk through the door. I’d also like to have some one on one time with you. Especially, when you are supposed to meet me for dinner. What? You can’t even call to cancel? I just have to wait for an hour, alone, looking like an idiot? It would be nice if every once in awhile we could just spend an evening together. The two of us.”

“It’s just the two of us now,” he said softly as he reached his hand under the covers and caressed her breast. She moved his arm. He rested his hand on her hip and kissed her neck.

“Dylan—”

“What, Lydia? Now I can’t even touch you? First, you’re mad because I have friends over to our apartment. Now you won’t even let me touch you. You are absolutely impossible!”

Lydia, realizing he hadn’t heard a single word she had said, threw his hand off of her hip and bolted upright in bed. “No, Dylan. You know what’s impossible? This relationship. This relationship is what’s impossible.” She flung the covers off and violently scooped up her pillow and her phone. “I’m done. I want you out by the weekend. Have Rick and Court help you move.” She stomped out the bedroom door toward the couch, and he didn’t try to stop her. She hadn’t really wanted him to anyway; she wasn’t the type of woman who said one thing and meant another, or put on a show to get attention. She meant what she said. She was direct and didn’t play games. She figured she must have missed the day they taught all that in “Girl School”. Being dramatic just wasn’t her thing.

She brushed crumbs off the couch and collapsed pulling a blanket around her. She closed her eyes, relieved at the decision she had just made and was asleep within minutes.

The next morning, she woke to the sound of sizzling. She had wanted to sleep in—it being Saturday and all, so at first, she was annoyed. She rubbed her sleep-heavy eyes and opened them to find a mug of steaming coffee and a single rose on the coffee table directly in front of her. She sat up and smelled the salty-sweet aroma of sugar cured bacon. She sipped her coffee, confused at what was happening. Dylan had never cooked her breakfast. Or lunch. Or dinner. He turned away from the stove and saw that she was awake. He wiped his hands on a dish towel and trotted in to kiss her good morning.

“Hey, sleepyhead. How’d you sleep?” He asked softly, guiltily even.

“Uhhh, okay I guess? What are you doing?”

“Making you breakfast, Lydia. Bacon and eggs. Oh, and toast. Do you want orange juice?”

“I see that you are making breakfast, but why? You haven’t cooked a meal since I’ve known you.” She accused warily.

“Lydia, I just. I was up late thinking, you know? About you and me. And I realized, I don’t want to lose you. Not over something stupid. I’ve been an ass, I know that. But if you’ll let me, I know I can fix things. I’m starting with breakfast—speaking of which, hang on…I have to turn the bacon…smells like it’s burning.” Dylan trotted back into the kitchen to fight the grease pops while he ineptly turned the bacon in the pan. “Hope you like your bacon extra crispy,” he laughed from the kitchen, “because that’s what we’re having, whether we like it or not.”

“Crispy is fine,” she answered, still confused. She sipped more coffee, hoping that would help. It didn’t.

“So, anyway, when you left the bedroom last night, I had time to think, you know? And I thought about what life would be like without you, Lydia. And it was a thought I couldn’t bear.”

“Because you’d have to work full time and buy your own toilet paper?” Lydia snapped. She wasn’t a morning person, and today she wasn’t “Dylan-person” either.

“No, Lydia. Like I said, I love you. I don’t want to lose you. Really.” He pleaded as he buttered the toast. “You didn’t answer. Do you want orange juice?”

“Yeah, sure. Whatever.”

He poured a glass and plated the food as he said, “You mean so much to me, and I’m sorry I haven’t shown you that. You are worth my time, and I need to give you more of it. If you’ll give me the chance, I’ll show you that I’m worth your time too, Lydia.” He set the plates on the patio table through the sliding glass door and came into the living room. He folded Lydia’s blanket and threw it over the back of the couch and escorted the lady to breakfast.

She picked at her eggs and said, “So, if you stay, we’re going to make this work? You’ll prioritize your time? Our time together?”

“Yes. It’s a promise.”

“And you’ll ask before you invite company over?” She grimaced as she hurt a tooth on a hard piece of burnt bacon. The clinked the bacon back down on her plate next to the runny eggs.

“Of course. I’ll limit the amount of time I spend with them too. All eyes on you, Lydia.”

“And you’ll help more with the bills? You’ll get a job?” She crunched a bit of eggshell and summarily spit it into her napkin, “and help with the housekeeping?”
“If we both work, it’s only fair that we both clean.”

She debated for a moment or two and pushed her food around on her plate. Finally, she looked up and smiled, “And you promise you’ll never cook again?” She said and laughed.

“Promise,” he winked, and led her into the bedroom.

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Twelve—A Visitor

 

Instinct forced Clara to shoot straight up in bed which, in turn, caused the dream she had been having to shake loose from her mind. Clara looked to her left where the diary and dull pencils lay on the nightstand. She began to write:

Sunday, May 24^th^

Mom and Dad. Me. A vacation maybe? I can’t remember. I know we were smiling. Dream is gone, though. Where were we? What were we doing? It was my real parents, I think. But it could have been the “imposters”. Was it both? Who cares. It was a stupid dream anyway. And this journal is stupid. And my whole life is stupid. I need to get out of this room. I need something to do. I need this stupid, stupid tv to work!

 

Clara punctuated the sentence and the thought by stabbing her pencil into the lined paper like a dart on the ‘point’ of her exclamation point. She tossed the book aside and angrily threw off her covers. “This is boring. There’s nothing to do but THINK and I don’t want to think!” She screamed aloud and began banging the television remote/nurse call button against the railing of her bed. “Stupid! Stupid, stupid, stupid!” She accentuated every other syllable with a slam of the remote. On the last syllable of the last smash, the tv buzzed to life. “What the…?” Clara said, wondering why the tv had never come on before. She looked at the remote, the screen, and back to the remote. She shrugged her shoulders. “If it doesn’t work, bang it around a little.” She thought, and somehow wondered if that was another of her mother’s weird words to live by. Who knows? she thought and flipped the channel. Finally, something to do!

#

On Monday morning after the usual knock and request to enter, Lydia greeted Clara. “Good morning, you look well rested.”

“I feel well-rested for a change.”

“That’s good. They did reduce your sedative over the weekend. Maybe the sleep you are getting is a deeper, more rejuvenating sleep. Wonderful.” Lydia smiled. “Oh, and I see they’ve repaired your television,” Lydia commented nodding toward the outdated box tv mounted on the wall.

“Yeah. Yeah, I guess they did.”

“Well, Clara, I have good news.”

“Really?” Clara asked excitedly, wondering what it was.

“Yes. Would you like to leave this room?”

“Oh my God! Seriously?”

“Yes. But first, we need to discuss some rules, Clara.”

“Sure. Anything.”

“You will need to be on your best behavior. No outbursts, or they’ll revoke your privileges.”

“And you are not to interact with other patients. Not yet.”

Clara nodded.

“And you are to stay with your chaperone—me—at all times.”
“Okay, “Mom”, geez!” Clara blurted out and then froze. Lydia saw the tears welling her patient’s wide eyes. Lydia began to speak, but Clara pushed her emotions away. “I mean, yeah. I get it,” her voice quivered slightly but never fully broke. Lydia thought it was best to move on.

“Okay. Good. So, we’re clear?”

“Yes.”

“Are you ready?”

“More ready than I’ve ever been for anything in my life.” She answered. “Almost,” she added.

“Let’s go,” Lydia instructed as she stood and motioned for Clara to follow. She rang the buzzer and the door opened. Clara had been stuck in that room for over a week now, and she was ready to see what lay beyond that door, even if it was just more hospital.

The first thing Clara saw was a familiar face: Jamil. She smiled and nodded to him. He did the same, and then went back to his paperwork at the nurses’ station, copying information from one chart to another. She noticed for the first time how cute he was. He had the same smirk as Michael, though Michael seemed like a distant memory of a time when she was sane. Jamil was an ever-present reminder that she was losing it. A very cute reminder at least, she thought. They walked down a long hall. Lydia pointed to a consult room. “This is where I meet with your parents.”

Clara paused and touched the plaque that read CONSULTATION and felt a shock of familiarity as if something was waiting for her on the other side. She held the knob in her hand and wondered which set of parents Dr. L spoke to in there, her real parents or the imposters. She drew her hand back and wondered again if they were one in the same. She also wondered if the two realities would ever merge again. She desperately longed to be normal.

The pair continued to move silently down the hall, Lydia in her sensible flats and Clara in her skid-resistant socks. They passed through what seemed to Clara to be more of an atrium than a hallway. It wasn’t huge, but it was windows all around. To her right, she saw a courtyard complete with ornate white metal bistro sets, a fountain, and in the corner, was that…were those…bunnies?

“Dr. L, can we go out there?” Clara begged.

“That’s the plan, Clara. I thought some fresh air would do you some good. It will do me some good too. We both need a change of scenery.”

Lydia opened a glass side door and held it open for her patient. She led her to one of many bistro sets, and they both sat. Clara watched the rabbits hop and bounce about in the grass.

“Can I hold one?”

“I suppose, if you can catch it.”

“Why are there even rabbits in here?”
“It’s therapeutic for patients. Makes them feel more at ease. People like to pet them. The repetitive stroking motion calms them.”

Clara stood and playfully chased down a fat rabbit. She finally detained one and held it tightly as it tried to wriggle away. Hmmm…therapeutic for the patient, traumatic for the bunny, she chuckled. She thought of Lennie and George and hoped that situation never happened here at Breemont. As she sat and snuggled the bunny, he submitted and allowed for the petting. The morning sun felt good on her face.

Dr. Lindenhurtz began: “Have you used your journal?”

“A little, but I didn’t write anything important. I wrote about wishing my tv would work. And now it does. I wrote about how I wanted to get out of my room. Now we’re here. Must be magic.” She said in her teenager’s voice with a teenager’s snide inflection.

Lydia took it in stride. “Keep writing, Clara. It will help.”

Clara agreed, and continued to stroke the now sedate rabbit.

“Quite the magic touch, you’ve got, huh?” Lydia commented nodding at the rabbit.

“Oh. Yeah. He really calmed down.” She surveyed the courtyard. “If I’d have known I could get out of that sardine can they call a room and get to sit in a place like this, I’d have refrained from throwing that last fit.” She said attempting to laugh but grunting instead.

“Clara,” Lydia looked serious, “There’s a visitor here for you today.”

Clara cut her off before she had the chance to say more: “No! I’m not ready, Dr. L. I don’t want to see them yet. I can’t.” Clara’s nervousness transferred to the fuzz ball on her lap which had also become agitated.

“Clara, it isn’t your parents. Breemont has cleared another visitor,” Lydia explained and then waited for Clara’s reaction.

Clara was confused. She ran through a mental rolodex trying to think of anyone other than her parents who would come visit her. Someone from school? Not likely, she hadn’t tried to make any friends this time. A sibling she didn’t know existed? Doubtful. Surely, a sibling she currently couldn’t remember would have been pictured in the crazy, changing scrapbook her “mom” had dropped off. A “mom” whom she was now cautiously considering could actually be her mom.

Who is it, she thought and then her entire face lit up with excitement. “Oh my God! Is it Aunt Karen? It’s Aunt Karen, isn’t it! I mean, she’s not my real aunt, but if she’s here, if she’s really here, you already know that.”

Lydia smiled, “Yes. When your parents told her about what had happened, she flew out to see what she could do to help. I’ve already spoken with her, and she’s very excited to see you. If you want to see her, that is.”

“Of course I want to see her! Are you flipping kidding me?” She asked, not expecting an answer. “Oh, God. Oh my God. But…what if…” Clara trailed off realizing her excitement may have been premature. “What if I don’t…don’t recognize her?” The rabbit, clearly distressed scurried off of Clara’s lap and away from the table. He found a safe corner in the courtyard and nibbled his little bunny mouth on something invisible.

“She was worried you might have that concern, Clara. She had a great idea. Here,” Lydia instructed as she held out her phone, “if you’d like, you can see her photo. I took it in the consult room when I met with her earlier.”

“Aunt Karen? Which consult room?” she asked, not yet allowing her eyes to view the screen of Dr. L’s phone.

“The one I meet with your parents in. The one I showed you.”

Clara finally turned her face toward the screen. When she saw the picture, she sucked in her breath and stared at Dr. L with her mouth agape and tears in her eyes. Clara stood so quickly that her heavy bistro chair flew backward and toppled over. Before Lydia knew what Clara was doing, the patient was off and running in her socked feet into the atrium and down the hall. Lydia sat frozen until Clara had run past the last window in the long hall and rounded the corner toward the nurses’ station. When Clara disappeared, Lydia snapped back to life. Worried that she’d never recover from another blow to her career, Lydia bolted after her patient. She had to stop her before she did anything, well, crazy. Lydia’s mind raced as quickly as her feet. She could see it now: PSYCHIATRIST LOSES PATIENT IN LOCKED FACILITY, or LINDENHURTZ LOSES ANOTHER, or even LOCAL PSYCH WARD ON LOCKDOWN AFTER PATIENT STABS ORDERLY WITH DULL PENCIL; PSYCHIATRIST TO BLAME. She had been lucky the Bedford issue stayed mostly out of the papers, well, her name had stayed mostly out of the papers, anyway. She didn’t think she could get that lucky again. She didn’t want to find out if her luck had run low, so she kicked it into high gear, running purely on adrenaline. When Lydia rounded the corner after what seemed like an eternity, she stopped short with her arms flailing for balance. It took a moment for her brain to decipher what was happening, but finally it did. Lydia watched as an outside observer of what seemed to be the most genuine showing of affection she had ever been privy to: Clara was hugging Karen—Aunt Karen—and crying with exuberant joy. The women wailed together, a reunion for the ages.

Clara and Dr. Lindenhurtz returned to the courtyard and pulled up a chair for Karen who, along with Clara, was still fighting residual sobs. The pair continued to hold hands and smile at one another as they sat down across from Lydia.

“Well, that, ladies, was a thing of beauty,” Lydia beamed, shaking her head. “How are we feeling?”

“So good, Dr. L. You have NO idea.” Lydia didn’t. She had experienced harsh loss—both her parents were dead—but never the happy reunion. “I’m just so happy. So, so happy!”

“Me too, Bug-a-boo!” Karen answered, squeezing Clara’s hand. “When your momma told me what happened, I jumped ship at work and landed at your house. Your mom is beside herself, hon. They both are. They miss you so badly, and they are unbelievably worried about you. I was too. Until now. You look great, Bug.”

Clara squeezed back and then felt embarrassed. “Aunt Karen, I recognize you, but I don’t…I don’t recognize them. I don’t understand, but even with pictures, most of the time I don’t recognize them.”

“It’s okay, Bug. I told them I’d look out for you, okay? I’m here for as long as you guys need me. Dr. L, here, thought it might do you some good for us to have a little chat. Catch up on things, reminisce, blah, blah, blah—shrink stuff.” She giggled and winked at Lydia. Lydia smiled back, at least on the outside. “We’ll get you right as rain, you’ll see.”

Clara bent to pick up the bunny that had returned and nuzzled her ankle with its cold, wet nose. She cuddled it in her lap. “Thanks, Aunt Karen.”

Dr. Lindenhurtz pointed to the locket around Clara’s neck which was now half hidden by rabbit fur. She already knew the story from Melanie’s point of view—Lydia had asked her about it when Clara began wearing the locket—but she wanted to hear it from Clara. “Clara, you’ve been wearing that locket for a few days. Can you tell me about it?”

Clara reached up with the hand that wasn’t wrapped around the rabbit and held the locket in her palm, studying it longingly. She rubbed its surface with her thumb and then answered, “It was a gift from my mother.”

“Ahem.” Karen made an exaggerated throat clearing sound. Lydia found it to be obnoxious but didn’t let it show.

Clara rolled her eyes teasingly, “And Aunt Karen. We were at the Plunderer’s Paradise. We had been shopping all day and hadn’t found much. Aunt Karen came running up to Mom holding the locket and pretty much made her buy it. It’s broken,” she raised her other hand and tried to pry it apart with no luck and with no surprise, “but she bought it anyway and gave it to me. I’ve been wearing it ever since.” Clara let the locket fall between herself and the bunny and resumed petting. She thought maybe she and the rabbit were becoming friends. She hoped so, she needed all the friends she could get.

“Oh my God, Clara. Do you remember that place we ate at after? That hole in the wall with the greasy burgers and undercooked chicken? Even the tables were sticky, but we were so hungry, we ate anyway. Oh, God, remember how sick your mom and I got!” Karen chimed in. Lydia welcomed any added information, so she studied Clara’s physical and verbal reaction. It was clear she did remember.

“Ugh. Yes. I remember! Poor Mom thought she was going to die!”

“But we survived!” Karen cheered.

“Yeah, you did! Barely…” Both women laughed.

“And the bandana?” Lydia prompted.

“Oh,” Clara smiled fondly, “this headband?”

“It’s not a headband, Clara,” Karen chimed in mockingly, “It’s not a headband, it’s a hankie-blankie!”

Clara’s cheeks flushed, “Shut UP, Aunt Karen,” she laughed, “it’s a stylish headband,” she continued in her most sophisticated voice. Both women laughed again.

“It used to be a baby blanket, then a handkerchief, but since you brought it to me in the book the other day, I’ve been wearing it as a headband.”

Lydia recorded notes as usual on her legal pad. The day was heating up. The morning dew had evaporated and any clouds that had been in the sky that morning had dissipated giving way to a hot midday sun. Clara raised her face to the sky to feel the warmth full on her milky skin. She felt for a moment she was overheating, but she shook her head from side to side and the thought faded. Lydia suggested the women move inside out of the sun, but Clara wasn’t yet ready to forfeit this tiny freedom.

“Clara, Karen and I looked at the scrapbook together this morning. The scrapbook that your necklace which you recognize and your bandana—“

“Hankie-blankie!”

“Yes, thank you, Karen, your “hankie-blankie” which you recognize came out of.”

“Yeah…?” Clara replied, knowing what was coming next.

“Bug-a-boo, it’s you. It’s you and your mom and your dad in that book. Hell, I’m even in that book, kiddo!”

Clara didn’t speak. She waited for more words.

“Listen, kid, do you see me?”

“Yes.”

“Do you know me?”

“Yes.”

“Do you know me?”

“Yes.”

“Have I ever steered you wrong, Bug.”

“Always!” Clara joked.

“Right,” Karen laughed, “But seriously, Clara. Can you trust me?”

“Yes. Of course I can.”

“Clara, kiddo, I have the book.”

Karen dug in her oversized bag and pulled out the scrapbook Dr. Lindenhurtz had shown her this morning. Lydia thought if Karen presented Clara with it, things would go more smoothly. She was beginning to think she was right.

“This book is full of memories, hon. Memories we are all a part of. And I promise you, do you hear me?” Clara said yes, “I promise you, these are your parents. The mother and father to the sweetest baby girl I have ever known. A baby girl who grew up and lost her way. Parents to the young lady sitting at this table. I promise, when you open that book, no matter what or who you think you see, they are your real parents, okay?”

Clara thought for a long moment, stroking soft rabbit fur. Finally, Karen spoke again as she pushed the book along the table toward Clara. “Can you trust me, bug?”

After much deliberation, Clara responded with a troubled and whispered, “Yes.”

“Clara, what I’d like you to do, when you’re ready, is to open the book to the first page. Take it as slowly as you want.”
Clara tensed. The rabbit in her lap, instead of mirroring her emotions like it had seemed to do earlier, was counteracting them. He burrowed in closer to Clara as if he wanted to tell her everything would be alright. Clara had to admit to herself that it did help to have him snuggled so tightly against her.

Clara decided it was now or never and gingerly opened the book, worried about what she would find on the pages within its stretched bindings. She looked down at the first page and stared at the pictures in silence. The tears were back, but there was no joy in her eyes as far as Lydia could tell. The women sat void of sound for several minutes. Clara turned the page and traced the outlines of the photographs. Her tears were silent and streaked her cheeks. Finally, she spoke.

“All the pictures have the same people in them. Last time,” Clara looked down ashamedly and picked the rabbit up to hold it to her chest. She buried her face in its downy fur. “Last time the pictures had different people in them. Some were Mom and Dad…I mean I recognized some as being Mom and Dad, and others were strangers.” Clara explained to Karen.

Karen had already been apprised of the situation before meeting with Clara, but she just squeezed her shoulder and said, “It’s alright, hon. I’m so sorry you had to go through that. Who do you see now?”

Clara’s lack of an answer gave Lydia all the answer she needed. She flipped her yellow paper to the back of the pad and continued with notes.

Clara’s tears increased in volume but not in sound. She returned to the book and turned the page. On this page, there were two more pictures, one of which was of Karen holding Clara’s hand as she toddled along in a Barney t-shirt and a diaper. In addition to the pictures were a couple of Band-Aids labeled “FIRST SHOTS” and a sticker with her height at weight on it at a six month well-baby checkup. Clara touched the Snoopy Band-Aids and remembered seeing them in another album at some point. Occasionally, she would dig her mom’s old pictures out and reminisce, so even though she didn’t remember physically receiving the shots, she remembered thumbing through the albums and seeing the Band-Aids a time or two.

“I remember these,” Clara offered apologetically.

Karen understood that to mean she didn’t recognize her parents in the pictures. “That’s a great start, Bug. Don’t worry. Okay? We’ve got this, you and me.”

“I know Aunt Karen. Thanks for being here. It means a lot.”

“I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

Clara looked at Lydia with extreme exhaustion. “Dr. L?”
“Yes, Clara.”

“Can we be done for the day?”

“Of course we can. It’s almost lunch time. Would you like to eat in the cafeteria?”

Any other time, eating in a hospital cafeteria would seem like a punishment, but on this day, after eight long days of being locked in a box, Clara felt as if she’d won the lottery.

“Yes. I would like that.”

“Clara, I’d like to eat with you. Are you up for it? I mean, if Dr. L’s okay with it, of course.”

“Yes! Can she, Dr. L?” Clara begged.

Lydia was annoyed. It’s not like she could say no after Karen had already suggested it. She’d lose ground with the bond she was building with her patient. Besides, it wasn’t really a big deal, other than the fact that Karen rubbed Lydia the wrong way. It might actually be a good stress-reliever for Clara.

“Sure, Clara. I think that’s a great idea.”

Clara gently placed the sleeping bunny in the chair she had just gotten up from. “C’mon, Aunt Karen, let’s go find the food!” Clara had not yet been to the cafeteria, their adventure would consist of the blind leading the blind. Clara felt like she needed a good adventure.

“Clara, before you go…the book…do you want to take it, or would you like me to put on your nightstand. Or we can keep it at the nurses’ station if that would make you more comfortable.”

Clara debated for a moment, and then reluctantly answered, “Can you put it in my nightstand?”

“Of course. Remember our rules though. Stay with Karen and only speak to her. You ladies enjoy your lunch.”

When Clara and Karen had finally found the cafeteria—Clara had stopped to ask Jamil directions, knowing this was breaking the “rules”, but figured asking an orderly for directions wasn’t really breaking the rules—they pushed their trays down the metal grid. Clara chose chicken strips and fries. Karen opted for a Cobb salad. Karen paid and sat down at a table in the corner facing a window.

“C’mon Clara. Have a seat!” she patted the chair next to her. “Let’s really talk. Without your babysitter.” She laughed.

Clara laughed too, but felt bad. She liked Lydia and didn’t like that she felt as if she was making fun of her. Dr. L had been the only person she felt comfortable around since…it happened.

Clara and Karen laughed and reminisced for the better part of an hour before Clara was escorted back to her room. She spent the afternoon watching talk show reruns. They reminded her that life could always be worse, especially Maury. You are NOT the father (or the mother for that matter), she laughed to herself, but inside she was dying.

That evening after a meal of meatloaf, if you want to call it that, and cold, lumpy mashed potatoes, Clara pulled out her diary.

Monday, May 25^th^ , continued

Today was great! I finally felt normal for a second. Aunt Karen came to visit. We talked for hours. It was so nice to see a familiar face. Weirdness, though, I was thinking of when I walked out to the courtyard with Dr. L and she showed me the consultation room and I touched the door. It felt weird. Like, I knew someone was in there—someone I knew. How could I have known that? It might be that Aunt Karen and I have such a close bond. I don’t have any real aunts, but Karen and I have been inseparable since before I was even born. Even when we moved around, she always came to visit me, sent me gifts, or invited me to stay with her. I’m so glad she showed up today. It was nice of my parents to let her come see me even though I’m not ready to see them. That’s very adult of them, I mean, they are adults, but, well…whatever. Maybe I’ll give them a chance. Maybe…

But I still don’t understand why I don’t recognize them. What happened to make me this way? If Aunt Karen says it’s them, then I know it’s them. She’d never lie, and if she did, I think I’d know it. I’ve known her too long. She’s that stereotypical “cool” aunt. I’m sure if I asked her, she’d bust me out of here…and probably take me to a tattoo shop—a clean one, I’m sure—and buy me my first tattoo. But, still, it was hard to look at those photos. It makes my heart hurt. I hope Dr. L can fix me. I think I’ll work harder to let her try.

That night Clara fell asleep holding her locket and dreamed that she was standing in front of Dr. Lindenhurtz saying, “I’m ready.” It felt so real. When she woke the next morning, she knew what she had to do.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Thirteen—Tuesday, May 26

 

After breakfast, in the courtyard, Dr. Lindenhurtz met with her patient.

“Clara how do you think yesterday’s meeting went?”

“It was good. It was so nice to finally see someone familiar. I feel much better about things. And last night, I looked at the book again. And I thought, for just a second, that I might recognize them,” Clara lied.

Lydia squinted her eyes in suspicion, “You were able to recognize your parents last night?”

“Yes. Well, I mean, only for a second, and I’m not entirely sure, but maybe.”

Lydia wrote.

“Dr. L?” Clara asked nervously.

“Yes?”

“I’m think I’m ready.” She said, but in all reality, she wasn’t. She just wanted to speed the process along, no matter what it took.

“Ready for what?”

“To see them. To see my parents. I’m ready.” Clara added as confidently as she could.

After analyzing the situation, Lydia placed both hands flat on the table, pen in hand, and leaned in toward her patient gently, “Clara, it’s my recommendation that you wait a few more days before you see them. The fact that you may have recognized them briefly last night is wonderful. And knowing exactly who Karen is? That shows sure sign of progress. I worry that if you see your parents and they don’t look familiar to you, it could be extremely traumatic and set you back. I don’t want that, and I know you don’t either,” Lydia tried to explain. She could reason that by the look of her patient’s face, that her argument was being ignored.

Knowing full-well that she probably wouldn’t recognize her parents, because she hadn’t really recognized them last night, Clara decided that seeing them would not set her back in treatment. She was already terrified, she was already confused, and she was just plain tired—exhausted, really. It was her fervent hope that seeing them in person, hearing their voices, and feeling their love would actually help her remember. It was worth a shot anyway.

“Dr. L, just…just let me see them. Tell them I’m ready, tell them why you think we should wait, and then tell me what they say.” Clara suggested what seemed to be a compromise, though both women knew that as soon as her parents heard she wanted to see them they’d be there within the hour, no matter where they were or what they were doing. Clara knew what they would choose. Lydia knew why her patient offered that conciliation. She had to appreciate the intelligent, manipulative powers of that fourteen year old girl. She knew what she wanted, she knew what she needed to do to get it, and then she devised a plan to make it happen while still allowing her to look innocent and helpful. Kudos, to you, kid, thought Lydia, Kudos to you.

“I’ll call them now.” Lydia reluctantly complied.

“Thank you. And, Dr. L?”

“Uh-huh?” Lydia answered as she dug for her cell.

“Can we ask Aunt Karen to be here too? I mean, if my parents come? And just in case I need her.” Clara knew she’d need a lifeline during their meeting, someone to keep her anchored in the face of anxiety and sadness. Someone to help her hang on to hope that soon, she would know these people again and that her life could be the way it was just over a week ago.

“That’s a good idea, Clara.”

Lydia searched her paperwork for Mark’s phone number. She knew if she spoke to Melanie, there would be no chance, but Mark seemed more level-headed and there was a slight possibility he would listen to what she had to say.

“Yes, hello. This is Dr. Lindenhurtz. Is this Mr. Marcel?” she asked into the phone. “Oh, no, Mr. Marcel, everything is absolutely fine. I was just calling because—what, oh, okay. Mark—I was just calling because your daughter,” she looked at Clara when she said this, “has expressed interest in visiting with you and your wife.”

There was a pause while Lydia grimaced and pulled the phone from her ear. Clara could hear his voice, which unfortunately didn’t sound familiar, coming from the earpiece, but she couldn’t make out what was being said. Lydia could. Mark was screaming to Melanie that their baby wanted to see them. So much for calling the level-headed one, she thought.

After the excited shouts subsided, Lydia warned, “Mark, listen. I think we should wait a few days. I’m worried reintroducing the family too soon could have a negative effect on Clara. She’s fragile right now, and even the smallest hiccup could deter her from her treatment plan.”

“Family is family, Dr. Lindenhurtz. My baby girl wants to see me, I’m there.” He explained, still excited. He hung up the phone. Lydia placed her cell back into her bag and sighed.

Clara laughed knowingly, “So, what did he say?”

“They’ll probably be here before I could repeat it,” Lydia answered with a forced smile.

Clara felt bad again, like when she had laughed at the “babysitter” reference yesterday, but she pushed it out of her mind. The ends justified the means, she thought, another mom-ism.

When the call had come in, Mark and Melanie had just parked their cars, having driven separately, in the larger lower lot and were walking toward the building in silence, until the ringing in Mark’s pocket broke it.

He looked at his phone and stopped short, but Melanie, who was unaware, continued on a few steps before she realized her partner was lagging behind. He answered the phone, said, “Call me Mark,” paused, and then yelled, “Oh my God! She wants to see us! Melanie, She actually wants to see us! I told you if we waited, it would pay off. I told you this would work!”

Melanie rolled her eyes at the “I told you so’s, but was elated all the same. “When? Now? Let’s go!”

Melanie and Mark dashed for Mark’s car as Mark loudly proclaimed into the receiver that they were on their way. They sped toward Breemont Medical Facility discussing how they should proceed.

“Just take it slow, Melanie,” Mark instructed. “She’s had such a shock recently that she doesn’t need us to bum rush her when we get there. Calm, cool, collected. That’s the key.” He continued.

Melanie sat quietly in the passenger’s seat playing out scenarios of the “reunion” in her head. In the first scenario, she and Mark hugged Clara and cried with her, but Clara struggled to break free from the strangers before her. She ran to her room and slammed the door. Just like a teenager, Melanie thought.

In the second scenario, Clara recognized only Mark. Melanie was still an imposter. She cried like a baby in Mark’s encompassing arms, tossing hateful, suspicious glances at Melanie who stood a few steps away awkwardly and wondering how she could possibly win her daughter over. She wondered if it would be easier now that she trusted Mark. She hoped it would.

The final and best scenario, which was the last one she had time to create before arriving at Breemont, was the one that, in a few moments, would play out; though, not the way Melanie had foreseen. The final “reunion” possibility was that Clara immediately recognized both of her parents, ran into their arms, and held on for dear life. This was what Melanie wanted to happen. This is what did happen. But, Melanie never thought that her daughter would pretend—would lie—to make this reunion a reality. Sometimes you have to scratch the surface to find the real truth. There would be no scratching today, only smiles and tears.

When they arrived, they rushed through the doors and to the nurses’ station. Here, they met with Karen, whom Lydia had called just before phoning Mark. Jamil directed the three of them toward the courtyard. They continued to move quickly and with purpose, but when they reached the glass hallway, they slowed and steadied themselves. They paused to watch as their daughter, to whom they were strangers, sat facing Dr. Lindenhurtz at a bistro table. The mid-morning sun highlighted her long, light brown hair, adding dimension.

Ultimately, Dr. Lindenhurtz noticed them standing at the glass wall. She chuckled to herself thinking they looked like a museum exhibit. The caption might read something about Homo Sapien family units searching endlessly, and sometimes hopelessly, for lost members. She motioned the parents to come in. Mark and Melanie each took a deep breath, made eye contact, and reached for one another’s hand.

Outside, Dr. Lindenhurtz steadily assured her patient. “Clara, they’re here. If at any time you choose to terminate this meeting, let me know and it will be done, okay?”

“Okay,” Clara answered, wondering if she had made the right decision.

Lydia, always observant, picked up on Clara’s apprehension. “Let’s do this: why don’t we come up with a code word. If you, at any time, you become uncomfortable or overwhelmed, just say the word.”

Clara liked this idea. It was an easy out that wouldn’t hurt anyone’s feelings. She hoped she wouldn’t need to use it, especially since she already knew what she was up against. She was aware going in that she wouldn’t recognize either of them, though she didn’t want Dr. L to know. She wanted Dr. L to think things were going smoothly even if they weren’t. But, she liked that it was there if she needed it. “Chasing rabbits.” She said.

“What?” Lydia asked as Mark, Melanie, and Karen approached.

“The code…if I say “chasing rabbits”…you know…because there are rabbits here…then you’ll know what I mean.” Clara thought it was a fitting phrase, not only because the courtyard actually contained rabbits, but also because essentially that’s what she was doing, or at least that’s what she was forcing other people to do. She was distracting them from the fact that she was crazy and needed to be institutionalized by doing something totally different: pretending to be normal, so that everyone would eventually believe that she was normal. With enough practice, maybe even she would believe she was normal. Perhaps it was more of a goose chase, she debated. But, whatever. Rabbits were more readily available.

Dr. Lindenhurtz nodded comprehension and then her eyes moved upward. Clara took this action to mean that her parents were now standing a few feet behind her. She gulped hard, bit her lip, and stood up. When she turned around, everyone froze. No one was sure what to do next. Clara’s mind raced and she was more frightened than she thought she would be. She looked at her parents’ longing faces and after much pause, she stepped forward and hugged them deeply. She allowed them to do what they’d been dreaming of, holding her in a gentle sway.

Melanie cried luxuriously as she stroked her daughter’s sun-warmed hair. A few strands were caught in Mark’s stubble, but he didn’t brush it out; he just continued to rest his chin on top of her head as she sobbed quietly into his chest. Clara wondered how long it would be before this felt natural again, before she’d grow accustomed to it. Or better yet, before she had a true “awakening” stripping her of the need to get accustomed to it. She stepped back from her parents and studied Karen’s smiling face. Why did she recognize Karen and not her parents? At least with Aunt Karen there showing approval and making promises, she now knew these two strangers before her must truly be her parents. She just wished they felt like her parents.

Lydia, per usual, took notes. She noticed the difference between Clara’s reunion with Karen versus the reunion with her parents which had just taken place. She flipped the page back and saw that she had noted “exuberant joy” when Karen had arrived. She returned to the current page and wrote “solemn surrender” to describe the way Clara hugged her parents. She also wrote that when the four of them sat back down to join her at the now too small circular table, Clara had scooted her chair closer to Karen, away from Mark, while Mark and Melanie huddled together, almost opposite Clara and Karen. Lydia thought it fairly normal that Clara would scoot away from parents she didn’t recognize, but she thought it odd that Clara’s parents seemingly did the same.

“It’s so nice to have you all here,” Lydia began. “Clara seemed to have a bit of a breakthrough yesterday when Karen came to visit. That was a wonderful idea, and I’m glad it worked out for the best.”

Melanie and Mark smiled at their long-time friend. Karen threw her arm around Clara and squeezed her.

“Clara was able to look at the scrapbook again yesterday with Karen’s help. It went much more smoothly than her other attempts. In fact, Clara thought for a moment she might recognize the two of you.”

“And we’re so happy to hear that,” Mark beamed at Dr. Lindenhurtz before turning his gaze toward his daughter, “Clara, we’re so happy.” He repeated and shook his head in joyous disbelief. He reached for her, but she drew away.

Lydia took note, “Mr. Marcel, I—”

“Now, Dr. Lindenhurtz, I’ve already asked you to call me Mark,” He smirked, but sounded almost annoyed.

“Sorry,” Lydia offered uncomfortably, always the preserver of rules and decorum, “Mark, we’ll need to take this slowly, okay? Too much stimulation or moving forward too quickly could be detrimental.”

“I understand.” He acquiesced, retracting his hand.

“Doc,” Mark started, “What do you think caused all of this? I mean, why did she…react this way.”

“We can’t say for certain yet, but in discussing your histories with you two,” She explained indicating Mark and Melanie, “and with Clara, a precipitating factor is almost indisputably your frequent relocation.”

Melanie looked guilty, “I told you it wasn’t good for her. I told you we shouldn’t uproot her so often, especially now that she is a teenager. She needs to form some lasting bonds in her life.”

Mark sighed, “Oh, this again. I have to move. For work. What else am I supposed to do?”

Lydia couldn’t believe they were going to start arguing right here in front of their fragile daughter. She guessed they were under an insurmountable amount of pressure, and they needed some kind of outlet. Too bad it was right here, right now.

“Get a different job, Mark. That’s what. Maybe all this could have been avoided if—”

“Melanie, I make good money at BioTech. You know it. We both do. Besides, she’s got Karen, here, and she’s got us. Or, at least, had us.”

Karen interjected, “And she’ll have you again, guys, don’t worry. Try to stay calm. If she recognizes me, then she remembers her past, okay? And if she remembers her past, eventually, she will remember you guys too. I promise.” She gave Clara another squeeze as Mark and Melanie realized how inappropriate their outburst had been. Tensions had been high, and their nerves were shot. With a tender look, they agreed to disagree.

Everything about this whole meeting made Clara uncomfortable, even Karen, but she trudged through. She rallied and began to speak. “I feel like I might know you. You both seem so familiar. I just don’t feel like you are my parents. Not yet,” she smiled assuring them. “It’s kind of like when you look at a word, a common word like and or water or dog, and all of a sudden, you think to yourself there’s no way in heck that is a word. It looks unfamiliar, even though you know without a doubt that it is a word. It’s like that with you guys. I know you are someone. I know you are my…parents…you just don’t look like my parents, ya know?”

They nodded but did not speak.

“But the good thing about that whole thing is that eventually you look at the word again, and you think to yourself, well, of course it’s a word. It’s always been a word, and it will always be a word. And, well, I think that’s what will happen with me and you.”

Lydia was impressed. The kid had a knack for metaphors. This one worked perfectly, and made total sense. It even seemed to comfort Mark and Melanie, who were now visibly less tense. She said, “Clara, nice comparison. So would you say your life is “jumbled” right now? Like the letters on a page?”

Clara shook her head quickly. “Yes. It’s exactly like that!”

“Well, Clara, good thing I’ve always been good at word scrambles. We’ll get you unjumbled as soon as possible.” Lydia looked at Clara’s parents and then back to Clara. “Is there anything you would like to ask your mother or father?” She questioned.

Clara thought for a moment and then said, “Yes. What’s my favorite food?”

“Easy!” Melanie shouted as if she were on a gameshow, “Pizza, from Luigi’s.”

“Where did I run away to when I was four?”

“You were mad that we wouldn’t let you “fly”, so you and Gypsy took off down the street to Mrs. O’Dell’s,” Mark answered with just as much enthusiasm.

Clara giggled a bit, but then asked, “Who’s ‘Gypsy’?”

“Your terrier. You loved her so much! When she was hit by a car, you tried so hard to save her with your sweet little hands, but she was too badly injured. We thought you had helped, because she perked up after that, but when the vet saw her, he said she needed to be put down. You never wanted another dog.”

Clara had remembered the dog and remembered the story; she just wanted to be sure her parents did too. Finally, she asked, “The night I came home from babysitting…you told Dr. L I freaked out on the sidewalk. Why didn’t you take me to the doctor then? Weren’t you worried?”

“Oh, God, yes, Clara. I’ve never been so scared in my life as when your dad brought you inside screaming and crying over his shoulder. At first, I thought you had been hurt, but then I quickly realized you just didn’t want to come into the house. You kept saying something bad was going to happen, something bad was going to happen. Our first instinct was to calm you down. Soon, you had fallen asleep, exhausted from the episode. Your dad and I discussed taking you immediately to the emergency room, but you were so peaceful. We couldn’t bear to wake you. We fell asleep with you on the couch. When we heard you wake up in the middle of the night, you were completely normal. You got a glass of water and went to bed.”

“And then I just…came downstairs on Saturday? Like normal? I mean…until the whole not recognizing you thing.”

“Yes.”
“And nothing else happened that I don’t remember?”

“No. Not that we know of.”
“What was I so afraid of? What did I think was going to happen? Did I ever say?”

“We never found out. Your dad said it was like you were in a trance when he found you.

As if you were having a vision of some kind.”

“A vision?”

“It was bizarre, Clara. Like something you’d see in a movie,” Mark added. “It was scary,

and I just wanted to get you inside.”

“But did you stop to wonder if something bad was about to happen? Maybe there was a reason I didn’t want to go inside. Maybe something bad did happen that night.”

“Clara, our home is the safest place you could have been. You were with the two people who would go to the ends of the earth for you, to protect you. There was no safer place than inside those walls with us.” Mark explained.

“But I still don’t understand why I wouldn’t have wanted to go inside. I had to have been “feeling something. Like a sixth sense or something.”

“Clara, you know we don’t believe in that mumbo jumbo.”

She didn’t know what these strangers did or did not believe in actually, so she continued, “But sometimes people can sense things…or see the future. Maybe I was having a premonition or something.”

Mark had become uneasy. Lydia wrote down this observation.

“Clara, people can’t really see the future. That’s just in books and movies. Your mom and I don’t like all this “I see dead people” stuff. It’s not real.”

Clara sensed Mark’s frustration and dropped it. She made a mental note to discuss this with Dr. L later. For now, she didn’t want to rock the boat any more than she already had. She wanted to keep the waves to a minimum so that her cover wouldn’t be blown. Clara was quite surprised at herself, surprised she was able to speak to these people and act normally. It had been such a short time since she had lost everything she knew about her life. She figured most people her age would be locked in their patient room—actually, resident room as she had been corrected. They weren’t labeled patients. They were called residents. Clara guessed it was to make them feel more at ease. It didn’t. She thought most residents would be in such distress that they would still be confined to bed, not eating, not drinking, not talking. She thought this because it’s what she wanted to do, but she knew she couldn’t. She was in survival mode and was trying to calculate each step to get herself out of this place.

Dr. Lindenhurtz, noticing the conflict, expertly maneuvered around this awkward topic for Clara. “Let’s pause and discuss how we are all feeling, shall we? Who would like to go first?”

Clara volunteered, happy for the distraction. She made it up as she went along, “I’m feeling hopeful.” She smiled awkwardly at her parents. “I feel like I’m not as lost as I was a week ago. And that, in turn, makes me feel a little happiness. I’m happy that I have Aunt Karen,” Clara patted her leg under the table, “and I’m happy that you two are here,” she said to Mark and Melanie. “But I’m also a little scared. I’m worried that I will wake up tomorrow and all of this will be gone. This memory will be gone, my recognition of Aunt Karen will be gone. I worry that I will be gone, mentally, I mean.”

With that, she ceased to speak and waited for someone else to continue the conversation. It was Lydia who picked up where Clara had left off. “Good Clara. I thought you, especially, would be full of emotions. It’s helpful to verbalize them the way you just did. It’s one thing to feel them, it’s a completely different thing to put them into words and discuss them with others. Nicely done. Who’s next?” She looked around the table at blank faces. She could tell this was a family that wasn’t used to airing their dirty laundry. They all seemed stiff and more reserved than she’d expected.

When no one offered, Lydia chose for them. “Karen, Clara recognizes you and remembers you fondly. How are you feeling about everything that has happened in the last week?”

Karen looked down, “Well, guilty for one. I’m elated that Clara knows me. I’m over the moon about it. But then I look at Melanie, the woman who birthed her, and I feel guilty. It’s not fair that Clara should remember me, but not know her own mother. Mel-bel, if I could trade places with you, I would. I swear I would. I’m so sorry, hon.” She reached across the table to hold Melanie’s hand, just as she’d done with Melanie’s only daughter the day before.

At this point, Melanie, who had accepted her best friend’s hand, once again let loose with tears. “I just miss her. I miss my baby. And I admit, Karen, I am jealous. It makes me angry that you get my daughter, and I don’t; but, I’m also so thankful for it. If there’s any relief in this whole situation at all, if there’s any silver lining, it’s that she knows you. She has one person in her corner, aside from you, of course, Dr. Lindenhurtz. Even if it hurts, I’m happy she has you, Karen. She needs someone.”

Clara grew increasingly more uncomfortable as each person took their turn. To cause so much grief was inexcusable. Karen was no longer the only person at that tiny table who felt guilt. They were all here because of Clara. Everything that was happening was happening was Clara’s fault. It was too much weight to carry.

“Good, ladies,” Dr. Lindenhurtz navigated the group session, interrupting Clara’s internal monologue. “Melanie, I have to commend you. It was brave to admit your jealousy, and big of you to allow Karen to be a part of this process despite that jealousy. I encourage the two of you to keep an open dialogue about those feelings to keep animosity at bay. It’s a mean animal and it will stalk you if you don’t keep the lines of communication open and accessible at all times.”

“Mark, we haven’t heard from you yet. How do you feel about what is happening in your life right now?”

Mark, who wasn’t one for psycho-babble as he had previously stated blatantly to Dr. Lindenhurtz during a prior meeting but relented to, welcoming any chance to help his daughter, remained silent, stoic. He wasn’t an angry or arrogant type, and he wasn’t even the strong and silent type—he wasn’t afraid to show emotion or talk about his feelings in the right context. But this? This felt forced and fake. Everything about this situation is forced and fake. Finally, he spoke.

“I’m pissed off,” he grunted.

Clara flushed with embarrassment, and felt what she thought was a twinge might have been fear.

“Go on,” Lydia coaxed.

“I’m just pissed at the situation. I work my whole life to provide for my family, and out of the blue this happens. I just want my Clara back. I love her, and I miss her,” he softened as he turned to her. “Clara, honey, I love you. Come back to us, okay?”

The fear faded, but her embarrassment clung to her like wet clothing. All she could think was I caused this, I caused this, I caused this. She nodded at her father, feeling…affection.

Lydia had been worried that Mark’s speech would escalate to an inappropriate level of anger, but it didn’t. He had controlled himself well and was able to voice his feelings in the process. Very therapeutic, whether he liked shrinks or not, she thought.

“Mark, how is that anger affecting your day to day life?” She inquired.

“Day to day life? What day to day life? All day every day I’m just thinking about my daughter. I can barely eat, I can’t sleep, and lately, work has been a joke. I can’t take off anymore unless it’s an unavoidable necessity, like today when my baby girl wanted to see me,” he smiled at Clara who returned in kind.

“And we’ve been arguing more often.” Melanie broke in. “I mean, it’s not bad or anything, but it’s…it’s just not us.” She seemed sincere.

“We just want things back to the way they were.” Mark said putting his arm around his wife.

Clara saw this tender moment between mourning mother and father and felt the weight of it all times ten. She was the root of all of this anger, frustration, jealousy, sadness, and marital tension. She chastised herself for screwing this up. She always felt like a screw up, but now there were three people sitting in front of her with their lives turned upside down because of her and her stupid brain. The weight broke her.

“Aunt Karen,” she paused, then said, “Mom? Dad?” I’m so sorry I’ve caused all this pain, and I promise you, I’m doing everything I can to make things right, I really am,” she said guiltily. “When I meet with Dr. L, we talk, she helps me.” Clara looked Dr. Lindenhurtz directly in the eye and tried to force a jovial tone, “It’s not like we sit out here chasing rabbits.”

Melanie laughed nervously, “We know, honey. And we are so proud of you. Thank you for all that you are doing. I know it can’t be easy. We just love you.” Melanie reached for Clara’s hand, and this time, knowing she would be rescued momentarily, she allowed it to happen.

Lydia checked her phone. “Well, ladies and gentleman, I think our time here is up. I need to get Clara back to her room to finish up our session privately.” Lydia was professional and assertive. She didn’t wait for protest. She stood and shook each of their hands as she said, “It’s been nice meeting with all of you together in one place. I will be in touch, and please, wait to be invited back. Remember, we cannot chance moving too quickly.”

Lydia smiled and ushered her patient back inside. Mark and Melanie retreated to their car, along with Karen whom they had purposely parked beside.

“That went well, I think,” Karen said with a sigh of relief.

“As well as can be expected, given the…unique conditions.” Mark replied. Melanie remained silent, exhausted by the previous exchange.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Fourteen

 

The rest of May and all of June were a blur of sessions, and medications, and Clara getting to know her parents. Sessions were now mostly taking place in Lydia’s office. Clara showed marked success in her treatment sessions with Dr. L and was even accepting her parents for who they were, her parents. Dr. L had observed the bond between mother and daughter growing with each visit. She had noticed Clara was adapting to her role as their daughter, though Lydia was suspicious about its authenticity.

“I think she’s faking it,” Lydia confided in Dylan one evening in mid-August.

Dylan, only half listening, replied, “Lydia, why on earth would she be faking it? That’s ridiculous. It doesn’t make any sense.”

“I don’t know, Dylan. Something in my gut is telling me she’s pretending.”
“But what does she get out of pretending, Lydia?”

“She gets to check out of Breemont sooner. In fact, we are meeting about it on Friday.”

“So what? Good. Let the kid go home.” Dylan didn’t care one way or another. He didn’t know what kid. He didn’t know where home was. He only knew a few general details as per HIPPA laws, therefore he was not invested and not interested. Truth be told, he would have not been invested or interested regardless. It didn’t affect him, so he couldn’t care less.

“It’s just fishy. The whole thing seems fishy. I can’t put my finger on it. And I don’t trust that aunt at all.” Lydia continued.

“Not this again, Lydia,” Dylan grumbled. “You told me about the Bedford thing. That didn’t turn out so hot for ya, now did it?”

Lydia cringed. He was right. Young patient. Psychotic break. Lydia began to believe him, and then he murdered his entire family. To say that didn’t turn out so hot was the understatement of a lifetime, but still, she had a nagging feeling that something wasn’t right. She discontinued her conversation with Dylan, and he didn’t seem to mind. Without a word, she left the apartment and crossed the hall to Ollie’s.

She knocked and when she did, the door eeked open. He must have forgotten to close it again. As paranoid as that sweet man was, Lydia thought he’d be more careful about locking his door.

She listened and didn’t hear him, beginning to wonder if he was even home. Ollie was apt to disappear for days—sometimes weeks—at a time without so much as a word of warning. He had no pets to feed, no plants to water, and there was nothing at home to tie him down. Usually, when he would return, he’d have some story of chasing down a theory or traveling to talk to some person who had been abducted by aliens, or been unlawfully accused of a crime, or who claimed to have seen Jesus burnt onto a piece of toast. She pushed the door open farther and peered cautiously inside. She saw no movement which made Lydia think he may be off chasing tales, but finally she heard his characteristic shuffling sounds from behind the door to his office and she was happy to know that he was home. She needed someone to talk to, to really talk to.

She called to him, and he opened the office door. He saw his friend and welcomed her inside: “Oh, Lydia, dear. Come in, come in. It’s so nice to see you. It’s been a while.”

“Yes. It has. I’ve been busy, and you’ve been, well, you’ve been gone.”

“Yes. Yes, yes, yes. I’ve been working Lydia. I’m onto something big this time.”

Lydia smiled and nodded in an “oh-that’s-nice” fashion, and then felt guilty knowing she was doing to Ollie what Dylan always did to her. “What is it Ollie?”

“Oh, no, dear. We can’t talk about it here. You know that. They’re listening. They always are.”

“I always forget, Ollie. I’m sorry.” Ollie’s paranoia had graduated from the lobby and the hallways, and he now thought he was being listened to and watched everywhere, even in his own apartment.

“It’s quite alright, Lydia. Quite alright. We’ll just need to talk elsewhere. Without asking her if she’d like to join him, he slipped on his shoes, donned his tweed longshoreman cap and opened the door, stepping aside so Lydia could exit. “Ladies first,” he instructed cheerily.

Lydia obliged before she realized what she was doing. Ollie always had that effect on her. He was like an old friend she had known all her life, she sometimes even thought of him as a father figure. Her own father had been long gone, and she yearned for that bond in her life. This relationship eased some of the pain and loss she felt.

The pair was silent in the elevator and through the outdated lobby. They exited the building into the summer night. They walked side by side along the sidewalk for quite some time until finally, Ollie spoke.

“Lydia, this is big. Big-big. I’m about the blow the cover off of something so huge, it’ll make your pretty little head spin.” If anyone else had said “pretty little head” when referring to Lydia, she’d have been offended, but Ollie did it so sweetly that it lacked any condescension it would have otherwise possessed from another mouth.

“What is it, Ollie?” Lydia asked, genuinely intrigued.

“I can’t say much. Not yet, anyway. But I can tell you that the government is creating a new weapon. Something diabolical.”

“For what?”

“War.”

“What is it?”

“I can’t say. And to be honest, I’m not entirely sure yet. There’s still more research to be done.”

Lydia wondered if Ollie was just chasing rabbits again. Most of Ollie’s grand discoveries were completely unfounded or simply explained. Surely, he wasn’t about to break some top secret military something-or-other.

Ollie sensed her unwillingness to believe. “Lydia, you have to believe me on this one. It’s the real deal.”

“Okay, Ollie. But give me something to go on at least. You haven’t really said much about it at all.”

“Here’s what I know for a fact. No sense in passing along “hare-brained theories that have no basis”.”

Lydia shrunk. He was quoting a disagreement they’d had weeks ago. Ollie insisted that the Chinese delivery boy had been creeping about the apartment building spying on tenants. Lydia had had a long and stressful day at work with Karen and Clara’s parents and couldn’t deal with any of Ollie’s usually charming ramblings.

“That’s just plain ridiculous,” she had spat. “I’m tired of all of these hare-brained theories, Ollie. You have absolutely no basis.”

He’d been hurt, she could tell, and she quickly apologized. He had excused her behavior, but remained slightly embarrassed for the remainder of the evening. Maybe he was a little crazy.

Back in the elevator, when Lydia was brave enough to look at Ollie, she was relieved to see that he was smiling. She smiled back realizing he had been teasing her. Just like Dad would have done, she thought and smiled wider.

“Here are the facts: 1.) There are training facilities located in this country. I’m not sure how many, but I know there is more than one. 2.) They are training soldiers to use new, never seen before weapons. And 3.) The recruitment process is lengthy and complicated.”

Lydia was once again intrigued. “What kind of weapons? Who do they recruit? What’s the point?”
“I don’t have those answers, not solid answers, anyway.” Ollie explained. He realized some of his ideas over the years were not exactly viable, and since his disagreement with Lydia, he vowed to himself that he would be as credible as possible in the future, and that meant not saying something until he knew it to be true.

“So, what are you going to do about it?” Lydia asked flopping back and forth between disbelief and supporting her dear friend.

“I need to track down these facilities. Find people with whom I can speak, from whom I can get the information I need.”

“What’s the point, though? Why interfere?” Lydia asked. She figured if the government was protecting the country, what business was it of hers. Or Ollie’s.

“Ethics, Lydia, ethics. That’s all I can say until I know more.”

“But Ollie, do you think you know more? Do you have an idea? What kind of unethical treatment? What do you think is happening.”
“Tsk, tsk, Lyd. I can’t reveal any more until I know for sure. A good friend suggested I have evidence to back up my claims,” Ollie explained and smiled again.

“But Ollie!”

He cut her off, “Chocolate or vanilla?”

“What?” Lydia asked, confused. She had been so involved in the conversation that she hadn’t realized they’d strolled into the center of town and now stood in front of an ice cream cart. “Oh, uhm, do you have strawberry?” She asked the vendor whose heavy black mustache and matching crewcut contrasted with his white shirt and apron. Strawberry had been her father’s favorite, and she was feeling a bit nostalgic.

“Si, senorita,” He responded. “One scoop? Or dos?” he asked as he held up two fingers.

“Just one…in a waffle cone, por favor.” She grinned.

“And for the senor?”

“Dos chocolate scoops. In a cup, please.”

The vendor handed over the ice cream as Ollie insisted, “My treat,” to Lydia who was digging in her pockets, having forgotten her purse. He paid for the ice cream and they continued their neighborhood stroll.

With a mouthful of ice cream, Lydia asked one last time, “Ollie, are you sure…” she swallowed and spoke more clearly, “are you sure there’s nothing else you can tell me about this super-secret mission?”

“No. Except that it’s too close for comfort.”

Lydia didn’t know what that meant, but she knew she couldn’t press him any further. He had resoluteness about himself that he hadn’t had in the past. As if he could read her mind, he said, “Lydia, I’ll tell you everything when I’m sure. It won’t be long, I promise.”

They turned and headed toward home finishing their ice cream in comfortable silence. They said goodnight in the dimly lit hallway between their apartments and when Lydia entered, Dylan said, “Oh, Lyd, I didn’t know you were gone. Where’d ya go?”

“Out for ice cream with Ollie.”

“Ugh, that guy again? You know I don’t like him. Why do you hang around him, anyway? He’s a weirdo and he’s like two times your age.”

“I like him. And he’s not a weirdo.” Lydia defended, though she knew Ollie most assuredly was a weirdo, but he was the kindest, gentlest, most charming weirdo she’d ever met. “I wish you wouldn’t say mean things about him. Besides, Dylan, what’d he ever do to you?” Lydia accused.

“Nothing, I just don’t like the guy, that’s all. And I think it’s weird that his only friend is a woman thirty years his junior. He’s a creep.”

“He is not a creep, Dylan. He’s just lonely and different. He’s better company than you’ll ever be!”

Dylan began to argue, but Lydia was already behind her closed bedroom door. He trailed off. He didn’t really care that much anyway. Lydia tossed and turned for a while thinking about what Ollie had said, but she was still asleep long before Dylan came to home.

After she had finally drifted off, Lydia was awakened by the sound of Dylan rummaging in the kitchen. It was 2:47 a.m., and her alarm would be going off in less than three hours. She rolled over and tried to muffle the sound with her pillow, but Dylan continued to clank in the next room. She whipped the covers off and stormed into the kitchen, fed up with his behavior and still fuming at Dylan for insulting Ollie the way he had.

“What do you think you’re doing!? Some people have real jobs and need some sleep!” She realized how hateful it was as she said it, but that didn’t stop her. She let her fury get the best of her, allowing the words she usually kept to herself to fly freely. “I’m so tired of this, Dylan! Jesus, go to bed!”

“Oh my God, you have got to be kidding me right now, Lydia! Are you serious?”

“Yes. I’m more than serious. I can’t handle this anymore. I’m trying to sleep, so I can go to my grown up job tomorrow. Someone has to pay the bills around here.”

“So now I can’t even find something to eat in my own kitchen in my own house? Really, Lydia.”

“Ha! Last time I checked that was my kitchen and my food. And you’re welcome to eat any of my food any time, as long as it’s not at three a.m.! Actually, I don’t even care if it is three a.m., as long as you don’t make a racket!”

“You’re unbelievable, Lydia! I damn sure don’t get paid enough to put up with this!” Dylan shouted as he entered the bedroom and flung his clothes into a bag.

“What are you even talking about, Dylan?” Lydia followed and inquired. “You got the job down at the lumber company to help me pay the bills, not put up with me.”

Dylan rubbed his forehead and sighed. He resumed packing and remained silent.

After stuffing his bag full, he looked up at Lydia and said, “I don’t get paid enough to put up with you,” emphasizing the last word.

“You’re not even making any sense right now.”

After another agitated sigh, “You just don’t get it, do you?”

“No. I guess I don’t. But now that you’re leaving, you know what I do get? I get the bed to myself. I get to come home to a clean apartment, I get to use my own money for my own life, instead of for supporting yours. I get my life back. I get my freedom. I get to be rid of you!”

Dylan retrieved a few items out of the bathroom, told Lydia he and Court would be back tomorrow to get the rest of his stuff, and headed out the door.

Lydia sat on the edge of the bed, exhausted and felt slightly sad. She had invested a lot of time and money in Dylan, though she never got much in return. Good riddance, she decided.

“Don’t get paid enough for this,” she grumbled, What the hell did he mean by that?

It didn’t matter, she figured. She was finally relieved of her burden, and that was answer enough.

Lydia left for work the next morning around the usual time. When she passed by Ollie’s door, it was cracked open again. She assumed he had failed to latch it again last night after ice cream. She quietly pulled it closed. That’s what good neighbors do.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Fifteen

 

At work, Lydia shuffled papers and read research and case studies that related to her current patient load which had grown exponentially. She had eased back into the game with Clara, but since May, she had gained another twenty patients, give or take a few. She usually saw five patients per day. Each patient visit was one hour exactly, and she used the “off” hours of her day for research.

At the end of July, Clara, finally recognizing her parents, transitioned home, and had done so well that Lydia finally congratulated herself on a job well done. At Breemont’s and her parents’ insistence Clara was now coming into the office every day at two p.m. Most visits were just between Dr. Lindenhurtz and Clara, except Mondays. On Mondays they met as a family. Today would be Clara’s third week home. For the first two weeks, Clara’s parents waited anxiously in the waiting room while Clara completed her session, but this week, they decided to drop her off, run errands, and return to pick her up. Baby steps.

Clara arrived at two p.m. sharp. Lydia showed Clara in as usual, and closed the door behind them. Clara strode across the room and sat in the comfy corner chair that she had chosen upon her first visit. It had become her chair. It was bone white and oversized. It sat catty-cornered so that Clara could see out the window and watch the pedestrians and traffic on the street below, have a direct line of sight to Lydia’s desk, which the doctor sometimes sat behind, and sometimes sat in a chair just to the left leaving no barriers between herself and Clara, and also still be in full view of the door. During their first meetings after Clara was deemed well enough to visit Lydia’s office, she chose this seat, and Lydia deduced that this was in fact a defense mechanism. She needed to be aware of her surroundings at all times; she needed to feel in control in some small way. The seating arrangement mirrored where Clara had placed the chair in her room at Breemont. She could at least control what she could see.

Instantly, Lydia could see that Clara’s overall demeanor had changed. She seemed agitated and troubled, like when Lydia had first met Clara for inpatient treatment.

“How are you today, Clara?”

Clara shook her head in disgust. “Not good. Terrible.”

“What’s terrible?” Lydia prodded.

“Everything, Dr. L!” Clara burst into heaving sobs. Lydia had seen her fair share of emotional outbursts, but this one was so sudden and unexpected it shocked her. Clara had been progressing so well. It was about time for a setback, Lydia thought.

“Clara, breathe. Remember, take deep breaths, and try to calm yourself.”

Clara choked on another hard sob and coughed so hard she nearly gagged. It was not becoming of her. “Dr. L…I can’t…I can’t do this…anymo-or-or-ore!” Clara doubled over in her chair clutching her locket and rocked back and forth like a baby trying to soothe itself.

Lydia allowed for a brief pause in case Clara wanted to add anything. No words came, so Lydia spoke. “What is it you can’t do, Clara?”

“This!” Clara let go of the locket and motioned wildly with her hands before burying her face in them once again. “All of this! It’s a lie! This is…this is all…bullshit!”

Lydia felt a familiar surge inside herself. Maybe she was right all this time. Maybe Clara had been lying. Maybe there was more to this than met the eye.

“What’s “bullshit”, Clara?”

“Everythi-in-in-ing! The whole damn world is bullshit! It’s a lie. My life is a lie. Those people are a lie. Everything is a lie! I don’t know them. I don’t like them. I don’t trust them. I thought pretending would make it real. It’s doesn’t. They’re no more real to me than the day I first ‘met’ them in the courtyard. I’m living in a house full of strangers. I don’t even know who I am anymore.” Clara choked and gagged on another violent sob.

Lydia’s heart raced. It figured that when she finally accepted that Clara was not pretending, that Clara would ‘fess up to her monumental lie. “Clara, are you telling me that for the past two months you’ve been pretending to recognize your parents? And that for the last month, you’ve been living with people you don’t know?”

Lydia attempted an objective tone, but beneath it she was feeling betrayed. Not only that Clara had betrayed her, but also that Lydia had betrayed her patient. Lydia reprimanded herself for not following her gut. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t, she thought.

“That’s exactly what I’m saying.” Clara heaved and sobbed and gagged. Lydia found it increasingly difficult to not cross the room to hold her patient until she calmed, but that was not professional. Instead, she picked up a tissue box from between her name plaque and the glass paperweight Ollie had mailed her as a gift. He was still gone, but at least she knew he was safe. She approached the crying girl. She held out the box, and instead of taking a few, Clara took the whole box.

“I’m sorry-y-y,” Clara wailed, still rocking.

Lydia’s heart ached for her. “Clara, it’s okay. I need you to know that I’m not upset with you, and that right now you are safe. Remember? This is a safe place,” she motioned between them. “A no-judgement zone.”

“Okay.” Clara answered but didn’t look up. She dabbed her eyes and blew her nose again and added the wadded Kleenex to the growing pile in her lap.

It was 2:30 before Clara calmed enough to speak. The session was half over and Lydia was unsure about Clara’s departure. She wasn’t sure it was ethical to send a psychotic patient home with “strangers”. Ultimately, she decided she would meet with Mark and Melanie when they returned and discuss admitting Clara back into Breemont for inpatient treatment. But first, she needed to speak with her patient.

“Clara, I’m sorry you have been through this; however, I have to ask, why did you pretend to know them?” Lydia was careful not to use the word “lie”.

“I just wanted to go home. I just wanted it to be real. I thought if I pretended, it would become the real thing. I kept pretending, but nothing changed. I’m done pretending. I’m done with lies.”

“Clara, that’s not how treatment works. We can’t force this. It needs to happen naturally and in a controlled environment. Who’s to say if you hadn’t pretended that it would be real by now.”

Clara shrugged her shoulders and blew her nose again. The tears had subsided.

“Clara, from here on out, I need you to be completely honest with me, okay? I can only help you if you are completely honest. Can you promise me that?”

“Yes.”

“Thank you.” Lydia looked at the clock. 2:36. They’d need to get to the bottom of this, and quickly.

“Why do you think they aren’t your parents?”

“They don’t look like my parents. They have the same hair color, eye color, and build, but they aren’t my parents.”

“And how do you know it’s not just that your brain is distorting the truth?”

“I just know. I feel it in my gut. And their personalities are different. Things have changed. My parents never watched the news. These people do. My mother never ate leftovers, this woman does. I swear, once when they thought I was sleeping, I hear that man call that woman the wrong name!”

Lydia nodded. Normally, she would be taking notes, but this time she didn’t want any record of what was being said between them. A sickening feeling rose from Lydia’s stomach all the way to the back of her throat. It was so intense she feared she would vomit. She thought of Stanley Bedford, the boy she believed. The boy she killed.

All along, she had thought something was off about this case, but she wouldn’t allow herself to believe it. She didn’t want to end up in the same mess, but dammit, here she was again. She believed Clara, really believed her, but trusting her own gut never got her very far in the past. She looked at the clock again. Twenty minutes left. She had to gather all the information she could so that she could convince the both of them that those people were Clara’s parents.

“What else, Clara?” Lydia asked.

Clara’s wails and sobs returned with a vengeance. Minutes passed. Finally, she spoke. “Dr. L, they’re imposters. They’ve done something with my parents. I just know it. I kept telling myself it wasn’t true, but last night…last night I overheard them talking.” Clara grasped the locket with both hands and held on as if for dear life.

Lydia raised an eyebrow. “Is that what led to this realization?”

“Uh-huh.”

“What do you think you heard them say?”

“They said,” she sobbed deeply, “They said Thank God Karen didn’t blow our cover. They said it would have ruined everything.”

The vomit feeling was back. Lydia fought it. “Is there anything else that could mean, Clara?”

“No. I don’t know. It makes too much sense, doesn’t it? I don’t think they’re my parents, then they say that they thought Aunt Karen was going to blow their cover. What else could it mean other than that they aren’t my parents?”

Lydia was stumped. “We’ll need to explore that, Clara.” She didn’t know what else to say. “I need to know how you feel about going home with them today? They’ll be here to pick you up in five minutes.”

Clara’s eyes went wide. “No. I can’t. No more.”

“Clara, here’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to talk to your parents. With your permission, I will request you be admitted. I will do what I can to request unlimited visits with you. At least here, we can control how often your parents see you. We’ll be able to ease you back into the family on your terms, not theirs.”

As much as Clara hated the idea of institutionalization, even if it was voluntary, she hated the alternative even more. “Yes. Let’s do that.”

Lydia nodded and picked up the phone. “Mr. Schneideker? We need an emergency meeting with Mark and Melanie Marcel. They’ll be here momentarily. Are you able to step out and meet us in my office?” There was a pause. “Okay, great. Thank you. See you soon, sir.”

Lydia hung up the phone and and dialed again. “Rita? Can you reschedule my next appointment? Something’s come up. Thanks.”

Lydia looked at her patient who had calmed herself again. “Clara, when your parents arrive, I’d like you to step out into the waiting area so we can speak privately, okay?”

Clara agreed. She blotted her bloodshot eyes one last time, and excused herself from the office. Lydia walked her out, and as she did, she was met by the Marcels.

“Clara, what’s wrong?” Melanie rushed to her daughter.

“Mrs. Marcel, please follow me,” Lydia ordered with politeness.

“What? Oh, okay.” She did as instructed, but cast a quick glance over her shoulder at her visibly upset daughter.

“Please, have a seat,” Lydia offered as they entered the office. Before they could sit, they were joined by Rob Schneideker, who closed the office door behind himself. He opted not to sit in the cozy patient chair, and instead, leaned against a wall after greeting the parents.

“Mr. and Mrs. Marcel, there’s been a regression.”

“A regression?” Mark asked.

“Yes. It seems Clara no longer recognizes you. She had an episode in my office during our session today. If I’m being completely honest, she claims to never have recognized you.”

Melanie burst into tears. Mark put his hand on her forearm to comfort her.

“But she’s been home with us for two months! What do you mean she doesn’t recognize us?” He begged.

“Clara expressed that she thought she could speed her recovery along if she faked it. She says she never recognized you, but she wanted to go “home” and to be “normal”. She thought pretending would make that happen.”

Mark squeezed Melanie’s arm. Before they could say anything else, Dr. Lindenhurtz spoke again.

“Mark, Melanie, I want to run something by you. You too, Mr. Schneideker. I feel strongly that we need to admit Clara right away. I think it is detrimental to her health to keep her in an environment in which she feels uncomfortable.”

“No, absolutely not. She’s my child, she’ll stay in my home,” Mark replied. “You don’t think being in a mental hospital is “uncomfortable”? Don’t you think being uncomfortable in her own home is far better than being uncomfortable in an institution?”

Melanie continued to cry.

“Mr. Marcel, I understand where you’re coming from, but Clara doesn’t recognize you or Mrs. Marcel. Living in your home is very surreal to her. At least at the hospital, Clara is able to recognize her surrounding as a reality. I promise, if we can treat her on an inpatient basis, I think we could get her back home to you, not only physically, but mentally as well.” Lydia hoped the words that were coming out of her mouth were true. She hoped this gut feeling would subside and that Clara would accept her parents and integrate back into reality. The vomit feeling made her think otherwise.

From behind the closed office door, Clara heard shouting. She was relieved that Dr. L had asked her to step out, but she felt guilty. She wondered if the screaming would still be happening if she was behind that door too. If she was present, her “dad” would have probably contained himself a little better. Clara exchanged pitiful glances with the receptionist who sat behind a curved half-desk and wore her hair in a bun. Finally, the door burst open.

“Clara, car, honey.” Mark said.

Melanie was close behind. “Clara, we’re leaving. C’mon, hon. Get up. Let’s go.”

Clara sat stunned. She looked to Dr. L for guidance.

Lydia stood in the threshold of her office, and Clara thought she was working hard to keep her composure. Mark and Melanie flanked their daughter and waited for her to rise.

“It’s okay, Clara. Go. I’ll see you tomorrow.”

Disoriented, Clara stood. Her parents each took an elbow gently and led her out of the waiting room. Clara didn’t fight them, though she wanted to. Clara looked back over her shoulder at her doctor.

“It’s okay. Go.” Lydia said, but Clara thought she could hear Lydia’s heart. Her heart was beating, Stay, stay, stay.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Sixteen

The next afternoon, Lydia pored over Clara’s file. Again. She glanced at the clock. Again. Clara would be arriving for her regularly scheduled session in just under five minutes. She was so close…she could feel it. In five minutes, Lydia hoped to have begun unraveling the truth. She knew the truth would have to come from Clara herself, but how? Lydia was keenly aware that they were on the verge of something big, a breakthrough. She just knew it. The time ticked heavy in the silence of her well-decorated office. Only the occasional and familiar scrape of Lydia shuffling the papers in Clara’s file broke that silence.

Three minutes. Lydia scoured the file for new information, something she had missed in months of working with Clara. Dates, facts, thoughts, feelings. She scanned for something that would tie everything together, make it all make sense. No such luck. There was nothing new. She would be forced to rely on her session with Clara to reveal the answer.

Two minutes. With an exaggerated sigh, Dr. Lindenhurtz uncrossed her leg and shifted in her leather chair before crossing her opposite leg. She allowed her head to fall forward, supporting it with her hands, elbows on her mahogany desk. She rubbed her temples with a touch of annoyance. Lydia loved puzzles, but she loved solving them more. Clara was a puzzle she just couldn’t quite decipher.

One minute. Lydia welcomed the rhythmic ticking of the second hand. She breathed in for three counts and out for four, almost meditating as she prepared herself for Clara’s arrival. She lifted her head from her hands and rested her pointed chin on her balled fist staring at the key suspended in the glass paperweight Ollie had sent her. “Knowledge is the key to unlocking the past,” it read, a gift he’d sent her just before he’d disappeared. This was the longest he’d been gone since she’d known him. Lydia continued to study the key, the smooth glass. She tapped the surface of her desk impatiently with her free hand. She was not so much nervous, as she was anxious. She was eager for Clara’s arrival and excitedly awaited the session, but she was also uneasy not knowing the outcome. How can I unlock Clara’s past, she thought to herself. What am I missing? Feeling antagonized, Lydia spun Ollie’s gift 180 degrees so that the inscription, which she was growing to resent, could no longer taunt her directly to her face.

2 p.m. Lydia once again uncrossed her legs, rolled back her leather chair, and rose slowly. She deliberately crossed her office and cautiously pulled open the heavy mahogany door that matched her heavy mahogany desk. Normally, she would be walking her one o’clock patient to the door, telling him that she’d see him next week before welcoming Clara into her office; but, today Lydia had cleared her schedule. She had wanted to focus on Clara. Only Clara. Unfortunately, even with the day cleared, Lydia had been unable to find the missing piece. In fact, she had decided that the missing piece was locked somewhere inside Clara, and now she would have one hour to draw it out.

“Hi, Clara. Come on in.” Dr. Lindenhurtz stepped backward against the door with her right hand behind her back on the knob, and motioned Clara through the threshold with her left hand. They had grown close over the past months, but Lydia was a professional, and always opted to continue professional dialogue with all of her patients. “Make yourself comfortable, and we can get started.”

As soon as Clara sank down into her chosen spot, drawing her legs up then folding them beneath her, Dr. Lindenhurtz began with the usual questions. “How are you feeling?” Clara cast her eyes downward into her lap. Her thick, wool sweater pulled over her hands, thumbs protruding from forced separations in the large knit sleeves. The sweater was ivory, and against the bone white chair, seemed dingy. Clara half chuckled at this awkward mental metaphor. Was she somehow dirty? Would Dr. Lindenhurtz ever help Clara to fully come clean? Would she ever feel whole again? “All signs point to ‘no’,” Clara thought and chuckled again before looking up and locking eyes with her psychiatrist. “I’m okay. Things are…okay.” She tried to sound solid.

“Do you want to talk about what happened yesterday?”

Clara maintained eye contact. “No. I was wrong yesterday. Things are…fine. I went home with my parents. Nothing out of the ordinary happened. Same ‘ol, same ‘ol. That’s good, right?” Clara offered in a hopeful tone. This is what they had been working toward for weeks and months on end: normalcy, or any semblance of it. Clara thought this was what her doctor wanted to hear, and she figured she’d fake it ‘til she could make it. She had convinced herself that if she pretended to feel normal long enough, that eventually it would feel normal, and that’s what she longed for. She tried to pretend as if nothing had happened yesterday. She wanted to ignore her outburst and hoped her doctor would too.

They sat in silence, not altogether awkward. The silences between patient and doctor had become bearable, almost comfortable…and sometimes telling. At length, Clara spoke again: “You see, it’s just…” She broke off, peering downward at her cable knit sweater sleeves. Clara picked imaginary fuzz balls off the wool. Lydia waited, letting the words hang between them. Clara, torn between the truth and her lie, eased into a candid conversation with Lydia, “It’s just that…I’m still a stranger in my own house. I’m a ghost.”

“A ghost.” Lydia repeated. Not a question, a summary. An acknowledgement. Lydia empathized. She had been her own kind of ghost since the incident.

“I know my family,” Clara choked out the word, “wants to protect me. I know they want what they think is best for me, want me to become a productive, contributing member of society, but I don’t know if they love me, ya know?”

Lydia did know. Dylan had wanted good things for her. Dylan had wanted to keep Lydia safe. Dylan had wanted Lydia to move up the ranks at work. But did Dylan ever really love her? Lydia doubted it. After many near breakups, she was glad she had finally rid herself of him.

“Clara, I want you to do something. Take this,” Lydia directed as she crossed the room and handed her patient a legal pad and a pen, “and write down one thing you know to be true. One thing you believe in wholeheartedly. We can continue to build a foundation upon what you know, rather than what people want you to know.”

Clara took the paper and pen with a brief smile. She studied the blank surface and turned the heavy metallic pen in her right hand. After some time, Clara looked up at Dr. Lindenhurtz hoping for guidance, a hint, a subtle suggestion. Dr. L’s face was blank, not in a cold, stony way. No, it was more of a painting with soft, warm edges, and a kind face waiting patiently, suspended, not frozen, but suspended in time. Clara returned to the yellow paper. Her right hand found its way to an empty line and wrote a single truth.

Clara ripped the paper from its binding, folded it with care, and delivered it to her doctor, the only person she felt she could trust, who was now again sitting behind her mahogany desk. Lydia unfolded Clara’s only truth and read the words which had been scrawled on the page:

I KNOW YOU BELIEVE ME.

Lydia did not look up for several seconds. She had not quite decided what to say in response. Clara knew this to be true, but did Lydia believe it? Could Lydia’s doubts about Clara’s parents be substantiated?

As Clara turned to make her way back to the safety of her comfy chair to await more disappointment—what would Dr. L say? What would Dr. L do?—something caught her eye. For weeks, Clara had stared at the back of that paperweight. For weeks, she had seen a key suspended in that paperweight. But today, something was different. Clara scooped up the paperweight which was much heavier than she thought it would be causing her to almost sweep it right into the floor, and there at the bottom, she read the inscription. Clara knew those words. Those words were a part of her in the deepest measures of her soul.

“Dr. Lindenhurtz, where did you get this? Where did this come from?” Clara all but demanded, shaking the object as if to emphasize the need for an immediate answer. Her heart, now in her throat, raced, and she broke out in beads of cold sweat.

Lydia, who was still reeling from those five little words scrawled across the paper, examined Clara’s face, now a mirror of shock. It was her go-to move when she sensed crisis near: evaluate the situation, collect data, analyze the problem.

“Dr. L! Where did you get this?” Clara implored again, this time pulling a chunky, oval-shaped locket out from under the safety of her thick sweater. “I think it means something. I think it opens this!” She thrust the locket forward. “ I’ve had this locket since before I got…confused. Look!”

Lydia examined the necklace as her heart began to race along with Clara’s.

“Ollie! Ollie, you son-of-a-bitch, you know something, don’t you?” Lydia grunted under her breath.

“This does mean something, right, Dr. L? It’s like…a clue?” Clara said, desperately trying to hold it together.

“I don’t think this is a clue, Clara. I think this could be the answer to everything. What’s inside that locket?”

“I don’t know. I’ve never been able to open it. When my mom…” Clara stumbled over this word, so used to repressing her memories, “I mean, when it was given to me, the key had already been lost.”

“The key?” Lydia inquired as she and Clara simultaneously peered at the paperweight and then back at one another.

Almost immediately, there was a knock at the door and the two exchanged knowing glances. They didn’t know exactly who would be on the other side, but they knew it wouldn’t be good. They both tensed with mouths agape at the same time—mirrors once again. Lydia shoved Clara’s files into her briefcase and reached for Ollie’s gift, sweet, perfect, knowing Ollie’s gift and was able to catch it just as it tumbled from Clara’s bewildered hands. She chucked the paperweight inside her briefcase and snapped it shut, surveying the room for anything else that might be useful, spying a letter opener.

Another knock, this time more urgent. Whoever was out there wanted in. Now. And Lydia knew she couldn’t let that happen. She also knew that the only way out was through that door. She snatched the letter opener in her right hand and clutched the leather-bound briefcase in her left. Lydia assumed—knew—at that very moment that every single person for whom she worked was a liar. She was sure that she was a part of something bigger than herself. Everything was making sense now: the sideways glances, being required to video each session, the secretary who asked too many questions. She wondered now if every last one of them was in on whatever this was, and they were now enemies. They had seen the exchange between herself and Clara moments before, and were swooping in to intervene before things spun out of control. That must be why they were knocking instead of charging in—so that they could talk the doctor down from whatever crazy idea the kid had put in her head and continue “treatment”. Lydia now knew the kid had been telling the truth all along. She took a deep, courage-collecting breath, and in a raspy whisper told her patient, “We have to get out of here.”

Lydia flung open her office door, and as she did, a man entered with purpose: “We’ll need to calm her down.” He was heading toward Clara who was momentarily frozen between Lydia’s desk and her comfy chair. He approached her, but as he reached for her arms to detain her, Lydia shot toward him.

“No!” She screamed, startling him. He angled toward the shriek just as Lydia stabbed at him with the letter opener. Blood. She had made contact. The man was holding the side of his face.

“RUN!”

Before Clara knew what she was doing, her body reacted. She would make it down four flights of stairs and halfway to the lobby’s outer door before her mind registered enough to inquire, “What’s going on? Who are these people!?”

“Less talking, more running, Clara!” Dr. Lindenhurtz huffed in chopped syllables. “We can sort out the specifics later! Don’t think, just go!” Dr. Lindenhurtz ordered just as Clara’s brain caught up with her feet. She dashed for the door, not knowing why or what truths may lay on the other side.

A few more feet, and Clara would be out of this building. This building that has been a nightmare, then a nuisance, and now? Well, now she didn’t even know what this building meant to her. Clara was hoping Dr. L would help her figure that out later. Just as her hands closed around the horizontal brass handlebar of the revolving door with freedom on the street outside, a large, calloused hand closed around Clara’s tiny wrist. The hand which she now saw was connected to Jameson, the security guard for Breemont Medical Facility. Dr. L was only a few steps behind Clara and when she realized that Jameson was one of them, she once again rushed to her patient’s aid. She used all her might to whirl her leather bound briefcase, heavy with the glass paperweight from her desk and Clara’s lengthy file, around in a complete circle before the momentum of the reinforced corner struck Jameson’s temple with a sickening thud.

Dr. L’s briefcase had connected with such force that it had flung open, sending the paperweight sailing through the air. It landed with the same thud as the briefcase had made when it connected with Jameson’s temple before skidding across the lobby and coming to rest under a leafy oversized fake fern near the elevators. Now papers floated this way and that, softly arcing, before finding a home amongst the strewn mess of papers already on the cold, tiled floor. It was an oddly calming moment in the midst of all the chaos.

Blood had already begun to trickle down Jameson’s face as he lay on the floor. He was unconscious, Clara knew, not dead. His chest was slowly rising and falling, almost in rhythm with the few remaining airborne papers.

Dr. L dropped to her knees and slid across the floor in her black dress slacks grabbing what papers she could and stuffing them back into her briefcase. As Clara watched her do this, she heard heavy and fast footsteps approaching. The fourth floor bozo, still bleeding, was catching up quickly and he had found a friend. Clara instinctively scooped up two handfuls of paper, crumpling them as she did so, and shoved them clumsily into the leather case. She wasn’t sure what was on them, but what she did know is that they must be important if Dr. Lindenhurtz was worried about collecting them as they bore down on them.

“They’re coming! We have to go!” Clara screamed. The lobby was a moment frozen in time, save for the two crazy women scrambling to their feet and the three business men in their business attire, who clearly meant business as they closed the gap between them. The front desk receptionist at the main help desk stared in awe at the spectacle unfolding before her. Her usual slightly annoyed countenance was now one of confusion with a possible sprinkling of amusement. She held the receiver of the phone to her ear, but did not answer the person on the other end of the line.

“Dr. Lindenhurtz, come on!” Clara urged, but Lydia gathered the remaining papers, clicked her briefcase shut, and lunged in the wrong direction. “Dr. L! What are you doing? They’re coming!”

Lydia made a beeline in the direction the paperweight skidded, scouring the floor for any sign of it. The man from the third floor, whose posse had now had a grand total of three, was in the lobby now. Just as Lydia located and lunged for the paperweight, partially hidden beneath the fan shaped leaf of the fern near the elevator, two of the three men appeared before her. Lydia screeched to a halt, torn between diving for the paperweight, or turning tail and fleeing the building. Ultimately, the only option was to run fast and run far. Lydia spun on her heels and darted for the outer lobby door. The suits were quicker and caught her by the elbows. Their captive struggled for a moment, attempting to squirm this way and that, but she was no match. They were bigger and stronger. Lydia’s one small victory was that despite their uncomfortably tight grasp, she did not let go of her briefcase.

The men began to lead her slowly out of the building. To anyone in the lobby watching, it looked as if this woman had assaulted a seemingly innocent man, and was now being escorted out by security. In reality, this was a woman who was attempting to rescue a young girl and as a result, was being kidnapped by these two brutes to be taken God knows where for God knows what.

As the trio reached the door, Lydia’s heart sank. She was sure Clara would have had time to have gotten away, but the third suit had made it to her first. He was not physically restraining her. Instead, Clara seemed to be obediently standing next to him. Lydia gave Clara the look she had given her on so many occasions during their sessions together, the look that said, “What are you thinking? What are you not telling me?”

Clara knew this look all too well, and she answered by mouthing the word gun while mimicking the action of pulling a trigger.

A shot rang out. The ceramic floors and walls provided no absorption of the sharp blast, but instead reflected and seemed to amplify the gun’s report. The men’s instinctive flinch from the shock of the shot would have been enough to give Lydia time to escape their momentarily slackened grasp, however the shot fired was from the third captor’s pocket. The gun had discharged a bullet directly into his right leg. It traveled through his thigh and completely through his femoral artery. When he saw the sheer quantity of blood his partner was losing, the first of Lydia’s captors let go of her and rushed to help. While he applied pressure in vain with one hand and fumbled to remove his belt in the hopes of creating a makeshift tourniquet with the other, Lydia bolted back across the lobby diving into the fern. She emerged victorious with the paperweight in hand. She shot back past the bloody heap, grabbing Clara’s wrist and pulling her out of the lobby’s revolving door. When lug number two realized what was happening, he made for the door as well. Clara, finally snapping back into the moment, knew he was coming for them. She pulled a waste can from the sidewalk and turned it on its side, wedging it in the revolving door. Number Two had almost made it outside, but was now stuck in a separate wedge of the door. No matter how hard he pushed, he could not budge the door far enough in either direction to free himself. Clara and Lydia crossed under the small awning into the parking garage, finally escaping their three captors—in addition to a fourth who was just showing up to the party, only to find one of his cohorts kneeling over the lifeless body of another, and yet another imprisoned in the glass revolving door of 417 Canal Street.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Seventeen

 

Lydia, thankful to have chosen sensible shoes rather than flashy heels like some of her more feminine counterparts, corkscrewed up and around the first and then the second floor of the multi-level garage, while Clara trailed a few steps behind. Her doctor, who was fumbling for her keys, was leading her toward the truth, only this time it was in the most physical sense.

“Dammit!” Lydia spat into the echo-ey gloom, instantly aware that cursing in front of patients was altogether unprofessional. Lydia was the type to care about professionalism and rules even when all the rules had been broken. She needed order, structure.

“What’s wrong, Dr. L?” Clara already knew.

“It’s fine. It’s nothing; just keep running!” Lydia continued to search her pockets in vain as they made their final approach to the silver sedan. Sensible shoes, sensible car. Those were the only two aspects of this situation that were sensible. “I can’t believe I forgot my keys. How could I have forgotten my keys,” she muttered. She could see them just inside the front pocket of her leather purse that lay in the top right drawer of her desk. “How could I have not grabbed my purse!” The realization that after escaping the building, they were still trapped set in as they reached the car. Lydia tried the handle, knowing it was futile.

“Dammit, dammit, dammit!” Lydia shouted as she stomped her sensible shoe on the pavement beneath her feet, instantly alarmed by the impressive volume of her usually subdued voice. Defeated and breathless, she turned to Clara who was nowhere in sight. They’d gotten her. After everything, they’d still gotten her. But when? How? Clara had just been behind her a moment before.

“Got it!” Clara triumphed, as she sprung up from behind the rear passenger wheel. She pumped a fist clutching the magnetic box she had just located beneath the rear bumper—a box containing a spare key to the silver Lumina that Lydia didn’t even know existed.

“Get in!” Lydia screamed. She had heard footsteps in the distance, but growing closer and fast! Clara clicked the key fob and they slid in to the car in sync. Clara reached over from the passenger’s seat, slid the silver key into the silver car’s ignition, and turned.

“Buckle up!”

As their seatbelts clicked, Lydia threw the car in reverse and peeled out of her usual parking space. Her tires spun as she shoved the lever into drive and stomped on the gas. Clara couldn’t help but think of the last action movie she had seen where some hero somewhere did the same thing they had just done. Except in that movie—in a lot of movies Clara had seen—the squealing tires were pealing out on a dirt road in the middle of the desert. How did no one notice that tires don’t screech on dirt and gravel? That always drove Clara insane…details, people, details! She chuckled at the thought: Yep, that’s what drove me “insane”, alright. Bad movies.

The sedan swiveled back down the corkscrew enclosure with such speed that both women had to fight to sit upright in their seats. Just before the usually unoccupied guard shack and automatic lever, Clara spied a single man waving his arms. He was dressed in a dark blue jumpsuit, not unlike that of a mechanic, and he was standing in front of the black and yellow lever that separated the sedan from the open road. Lydia lay on the horn. What did this guy want? Why, today of all days, was someone on duty in the guard shack? Perhaps he was on duty every day at this time. Lydia normally didn’t leave work at 2:30 in the afternoon, so how would she know. Still, the man stood his ground, waving his arms. Lydia continued to honk as she decreased her speed slightly. The poor man didn’t know what was going on, and he certainly didn’t deserve to be hit by Lydia’s car for simply doing his job on a Tuesday afternoon!

“Clara, NO! What are you doing?” Lydia screamed as Clara gripped Lydia’s right leg with force and smashed her foot into the pedal. It was all Lydia could do to maintain control of the steering wheel as her silver car bulleted toward the parking attendant.

At the last fraction of a second, the man—whose name tag, which Lydia was now close enough to make out, read “Mike” in cursive on a white patch sewn to his navy jumpsuit—lunged and rolled out of the way. As her car crashed directly through the parking garage arm, in the rearview mirror, Lydia saw the attendant untuck from a roll, bounce up to his feet and reach into the opened front of his unbuttoned jumpsuit. She found herself swerving to avoid a direct aim of bullets in the next instant. After a few terrifying clinks of connection—the back bumper and possibly a graze along the driver’s side, Clara let go of Lydia’s leg, which was now doing the job on its own, and gasped a sigh of relief as the crack of gunshots diminished with distance.

“Oh my god, oh my god, oh my god!” Lydia cried, speeding toward I-70. She was still out of breath from running in addition to the tumultuous events of the last few minutes, and her knuckles were bone white death grips on the steering wheel—10 and 2—still sensible in the midst of chaos and confusion.

Both driver and passenger were silent for a time as in their minds they unraveled what had just transpired. They were nearing the on ramps for the interstate. Clara answered the question that had been forming in Lydia’s mind: “West,” Clara directed. “I think we should go west.”

Lydia submitted and signaled that she was turning right, took the on ramp, signaled that she was merging left, and entered the highway. Always procedural. Forever a rule follower. Mostly, anyway: She accelerated to 74 miles per hour and engages the cruise control feature. At some point she had been told an officer wouldn’t pull you over if you were going less than five miles over the speed limit. As she clicked the button with her left hand, she drew in a deep breath and pushed it out of her lungs with exasperated force. Clara cautiously turned toward her doctor, now her chaperone and chauffeur, and peered at her with worried green eyes. “Where are we going!? What are we going to do?”

Lydia, calm, cool, and collected, or at least appearing that way after her cleansing breath, assessed their predicament and tallied their resources. “Okay. The last few months of treatment? Forget it. Completely disregard anything we have worked through in our sessions. I was given false information. You were given false information. The last few months of our lives? False.” Clara readily accepted this guidance and Lydia continued, “Whatever is happening, my employers were a part of, and whatever this is, it is all about you.” Lydia tilted her chin in Clara’s direction and made sympathetic eye contact for a few seconds before returning her attention to the road before her. “We are traveling west on Interstate 70. My purse, along with my credit cards and identification are back in my office, not that either of those items would do us any good now, and the only person I know I can trust went missing a month ago.” Lydia let the frustration she felt, which she would normally have subdued. permeate her voice.

“Here is our immediate plan. Number one: decide where we are headed. Number two: you need to open the glove compartment, take out the map, and plan a route to that location. Number three: there is an emergency bag under your seat. She shook her head in disbelief as she thought of her friend who convinced her to keep that emergency bag. Ollie was not so much a “character” anymore. He was evolving into more of a hero with each passing moment. “We will need to count the emergency cash stashed in the inside pocket of the duffel. There should be enough for a few days’ worth of travel. And finally, number four: get that key and open that locket.”

“Dr. L, we need to open this locket FIRST! How much gas do we have?”

Lydia checked the gauge, relieved that she had filled up her tank after work the day before. “It’s almost full. We have can make it about 300 miles before we have to refuel.”

“Then there’s time, right? I mean, we can get the key and open the locket first, right?” Clara was already reaching behind her seat where Lydia had thrown her briefcase. She made contact with the corner and tried to lift. With Clara’s heavy file and the weight of the glass inside, it was too heavy for her grip. She felt her way to the handle, grasped it and was able to slide the leather case along the back and over the top of the console and into her lap. She looked over anxiously at her doctor, and then released the metal clasps. Clara was determined to have it her way, and Lydia didn’t attempt to dissuade her. She knew Clara deserved to finally have something her way, and she for one wasn’t going to stand between Clara and her present goal. Clara raised the lid carefully from its base as if something venomous lay inside. She removed the paperweight from amidst the crumpled and torn papers Dr. Lindenhurtz had salvaged from the struggle in the lobby of her office building and removed it. She closed the lid and snapped the clasps shut before she returned the case to the floorboard behind her seat, much lighter this time.

She held the weight in her hands, gazing into its clear surface. “Knowledge is the key to unlocking the past.” She reached up to her necklace which now dangled from her neck on the outside of her ivory sweater. An ivory sweater, which she now noticed, was spattered with blood. She closed her fingers around it as she had done so many times before. She clutched it in her hand, a perfect and comfortable fit, and thought of her mother. Her real mother, the one she longed for at this moment, at every moment since she had lost her.

“Yes, Clara, but what does that mean? How are these connected?”

Lydia’s passenger closed her eyes, locket still in hand, and allowed herself to reminisce. She gave her mind free reign to remember what it wanted, what it knew to be true, to not repress or push away anything others might deem crazy. Clara was seven, maybe eight years old. It was summer vacation from whichever school she had been enrolled in at the time. There had been so many that sometimes it was hard to remember exactly which school she attended at which time in her life. Summer vacation meant flea markets and visits from Aunt Karen. The trio, Clara, her mother, and Aunt Karen—oh God, Aunt Karen, had they brainwashed her too?— would weave in and out of booth after booth from one seller to the next in search of one of a kind beauty. Melanie was always drawn to unique, one of the kind pieces, a sucker for the extraordinary. She also loved antiques, the pieces that forced you to wonder where it came from and what stories and secrets it held. Melanie always said, “Knowledge is the key to unlocking the past,” and whenever she bought a piece, she’d research until she had unlocked all the secrets it had to offer. Most of the time, there wasn’t much of a history, just something pretty and dusty in need of a good cleaning, but sometimes Melanie hit the jackpot and the story was amazing like the dusty, old canisters she had stumbled across while wandering the outdoor flea market years ago in Pennsylvania. She knew when she bought the smallish flowered set that they weren’t worth much money, but boy, were they pretty. She displayed them in her home and tried to find out what she could about the canisters, but it didn’t amount to much; however, one day long after the purchase, Melanie was packing up her kitchen for the next big move, and dropped the decorative flour tin. It crashed to the floor and as Melanie picked it up, she heard and felt a faint rattle inside what should have been an empty can. She pried off the rusty top and inside she saw that the base of the can was tilted. She pulled on the side that was protruding upward and removed a false bottom. Hidden underneath was a heart shaped locket with a name engraved inside. Melanie did her due diligence and found that it wasn’t worth much, maybe $250 on a good day, but she knew it would be worth significantly more to the original owner. She was able to track down an elderly daughter who cried with delight when Melanie was finally able to reach her by phone. It had been her mother’s years ago. From then on, Melanie was hooked. She bought every locket she could find, though there was almost never any identifying information in or on them. Each time she bought a new locket, she would tell Clara and Karen the story of the first locket, always ending by telling Clara that sometimes you have to dig below the surface to find the truth.

“Melanie! Look!” Karen all but shouted as she held up a gorgeous oval locket. It swung hypnotically from the long gold chain in the hand that Karen had just thrust forward in Melanie’s direction.

“Oh my God, Karen! It’s beautiful!” she exclaimed admiringly. “ Ugh! Mark will die if I bring another locket home, but I can’t help myself. It’s an addiction,” smiled Melanie.

“Oh, it’s an addiction, alright. I think you’ve bought one at every flea market we have ever been to. Ever,” Karen replied with a playful eye roll. “Go ahead,” she sighed, “add it to your collection.”

“If you insist!” Melanie teased as she snatched the locket from Karen’s grasp and inspected her newest addition. After several failed attempts, Melanie whined, “It doesn’t open,” and gave an overly exaggerated pout in Karen’s direction, “Maybe I should put it back. My favorite part is seeing what’s inside.”

“Just get it, Mommy! You know you want to! It’s sooooooo pretty! Look! It has flowers on it.” A young Clara suggested. Mommy. Present Clara thought for a moment that eight year old Clara was a bit too old to call her mother “Mommy”, but that thought was soon replaced with warmness. Affection. Love. She let herself sink into this feeling, to be comforted by it. She smiled and thought, “When I see her again, I’ll call her “Mommy”. I don’t care how old I am.”

“You know what, Honey? I will buy it. I guess some secrets are meant to stay locked away. At least until the time is right. Maybe when the time is right, we can unlock the secrets hidden in this together.” As she said this, she handed the locket to her cherub-faced daughter.

“How will we know when the time is right?”

“Sometimes you just know. And knowing—knowledge—is the key to unlocking the past.” Clara grinned as she looked down and studied the locket in her hand and, at eight years old, vowed to never be as cheesy as her mother.

“Always with the lockets,” Karen chided, “C’mon, you two. Let’s pay and get out of here. I’m starving!”

“Put it on, Clara. You’ve always wanted one you could wear, and since this one is “soooooooooooooo pretty” with your favorite flowers, this one can be yours.”

As Clara put the chain around her neck, she felt the weight of the pendant. It was heavy, but not uncomfortable.

“Do you love it?” Melanie asked, hopefully.

“Almost as much as I love you, Mommy.”

Mommy. Back in the car, Present Clara smiled, but when she opened her eyes, she realized she was crying. Tears that had welled up in her closed eyes streamed down her cheeks in silence. She discreetly wiped them away with the sleeve of her sweater and knew—just knew—what she had to do.

“Dr. L, this key unlocks my locket.”

“Okay. I think we’ve established that. But…”

“This locket…my mother gave me this locket years ago. My real mother. And this key?” Clara held up the paperweight, “This key unlocks it.”

“How do you know?”

“I just know.”

“But…how? How do you know?”

“The quote. The quote on the front of the paperweight…”

“Yes?”

“…It’s quoting my mother.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Eighteen

 

“I have to get this key out of here.” Clara gasped with frantic anticipation. “I need the key.” As Lydia continued to periodically check the rearview mirror for anyone they may have caught up to them, Clara began hurling the solid glass object into the floorboard of the Lumina over and over with such force that Lydia was sure it would break straight through the floorboard.

“Clara, honey, that’s not going to work.” Lydia soothed, surprising herself with the informal tone and word choice she had just used with her patient. “The paperweight is too solid, too dense.”

“I need it! I need this key!” Clara heaved the paperweight into the floorboard again, tears revisiting her cheeks. “I want answers. I want answers now!” Clara paused to grab at the pendant around her neck. She used what fingernails she hadn’t chewed off to try to pry open the locket just like her mother had done that day in the flea market to no avail.

“Stop the car.” Clara commanded. The slow monotone voice Clara used caused concern in her doctor.

“Clara, I can’t stop the car. You and I both know that people are following us, and those people have proven to be dangerous. If they catch us, there is no way of knowing what will happen to us. To you. We cannot stop this car. Not now.”

Clara propelled the encased key toward the floorboard one last time and as she did, she turned her head toward her driver and ordered, “STOP. THE CAR. NOW.”

Out of sheer confusion or lack of knowing what to do next, Lydia did as she was told. Without thinking, she signaled right, pulled as far off the interstate as she could, and activated her hazard lights.

Before the car had even come to a complete stop, Clara had leapt out of the passenger side door with the paperweight in tow. Over and over again, she chucked the glass weight into the concrete. Each time it made contact, there was a solid thud as the glass chipped and powdered and rolled into the grass but never broke. Not even a little. Out of breath and defeated, Clara allowed Lydia, who had regained her faculties and joined Clara on the side of the road, to pick up the paperweight.

“I just need the key,” Clara said. She looked up through blurry eyes at the impenetrable object in Dr. L’s hand.

“I know, honey,” again shocked at her informality, “I know. We both need that key. We both need those answers. But right now, we have to go. We need to get back into the car and drive—fast and far.”

Lydia placed the paperweight back into Clara’s possession after having briefly played out two outcomes in her head first: Return the paperweight to Clara and cause her to freak out again, or give her the paperweight and place the power, however inaccessible at the present moment, back into Clara’s hands. Dr. Lindenhurtz was almost certain the second scene is the one that would become reality. Luckily, she was right.

The pair buckled themselves in and was once again westbound.

Clara wiped her eyes and stared at the puzzle that lay before her. How do I get the key out of this glass? She thought again about her mother. About her love of old lockets. She recalled the story of the first locket, the locket that started it all. And with a smirk, she knew—just knew—what she had to do.

Clara reached behind the seat to retrieve the briefcase. She placed it in her lap but did not bother to open it this time. Lydia observed quietly, wondering what her patient was planning. Clara situated both the locket and the paperweight on the makeshift table she had created in her lap. She studied them both for a few moments and then, without warning, she held the chain of the locket in one hand, and seized the paperweight in the other, and in one mighty blow, forced it down upon the locket she had worn around her neck for seven years. That one blow crinkled the edge and loosened one of two tiny, semi-hidden hinges on the side. Dr. Lindenhurtz, ever-waiting, ever-watching, ever-assessing, as was her job, remained quiet but vigilant.

Clara pried at the small opening she had created, but though it gave a little when she pulled, her soft, nonexistent nails buckled under the pressure. She again raised her hand and smashed the paperweight into the locket with such force that popped almost completely open this time around. Triumphant, she pulled the locket the rest of the way open and said slowly, “My mom, my real mom, always said that “sometimes you have to dig below the surface before you find the truth”, but you know what, Dr. L? You know what I think?”

“What, Clara?”

“Sometimes you just have to break stuff.”

Clara’s laughter turned to tears for the third time today, as she peered into the locket expecting to see her mother and father. Instead, her eyes were met with the same emptiness that had been in her heart these last few months.

Clara’s head was spinning. For the millionth time she asked her self why this was all happening to her. Why me? She touched her index finger to the inside of the empty locket. “I thought…I thought…”

“What is is, Clara? What’s inside?”

A painful pause. “Nothing.”

Lydia gulped. Had she made a mistake? Again? How badly would this one end? Was this another Stanley? But then she remembered the guns, the lugs in suits, the conveniently armed garage attendant, and she knew something wasn’t right about any of it. She knew that her friend must have suspected all of this. Of course he did. But was the paperweight really a sign? Of course it was. It had to be. It was too much of a coincidence to be anything otherwise. But how did he know, and what exactly did he know. Where was he, and why, oh why, hadn’t he just told Lydia.

Because he knew I wouldn’t have believed him, that’s why, Lydia scolded herself. He knew I would have just brushed if off like I did with every other crazy theory he had ever had. Sure, he hit the nail on the head from time to time, coincidence I had thought, but mostly he just hammered away at nothing. Poor Ollie. He knew I, his only friend, wouldn’t believe him, so he left a message for me. No, not for me. For Clara, for my patient whom he wanted to save, for my patient who wanted to know the truth. Lydia subjected herself to a few more moments of mental tongue-lashing before steadying her thoughts and asking, “Clara, what are you thinking?”

Dr. Lindenhurtz knew they needed to get to the bottom of this, but that she could only do that with Clara’s insights. Because clearly I have no insight of my own, Lydia silently reprimanded herself once more. No, get it together, Lydia. What’s done is done.

“I…I don’t know. Lots of things. Nothing. Everything. All at once. I don’t know what I’m thinking.”

“One step at a time. One thought at a time, Clara. Right now, this very second, what is the first thought that comes to your mind.”

“I’m angry. My life was taken from me and I want it back. I want it back the way it was. I wanted there to be something in this locket. I just knew there would be a clue inside. I wanted the truth. What if all of this was for nothing? What if I was wrong?”

“Clara, something is going on. We’re going to find out what it was. The locket had to be a clue. It meant something, I’m sure. Clara, we’re one step closer.”

“The cabin!” Clara shouted.

“The cabin?” Lydia was confused.

“That sign, did you see it? Lake Cromwell 10 miles. I don’t believe it.” Clara’s despair had evolved into hope.

Lydia waited for Clara to explain.

Suddenly, from out of nowhere, two silver sedans sped up and flanked Lydia’s car. She increased her speed, and so did they. She switched lanes. So did they. Now she was certain they were following her. She slowed; they slowed.

“Clara, we’ve got company.”

Clara thought that sounded like a cheesy movie line, and when she looked behind her, she thought she might as well have been watching a movie. The action unfolded as identical silver cars with seemingly identical drivers and passengers follow them. They sped up so that they were on either side of Lydia’s back bumper.

“Oh my God, Dr. L! Floor it!”

Clara dug her right foot into an imaginary gas pedal on the passenger’s side of Lydia’s car. Lydia must have done the same because the sheer force of the instantly increased speed pushed Clara’s head back against the headrest for a moment. When she regained proper posture, Clara watched as Lydia swerved in and out of traffic. People honked. People threw up their middle fingers. If only they knew what was happening.

Lydia felt a pang of guilt as she offended every driver along I-70. She couldn’t help it. She enjoyed her role as a law abiding citizen. She took pride in following the rules and waiting her turn. It was polite to do so. Even in this grave situation, Lydia knew right from wrong and it was difficult to choose the wrong, even if ultimately it was the right.

Lydia tried desperately to lose them. First, she used her blinker to signal that she was taking the next exit. She veered her car toward the exit lane. They followed. At the last second, she returned to the highway, hoping it would be too late for her followers. It was for one of the cars, but the other car was able to cross the grassy V that had formed between the highway and the off ramp, and he caught up to her once again.

“One down, one to go,” Clara muttered.

The silver bullet behind them raced toward their bumper and tapped a warning that said, “Pull over, or we’ll do it for you.”

Lydia punched the pedal again. Her speedometer needle soared into uncharted territory. She flew past the right side of a tractor trailer hauling Bunny Bread, temporarily leaving the lone silver car in her dust. She cut the truck driver off, passed to the left in front of him and then hit her breaks to slow down in the lane to the left of the Bunny Bread truck. It was her hope that the car chasing her would end up in front of her, and she’d be able to exit the highway unseen.

It worked! For a moment. The driver of the car quickly realized she had disappeared. He surveyed the area, and discovered that she was now behind him.

“Dammit!” Lydia whispered.

The silver sedan hit the brakes, almost coming to a complete stop along the interstate. Lydia was at a loss for what to do, so she hammered down again. She sped past the slowing sedan, and he gave chase again. They continued to weave in and out of traffic barely escaping several near-misses.

“Lookout!” Clara screamed.

Ahead, for only an instant, Lydia saw what Clara’s warning pertained to. A flatbed tractor trailer hauling some scary looking farm machinery was slowing in the rush hour traffic ahead.

Clara grabbed the wheel and spun it hard toward the right. The Lumina, which was traveling at a high rate of speed, instantly screeched and tilted onto two wheels and went into an airborne spin. Clara, who had undone her seatbelt moments ago to get a better view of the cars chasing them, was thrown from the passenger’s side window, while Lydia remained buckled inside the rolling car.

Somehow, someway, Clara rolled along the pavement. somersaulting into a standing position. She hadn’t had time to celebrate her survival yet when she saw barreling toward her the silver car. It was close enough that she was able to make eye contact with the driver. Before she knew it, she was in the air. Her shoulder hit the roof of the car and she rolled off the back. Had she been hit? Did she jump? She didn’t know, but when she landed on her feet, once more, this time facing the same direction the car was traveling she realized she wasn’t hurt. Or maybe it was the adrenaline. That happened sometimes, she thought, like when a mom lifts a car off her baby.

Instantly, she saw that while she was not hurt, the men in the sedan soon would be. In a twisted metal slam and squeal, they collided directly into the back of a now completely stopped semi’s flatbed trailer. The force of their speed caused the top of their car to peel backward, and Clara did not want to see what was inside. She was sure those two men would never bother her again, though. In the chaos, Clara heard squalling tires and turned to see a black Jetta skidding toward her. Luckily, the Jetta had already been slowing having noticed the traffic ahead. Clara stood, frozen, and the Jetta came to a complete stop inches from her quivering legs.

Horns blared and people screamed as they ran to see if they could help the people in the silver sedan. It was futile. There was almost nothing left of the car and even less left of its occupants whose heads, Clara assumed, had been peeled back just like the roof of their car. Clara wheeled around and scanning for Lydia. There! In the grassy shoulder! Clara bolted toward it and leapt over an errant tire which had broken off the Lumina’s axle in one of the barrel rolls along the asphalt.

The car was resting on its top, and as Clara approached, she could see Dr. Lindenhurtz dangling from her seat belt inside.

“Dr. L! Can you hear me? Are you okay?”

Lydia groaned. “Yes. I think so,” she answered and then groaned again.

Clara unclicked Dr. L’s seatbelt as she helped Lydia brace herself so she wouldn’t slam onto the ground.

“Clara, find my briefcase. And the emergency bag.” Lydia winced as she slowly pulled herself from the mangled heap that used to be her car and had been the pair’s only mode of transportation.

“They’re not here!” Clara shouted, searching the back seat and under the front seats.

“Find them!” Lydia pleaded climbing to her feet.

In the highway behind them, Clara spied the briefcase which had miraculously remained closed. As she sprinted toward it, she also located the black emergency bag near the grooved rumble strip on the outer edge of the highway. She retrieved both and yelled, “Got ‘em!” as she returned to her injured doctor.

“Dr. L, you’re bleeding. Are you sure you’re okay?”

“Yes. I’m fine. I’ll be fine.” She said as she wiped blood from her temple then inspected her fingers. “We have to get out of here.”

Without verbalizing a plan, both women ran, one hobbled, actually, into the woods off of I-70. In the confusion of twisted metal and screams behind them, no one noticed the two women slipping off into the brush.

They maneuvered the trees and vines and downed branches for over an hour before they sat down on a hollow log to rest. Knowing that they had only suffered minor injuries, their immediate need had been to get as far away from the interstate as possible. Once at a comfortable distance, they assessed the damage.

Lydia’s forehead, temple and right cheek were now caked with dried blood. Dried blood was good. This meant the bleeding had subsided. She had started out with a limp bad enough that Clara had to help her for the first few hundred yards, but she “walked it off” so to speak, and now just had a sore and swollen ankle. She could have sworn it shattered in the crash, but now, it was just bruised and ugly. Other than a few additional minor scrapes and bruises, Lydia was going to be fine.

Clara, though. Clara was unscathed with not even a hair out of place on her uninjured head. She was thrown from an airborne vehicle, possibly hit by another vehicle and rolled over the cab, and was almost run down by a third vehicle. And not a scratch? Both women deemed this a miracle. Divine intervention. They discussed it no further. There were bigger fish to fry.

“Who are these people?” Clara asked.

“I don’t know, Clara. But they want you, and they want you bad.”

“But why?”

“I don’t know that either.” Lydia pulled her tangled hair into a loose bun and scrubbed at her forehead with the sleeve of her blazer.

“We’ll need a place to hide overnight. When we get moving again, keep your eyes peeled for somewhere safe. Somewhere warm.” Even in August, the night air would be cold in this part of the country.

Lydia pulled the emergency duffel toward her and unzipped it. She pulled out a bottle of Ibuprofen and a bottle of water. She downed four of them and chased it with a swig from the plastic bottle that claimed to be Pure Spring water. She offered the bottle to Clara.

“Not too much. We need to conserve it just in case. We have no idea what the future holds.”

Clara took a sip and replaced the cap. She handed the bottle back to Lydia and asked, “Should we go to the cabin?”

“I think we have to. I don’t usually believe in signs, but I don’t know what else this could possibly be. Someone wanted us to end up here.”
“What if that someone is one of them?” Clara was nervous.

“I don’t think it is, Clara. I think…somehow…my friend Ollie is involved. He sent me the paperweight as a gift. I think he knew somehow this would play out. Maybe not in exactly this way, but I think he meant for it to be a message.”

“Where is Ollie now, Dr. L? Can you just ask him?”
“That’s the thing, Clara. He’s been missing for weeks.”

They sat in silence on the log taking in everything they’d been through and attempting to evaluate what the future held for them. Lydia took another swallow from the bottle, offered it to Clara who did not accept, and the two stood up and carried on deeper into the woods. The evening air caused the temperature to drop and Lydia resisted a shiver. Her ankle was still screaming and her entire body was exhausted from the day’s events. Clara noticed Lydia’s pace had slowed to a crawl. She offered her shoulder and helped Lydia shuffle through the woods. This eased Lydia’s pain significantly.

“It’s getting dark, Dr. L.” Clara was beginning to worry. She wondered if it was too early in the year for hypothermia. It was definitely getting colder, and even though the sun had set and dusk had crept in, she could see her breath now each time she exhaled.

“I know Clara. We need shelter.”

Clara had been looking for hours. She didn’t think Dr. Lindenhurtz had. She had been in too much pain to think about much else.

“Dr. L, a while back, I saw something that might work. I haven’t seen anything since. Do you think we should go back?”

“What was it? I haven’t seen anything at all.”

“Well, it wasn’t much. But it’s better than sleeping out in the open.” Clara suddenly felt embarrassed at her suggestion. “It was a huge, hollow log. Big enough that I think we could fit inside.”

Reluctantly, they turned around and traced their steps for almost half a mile.

“There!” Clara shouted, relieved to have found it.

They were tired and dirty and ready to rest. The inside of the log was disgusting to say the least. Parts of it were semi-rotten and it was full of leaves and such.

“Clara, give me your jacket.” Lydia commanded. She took off hers as well.

“Dr. L, it’s cold. Shouldn’t we leave them on?”

“Jacket, please.”

Lydia held out her hand expectantly. Clara handed over her only source of warmth. When she did, Lydia immediately tied the sleeves together and tossed them into the log as far as they would go while holding on to one sleeve. They didn’t go far. Lydia found a long stick—one you might use as a walking stick on a stroll through the woods—and cleared out some debris. She was able to drag the other sleeve farther through the log.

“Dr. L, what are you doing?”

“Here. Bend down at the other end of this log. See if you can reach your jacket sleeve.”

Clara could and did. “Now, pull it out of your side. It should clean some of the inside out and frighten away any animals or bugs. I hope.”

Clara did as she was told and when the second jacket emerged, she saw in the fading light that they were caked with dirt and leaves. She shook them out the best she could.

“Dr. L, maybe this wasn’t such a good idea after all. Maybe we should just sleep on the ground. It’ll be cleaner,” Clara said as she shook the jackets again, hard.

“No, Clara. It will be too cold, and we can’t sleep out in the open. People are looking for us. We need to remain hidden the best we can. I’m not happy about it either. Let’s push the jackets through one more time.”

When the empty log was as clean as it could be, the women donned their jackets and sat on the log to rest.

“We’ll need to hide those too,” Lydia said as she pointed to her briefcase and duffel.

Clara searched for a hiding place nearby. She found a bush and slid them underneath. She laid a few branches in front of it and smoothed the leaves so there would be no trace of disruption. She returned to the log where Lydia sat.

“We should get some rest. We can start moving early in the morning,” Lydia motioned to the log, “After you.”

Luckily, the women were both petite and fit as comfortably as a person possibly could inside of a dank, rotting log in the middle of the forest. They lay inside the log foot to foot, overlapping to the knees. It wasn’t the most relaxing position in which to sleep, but they were tired and this was all they had. There was no tossing and turning—there was no room for that, but they both lay awake—Lydia on her back and Clara on her stomach with her head resting on her crossed arms, shivering and brushing off creepy crawlies well into the night before drifting into a semi-restful sleep.

Clara awoke first. Far way, she heard the distinct crunch of autumn-crisp leaves underfoot. She listened intently for many moments until she was sure the rustling leaf sound was coming closer…and closer.

She kicked gently at Dr. L and whispered, “Wake up. Dr. L, someone’s coming. Hey!” Here whisper was more of a hiss, but she knew she needed to be loud enough to wake Dr. L and quiet enough that the approaching person or people couldn’t hear her. She gave another soft kick and Lydia stirred.

“What is it? What’s wrong,” she said in full voice.

“Shhhh! Listen,” Clara whispered.

Lydia, still groggy, was now awake enough to hear what Clara had heard. Was it an animal? A person? It was too difficult to tell. All they could do was wait and pray they weren’t discovered by either.

Soon the crunching was near Clara’s head which was only an inch or so away from the opening of the log. She scrunched down as far as she could and held her breath.

Please go away, please go away, please go away. She thought to herself, but her visitor remained. The rustling moved along the edge of the log, pausing twice. Clara imagined a man smiling to himself knowing he’d successfully tracked his prey and thought of him reveling in the quite moments before he flushed it out and landed his kill. The crackling of the leaves moved once more in Clara’s direction.

He’s looking for me. Of course he wants me first, she thought, frozen in terror. At the end of the log, the movement ceased. This is it. I’m dead meat, she decided in her mind.

She felt his presence. She knew he was watching her, waiting for her to make a move. She squeezed her eyes tighter and pressed her lips together suppressing the urge to scream. Finally, he was upon her. She felt what she thought was his hand on her head. Knowing she’d been found and would soon be pulled out of the log by her long brown hair, she bravely opened her eyes to face her fate head on. When she did, she did not see an angry man reaching for her. When she opened her eyes, she was face to face with a cold-nosed red fox. Relieved, she giggled, startling him away. He scurried into the darkness, which was now breaking way to light, as loudly across the leaves as he had come.

“Clara! Who was it!” Lydia cried, again in full voice.

“Not who….it was a what. It was a sweet little fox.”

“Oh, thank God! He sure made a big noise for being such a “little” guy.”

“And he scared me half to death!”

“Me too! If my heart ever stops racing, I think we should get out of here. It looks like it’s getting light already. Did you get any sleep?”

“Not much.”

“Me either.” Lydia agreed as she crawled out into the cold morning air.

They rummaged through the duffel for breakfast—a half a granola bar each—and some water. Lydia’s ankle surprisingly felt much better. She thought it would have seized up in the cold overnight, but it hadn’t.

“Let’s get moving. It’ll warm us up,” Lydia suggested, rubbing her folded arms.

Clara had attached the briefcase to the duffel’s strap and slung the two over her right shoulder. They were heavy, but she was able to carry the weight with ease.

“Where are we going?” Clara questioned.

“I think we made it most of the way to the cabin before the accident yesterday. If I’m right, we could potentially reach it by nightfall. Unfortunately, I’ve always been a little directionally challenged.”

An image of a map popped into Clara’s head without warning. She mentally traced the line on which they were travelling to their destination—the cabin. She made an x on the map approximately where they had been run off the road and realized they would need to change direction. She thought for a moment, studied her surroundings.

“No, this way,” Clara ordered. “This is north,” she said pointing to their current path, “We need to head northwest if we want to make it to the cabin,” and she led in determined steps toward their new direction.

“How do you know?”

“I don’t know…I guess I’m not directionally challenged.”

They both laughed in spite of their dire situation. They made good time, stopping only to rest and eat enough to keep their energy up. Lydia was again thankful of her practical taste in clothing and footwear. This would have been a much different and much more uncomfortable expedition in heels and a skirt.

The day, which the sun had warmed up nicely, was again fading into a cold gray as evening approached.

“Are you sure we’re going the right direction? I thought we would have been there by now.” Lydia asked, worried about having put her trust in a teenage girl. What had she been thinking?

“Ummm…yes?” Clara answered in a tone that sounded more like a question. “I mean, I think so.”

“Clara, please tell me we haven’t been traveling the wrong direction all day!”

But when Lydia looked up from her feet, Clara was gone.

“Clara?” she called. No answer. “CLARA?” Nothing. She turned slowly in a complete circle searching for any sign of her travel companion. She was nowhere in sight.

Her first instinct was to run full speed ahead in the direction they had been traveling. Perhaps Lydia had just fallen behind her much younger, more energetic walking partner, but that still, small voice—the one that said, “Don’t panic. Be logical,”—chimed in and Lydia halted.

She called again. Maybe she fell. Maybe she’s just out of my sight and ear-range. Or maybe…maybe she’d been found. Lydia imagined Clara, crouched behind a tree in the distance, wide-eyed with a knife to her throat and a dirty hand over her mouth as she tried to scream out. She imagined herself being found momentarily. She’d be face down on the ground with a heavy black boot on her back and a gun against her occipital bone. They didn’t need her for anything—of that she was sure. She winced as she imagined a gunshot ringing out and a distinctly female laugh.

She opened her eyes to continue the search, but the laughter was still there. Wasn’t it? Yes. But from where? Lydia stumbled slowly forward. Her footing was unsure because she was no longer looking at the ground, but instead was looking up and around for the source of the laughter. It seemed to echo through the forest making the falling night even more ominous. As suddenly as it had begun, the laughter stopped.

“Dr. L! Up here!” Clara cheered.

Lydia was stunned. “Clara? Is that you? Where are you?”

“Up here. Look!”

Just above where Lydia was standing, was Clara, safe and sound in what appeared to be an old treehouse.

“My parents built this for me when I was little,” she beamed. “I played in it every time we came here. Sometimes my dad would even camp out up here with me.”

“Clara, you scared me! Why didn’t you say something?”

“I’m sorry, Dr. Lindenhurtz. I guess I was just too busy looking at all of my old stuff. There are a few toys up here. And a ratty old blanket. That would have come in handy last night, huh?” she laughed.

“So…this is your tree house? So, that means…we’re close? The cabin is here somewhere?”

“Yes! Just over that next hill. If the lights were on, you’d be able to see the glow from here!” She said and smiled, remembering.

“Oh, thank God!” cried Lydia who was beyond fatigued and was dreading spending another frigid night in the wilderness. “Let’s go check it out!”

They cautiously approached the cabin just in case anyone else had found it first. It most certainly looked deserted. There were no lights and the brush had grown up around it in such a way that if they had passed just a hundred yards away from it in this light—or lack thereof—they may have missed it. It was lucky that Clara had stumbled upon her old treehouse.

Clara stepped up onto the rickety porch first. She stepped forward and wiped a heavy film of dust from the outside of the window with the sleeve of her already filthy jacket. She peered inside, but saw nothing.

“I think it’s safe,” Clara said twisting the knob slowly in her right hand. She pushed forward, but the door wouldn’t budge. She pushed again, this time with her hip and shoulder. The door gave way with such force that she hopped several times to restore her balance.

It was musty. That was for sure. It had been closed up for a long time. If Clara had been here for leisure—on vacation with Mom and Dad—they’d be opening every window in the place to air it out. She could almost hear her mother exclaiming to her father that it’d be time to leave before the cabin aired out! Clara couldn’t recall the last time she had been here. Maybe when she was eleven? Ten? It didn’t matter. It felt like yesterday. She knew the pantry would be stocked with canned goods. She knew the oil lamps would be on the mantle and the dining room table. She knew where the flashlights, the spare clothing, and the blankets were. Oh, dear God, she thought, a warm blanket!

“Come on in, Dr. L,” Clara said giving Lydia the same greeting her doctor had given Clara so many times. “I’m starving! I’ll find us something to eat. But first, we need light.”

Lydia closed the door behind herself. It was pitch black in the cabin, save for barely noticeable moonlight. The trees were so grown up that they blocked most of the light that would have gotten through, but even if they hadn’t, the windows were so dusty, that they’d block it out anyway. Lydia stood in the center of the entryway—she guessed it was the kitchen, though she couldn’t be sure—and wrapped her arms tightly around herself. The darkness was pervasive and she felt the need to protect herself from it. She let out a forced exhale and realized she had been holding her breath. A grown woman, afraid of the dark. That’s nice, she thought. Just then, she thought she saw a figure move to her left, ever so slightly. She tensed again. She didn’t move. It was embarrassing enough that she was relying on a fourteen year old girl to save the day with some light, but now she thought she saw movement again and fought the urge to call out to Clara.

Clara was now in the bedroom, having expertly maneuvered through the dark cabin thanks to the blueprint scored in her mind. It was almost as if she could actually see the floors, the walls, the knob to the bedroom door. She had at first thought she would light an oil lamp, but quickly remembered the flashlights. That would be much faster, as long as the batteries still worked. While she pulled out a flashlight, which happened to be empty—her mother always took them out, something about eating energy or whatever—Lydia was frozen in terror in the front room.

The figure which she had thought she perceived to be moving, was now growing taller, bigger. Was it her imagination? Lydia really hoped so, because now it seemed as if whoever—or whatever—it was, was now grunting. This isn’t real, she thought to herself, forcing back a yelp. Not real, not real, not real, she muttered over and over in her mind. It worked for only a moment. The shadow paused and then grew even more. And now, oh God, now it was moving toward her. She could contain her horror no longer.

“Clara!”

“Just a minute!” Clara called calmly from the bedroom, unaware of what was transpiring just outside the walls of the room she was safely in. She had just found two D Cell batteries in the drawer and placed them end to end in the shaft of the old school plastic blue flashlight. She hit the bottom flap with her hand to snap it shut and twisted to seal it. Lock and load, she laughed to herself.

“Clara, hurry!”

The tone of the doctor’s voice alarmed Clara who jumped up and switched on the flashlight with her thumb. She entered the main room of the cabin, ready to defend it.

The shadow loomed closer. Lydia had backed up against the door and was now trapped between it and the approaching menace. The figure groaned. The floor creaked. Lydia screamed.

Clara bolted across the room to rescue her rescuer, but just as she went to lunge at the monster, a beam of light illuminated its face.

“Ollie!” Lydia shrieked. Relief washed over her as she reunited with her old friend, throwing her arms around him.

Clara, attempting to stop mid-leap, awkwardly tumbled into Lydia and Ollie, breaking their embrace. Clara rolled and bounced to her feet with the flashlight still in her hand. Nothing to see here, she thought.

“What? Who? What’s going on, Dr. L?” Clara asked. She was startled, yet intrigued.

“Clara, I’d like you to meet my friend, Ollie.”

Ollie held out his hand, but Clara didn’t take it.

“Ollie is the reason we’re here. He’s the one who sent the key.”

Clara placed her hand in Ollie’s. Instead of shaking it, he took her hand in his and raised it to his lips to kiss it. “Very pleased to make your acquaintance, dear Clara. Very pleased indeed.”

Clara, bewildered, smiled—because that’s what she was supposed to do—and thanked him. She looked to Lydia and asked, “But how did he know? And what did he know?”

Ollie broke in, “All in good time. But I’m sure you ladies need some rest. Am I right? And some food in your bellies?”

“Yes!” they said in unison, but Clara was still confused and wanted answers. Lydia was fine to wait for them. She knew it would all come out in time. Clara resolved to wait until after dinner to inquire any further.

Clara went to light the first oil lamp, but Ollie stopped her. “Oh no. No, no. Wait just a minute, dear girl.”

He scuttled around the room dropping the curtains—which were actually just sheets, towels, and blankets he’d tacked up with some nails and a hammer he’d found. When all the windows were secure, he lit the oil lamp on the dining room table and the one on the mantle himself.

“Listen, if we don’t want to be found, we can’t light the way for them. I believe we are safe here for the time being, but we’ll need to be careful.” He lit a third lamp on a shelf in the kitchen. “Fish?” Ollie asked.

Neither one of his guests liked fish much, but they were famished.

“It’s fresh. I caught it myself just this afternoon.”

Lydia was impressed. She didn’t know Ollie could fish. She was even more impressed to find him sitting here at this cabin—or sleeping on the couch, rather, before she and Clara disturbed him, anyway.

Ollie toiled away in the kitchen. Lydia helped where she could. They worked well together, having made many dinners together in the past.

She seasoned, he sautéed over a gas stove. She chopped wild onions he had collected, he threw them in the pan. She found a bottle of wine on the shelf, he asked Clara if she thought her parents would mind. Clara shrugged her shoulders while dreaming of being with them again. If it hadn’t been for the fact that they were on the lam, this would have seemed like a perfectly normal family dinner at the lake.

Clara sat the table while Ollie and Lydia finished cooking. “It would have been much easier and much faster to just eat something out of a can. I would have been happy with Spaghetti-O’s.” Clara said. Happier with Spaghetti-O’s, actually, she thought, but was grateful for whatever food she could put in her belly.

“Ollie doesn’t eat processed food. He only eats organic. Says the government’s trying to poison us and all that.”

“Well, it is. That it is.” He said, flipping a filet and adding some chopped dill. He was resourceful, Lydia couldn’t argue that. Not only can he find a cabin in the woods that only Clara and her parents knew about, but he could also have a freshly harvested meal ready to prepare when they arrived.

When dinner was on the table, the three sat around it in silence. Eventually, Ollie broke it. “Well, dig in, ladies. There’s a lot of eating to do and even more explaining.” He served generous portions of fish and greens onto each of their plates and topped off Lydia’s wine.

“I’m sure you are wondering not only why I’m here and how I came to be here, but also why and how you came to be here. First, let me say…” he took a bite of fish, chewed a few times and then swallowed, “Bravo, ladies. I’m elated and proud to know you can take subtle hints and clues and turn them into reality and realization.”

Clara and Lydia exchanged glances, no closer to the answers they sought now than before Ollie had begun to speak.

“I was desperately hoping I wouldn’t have to swoop in and attempt to warn you face to face. That didn’t work out so well the first time. No, no, of course it didn’t.”

“What do you mean “the first time”?” Lydia prodded?
“Well, Lydia, dear, the first time I tried to tell you what I knew, they got me.”

“They got you? Who got you?”

“Them. They got me. The same they that are after you. Remember that evening so long ago? We went for ice cream? Oh, that was delicious ice cream, was it not? Hand churned and hand dipped.”

“Ollie. Focus.”

“Yes, yes. I began to warn you. I didn’t give away all the details. I didn’t have solid proof yet. I know how you are about solid proof, dear.” He winked. “So, I told you what I could and continued to research. I was so close I could taste it,” he said as he stabbed a few shallots and forked them in.

“Close to what, Ollie?”

“This!” He motioned around the table. “All of this. And Clara. Our amazing Clara. You’re special. Unique.” He beamed at her.

“Special? How am I special?”

“In good time, Clara. Let’s back up. Begin at the beginning. But first, we’ll need to set another place. We have another joining us for dinner soon.”

Lydia and Clara exchanged troubled glances as Ollie raised a glass.

“Begin at the beginning,” he repeated, and they clinked glasses.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter 19—Ollie’s Disappearance

Ollie was always so careful. But not careful enough, it seemed, not tonight, anyway. How could he have known he and Lydia were being followed? How could he have known that the ice cream vendor on the street was not a random man trying to put food on the table for his children, but instead an employee of BioTech. Everything Lydia did was being surveilled. Because of her close relationship with Ollie, everything he did was being surveilled as well. That’s why they bugged the lobby plants. That’s why “construction crews” and “handy men” were always working in the building, but not much was ever getting fixed. They had ears and eyes everywhere: cameras, recording devices, living, breathing human beings. Ollie was aware of some of it, but Lydia’s sensible side had rubbed off on him just enough for him to let his guard down a bit.

They had heard Ollie telling Lydia he was onto something. They knew he knew about the facilities, the weapons, the training. Luckily, he stopped before he gave away much more; before he gave away the fact that Clara, Lydia’s long-time patient, was a weapon. It was their hope that even if Ollie had made her privy to that information, that she’d shoo it aside in disbelief, because really, who would believe something like that…besides Ollie. Luckily, they didn’t have to find out.

As Lydia and Ollie walked home, they were followed. Expertly. Ollie had no clue—and he was the kind of guy who thought people were following him when they weren’t. When Lydia had closed her door, and Ollie had just closed his, there was a knock and a woman’s voice.

“Ollie?”

He turned around and opened the door, “Oh, Lydia, dear, did you forget somethi—”

It was not Lydia standing before him. It was a woman and two big lugs. Before he could say or do anything, Lug One was behind him with a rag over his mouth and Lug two darted forward to help catch Ollie as he slumped. “Chloroform,” he thought as the woman’s soft, but ominous laughter faded into nothingness.

They left the door open in their rush to leave. The door that Lydia had politely closed for her friend the next morning.

When Ollie awoke, he was alone in a room. The walls were bright white and the fluorescents overhead did nothing for the mild headache he had. “Cloroform,” he muttered as he sat up on a cot in the middle of the room. “It’s a carcinogen. Unorganic. Poison. Couldn’t they have just clobbered me over the head with a bat?”

“Oh, no, Ollie. Someone might have heard that,” a snake of a voice answered from behind. It was the voice of the woman who’d been standing at his door when he opened it.

“Kay. Kay Crider. Pleased to make your acquaintance,” She introduced herself in slither of vowels and consonants.

“You’ll forgive me if I don’t return the same sentiments.”

“Of course, Ollie.”

“I’m sure you’re wondering why you’re here.”

“Actually, young lady, I’m quite sure why I’m here.”

“Oh, really,” she said, annoyed. “Please, John Oliver, do tell.”

Ollie sat in stoic silence as he realized he shouldn’t have said anything at all. I’ve always had a problem keeping my mouth shut, he scolded himself. If he’d have kept it to himself, he may have had a chance to play dumb. That chance flew out the window when those words flew out of his mouth. He shook his head.

“Cat got your tongue, Oliver?”

She slithered around his chair lightly caressing his shoulders from right to left as she passed behind him. She slapped him hard on top of his head.

“What do you know?” she growled in his ear.

“I know I am being detained against my will, I know that’s against the law, and I know I’m entitled to a lawyer.”

Kay snorted and Ollie turned to look her in the eye. She slapped him again, harder. Ollie fought the desire to rub his stinging scalp. “Don’t you dare look at me, Oliver. And as for the lawyer,” she snorted again, “I have my own. A whole team. You don’t know who you’re messing with. Besides, Oliver, no one even knows you’re here.”

“My neighbors will notice I’ve disappeared.”

“Mr. Ragsdale, how many times have you “disappeared” without a trace in the last year? In your lifetime? Quite a few as far as I can tell. And you always turn back up with some silly story of aliens or government conspiracies. And your neighbors smile and nod. No one will miss you, Oliver. Not even Lydia.”

Ollie’s heart skipped a beat. He was right. They had been watching. They knew everything. Ollie’s friend was in trouble.

“You leave Lydia alone. She doesn’t know anything. She’s just doing her job.”
“Ahh, but what have you told her, Oliver? We know you’ve let her in on your little secret.”

“I haven’t told her anything. Lydia is innocent in all of this.”

“You told her about the facilities. We heard you.”

Ollie’s eyes widened. “But, how?”

“Sometimes a sweet treat can sell you out.”

With that, a door opened and in walked the Hispanic ice cream vendor, only now he was in a suit—not an apron, and he was wielding a weapon—not an ice cream scoop. Ollie was sure he was there to “ensure” that Ollie spoke up, one way or another. Ollie didn’t betray his friend. He didn’t speak a word, and he paid for it. He took a beating for it, but he stayed true. Besides, he knew he’d get the beating whether he talked or not, but he thought his chances of survival were higher if they were still curious to know what he knew.

After the interrogation and the flogging, Ollie was left alone in the room to swell and bruise and bleed. No one came in for the rest of the evening. By his watch, he figured he’d drifted in and out of consciousness for the better part of twelve hours. Such a strange twelve hours it had been too. He had seen—or dreamed he’d seen—several messages on the wall he was facing from his cot. He had first opened his eyes to Don’t say anything, and was awake just long enough to think, I didn’t, and look at me now before his eyes closed again. He regained momentary consciousness again several hours later. He forced the swollen slits of his eyes open again to read a bleary I can help you scrawled across the wall this time. Ollie began to worry that his brain was swelling causing visual hallucinations, but before he could work himself into a panic, he drifted off again. When he awoke a third time, a new message awaited him: Rest. And listen. Listen for what, he wondered, and spent the rest of the night following the first order—even if it was done involuntarily.

Ollie awoke the next day wondering if the previous night had been a dream. He was sore and stiff and still lying on a hard cot in a cold room, so he knew that part had been real. He traces his face gingerly assessing the damage. Bumps and bruises and cuts, but nothing was broken. He thought back to the messages. Had those been real too? He doubted it. Lydia would have told him it was his subconscious attempting to comfort him in a time of crisis. As he was deciding she was probably right, he saw the word listen in his head. Or maybe he heard it. He decided he would keep an open mind.

He sat up on the cot, but his body ached and groaned—much more than usual. He’d been pummeled in the ribs and stomach in addition to his face and neck. He inhaled deeply. He was sore, but relieved to find there were no broken ribs. He’d be in pain for several days, but he’d be just fine. Well, except for the fact that he was locked away in a room in an unknown building at an unknown location with unknown people.

Listen, he heard again. He thought perhaps his visual hallucinations had turned to auditory, but shrugged it off, painfully, of course.

I’m listening, he thought, but he heard nothing. Ollie walked around the room to search for an escape. He knew he’d find none. He was pretty sure the people holding him knew what they were doing. If he was right, this was a secret government agency geared toward human weaponry. He knew one of Lydia’s patients was a likely candidate for involuntary induction into this weaponry program, and he knew both Lydia and the patient were in danger. From what he had gathered from previous conversations with Lydia and the research he’d been compiling for years, the patient was a teenaged girl who would be transferred to a training facility to learn an experimental form of weaponry. These people meant business, so he was sure they wouldn’t accidentally leave a door unlocked. He continued to search anyway.

Ask for Jess, a disembodied voice whispered.

What? He thought.

Ask to see Jess, Ollie heard again.

Ollie, having searched the entirety of the room and having found nothing, returned to his cot and sat down.

Say it.

Ollie scanned the room. Were his captors doing this? Tormenting him?

Say it.

Ollie, always trusting the unknown, said it. He turned his head toward the locked door of his small room and in a firm, demanding voice, said, “I want to see Jess.”

He held his breath. Nothing happened. “I want to see Jess,” he ordered again. Still nothing. Ollie laughed at himself. Even now, in this dire situation, he was relying too heavily on his imagination and not enough on his common sense. “Idiot,” he muttered, finally accepting that maybe, just maybe, he went overboard sometimes.

Wait.

Ollie shook his head in an attempt to ignore the voice.

In another room of the building, which just so happened to be the Breemont Facility, Kay Crider and her cohorts were planning their next move. Video surveillance showed that Oliver Ragsdale was awake. Not only was he awake, but he was demanding to see their secret weapon.

“He knows more than we thought. We need to find out what he knows, who else knows it, and kill him.” Kay said bending to place her palms on the table before her.

The ice cream vendor, better known as Miguel, snapped back, “He’s not talking. If he didn’t ‘fess up when I was putting the muscle on him yesterday, he’s not ever going to. We need to kill him now. We can safely guess that the doctor knows what Ragsdale knows. She’ll need to go too.” Miguel traced a finger across his neck. “We’ll take her out and grab the girl.”

Kay weighed out the choices. At this point, Lydia had shown no signs that she knew what was happening, and she was still treating the patient accordingly. If Lydia didn’t know anything, she didn’t want to ruin a good thing.

“No, Miguel. First,” an evil grin grew across her face, “we show him.”

“What? Kay, you can’t be serious.” Miguel said in disbelief.

“Miguel, if we show him what he’s dealing with, he might speak up. We’ll put a…positive…spin on it. We’ll show him the ones who have…acclimated…to their new lifestyles.” She crossed the room to face him.

“Kay, I just don’t think it’s a good…”

She cut him off, “I don’t pay you to think, do I?” She grabbed his chin and he winced in pain. She pushed him back against the wall and slammed his head into it. “Well, do I?” She demanded.

Her fingers were digging into his jaw forcing his mouth partially open. Finally, he said no through her grasp.

“Good boy,” she answered, and without loosening her grip, pressed her lips to his.

Ollie stared at the door wondering if his last hours on earth would be spent on this cot. The door opened, and through it marched Miguel.

“Get up.” He ordered.

Go, he heard.

Ollie did as he was instructed and stood. Miguel took him by the arm and led him out of the room. Ollie did not attempt to escape. He was too exhausted from the previous day’s beating to ask for another.

“Where are we going?” Ollie finally asked.

“I’m giving you what you asked for,” came a hateful reply.

Ollie submitted to the fact that his life would be ending sooner than expected. He wondered why Miguel hadn’t just ended it all right there in that room. What kind of horrendous torture lay ahead? Was there a killing room? Were they going to a secluded location? Ollie didn’t want to think about it. He just gulped and surrendered his fate to the hands of the man who was leading him down the hall. He felt he had done right by Lydia, not disclosing any information. He thought maybe, just maybe her level headedness and refusal to believe the unbelievable would save her. He hoped the girl would be okay too. He kept his eyes open for possible escapes, but the firm grip on his elbow told him he wouldn’t find one. Guilt washed over him in torrents as he wished he could do more to help both Lydia and the girl.

After maneuvering a maze of halls and tunnels and elevators, Miguel led Ollie into an observation room. The room itself was dark. There was a table set in front of a thick-paned window that took up most of one wall. Ollie guessed it was a one-way mirror. Through the glass, he possessed an elevated view a white room so brightly lit it almost hurt his eyes to look at. He estimated it was the size of a gymnasium. As his eyes adjusted, he was able to look down and see that inside this huge room were several stations. One was a table with a partition, another resembled a high tech treadmill, and yet another was a tank of water. There were other stations as well, but Ollie was too confused to take it all in. On the walls surrounding Ollie were television screens which he realized were close ups of each station. He saw an additional area set up for scaling a wall, one with a flame shooting out of an opening in the table, and one with a dog sleeping comfortably in a crate before his attention was turned elsewhere.

Through a door in the gymnasium, a young man of roughly eighteen years entered with a much older man in a lab coat. The young man who didn’t seem to object to being there also wore white—something reminiscent of a karategi, Ollie thought.

The black-haired boy approached the first of the stations. It was a table with miscellaneous items scattered upon it: a key, a pen, a tennis ball, a book, and several others. Miguel punched a button on the wall which switched on the intercom and sat down next to Ollie. Ollie didn’t speak; he only watched.

In the room, the doctor, who Ollie now saw was carrying a clipboard, told the boy to sit. The doctor sat opposite him. Through the speaker, Ollie heard what was taking place below.

“Arrange these items according to size,” the doctor instructed.

The boy did.

“Now by weight.”

Again, the black-haired boy did what was asked, lining each item up according to its weight.

“Shape.”
The boy organized the items, grouping them by size.

“Use.”

Again, the boy did as instructed.

“Not very impressive, is it,” Miguel chuckled.

Ollie said nothing. He figured it was a test of mental agility and problem solving skills. The boy was quick, Ollie would give him that, but Miguel was right, it wasn’t very impressive.

It gets better, he heard. The voice seemed louder now. Had it come from the intercom? No, it was the same voice as before. It was definitely in his head.

Look, Mom, no hands, he heard the voice laugh.

Ollie ignored the voice and continued to observe. What happened next shocked and awed its observer. Ollie couldn’t believe his eyes. The doctor clicked his pen and said, “By size again,” he looked over the top of his black-framed spectacles, “without contact.”

The boy nodded. To Ollie’s surprise and sheer disbelief, the boy manipulated each object, one by one, lining them up by size. This time, he did so with no hands. He smiled and when he did, the objects lifted from the table. First the smallest—a red marble—hovered, then the key, a wooden block with the letter A, a tennis ball, and so on until they were all suspended in a vertical line. It was as if they were a strand of pearls he was picking up and holding in front of himself and the doctor…except there was no strand, and he was not picking them up. Not with his hands anyway.

Ollie’s heart raced. The thought of imminent death faded and was semi-blocked by the wild new theories that were forming in Ollie’s racing mind. He knew he wouldn’t have time to explore them—he’d be long dead, but the prospect was exciting none the less.

“Good. Put them back on the table.” The doctor said as he wrote on his clipboard. Ollie sat forward. Instead of lowering the items, Ollie laughed aloud as he watched the table rise to meet the objects. When all the objects had returned to the table, he lowered them all together until the table was once again resting on the floor.

“Show off,” the doctor accused in a jovial tone. The boy seemed to enjoy what he was doing. “Next,” he said and pointed to station two, where another table sat. It was the table with the partition. The boy sat on one side and the doctor on the other. On the doctor’s side lay a stack of oversized white cards. The doctor held the first card up. On a screen in the observation deck, Ollie was able to see that it was a plain white card with a sun pictured on it. The doctor was holding the card up to a camera rigged into the partition.

“Sun.”

The next card revealed three horizontal curving lines.

“Waves.”

The boy was obviously bored. The doctor held up a third card.

“Triangle,” he paused, then continued in a monotone voice, “X, star, circle, cat, rectangle, moon, R, yellow, oval, three, red.”

The doctor held up the next eleven cards one by one to the camera. The boy had known them all.

“Next.”

They moved to station three. It was the treadmill contraption. The doctor strapped on a mask that would record his oxygenation levels. The mask attached a long vacuum cleaner-like hose to a computer in front of him. The doctor programed the treadmill. The boy ran, then ran faster, then faster still. Despite speeds so fast that his legs were almost a blur, he looked as if he was hardly working. He hadn’t broken a sweat, and didn’t seem to be out of breath. The screen Miguel tapped on confirmed this. He watched the treadmill screen go from 10 mph to 20 mph to a whopping 25 mph. This kid was breezing past Usain Bolt’s record with ease. 25 mph, 30 mph, 35 mph, 40 mph.

“Look at him go!” Miguel exclaimed. “You know, we had to have a treadmill specially made for these kids.”

These kids? Ollie thought.

We don’t know how fast he can really go. The treadmill’s limit is 40 mph. We know that’s no problem for him. And look at that VO2Max! The highest ever recorded was Oskar Svensen in 2012. He’s a Norwegian cyclist whose VO2Max was 97.5. Look at this kid. 100% on the dot. At 40 mph. I’d tell you it was impossible if I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes.

Another teen entered through the same door. This time it was a blonde girl, roughly the same age as the boy and in the same attire.

“Four,” called the doctor. She obeyed. Station four resembled an oversized fish tank. Next to it was a ladder. She climbed step by step and sat upon the platform at the top dangling her feet in the water. Momentarily, she slid with grace and delicacy into the tank. Her blonde hair floated about her pretty face and bubbles escaped her nose. To the right, a timer began with large, red numbers. The top was sealed and the numbers on the timer climbed. Thirty seconds, a minute, a minute and a half. No trace of panic ever crossed her face as she floated dreamily encased in glass and water. Ollie watched in amazement as she arched backward into an artful flip at the three minute mark.

“You may want to watch the other kid. This will get old after ten or fifteen minutes.”

Ollie contained his intrigue as best he could and nodded once. He turned his attention back to the black haired boy who approached the tank. He stood before the girl making eye contact.

“Now,” the doctor ordered.

The boy smiled at the pretty blonde. She rolled her eyes back at him. The boy put his hands on the glass, but nothing happened. At first. The glass began to fog. Behind it, the girl began to pale. Eventually, Ollie could tell the water in the tank was freezing. By the time the timer showed five minutes, the girl was encapsulated in a solid block of ice. Until the doctor pointed to her.

Somehow, she was able to close her eyes. She concentrated hard and Ollie observed that the ice began to melt. Color came back into her face, and as impossible as it seemed, the girl stepped right through the glass and onto the towel the doctor had placed by the tank, which was still intact and still full of water.

“That one gets me every time! She just steps right out of the damn thing!” Miguel laughed and slapped Ollie on the back. Ollie flinched. “Oh, don’t worry, amigo, I think I roughed you up good enough yesterday, didn’t I?”

The doctor looked up at the mirror that Ollie and Miguel were hidden behind. Miguel pushed a button on the intercom and said, “One more. Show ‘em the dog.”

All three went directly to station nine where the dog lay, still sleeping, in the crate.

“Chuck, come.” The boy said.

“Chuck is such a stupid name for a dog. They should have let me name him, shouldn’t they have? Huh, boy?” the girl scratched Chuck’s ears and patted his head. “Sorry they let Owen put such a stupid name on you, boy.”

“Shut up, Diane. Chuck is an awesome name. Much better than Diane,” he snickered. She rolled her eyes at him for the second time.

Ollie thought the dog looked healthy and happy enough. He liked animals, so he was relieved to know Chuck wasn’t being mistreated. Chuck even seemed to be loving the attention he was getting.

“Begin.” The doctor said.

Owen retrieved the tennis ball—the one that was across the room—using nothing but his mind. He held up his hand, and the ball was almost instantly there. He tossed the ball and said, “Fetch!”

“Up, Chuck!”

Chuck jumped high enough to get a treat out of Owen’s raised hand.

“Now, UPCHUCK!” Owen said, laughing at some hilarious private joke.

The dog began wheezing and wretching. There was about to be dog vomit all over the floor at Diane’s feet.

Owen was still laughing. “That’s why I named him Chuck. It’s the little things in life! Chuck, stop!” The dog stopped heaving.

“Attack!” Diane instructed, pointing toward Owen.

Chuck lunged for Owen who blocked him with his arms. The dog had bitten off a meaty chunk of Owen’s tricep before Owen could yell, “Stop, Chuck. Down, boy!”

The dog obeyed again and Owen held his injured arm in the opposite hand. “Dammit, Diane, I wasn’t ready!”

“You always have to be ready, Owen. Haven’t you learned anything?”

Owen grimaced and pulled his hand away from the gaping wound which was already starting to close.

“Let me see it, you big baby.” Diane pulled the rest Owen’s ripped sleeve away to expose the entire arm to the shoulder. She wiped some blood away with the scraps of Owen’s shirt and watched the pit shrink into a slash, and then a gash, and then a scratch before completely disappearing. “There, good as new.”

“I’ll never get used to that. The healing thing. It still freaks me out every time.”

“You will. Maybe we should just let Chuck use you as a chew toy until you can handle it, you pansy!” She laughed and turned away from Owen.

“You see that, Oliver? Not only can they control that damn dog, but they can regenerate new tissue too. I coulda used that a time or two.” He rubbed a scar on his temple.

“I still want to see Jess,” Ollie demanded.

“You just did.” Miguel squinted.

“Their names were Owen and Diane. Where’s Jess?”

“They are GES. GES, G-E-S. Genetically Engineered Soldiers. That was only two of them. We’ve got a whole wing of them here at Breemont. But you already know that. You’re the one who asked for them by name. No one says GES unless they know what GES is.”

“Right.” Ollie said trying to sound sure of himself. He’d had no idea who, or what, rather, GES was until Miguel had shown him. He hoped he was doing a good job of hiding his surprise. Until an hour ago, Ollie knew soldiers were being trained to operate a new weapon. He’d had no idea the soldiers were the weapons.

Below, Owen, Diane, and the doctor left the room. Ollie tried to play it cool.

“How do you know about all this. And who else knows?”

Ollie held onto his silence. It was the only thing he had left.

“Listen, Oliver. The only reason you are still alive is because Kay wants to know if anyone else knows. If you hadn’t asked to see GES, you wouldn’t even be breathing right now. She thought if you saw GES, you might talk.”

Miguel sipped the coffee he had brought in with him. He grimaced when he swallowed the cold, stale liquid and then crumpled the empty cup. He leaned closer to Ollie who was still holding his tongue.

“Who else knows?” he boomed directly in Ollie’s face.

Ollie heard the voice again. Say no one.

After an inner struggle, Ollie finally answered, “No one. Not even Lydia. I’m the only one who knows about this. If Lydia knew, wouldn’t she have done something about it by now? Think about it.”

Good.

Ollie didn’t think it was “good” at all. In fact, he thought it was bad. Very bad. If Ollie was the only one who knew anything about this, there’d be no reason to keep him around. He was a goner, that he knew. Why did he listen to that voice? Was there really even a voice at all?

“Let’s go.”

Miguel stood and took Ollie by the arm. Ollie wasn’t surprised. He was pretty sure he was being led to his death, wherever that might be. Ollie stood up and allowed Miguel to lead him out of the observation room and back into the winding halls of what he now knew was Breemont.

“Right under my nose,” he thought. “How did I not find it right under my very own nose.”

After several doors and a few elevators, to Ollie’s surprise, he was led through the main floor of the building in plain view. Miguel let go of Ollie’s arm.

Play it cool, he heard. Just wait.

Just wait, Ollie thought. Just wait for what? A bullet?

When you pass by the nurses’ station, ask the first person you see to show you to the bathroom. Be cool.

“Be cool?” Ollie thought. He was certain it wasn’t his own subconscious speaking to him. He’d never say “Be cool”. Ollie figured it couldn’t hurt. He was pretty sure Miguel wouldn’t off him right there in front of the staff of Breemont. Or would he? Was everyone in on this?

They approached the nurses’ station. Ollie surveyed the area. No one was there! Maybe he was crazy after all! Any chance for escape—though he wasn’t sure how asking to use the restroom was an acceptable escape plan—dwindled from Ollie’s hopeful heart. Just as they passed the countertop in front of the desks, an orderly rounded the corner. He passed by in a hurry to get to somewhere—must have been a call light blinking somewhere down the hall. Ollie watched him pass.

Ask him. Ask now!

“Excuse me,” Ollie yelled in the orderly’s direction.

Miguel gave Ollie a look that said, “Don’t try anything, or so help me…”

The orderly spun around and approached Miguel and Ollie. “Can I help you, sir?”

Miguel waited on the ready.

“Yes, yes you can, uh,” Ollie read the name tag, “Jamil. Would you please show me to the restroom?”

Miguel, who had tensed in preparation for whatever Ollie was trying to pull, relaxed. The old man just needs to take a leak. Better than letting him piss himself in my car, he chuckled to himself.

Jamil answered with a huge smile, “Of course, sir. Follow me.” Jamil ushered them down the hall in the direction he’d been traveling before Ollie had interrupted him. Ollie hoped wherever Jamil had been headed to do could wait just a moment. Jamil turned right down a short hall and pointed to the men’s room. “There, sir.”

“Thank you, dear boy,” Ollie said reveling in what would probably be his last human interaction with someone other than his murderer. Ollie smiled and nodded before pushing open the hinged door. Jamil did the same and turned to leave.

Inside were two stalls and a countertop with an automatic sink and a mirror above it. First Ollie entered, and Miguel followed behind him. Ollie was relieved to see there were no urinals, only stalls, since he didn’t really have to use the facilities.

Now what? Ollie thought as he entered a stall and slid the lock into place. He turned to face the commode, since he was quite certain he was being watched. He shook his head and wondered what Lydia would think of the predicament he’d found himself in. I shouldn’t have listened, he thought. There is no voice.

As if to answer, he heard it again: Stay there until I tell you to come out. No matter what you hear.

It definitely wasn’t Miguel’s voice. Ollie shook his head again and decided he’d stay in there until someone told him to come out, thought he assumed that it would be Miguel.

Just then, he heard the hinged door creak open. Ollie perked up and listened intently.

“Wait, what?” a confused Miguel asked.

There was a quiet scuffle. Ollie bent to look under the stall door. He saw to sets of legs. Ollie thought it looked as if they were dancing—it was almost comical, except for the fact that Miguel was a cold blooded killer. After a few seconds of waltzing, one set of legs slumped and a body soon followed. Lying on his side, with his eyes wide open in a dead stare was Miguel. Ollie bolted straight up and held his breath, unsure if this was good news or bad.

“Come out,” he heard from a no longer disembodied voice.

Ollie, realizing there were no other options, obliged. The metallic slide and clank of the lock opening echoed in the small room. He pulled back the stall door with caution. When he did, he was face to face with…

“Jamil?” Ollie stammered.

Jamil ignored Ollie’s disbelief. “Move.”

Ollie did. Jamil pulled Miguel’s large frame into the stall and propped his lifeless body on the seat so that if anyone came in, they’d see an occupied stall instead of a dead body on the floor. Jamil estimated this would buy them several hours before anyone at Breemont—more specifically, anyone affiliated with GES—would notice anything had gone awry. Jamil pulled the stall door closed and placed his hand on the front of the cold metal. Ollie heard the metallic slide again. Had he really just locked the stall door from the outside?

“Did you…” Ollie began, but stopped short when he saw what happened next. Jamil winked at Ollie, squinted his eyes closed as tightly as he could and opened them again blinking blurrily into his new body. Jamil looked at himself in the mirror, brushed a few stray hairs back into place, and straightened his suit.

“You…but how did you?…you look like Miguel!” Ollie was astonished. Could this really be happening?

“Be cool,” Jamil-now-Miguel grinned as he pulled the hinged door open and led Ollie out of the side hall, turning left into the main hall. They passed by the nurses’ station again. Luckily, there was still no one there. Jamil led Ollie right out of the main doors and into the parking garage. No one even tried to stop them! Ollie couldn’t believe it.

“Believe it,” Jamil half smiled.

They approached a black four door Sonata. Ollie questioned Jamil with a look. “Not mine.” He half-smiled again and held up keys which he jingled playfully in his hand. “Mine.” Jamil pointed to his “new” face.

The doors unlocked with the click of a button. Jamil opened the door for Ollie, who for anyone who may have been watching, was “Miguel’s” captive. Jamil closed the door and got in the other side. They pulled out of the lot unceremoniously.

When they were far enough from the garage that Jamil felt safe, he returned to his true appearance.

“What is going on? Are you one of them? Are you GES?” Ollie inquired. His head was spinning. He had so many questions.

“I’m under their radar. They don’t know who I am.”
“But how?”

“When I was eight years old, my parents and I went on vacation. We were sailing off the coast of Jupier, Florida. I was angry because my dad wouldn’t let me help hoist the sail. I was pouting when an unexpected storm blew up. Our sailboat went down, and so did my parents. My life jacket kept me afloat for days. I wound up in the Bahamas. A nice woman found me and raised me, and here I am.”

“But….” Ollie couldn’t collect his thoughts enough to respond.

“Just kidding. I was born this way. My parents are alive and well somewhere in Montana. I’m a part of a minute population of the world who can tap into more than the average 10% of our brains that most humans use. I’ve been searching for others like me, but have yet to find them. You’d think it’d be easier since we’re so super smart and all.”

“Why aren’t you with your parents?”

“Touchy subject. They couldn’t handle my, uh, eccentricities. Emancipated myself the day I turned sixteen. Didn’t bother them much. It’s okay, though I get it.”

“How did you end up here, so close to Breemont…inside Breemont.”

“I suspected something was up. I noticed teenagers were coming up missing all over the world. I started to follow some leads and ended up here. I was able to manipulate a situation that required my parents to move here—see, the super-smarts do help sometimes,” he said, tapping his head. “—and then I found Breemont. I’ve been collecting information for months. If I could just get a list of names or locations, or better yet, both, I’d be able to help these people. As far as I can tell, they’ve been unwillingly subjected to human trials to genetically alter their DNA and then being brainwashed to accept their new “roles” as soldiers.”

Ollie was floored. It was everything he’d been tracking for the last few years. Except this kid was so much closer to the truth than Ollie had been. If they could team up, they’d be able to start rescuing these kids…telling them who they really are and what they’re really capable of.

“That’s the plan, Ollie,” Jamil said.

Ollie’s mouth dropped open, but no words fell out.

“Oh, sorry. I was listening in. It’s hard to turn off sometimes.” He shook his head a few times. “There, that’s better. Sorry to intrude.”

“No. No. It’s alright. It’s quite alright. It’s amazing, actually. What else can you do? Can you do what Owen and Diane can do?”

Jamil’s lighthearted expression darkened into a scowl. “No. Well, yes, but never the way they do it. I’m not a GES like them. I’d like to think of myself as a rogue agent. Got a nice ring to it. Anyway, they’re not good people. They’ve swallowed this whole GES thing hook, line, and sinker.” Jamil merged onto the highway. “I only do bad things to bad people, and only when they deserve it.”

“I understand.” Ollie answered. He was pretty sure he knew what kind of people they were dealing with.

“If there’s ever a way to save them, I will, but I think it’s too late. They’re far too integrated into the system.”

“Have you uncovered any information detailing how these soldiers will be used?” Ollie asked.

“Yes. It’s not good. Spies, espionage, and full on war.”

“War?”

“Yes. When World War III breaks out, it will be the United States who strikes first. I’m not even sure if the government itself is fully aware of what GES agents are doing with these experiments. Too bad I can’t just walk into the president’s office and ask. Either A) He’s in on it, or B) He’s not and I’ll look crazy as a loon. Not to mention GES agents will be there to take me down instantaneously.”

Ollie digested this information. It was bigger than he’d thought, and now look at the mess he was in.

“I have a friend…”

“Lydia, I know.” Jamil broke in. “I’ve met her at Breemont on occasion.”

“She has a patient. I think her patient may be a part of Project GES.”

“I know that patient. A girl, Clara. Is that the one?”

“I never knew her name.”

“It is. It’s Clara. I’ve seen her too. Spoken with her several times. She’s definitely a part of the project, but I hate the idea of labeling her a GES. I’m hoping she’ll end up as more of a rogue like me.” He explained. “But first, we’ll need to rescue her.”

“They’ll be watching. They’ll figure out I’ve escaped and they’ll be watching her.”

“Where there’s a will, there’s a way, Ollie. We’ll come up with something. We can facilitate an escape. I mean, you’re here, aren’t you?”

Ollie, unable to argue with that, shrugged his sore shoulders and winced. Adrenaline had worn off and he was feeling the full effects of the ample beating he’d received yesterday. Jamil noticed.

“Here, let me.” He placed his right hand on Ollie’s shoulder, keeping his left hand on the steering wheel. At first, Ollie didn’t know what Jamil was doing, but suddenly, the tightness in his shoulders released. The throbbing in his swollen eyes ceased. He pulled down the visor and watched the impossible. With just the touch of Jamil’s hand, Ollie’s injuries were healing. He watched the split across his bushy brow close and the bruises fade away. He touched his face in sheer disbelief.

Ollie didn’t know what to say.

“Thank you would be appropriate,” Jamil grinned. “I’m not eavesdropping. You just look at a loss for words is all.” He chuckled.

Ollie was, but he managed a thank you anyway.

“So it was you who wrote those messages on my wall? They were real?”

“Real to you.”

“And it was your voice I heard?”

“The one and only.”

Ollie smiled. “Wait til I tell Lydia,” he thought. He turned to Jamil. “We have to devise a plan, and we have to do it now.”

Jamil agreed. “Let me think.” Jamil sketched out a plan in his mind. “I’ll have to do it alone,” Jamil explained. “They’ll be looking for you.”
“Won’t they be looking for you too? I mean, they’ll notice when you don’t show up for work.”

“Super-smarts, remember?” Jamil said tapping his forehead. “Today was my last day. They’ll never know I’m “missing”.”

“Won’t they catch on? You quit your job at Breemont. Won’t they put two and two together?”

Jamil tapped his forehead again. “Nope,” he said and smiled his half smile.

Ollie accepted that Jamil knew what he was talking about. Jamil continued to hash out a plan as he drove. Finally he slapped Ollie on the knee.

“I’ve got it!”

Ollie raised his eyebrows in expectation.

“It’s perfect. Neither of us has to go back to Breemont. You can’t go, obviously. I can’t show my face around there either. If an ex-employee shows up unannounced and starts sniffing around one of their project patients, they’ll know something’s up for sure. This way, we have to wait, but we’re playing it safe for everyone involved.”

Ollie liked the sound of this plan already.

“The girl, Clara. She told me about a cabin once. It’s near here, actually. We’ll go there and wait.”

“But how does that help them?”

“We’ll draw her to the cabin. I can make it happen.”

“Are you going to “talk” to her like you did me?” Ollie asked.

“No. I wish I could. First of all, she’s medicated. It dampens her awareness. Also, I’m not close enough. I’d have to be within feet of her. I was hoping to have more time, but when Miguel brought you through, I knew I was out of time. I had to act then and there.”

“So how will you do it?”

“The locket. Clara wears a locket that has never opened around her neck. We’ll send your friend Lydia a key for the locket as a gift. A key and the quote Clara’s mother always said. She told me. Knowledge is the key to unlocking the past. When Clara reads it, it should be enough to draw them out.”

“But won’t they just use the key and realize it doesn’t open the locket? It will all be for nothing.”

“We’ll make it more difficult than that. We’ll put it in a paperweight. You’ll send the gift. I can change the postmark to the day before you disappeared. I know them. They’ll go ahead and pass it along, so that Lydia will think you are safe and sound somewhere chasing a crazy idea. It’ll work, I know it.” He tapped his forehead a third time. “When they realize the key doesn’t fit the locket, and there’s nowhere else to turn, she’ll go to the cabin. It’s the only safe place she knows.”

Ollie didn’t believe it would work, then instantly felt guilty. How many times was he sure of something only to be shot down by a doubting Thomas? This kid was going with his gut, and Ollie would go along for the ride.

In a small town along the way, they stopped and had a key made. Only Jamil entered the shop—disguised as someone else, of course. They then had that key encased in glass. Their next stop was the post office where Jamil shipped off the packaged with the fudged date to Lydia Lindenhurtz at 417 Canal Street before stocking up on as many supplies as the Sonata would carry and drove to the cabin in the woods. They hid the car and stayed out of sight, waiting.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Twenty—BACK AT THE CABIN PRESENT DAY

There was a jingling of the door knob.

“That will be him.” Ollie smiled.

A young man with a slender build carrying a bag of groceries forced the door open. Lydia gasped while Clara dropped her fork.

“Jamil!” Clara cried. She ran to embrace him and then was immediately embarrassed. She wasn’t sure what had come over her. “I’m sorry. I’m just, I guess I’m excited to see a face that actually looks familiar.”

He dropped the bag of produce and hugged her back. “It’s alright. I’m happy to see you too.”

Clara let go and tiptoed back to the table with a bright, burning face. She hoped no one noticed.

“Jamil, please sit. Have some dinner.” Ollie offered.

Jamil took the empty spot at the table and heaped a healthy helping of fish and veggies onto his plate before digging in. “Thanks, Ollie, I was starving!”

“So, you knew the whole time? That’s why you talked to me? That’s why you wanted me to look at the book? You wanted me to know those weren’t my real parents, didn’t you?”

“Yes. I did.”

Jamil spent the rest of the evening filling Lydia and Clara in on the plan they formulated to get them to safety together in the cabin. After dinner, Clara and Lydia cleaned themselves up. It was long overdue after a car chase, a car accident, and two days stumbling through the woods. Clara seemed to fall asleep as soon as her head hit the pillow and Jamil was out a few minutes later, but Ollie and Lydia stayed up to speak privately.

“Don’t you see?” he whispered. “All along, she’s been manifesting. With these children, they begin showing signs during puberty. Some are duds, but some…some are Clara.” Ollie smiled in amazement as he turned and gazed at Clara who was sleeping on the ratty bunk behind him. “She’s an Elite.” Ollie was relying not only on his own research, but on Jamil’s as well.

Lydia sat forward in her chair and summarized, “So, what you’re telling me is…Clara has powers? As in super-human powers?”

“Yes! That’s what I’ve been trying to say! Haven’t you noticed any strange occurrences? Coincidences? Abilities? Has anything out of the ordinary taken place since you began working with her? Think, Lyd, think!” Ollie’s bushy brows bounced above his clear blue eyes as he spoke, animating his face and illustrating both excitement and deep hope.

Lydia sank back into the sagging cushions of the shabby cabin couch. She closed her eyes and wove her fingers together, resting them heavily on the crown of her head. She forced out an audible sigh while Ollie, still grinning in expectation watched her every move, which was now just mostly rhythmic breathing. “So. Strange occurrences, huh? Coincidences?”

“Yes, Lyd. Have you noticed anything? Anything at all? You have to have noticed something.” Ollie was almost begging.

“Oh, God, Ollie…” Lydia groaned. “Just…”

Ollie’s bright eyes darkened slightly. After all Lydia and Clara had been though, after all they had all been through, he was certain she’d believe him this time. Believe this one. How could she not? People were lying to them. People were chasing them. People were shooting at them with guns. Instead of anger, Ollie felt heartache. It was not in him to be resentful, but he was hurt. Had he not proved himself? “Lydia, can’t you see—”

“Ollie, just give me a minute! I’m trying to think!” Lydia sank deeper into the musty couch. Her mind was racing, but there was no sign of this activity on the exterior. Her head was tilted back and her hands were still resting on top of her brown hair as she continued to breathe methodically. Ollie maintained his stare, studying his friend, still upset that once again, no one believed him.

Finally, moving nothing but her mouth, Lydia began to speak: “So, you’re telling me that any coincidences we may have experienced are in fact not coincidences? They were purposely done? Clara made them happen?”

“Yes.” Ollie answered, hiding the dejection he felt.

Lydia began to laugh.

Embarrassed, Ollie tried again, “Lyd, you have to believe me. This isn’t some hare-brained, half-witted conspiracy theory. I admit, I’ve had my share of those too, but this one…this is the real deal, Lydia!”

Lydia’s laughing subsided and she raised her head as she opened her eyes, “Ollie, oh my God, Ollie! I’m not laughing at you. I believe you! It all makes sense now! All of it! Knowing to head west, finding my spare key, and even the gun going off when we first escaped my office building. It was all her! It was all her, right Ollie? I mean that’s the only way to explain it all. She even knew the garage attendant was one of them!”

“Yes, Lydia! Yes! She’s special. Not just special, an Elite.”

“I know…you keep saying that, but what does it mean?”

“Same as the definition of the word, she’s a select part of a group who is superior to the rest in terms of ability.” Ollie explained.

“Yeah, I get that. These abilities do make her superior. I can’t do any of those things. You can’t do any of those things.”

“No, Lydia, you don’t understand. You’re not hearing me. Clara is not just superior to you and me. She’s superior to others like her. She manifested earlier. She manifested more. She’s manifesting faster.”

“Ollie, how do you know all of this? You’ve only just met her.”

“First, I need you to tell me all about when you first met her. Start at the beginning. What have you noticed that’s different about Clara.”

“Well, for one, she just knows things. When we were running from my office, she knew the garage attendant was one of them. When we arrived at my car, she knew I had a spare key under my rear wheel well—I didn’t even know that was there, and when we were on the road, she instinctively knew to drive west. She even answered which direction to go as if I had asked out loud.”

“Okay, what else?” Ollie insisted.

“She was able to convince me to pull over on the side of the interstate not long after we escaped. She was also able to persuade an employee at a gas station in Iowa to not turn us in. He had seen us on the news, but she convinced assured him that we were not who they were looking for. It was beyond belief.”

“Oh my God, and the gun. When we were leaving the office, we had both been apprehended in the lobby. We were defenseless; there was no way out. She was trying to let me know that her captor had a gun. She mimicked pulling a trigger to alert me and when she did, the gun belonging to the man holding Clara shot straight through his leg. That’s how we were able to get away.” Lydia was breathless, astonished by what she was—with the help of Ollie—finally realizing about Clara.

“Alright, Lydia. So, that means that so far, we know that Clara has manifested at least three abilities in addition to her super-immunity. She has the capability of mind control, she’s seemingly clairvoyant according to your observations, and she exhibits clear telekinetic potential.” Ollie frantically scratched notes into a tiny notebook with an overly-chewed pencil. Lydia wondered how many of Ollie’s other hare-brained ideas that she had dismissed over the years actually had some credibility. How many times had she shut down her friend who may have been onto something big, something like this? All those years. All those theories.

“Can you think of anything else, Lydia?” Ollie inquired as he looked up from his notes.

“Not right now. Nothing springs to mind. Right now I’m all questions and no answers.” She thought for a moment. “Wait! When we crashed. She was thrown from the car—unhurt. Then, I’m sure I had a broken ankle. Almost sure. But when Clara helped me out of the car, it started to feel better. And later, when she touched me again, the pain disappeared. Could that be something?” She asked.

“Yes!” Ollie exclaimed.

“And she knew how to get us here.”

“Good girl. Good, good girl.”

“What does Jamil have to do with all of this? How did he know about Clara? Why did he rescue her?”

“He’s like her. Well, not exactly. He was born this way. She was genetically engineered by BioTech. And there are others, Lyd. A lot of them. And they’re not good kids like Jamil and Clara. They’re genetically altered killing machines.”
When Ollie had explained everything he knew, Lydia sat forward and rested her forehead in her hands.
“I know it’s a lot to take in, Lyd. That’s why we want to ease Clara into it.”

“Not to mention, the first thing she’s going to want to do in the morning is search for her parents.”

“That’s not a good idea. If they’re even alive, they will be heavily surveilled. Jamil and I have been searching for weeks, but with no luck.”

“Does she know what she is?”

“Not entirely. We’ll need to sit her down for a chat in the morning. Tonight she needs to rest. We all do.”

“Then what’s the plan for tomorrow?”

“Jamil’s got that covered, Lydia, dear. He’s the expert when it comes to being super-human.” Ollie chuckled and suggested they get some shut eye too.

“Tomorrow’s a new day,” Ollie said.

“And it’s going to be a long one. Goodnight, Ollie. And thank you.” She kissed her sweet friend on his rosy cheek and joined Clara in the bedroom. Ollie lay down on the couch, pulled a blanket over himself, and was snoring momentarily.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Twenty-One—Back at Breemont

“You idiot!” Kay Crider boomed over the phone as she slammed her free fist on her steering wheel. “How could you have let this happen?”

Rob Schneideker attempted to do damage control on the other end of the line. “Listen, Kay, it happened. It’s done. We need to find them.”

“We shouldn’t have to find them, you incompetent asshole!” She screamed. “They should be in Lindenhurtz’s office right now talking about “feelings” and “life goals”. What the hell were you doing when they were running out of there?”

“I was in a meeting. We had plenty of people watching them. They maneuvered past them all. I’m putting together a team to track them.”

“Nope. Already on it,” Kay responded. “Your guys have their heads in their asses.”

“I’m sending my guys too.”

“Fine, just don’t screw it up.”

“What the hell is the purpose of all of this anyway? Why even put the girl in therapy? Why not just grab her, lock her up, and make her do tricks?”

Kay was furious. “Don’t you think we’ve tried that? Obviously, it didn’t work. Trained monkeys don’t always perform. It’s best to see them in their natural habitats, or at least as close to a natural habitat as you can get. That’s what we tried to create with the psychotic break scenario. We’ve been cultivating this one for years. She’s the best prospect we have so far, and BioTech didn’t want to screw this one up. Looks like we didn’t have to. You’ve managed to do it for us with that little twit you hired.”

“She wasn’t a twit, she was the best candidate. You agreed, or have you forgotten that, Kay?”

“I haven’t forgotten,” she replied, still angry. “The point of staging a break from reality and a psychiatrist was threefold. First, we needed to provide adequate love and support. Some of our first…experiments…that were raised in the lab or with surrogates, did not get the security of a safe and loving environment. Some self-destructed. Others became outwardly destructive and insubordinate. Most were terminated when they began to exhibit signs of this. By providing a loving environment this time, we were able to cultivate affection, empathy, love, and other attributes that the previous subjects were void of.”

“Secondly, we were able to monitor progress and get answers to questions that we wouldn’t normally have gotten the answers to. Questions that would seem out of place if a parent or a regular physician asked. Questions that would make the subject wary. By staging a psychotic break, which conveniently has many of the same qualities as the trial we are conducting, we were able to monitor her progress and make her look like an average member of society all the while., qualities that would be called exceptional abilities in our subject, but would be called symptoms when referring to a true psychotic break. Everything was going perfectly until your incapable employee went and lost her.”

“Technically, she didn’t lose her if she is with her.” Schneideker interjected.

“Don’t be a smartass, Rob, it’s not becoming.” Kay scolded.

“Lindenhurtz was able to track these abilities, thoughts, and actions while we sat back and enjoyed the ride.”

“And the third?” Rob questioned.

“We didn’t have to pay a dime in their upbringing! It’s perfect. We watch from afar. We let someone else feed them and clothe them. We’re literally saving millions!”

“Genius!” Rob exclaimed. “So you let other “parents” rear them, pay for them, care for them, and then you harvest the goods?”

“That’s exactly what we do. Then we break their spirits and train them.”

“You’re a wicked, wicked woman, Kay Crider. The wickedest.” Rob said, meaning it as a compliment. It was taken as one.

“Damn straight, I am. And don’t you dare forget it! Now get your ass out there and find those two! It’d be in your best interest to find them before I do.”

“We’re reviewing all the footage taken at Breemont. If there’s a clue there, my guys will find it.” Rob offered. “And we’ve got the place locked down tight, now.”

“It’s a shame you couldn’t have done your job before this mess.”

Kay made an illegal U-Turn and raced back to her office at BioTech. If Rob was going to “handle” things at Breemont, she was sure as hell going to make sure all her bases were covered at BioTech.

Kay dialed the phone. “Get Clara Marcel’s “parents” in my office right now. They’d better be waiting for me when I get there.” She didn’t wait for a reply before she hung up and threw her cell in the seat next to her.

She sped into the parking garage and parked. She hurried into the building and directly into the elevator. As she stepped out and rounded the corner to her office, she nearly ran into the Mark and Melanie, or Collin and Darla to be exact.

“My office, now!” Kay ordered. “Sit!” Collin and Darla did as their boss ordered.

“How did you let this happen?” Kay demanded. “How could you let this one slip away! We had her. We had her right here, and now she’s gone.”

“Ms. Crider, let us explain,” Collin began, but was cut short by Kay who had really been asking a rhetorical question.

“Were there any signs? Did you see anything?”

This time, Kay let him speak: “She was agitated the last few days. Lindenhurtz said she had regressed—that she no longer “remembered” us. But everything seemed fine this morning.”

“Where are they going?”

Collin and Darla exchanged nervous glances. “We don’t know Ms. Cri—”

What the hell do you mean, you don’t know. She’s supposed to be your “child”, and you don’t know where she is? That’s your only damn job: keep tabs on Clara.”

“We didn’t see this coming. She had progressed so far. We thought she was acclimating. We were going to suggest we turn her over to you soon.”

“Well, too bad you didn’t. If you had, maybe she’d still be in our possession. Think. Is there any place she may have mentioned? Any people? Anything at all.”

The pair looked at one another again. They shook their heads.

“Very well.”

Kay strode across the room and opened the door with a leisurely touch. She leaned out just far enough to whisper, “Get rid of them,” to the man standing sentry. She turned around, holding the door. “Seamus will show you out.” She smiled.

For the next three days, a team of Biotech’s best scanned, scoured, and searched. Kay had turned up nothing either, which only infuriated her more. On the third day, Kay had had enough. She entered the room in which the latest meeting of the minds was being held and slammed her hands down on the table. “Where. The hell. Is she?” Kay screamed in the face of the man sitting directly across the table from where she stood, hunched over and heaving angrily like a wild animal.

“We’re working on it.”

“Like hell you are.” Her voice was an angry howl.

“Ma’am we’re exhausting all options, covering every avenue—”

“Listen to me, and listen well, Mr., Mr….what the hell’s your name again?”

“Cromwell. Jake Cromwell.”

When he answered, Kay’s anger faded and was quickly replaced with triumph. She left the room as quickly as she had entered, leaving her colleagues dumbfounded.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Twenty-Two

 

After breakfast the following morning, Jamil invited Clara outside.

The leaves crunched under their feet as they walked and talked. “Clara, we need to talk about something, but I need you to not freak out. It’s huge.”

Clara stared at him. “Huge? Like, huger than I’m not really crazy and I’ve been kidnapped from my parents and institutionalized? Huger than that?”

Jamil was silent for a time. “Well…” He trailed off.

“What is it? It can’t be any stranger than what I’ve already been dealing with!”

Jamil half-smiled. He even looked down and chuckled to himself.

“What’s so funny?” She punched him playfully in the arm as they continued to walk along.

“Catch!” Jamil tossed an acorn he had been carrying in her direction. She reached out without hesitation and scooped it out of the air.

“See?”

“See what?”

“Nevermind. Hey. Wanna race to the lake?”
“Not really.” Of course I don’t want to get all sweaty and nasty in front of you. You’re adorable, she thought.

“Too bad. Catch me if you can!”

Jamil bolted away so quickly that a few leaves were still settling as he all but faded out of sight. Clara shrugged her shoulders and ran after him. He was still about to disappear through the trees, so she told her legs to kick it up a notch or two. Soon she was gaining on him. She leapt over downed logs and thorny bushes, and eventually was on his tail.

“You’ve almost got me!” He teased and sped up.

“Slow down, Jamil!”

“Aww you can do it, slow-poke!”

Just as quickly as Clara had begun to lose ground, she gained it, pulling ahead and to her surprise, she reached the lake first. The surprise wasn’t so much that she had actually won, but rather at the fact that they had made it there so quickly. Never in all her years at Lake Cromwell had she been able to make the trip from the cabin to the lake in so quickly. Mark, Melanie, and Clara would hike the 1.5 miles to the lakeshore almost daily, and it took them roughly thirty minutes, carrying towels and a small cooler full of sandwiches and water, of course waiting for little Clara’s legs to catch up. Today, with Jamil, it had to have taken less than five minutes.

Barely out of breath, she asked, “How did we do that? How did we get here so fast?”

“That’s what I’m trying to tell you. Have you noticed being able to do things you didn’t think possible? Jumping higher? Healing faster? Anything?”

“No. Well, the running thing I suppose. Let me guess. You’re going to tell me I’m some kind of super-human built in a lab like the six-million-dollar man or something.” She laughed at her joke. Jamil did not.

“Let me see your hand.”

She gave him a strange look but offered it to him anyway. When she held it out toward him, he pulled out a pocket knife and opened the blade.

“Ouch!” She cried—more at the sight of the blood—not the almost non-existent pain. She Snatched her hand away. “What do you think you’re do—”

“Clara. Look.” Jamil used his own hands to hold Clara’s injured hand up to her face. The wound was closing before her very eyes.

“But, what? How?” She trailed off.

“Clara, you are superhuman.”

Clara’s face remained the picture of astonishment throughout the next hour as Jamil explained everything. Almost everything. When he had answered all the questions she could think of (they were both sure there would be plenty more where those came from), he pulled his pocket knife back out.

“Don’t!” Clara cried. “I know it will heal, but I don’t want you to do it again!”

Jamil laughed and threw the blade at a tree about ten feet away from where he and Clara stood. It whipped through the air and embedded solidly into the tree. He retrieved it and repeated the action. After several throws, he winked at Clara.

“Your turn.”

After what seemed like a million poorly aimed throws, Clara grew discouraged.

“I can’t do this. It’s stupid. I quit!”

“Clara, just relax. Pretend you’ve been doing this your whole life. Focusing, targeting, being super-humanly awesome. You’ve got this.” He encouraged.

“That’s the problem, Jamil, I’m not like you. I haven’t been doing this my whole life. It doesn’t come naturally to me.”

“It will.” He smiled. There was something oddly familiar about him, but she couldn’t put her finger on it.

“Fine.” She blew her hair out of her eyes.

“Close your eyes. See with your mind.”

“Okay, Yoda.”

“I’m serious. Close them. Good. Now, picture the target in front of you. Do you see it?”

“Umm, yeah. Kinda.”

“Keep looking. Keep focusing.”

“Okay, I got it.”

“On the count of three, I want you to throw the knife.”

“Jamil, what if I miss?” She was as unsure of her abilities as she’d ever been. This day-one middle-of-the-woods training session didn’t seem to be helping much.

“You won’t. I promise.”

Clara wanted to trust him. There was just something inherently good about him. She’d been drawn to him even at Breemont. She wondered if Dr. L—it was still hard for her to call the woman with whom she’d been through so much by her first name—would have some psycho mumbo jumbo to say about the “crush” she’d developed. Maybe some kind of pseudo-Stockholm Syndrome-ish kind of thing.

She drew back her hand, closed her eyes, and threw as hard as she could.

“Bullseye!” Jamil shouted triumphantly.

 

 

 

Chapter Twenty-Three

Karen at the Cabin

 

That afternoon, Ollie, Lydia, and Jamil set out to search for any supplies or food with which they could easily travel. They’d need to be moving on soon. It wouldn’t be long before Owen and Diana caught up to them.

Clara had been instructed to stay inside and stay alert. Everyone was in agreement that Clara was safer in the cabin than out in the open. Clara was fine with that. She didn’t feel the need to go trudging around in the woods anyway. Clara spent most of her free time reading an old Cosmo from a billion years ago. By the third time through, she could recite it by heart, but it was the only thing she had. She fixed herself a snack—Spaghetti-O’s, of course, because Ollie wasn’t around to lecture her.

She rinsed her dish and lay down on the couch. She couldn’t have been asleep for more than twenty minutes when she was roused by a loud noise.

Clara wasn’t expecting Ollie, Lydia, and Jamil to be back so soon. She stretched awake and was slightly annoyed by the disruption. She hadn’t had much time to herself to process all of the proceedings of the last few weeks—the last year, really, so she enjoyed every moment she could manage, especially the moments when she could enjoy a normal teenager nap.

At first, she thought the door was sticking worse than usual, but then she realized whoever was on the other side of it didn’t realize they had to heave it open. Whoever it was had never been inside the cabin before. Alarmed, she wondered who on earth would be out here in the middle of nowhere trying feebly to open a dilapidated cabin door. She was pretty sure it wasn’t a fox this time like when she and Lydia were hiding in the woods. This wasn’t good. And to make matters worse, the door wasn’t locked, so if whoever it was wanted in, they were eventually going to get in. It was just a matter of time.

The unwelcome guest tried the door again. Clara attempted to summon some kind of see-through-the-cabin-door power, but apparently she didn’t have one in her arsenal. Next, she tried to listen. Nothing. Nada. But she did have an eerie feeling. She crossed to the far window, crouching as she crept into the living area. She’d have the best vantage point here. She climbed onto the couch and carefully pulled back the tattered fabric just enough to peek through. She only saw a long jacket and heels. Okay, so it was a woman. She pulled the makeshift curtain back just a bit farther and terror filled every fiber of her being.

What do I do, what do I do, what do I do, she thought to herself. She looked at the analogue clock on the outdated oven. It would be three more hours until anyone would be back to help. She debated on hiding or escaping through a window. She decided on the latter.

She ran to the bedroom—the farthest and most secluded location from the front door. She pulled back the curtain in that room to see if Karen had company. As far as she could tell, Karen was alone. How did she find me? Clara wondered as she attempted to pry open the bedroom window. It hadn’t been open in years and the last paint job had sealed it shut. She yanked with all her might, but it wouldn’t budge. Why couldn’t she just use her powers when she needed to instead of accidentally and at inappropriate times? She yanked one last time, but it still didn’t give. She wondered if she could break the glass quietly enough and run fast enough to escape. She thought she could, but as she raised her elbow to the glass, she heard the front door burst open.

“Clara? Bug-a-boo, where are you?” Karen called.

Clara scrambled from the window and slid under the bed she’d been sleeping on for the last several weeks. She held her breath as she listened to Karen click around the cabin in heels.

“Clara, I know you’re here. I watched your friends leave without you earlier. Let’s talk, Bug.”

Clara cringed at the once treasured nickname. Shivers climbed her spine in sections.

“Come out, come out, wherever you are!” Her sickeningly cheery voice sang.

If they had been playing the game they played when Clara was little, she would have answered with the same sing-song voice: “You’re getting warm-er!” But Clara was no longer a child, and this wasn’t a game. This was a woman who lied to Clara about who her parents were. This woman was in on all of this.

Karen’s heels clicked closer still. She opened the closet door and paused before pulling the moth eaten clothing aside with gusto. No luck. She spun around and smiled when her eyes fell upon the bed. Click, clack. Click, clack.

Clara stared directly at the toes of Karen’s leather pumps. She heard the bed creak and felt it sag when Karen sat down on it.

“You, know, Bug, I did what I had to do. It was the right thing.” Karen explained. “I mean, you’re the property of BioTech, not your parents. I was just trying to get you back to your rightful owner. Come out and let’s talk.”

She sounded syrupy sweet, and it turned Clara’s stomach to hear Karen, who was supposed to me her mother’s best friend, talk about her parents that way. Clara’s whole life had been a lie. Aunt Karen had been a lie. The fertility trial was a lie. Clara choked back a quiet sob.

“Mmhhmm. So you are under there. I thought so.”

Karen stood. Clara watched the heels turn to face her again.

“I suppose if you’re too stubborn to come out, I’ll have to drag you out by your pretty brown hair.” Karen’s voice sank into a sinister tone.

Clara watched in horror as Karen bent down and grasped the quilt in her hand. As Karen yanked it up, she yelled, “Got ya!”

Clara squeezed her eyes shut. She didn’t want to see the face of betrayal before it attacked. She tensed her body and readied for the coming confrontation.

Nothing happened. She kept her eye closed in anticipation, but instead she heard a “hmph” and a slow click-clack trailing away. When she summoned the nerve to open her eyes again, she could see that she was alone in the bedroom and safe for the moment. Why hadn’t anything happened? Why hadn’t Karen pulled her out kicking and screaming from underneath the bed?

Confused, Clara glanced around the room for clues. She’d made one pass and seen nothing. Wait. She’d seen nothing. She scanned back to the mirror in the corner. The reflection showed most of the room. She studied it. She waved her hand. She crawled forward and waved again. She slid out from under the bed and stood before the mirror. In the glass, the reflection showed an empty room.

“I’m invisible!” She thought. She peeked out into the cabin. Karen had made herself at home at the kitchen table facing the front door. On the dining table before her lay a gun. Clara couldn’t believe her eyes. Aunt Karen…here…with a gun…to kill her. How do ya like that, she thought. Clara tiptoed back to the mirror to check her reflection again. Still invisible. Good.

Clara thought of ways to incapacitate Karen. She spied a rolling pin in the dish strainer behind Karen. If she could just get to it, she could clobber her in the back of the head with it. That worked in movies; she hoped it would work here too. Clara checked her reflection once more and then crept toward the kitchen.

She was halfway there when she and Karen both heard a creak. Clara froze. Karen in an instant was pointing the gun directly at Clara.

“Oh, God, this is it.” Clara thought to herself.

“Ugh. I guess it was just the cabin settling. I hate old, creepy places like this,” Karen said as she replaced the gun on the table and turned her focus back toward the door. She wanted to be ready for Clara when she returned. Behind Karen, Clara breathed a silent sigh of relief. Carefully, she continued her seemingly endless trek toward the kitchen. Finally, she arrived. Clara took the rolling pin out of the strainer, gripped it with both hands, and swung it like a bat. The force knocked Karen forward into the table where she slumped, dazed but maintaining consciousness. Karen tried to sit up, unsure of what had just happened. When her head came up from the table, Clara swung again. This time, it did the trick. Clara rushed to the junk drawer where she knew duct tape could be found—her father had used it to fix just about everything. Score! She found a roll and set about her business.

First, she bound Karen’s wrists, and then her ankles, winding the tape several times. Next, she wound the roll multiple times around Karen’s shoulders, and chest, adhering her to the chair. She repeated this action for Karen’s thighs and calves. There was no way she’d get loose. Not on Clara’s watch.

When Clara was sure she was secure, she scraped the chair away from the table and turned it to face the couch. That’s where Clara planned to be when Karen awoke. Face to face with her new enemy.

When Karen came to, an hour had passed and the sun was setting. She rolled her head around in a circular motion to loosen her neck and shoulders. She tried to reach for her throbbing head, but couldn’t raise her hand. Grogginess turned to alarm as her eyes shot open.

“What the hell…what…”

“How does it feel?”

The intruder laid eyes on the now visible Clara and realized her predicament. She snapped her head to one side and cracked her neck.

“Bug.” She said, even and flat with eyebrows raised.

“Don’t you ever, ever call me that again!” Clara screamed.

“Oh, Clara, play nice. Didn’t your parents teach you manners? Didn’t they teach you to respect your elders?” She toyed with Clara.

“You don’t get to talk about my parents. Do you hear me? You don’t get to cheat, lie, and steal…you don’t get to treat them this way and then talk about them.”

“Let me out of this mess, and I’ll take you to them, Bug.” Karen lied.

“I told you not to call me Bug.” Clara reminded through gritted teeth.

“Well, hon, while we’re on the subject of monikers, my name’s not Karen. Never has been. Kay Crider, pleased to meet you. I’d offer you my hand, but well…” She nodded down toward her restrained arm.

Clara took two steps backward.

“Kay? Crider?”

“Oh, honey, you didn’t think I’d use my real name, did you? No, sweetie, that would have been silly.”

Clara stared at her as she felt the last bit of normalcy rip away from her being.

“You see, your parents raised you, but I watched over you. We made you, and I’m what you might call…quality control. If I’d have gone by my God-given name, they’d have been able to trace me to other families. Families that call me Aunt Brit, ReRe, or just plain Susan. I’ve been a part of so many families I’ve lost count.” A serpentine smile slithered across Kay’s face. “But my real name…when I’m not playing house…is Kay. Call me Kay, sweetness.”

Clara didn’t speak for many minutes. How many other kids had crawled in her lap and let her stroke their hair? How many other mothers listened to parenting advice from their best friend who, by the way, had no children of her own? How many other lives had she infiltrated, how many still trusted her? She had to be stopped, but first, Clara demanded to know the question she’d been longing to know the answer to since she left 417 Canal Street.

Clara screamed “Tell me where my parents are right now, or so help me…”

“What?” Kay cackled maniacally. “What will you do, Clara?”

“You know what I am, and you know what I’m capable of!”

“Ha, but you don’t know how to use it. You’re just a baby. Come with me, to the compound. We’ll teach you what you’re really made of.”

“The what?”

“The Compound. That’s where you were headed before that moron helped you run away. We train there.”

“We?” Clara’s chest was heaving. She didn’t know if it was because of her fury, or because of her curiosity.

“Clara, there are others. Others just like you. We’ve been harvesting for years. What?” she laughed hysterically, “You think you’re the first? Did you think you were special? That’s so cute.”

Clara’s world was spinning. Others? There are more? She was excited, but that excitement quickly turned to worry. Had they had the same experiences she’d had over the last several months?

“Where?” Clara demanded.

“Untie me, and I’ll take you there.”

“Fat chance, Kay.” Clara spat the name as if it were rancid meat. She now despised the woman who had seemingly helped raise her.

“Where…are my…parents?” She sneered through gritted teeth as she approached Kay with ominous intent.

“They obviously don’t care about you. If they did, they’d be here.”

“I said…where…are my…parents.” Now Clara was almost in Kay’s face. “I want to know what you’ve done with them!”

“You wanna know where your parents are, ‘hon’?” Clara winced at the word ‘hon’ just as her mother always had. “Dead. Long gone, sweetheart. The both of them are six feet under, decaying and full of worms. And they have been ever since the night of your “break”.”

Clara, in a state of shock and confusion, didn’t comprehend what had been said. The world was now turning in slow motion as she processed the information. She shook her head ‘no’ as if that would change the past, as if it would change the present. She mouthed the words, “No, no, no, no, no. No! This isn’t real. This isn’t happening,” while Kay cackled in the background.

When Clara’s eyes finally met Kay’s again, the look on her captor’s face stopped Kay dead in her tracks. Her cackling ceased, and for the first time in a long time, Kay Crider felt fear.

“You BITCH!” Clara howled as she delivered an utterly epic right hook. The blow was solid enough to cause the chair to which Kay was bound to nearly tip over, but surprisingly, it teetered back onto all fours instead.

Stunned by the force of the blow, Kay shook her head. Her ears were now ringing and the world was trying to go dark. She made eye contact with Clara and spit a mouthful of blood into the floor at her feet. She resumed her laughter.

It was a bad decision; Clara dealt another blow. With red-rimmed teeth, Kay began to speak. “The night you came home from babysitting, we were watching. We were always watching you, Clara.” Blood trickled from the corner of Kay’s mouth and she spit again. “When you came home, your powers were strong. You had a vision on the street. You knew what was coming in the very near future, you just didn’t know how.”

Clara listened intently. The full force of her parents’ deaths had not yet hit her, and amazingly, she was still able to function. She thought back to that night coming home from the Coolsons’. She thought hard. She tried to remember. The memory was almost there.

“Like I said, hon, you’re just a baby. We can fix that.”

“Tell me what happened.” Clara growled.

“We watched. We waited. We thought maybe it would pass, but it didn’t. We allowed your dad to bring you in and calm you down. Later, when you went to bed, we got down to business,” Kay snickered tossing a squinty glance to Clara. Her left eye had almost swollen shut at this point, so a squint was all she was capable of at this point, anyway.

Clara bent forward nose to nose with Kay. She looked her directly in the eye and clenching her teeth in rage, demanded, “What…did you do…to my parents?”

“After your mom and dad got you to sleep, there was a text waiting for sweet, innocent little Melanie. From guess who? Her best friend, Karen. It was all scripted of course. I told her that I was in town and wanted to see her right away. When she finally got the text, it was late. She told me you had had an episode and she and your dad were thinking about taking you to the hospital. I convinced them otherwise. I told her to leave the door open and I’d be there soon. I walked right in. I told them to come outside so we could talk without disturbing you. Melanie didn’t want to leave you, but best friends can be pretty persuasive. Once they were outside, they were gagged and thrown into the trunk of an associate’s car. It was late and it was dark. No one saw a thing. It was perfect!”

“She trusted you!” Clara was livid. “She trusted you, and this is how you repay her?”

Kay chuckled showing her red teeth again. “It was so sweet. My associates told me later that Melanie was trying to talk through her gag when they opened the trunk. She wasn’t screaming for her life—they think she was begging for yours. Through her choked, muffled ramblings, the only thing they could make out was your name. That is, until they knelt her and your dad in the shallow graves they’d dug and put bullets in the backs of their heads.”

She said this as plainly as if she were reading a newspaper. No feeling, no emotion, no sense of compassion. Clara realized now more than ever that this woman, the woman she had known as Aunt Karen her entire life, was a cold blooded killer, a monster with a black heart.

“We’re everywhere, Clara. You can’t escape us. You have no choice but to come with me.”

“I’m not going anywhere with you. You’re a vile pig of a woman and you disgust me. Besides, how in the world do you think you’re going to make me? You’re beaten and bloody and tied to a chair in my parents’ cabin.” Clara explained happy to have some form of control in this moment when the world around here was chaos and confusion.

“I’ve already told you, Clara. We are everywhere. Even if you kill me, someone else will find you. Take you. Keep you locked away. Force you to train. You’re a soldier, Clara, you just don’t know it yet. You were born and bred to fight.”

Clara shook her head in disgust. She agreed to fight, alright. “The only fight I’ll fight is the one against you and whoever you’re with. I’ll die fighting that fight.”

“Yes. You will.” Kay responded threateningly, setting an ominous tone. “That’s a promise.”

With that, the lights went out. For Kay, anyway. Without realizing what she was doing, Clara, who was still within inches of Kay, reeled back and then with full force head-butted her new enemy with a sickening thud. Kay slumped lifelessly in the chair, held up only by the ties that bound her there as a new knot formed on her forehead just above her hairline.

Clara stumbled backward away from her opponent and fell to the floor with a heaving chest. She wondered what the hell had just happened and what it all meant. But first and foremost, she grieved for her parents. She was too shocked to cry. She was too angry to move. She was too confused to speak. Rage, sorrow, and confusion roiled and seared her stomach. Blood burned in her body, her head was on fire. Around her, the room itself began to shake. Windows rattled, dishes on the table clattered, Kay’s lifeless head bobbed against her chest. Clara felt as if she might explode. A window pane cracked. Dust floated down from the ceiling caking the floor and sticking to Clara’s sweaty head.

Just as these feeling had become unbearable, the door to the cabin flew open and Lydia scrambled across the shaking floorboards. With only a moment to observe the scene, Lydia threw herself to the floor and flung her arms around Clara. She held her tight, and as her body ceased to shake in Lydia’s arms, the cabin walls returned to normal as well.

Ollie had burst in behind Lydia and, seeing what had transpired, went not to Clara, but to Kay to double check that she was secure. Whoever had bound her—Clara, he was certain—had done an excellent job. He checked her vitals and when he was certain that she was alive, he set about cleaning the cabin because he didn’t know what else to do. The show of emotion in the floor before him made him uncomfortable, as shows of affection always did. He knew they needed to leave, and fast, but he also knew they needed to leave the cabin as they had found it, so his cleaning distraction was not altogether unnecessary.

On the hardwood planks of the cabin floor, the gravity of the situation had finally landed square on Clara’s shoulders. “Mom, oh God, Mom. Dad. No!” Clara wept. Lydia, who was no longer “doctor” and instead now was “friend” and the closest thing Clara had to a parent, held her as she sobbed so violently that at the peak of every couple of sobs, her breath hitched for so long that Lydia was worried Clara would never start breathing again, but each time she did. “I had just gotten you back. I had just gotten them back. Why?” She wailed.

Lydia, who rocked with Clara in her lap and patted her back heavily and with loud thuds, mostly to help Clara remember to breathe, could not even begin to imagine how hard it must be for her in this moment. For months Clara had been told she was someone else, only to find out that she actually had known exactly who she was all along, and then reality slapped her harshly in the face with the knowledge that she, in fact, was someone, something, different entirely. Clara’s life had been a rollercoaster with dips and turns and corkscrews at every angle imaginable. And now, after all of this, after finding out that her real parents were out there, parents she had imagined were endlessly searching for her and helping others like her, she is faced with the fact that they were dead. They were murdered because of her and because of those like her.

It seemed like hours that Clara lay in Lydia’s lap. Howls turned into moans which gave way to whimpers. Finally, Clara declared, “I can’t do this. I can’t.”

“Shhh…Clara…it’s okay.”

Lydia held and rocked Clara until she fell asleep, exhausted from the physical struggle and now from the emotional struggle as well. Together, Lydia and Ollie were able to get Clara into bed. As she closed the door, Lydia noticed that their captive had begun to rouse. Time for answers, Lydia thought as she approached Kay Crider.

“How did you find us?” Lydia demanded in a soft but harsh tone.

Kay wheezed a dry laugh and spit blood. “It was too easy,” she whispered. “I had all but forgotten about this place, that is, until my associate, a “Mr. Cromwell,” reminded me.” She raised her head and glared directly into Lydia’s eyes. “It would have been far easier to find you had your little boy toy been able to stick around a bit longer.”

“My what?”

“Dylan. Tracking you would have been simple had he worked a little harder at your “relationship”,” Kay snarled.

“Dylan? What do you mean “Dylan”?”

“Oh, you didn’t know, did you? The night you first broke up with him, we met him just outside the lobby. Told him we’d pay him a pretty penny if he’d play nice with you for a while longer. He did, but not long enough. Told him where we worked and that we just wanted to make sure you stayed “grounded” so you didn’t make the Bedford mistake again. He didn’t take much convincing. To be honest, I don’t even think he cared about your reputation—he was just out to make a buck.”

Lydia sank into a kitchen chair and stared disbelievingly at first at Kay. Realization slowly began to sink in as Karen laughed another wheezing laugh. Embarrassed and angry, Lydia spoke. “I’d say I knew it was too good to be true, but there wasn’t much that was good about that relationship.”

“It was good for me.” Kay retorted sharply.

“I’m sure it was,” Lydia answered and walked away.

 

#

 

While Ollie and Lydia discussed what to do with Kay, Clara, still wrought with emotion from the new information she had been given, quietly packed her things. She was intent on leaving the past behind and starting fresh somewhere else. As she was creeping across the cabin, the floor creaked, alerting Ollie.

“Where are you off too, missy?” He asked.

“Leaving.”

“Clara, you can’t. It’s not safe.”

“I don’t care. I quit. I don’t want to be special. I don’t want to be different. I don’t want to be me. I quit.”

“Clara,” Ollie begged, “you can’t let this all be in vain. You can’t just quit and pretend none of this has happened!”

Clara slammed her bag onto the floor, spilling a few of the toiletries that had still been in the cabin. She whirled around and advanced toward Ollie. “You’re right, Oliver. I can’t pretend none of this happened, even if I wanted to, and believe me, I do. I didn’t ask for this. I didn’t ask to hear thoughts or see the future or any other crazy thing I can do. I didn’t ask for any of this. I didn’t even ask to be born! This is not the life I signed up for!”

“But this is the life you have, Clara.” Ollie stated as calmly as he could as he sat up with a groan of old age. “We can help you learn to wield the powers you have. We can learn together how to control them. These are the cards you’ve been dealt, you just have to choose to play.”

“I call misdeal. The deck was stacked before I was even born. I’m a freak, designed in a laboratory, man-made…I mean…ugh, you know what I mean, and I don’t like it. I don’t want to play this sick little game.” Clara was inches from Ollie’s face, but he politely stood his ground and refused to step back.

“Clara, there are others. Others like you, but they’re still stuck. They don’t yet know who they are. We can help them, rescue them. Clara, they need you!”

“No one rescued me. No one came to save the day when I was locked away in a mental institution. No one came to help when I didn’t know who the hell I was for all those months. It was me. Alone. With no one in my corner! Why should I help anyone, Ollie, answer me that, huh? Why should I help?” Clara was furious, more at the situation than the people around her, but they were there, and Ollie was an easy target.

Ollie reached for his tweed jacket which was draped over the arm of the couch and fumbled in his pocket nervously, pulling out a crumpled envelope. “Clara, I’ve been holding this for you. Jamil was able to swipe this when you were admitted to Breemont. It was packed up and taken downstairs along with any other “evidence” from your real parents. It’s the same place he was able to procure a few real pictures of your parents too. This letter and those pictures should have been destroyed, but Jamil saved them. For you,” Ollie said, wiping away a lone tear from those bright blue and now mournful eyes, barely able to finish the sentence. He handed Clara a sealed white envelope with her name penned across the front, in looped and feminine handwriting. “Your letter is inside,” he assured. “It’s from your mother.”

She looked at it longingly but did not open the envelope.

“I expect you’ll want some privacy,” Ollie offered and turned to leave. He motioned to Lydia and Jamil who had been awakened by the commotion. They met Ollie near the door where he placed his hand affectionately on Lydia’s shoulder. They closed the door to the cabin behind them, taking seats in the weathered rockers on the porch that had once been where Melanie and Mark sat enjoying the sunset over the lake.

Inside, Clara retreated to her room away from Kay who was sleeping heavily. She turned over the envelope in her hand and slipped her index finger inside the seam. She carefully ran her pointer along the flap, trying not to rip it as she opened it. She took a deep, cleansing breath because that’s what Dr. L…Lydia…would tell her to do, and she pulled out a piece of plain white paper which, unlike the outer envelope, was covered in her mother’s handwriting. She thought she could smell her perfume, but when she raised the letter to her nose, it just smelled like paper. She began to read.

 

Dearest Clara,

I know you’ll never sit still long enough to listen to me ramble, or if you did, I wouldn’t make it through my speech without an eye roll or two from you, so I’m putting it all down on paper. Keep it. Read the words often. They’re true. All of them.

Oh, what I wouldn’t give to hold my baby girl just one more time. I’d squeeze you in my arms, bury my face in your beautiful brown hair, and never let you go, never let you grow up, sweet one. The problem is you are just too cool for anything more than a quick hug these days. I know, I know. I was the same way. It just comes with age, but I can’t help but miss having you in my arms.

While we miss our sweet baby girl, your dad and I are excited to see you embark upon this extraordinary life. You are phenomenal. You are smarter and stronger than anyone I’ve ever known. You excel at everything you put your mind to. Honey, do amazing things. Help people. Love people.

We love you more than words can say, and hopefully our actions prove that to you. Believe in yourself and trust your instincts. Your life is yours to live. Live it to the fullest, fill it with daring adventures, and leave your mark on this earth. We did, and it’s you. You have never been just our child, Clara. You are our everything.

 

With all the love a mother’s heart can hold,

Mom

 

Clara clutched the letter to her chest as her anger began to fade away. She held the letter tighter and smiled through her tears. Her mother may have been gone, but her love was right here on this page. She had a tiny piece of her that she could keep and cherish always. She leaned back in her chair and read the letter again, realizing she was no longer a prisoner because of Ollie, Lydia, and Jamil. It was Ollie and Jamil who sent the message to Lydia that made an escape from a life of lies possible. It was Ollie who had saved her. It was Ollie who had helped her to be free. With the letter still clasped in her hand she bolted out of the bedroom and out of the cabin, flinging the door open and startling Lydia and Ollie who were still rocking on the porch. Ollie, always ready for anything found himself on his feet prepared to defend himself from an attack. And attacked, he was. Clara ran toward him and wrapped her arms around his thick neck.

“I’m sorry Ollie. I didn’t mean it. I know you’ve done so much for me. I didn’t mean to be so hateful, really.” Clara apologized, embarrassed by her earlier outburst.

“It’s okay, dearie. I know it’s hard, and I know life hasn’t been fair. But if you help the Others, it will help even the score. Take from BioTech what they tried to take from you, their future, their life’s work. We can take it all away, if you’ll agree to be a part of it. Lydia, Jamil, and I will try regardless of your decision, but we know we can’t do it on our own. We’ll help you tap into abilities none of us have ever dreamed of, and then we’ll help you hone those skills. Clara, if you’ll allow us, we’ll take care of you. We may not be anything close to being parents, but we love you.”

Clara took a step backward from him. Lydia, who had stood to join them, hoping to intervene if things got messy, was relieved that she didn’t have to. They had diffused the conflict on their own. Clara looked from Ollie to Lydia and back to Ollie again. She grieved for her parents and would feel an empty ache in her heart for as long as she lived, but if she was going to have to adopt new parents, it may as well be the weird guy and the head shrink, she thought lovingly. She stepped forward again, nervous, but excited for what the future would bring. She wrapped her arms around both Ollie and Lydia and hugged them tightly.

“Thank you, Ollie. Thank you, Dr. L. Thank you so much, thank you for everything. I think…” She released them and stepped back. Ollie and Lydia exchanged proud glances noticing the determination in Clara’s eyes. “I think I’m ready now.”

She stepped away and looked at her new “parents”. She was joined by Jamil who had risen from the front steps. He hugged her briefly and awkwardly and then moved back a step or two.

“Oh, Clara, one more thing!” he beamed.

Clara waited for him to speak, but he didn’t say another word. Instead, he half-smiled and to her astonishment, his appearance transformed before her very eyes. There, before her, stood Michael, whose black hair bounced in his eyes as he and Clara laughed their first real laughter in a long, long time.

“What the—”

“I’ve been watching out for you a lot longer than you thought.”

“I guess you have.” Clara replied, her cheeks pinking.

Eventually, the unlikely quartet met privately in Clara’s bedroom at Jamil’s insistence.

“We need to move,” explained Jamil. “They’re tracking us. And even if they weren’t, Kay’s friends can’t be far behind her.”

“Who’s tracking us?” Lydia asked.

“Owen and Diana,” Jamil replied. Before Lydia could open her mouth to ask the next question, Jamil answered it: “They are GES. The bad guys. People with abilities like Clara and me. I can feel them getting closer.”

“Where will we go?” Lydia hadn’t even had time to catch her breath since 2 p.m. on the day of Clara’s last office visit, and she most certainly hadn’t had time to contemplate their next move. She looked to Clara who did not answer.

“We’ll figure it out as we go. Worked out well enough for us last time.”

“He’s right,” Ollie chimed in, “we just have to go. They’re coming and it will be more than just Kay this time. If we don’t get out of here, they’ll catch us for sure. And the only one coming out of that encounter alive will be Clara.”
“And maybe Jamil.” Clara suggested.

“Maybe.” Ollie answered.

“What will we do with her?” Lydia asked indicating Kay.

“Leave her.”

Everyone looked in the direction from which the words came. Clara repeated herself.

“Leave her,” She said, thinking of her mother’s kind words.

“Clara, we can’t—”

“We can and we will. What we can’t do is stoop to her level. Right now she’s tied up and injured. Her lackeys are almost certainly on their way.” She looked to Jamil—Michael—for reassurance. He nodded. “We can’t take her with us, and I won’t kill her. We’re better than that. We’ll leave her for them to find, and we’ll run. Pack. Now.”

Clara’s company did as they were told without question. Lydia didn’t know if it was because Clara was using her powers or if they all knew she was right. Either way, they were packing and would be leaving just as soon as they possibly could.

They exited the cabin and uncovered the black Sonata. As they strapped in, Clara sprang out of the backseat and ran back toward the cabin.

“Clara, wait! Where are you going?” Lydia called.

“I’ll be right back. I forgot something.”

She pushed the cabin door open hard. She crossed the creaking floor and when she was face to face with Kay, she whispered, “I’ll see you again. I can promise you that. In the meantime, you’d better stay far, far away from my friends and me. It won’t end well for you.”

Kay, who had woken from a black sleep did not answer.

Clara trotted back to the car and buckled herself in. Smiling assuredly she said, “East this time. I don’t know where we are going, but I know that’s how we’ll get there.”

Lydia started the car and backed out of the makeshift driveway. “East it is,” she said as they drove away from the cabin and into a new adventure.

 


Unlocked

After an evening of babysitting and returning home to a good night’s sleep, fourteen year old Clara wakes to find the life she thought she knew was over. No longer recognizing her own parents as a result of suffering a mental breakdown, Clara is institutionalized and spends the next year of her life unlocking the secrets of her past with the help of her psychiatrist, Lydia Lindenhurtz. Will Clara ever remember her parents? Will Dr. Lyndenhurtz reunited a family, broken? Or is something more sinister at play?

  • ISBN: 9781370693016
  • Author: Rebecca Barnes
  • Published: 2017-02-04 22:05:16
  • Words: 75722
Unlocked Unlocked