Saturday, July 31, 2010
She was left with her mouth hanging open, unable to form words in attempt to answer the question. “I… I’m not sure what you’re talking about.”
Mrs. Anderson laughed warmly. “You may be able to fool my son, Annabelle, but you can’t fool me. I see the way that you look at him when you think no one is watching.”
A slight pink crossed Annabelle’s cheeks and she turned her head in hopes to conceal the change.
“So…?” Mrs. Anderson began again. “I know that you two have been friends a long time, had your rough patches.” She tilted her head slightly to meet Annabelle’s eyes. “When I think about it, you’ve probably been the steadiest person in his life. You’ve been more of an influence in his life than I have been at times.”
“Mrs. Anderson, it isn’t - -“
She held up her hand, silencing Annabelle midsentence. “I’m not saying it’s a bad thing. Quite the contrary, in fact.” She paused for a moment. “You’ve been good for him. Good to him.”
“Entering the room!” a masculine voice announced from the hall, and a second later he came into view, a grin spread across his face. “Can we please stop talking about me now?”
His mother playfully smacked his head as he threw himself down on the couch next to Annabelle. “Well at least now I know you really were talking about me,” he said with a smirk. “Anything good I need to be let in on?”
Mrs. Anderson shook her head. “You two kids have fun,” she said as she got up to leave the room. In the doorway she paused for a moment though, turning her head back to the two. “And Annabelle, don’t wait too long to tell him, okay?” She gave her a small smile, and continued down the hallway.
"What was that about?” he asked, turning his head to Annabelle.
Her reply was a smile as she linked her arm with his. “Girl stuff,” she answered. “Nothing you would be interested in.”
* * *
As Eileen walked to her darkroom, she had an eerie feeling that someone was watching her. She looked around, casually, she hoped, but saw nothing out of the ordinary. Shaking off the feeling, blaming it on an over-developed sense of paranoia, no thanks to her recent cases, she entered her darkroom, determined to put the day behind her.
It was a full hour and one set of negatives later when Eileen first heard the buzzing. Puzzled, she turned off the fan for a moment, trying to identify the source of the sound. Immediately, the chemical fumes from the trays hit her. She wrinkled her nose, but didn’t turn the fan back on. What was that buzzing? Her eyes widened in the dark as she realized what it was. She felt the first sting as her hand landed on the doorknob. Pain radiated up her left arm.
“Shit,” she muttered. Of course, her Epi-pen was in the house. Hopefully, she wouldn’t need it. She was only allergic to honeybee venom. She felt another sting, high on the back of her neck. The buzzing sound turned into a hum and began to grow louder. Trying not to panic, she swatted the insect away as she fumbled with the doorknob. It wouldn’t budge.
“What the--?” She felt another sting, this time on her back. Her arm and neck were already on fire, and she knew she didn’t have much time. The door still wouldn’t budge. The humming in the small darkroom continued to grow louder, and full panic set in as she felt her lips and tongue start to tingle. What the hell was going on? She fumbled for her cell phone as she felt another sting, then another and another. Tears welled in her eyes as she felt her throat beginning to swell.
* * *
Ryan finished his beer and waved to Mona, the waitress, for a second one as he bit into another buffalo wing. Mike sat across from him, shaking his head in wonder and amazement.
“Man, how can you eat like that? If I ate like that, I’d have indigestion for a week.”
Ryan grinned, shrugged his shoulders, and licked the spicy sauce from his fingers. “I guess I’m blessed with an iron stomach and good metabolism.”
Mike laughed. “You young kids today. Always have to be smart about everything.”
“You’re not that old.”
“I’m going to be forty. I’ve got ten years on you, kid.”
“You act like you’re going to be forty tomorrow. You’re birthday’s still something like eight months away.”
Mona came back with Ryan’s beer. “Here you go. This one’s on Charlie.”
Ryan waved to Charlie in thanks. The elderly gentleman waved back across the bar in a friendly gesture. Charlie often gave Ryan free drinks, but he was careful never to take advantage of it.
He was just about to wash down the rest of his buffalo wings when he heard his cell phone ringing. He groaned as he saw Eileen’s number pop up on the caller ID.
“Just let it go,” Mike said.
“Nah. It’s Eileen. If she’s calling, it’s probably important. She only calls my cell for work-related stuff.” He glanced longingly at the cold bottle on the table as he punched the talk button. “What’s up, Riley?” He heard raspy breathing and soft gurgling on the other end. “Eileen, quit fooling around. I know it’s you. I saw your number.” Again, nothing but that odd breathing and gurgling. Ryan frowned as he also heard a faint, but distinct humming sound.
Mike picked up on the look of concern. “Everything okay?”
Ryan shrugged, motioning for Mike to be quiet. “Eileen, can you hear me? Eileen?” More humming and gurgling. “Eileen, are you okay?” No response, just that damn humming. “Eileen! Where are you? Can you hear me? Eileen!”
A husky male voice came over the line. “Sorry. Eileen can’t talk right now. She’s just busy as a bee.” The line went dead.
Ryan jumped up, knocking his chair over as he grabbed his jacket. He called out in a panicky voice, “Mona, cancel my dinner. I have to go.” He tossed down a few bills to cover his beer and wings and rushed out the door.
Mike was right behind him when he got to his car. “Let me drive, Ryan.”
Ryan shook his head as he fumbled with the keys. “I only had one drink. I’m fine to drive.”
Mike grabbed the keys from Ryan’s shaking hands. “I know you’re not drunk. But let me drive anyway.” He slid into the driver’s seat, and Ryan, obviously in no position to argue, ran to the passenger side and got in just as Mike put the car in gear. Ryan was trying to control his shaking as they exited the parking lot.
“God, I don’t even know where she is.”
Mike sped through the alley up to the nearest cross street. “She’s at home. She must be. It’s Tuesday. She does her darkroom work on Tuesdays unless she has to work late.”
“How do you know?”
Mike was annoyed. “She’s said it a hundred times. What’s her address?”
Ryan rattled it off, then added, “The son of a bitch might have her!”
“It’s the case we’re working on. Everything about it is screaming serial killer, though it’s hard to slap that label on it with only two victims. Well, two victims so far. Anyway, he left a threatening note for Eileen at the last crime scene. Something about watching and waiting for her. We’ve had marked squads driving by her house regularly and she’s been extra careful. Damn, damn, damn!” He pounded on the dash, angry and scared.
“Don’t panic, Ryan. She lives close.”
They pulled into Eileen’s driveway only moments later. Ryan was out of the car and running toward her house, but Mike was sure she would be in the darkroom. Though he was unfamiliar with the layout of her property, he had a good memory and remembered all the times Eileen described her picturesque yard, which included her darkroom.
He ran across the backyard to the shed she’d converted a few years earlier. When he reached it, he saw that the door was open, just a tiny crack. Maybe she wasn’t inside. Maybe Ryan was right and the bastard had gotten her. He stepped inside, groping in the darkness for a switch that might turn on a light. He was gagging on the odor of the chemical fumes, eyes tearing and stinging, aware that there was a faint humming sound, almost like the buzz of a fluorescent bulb. As he fumbled, he suddenly felt a sharp prick on the back of his hand.
“What the…?” He used his other hand to find what caused the pain and felt something small and fuzzy. “Oh shit.” His had found a light switch at the same instant he stumbled over something soft on the floor.
The single overhead light barely illuminated the room, but his breath caught in his throat and sweat formed an immediate sheen on his brow when he realized that he had stumbled over Eileen. Even in the dim light, he could see that her lips were swollen and purple. Her eyes were swollen, too, but still partially open. He could see the green orbs rolling in their sockets. But she was alive. Barely.
Ryan came running in then, but froze when he took in the scene. “Mike, is she…?”
“No. But I need you to get help.”
Ryan nodded and punched in 911 on his phone. Mike was only vaguely aware of Ryan’s panicked speech to the operator.
A horrible gurgling sound escaped from Eileen’s mouth. Mike smoothed back her hair, carefully brushing away a few bees that were still crawling in her tresses. “Don’t try to talk. I’m going to help you.” Control the shock. Get her breathing. Don’t let her bleed out. Get her to a chopper. But she wasn’t bleeding. And there was no chopper. They were in Illinois, not the Persian Gulf. All of his medical experience and EMT training went out the window and his Army medic training took over.
He tried to control the shaking in his hands as he continued to brush away a few bees that were crawling on her and retrieved his pocket knife. “Eileen, I’m going to help you breathe, but I need to open your airway.” He worked as he spoke, moving her so she was flat on her back with her head tilted back and her neck extended. He found her cricothyroid membrane with his fingers. “It’s going to hurt some because I have to make a cut in your neck. My hands aren’t clean and I don’t have anything to sterilize the knife, but I promise that anything you get from me or the knife will be worth it. Blink twice if you understand me.”
His hands were poised, ready to start. Two rapid blinks. He immediately jumped into action. Don’t think. Just do it. He quickly pinched and lifted the skin over the cricothyroid membrane, making a half-inch vertical incision. Using his fingers, he separated the skin to expose the membrane. Deftly, he made a transverse incision in it to expose the tracheal lumen. He could hear sirens wailing in the distance. “Ryan, gimme your pen. The good one.”
Ryan pulled out his ballpoint pen, his favorite, because it had been a gift from Eileen when he’d made detective. He watched with mixed interest and horror as Mike unscrewed the pen, then inserted the hollow part into Eileen’s neck. Relief washed over him as he heard air beginning to move in and out of the opening.
Mike held the pen in place with one hand and quickly unlaced his work boot with the other. He carefully tied the lace around the pen, then wound it around Eileen’s neck to hold it in place.
Mike allowed himself to look at Eileen’s face. She looked bad, but at least she was breathing. Her eyes were swollen shut now, the startling green hidden behind puffy, purple lids, though tears were leaking from the outer corners. The paramedics had finally arrived and Ryan was waving them in.
Gregory Rodriguez was already gloved and moving toward Eileen. “Mike, you look like you’ve been busy.”
Mike smiled wryly. “Something like that. Good response time, by the way.”
Rodriguez shrugged. “We do okay, man.” He busied himself with rapidly taking Eileen’s vitals as his partner loaded her onto the gurney, rushing to get her out of the cramped space and into the waiting ambulance. “Miss Eileen, you are one lucky lady,” he commented.
Eileen, unable to speak, managed a small nod.
Mike was trotting alongside the paramedics, letting them know the details of the procedure he had just performed. “She needs epinephrine right away. And please, please make sure you tell the doctor at the ER that my hands and the knife weren’t clean. I know they can clean it out good and give her antibiotics. Probably something heavy duty like Keflex.”
Rodriguez looked at him questioningly as he completed the insertion of an IV, hurriedly giving her the needed medication to help her with her breathing as his partner started up the ambulance. “You implying I don’t know how to do my job?”
A small gurgle came from Eileen and they both looked at her in alarm, but then realized she was trying to laugh at their exchange.
Mike flushed. “No, no, that’s not it. It’s just that I know her and her partner and I want to make sure she’s okay.”
Rodriguez nodded. “She’s in good hands. Now get the hell out of my ambulance so I can take care of my patient.”
Mike obeyed, slamming the rear doors shut. Ryan stood next to Mike, shaking violently as the ambulance made its way into the night, sirens blaring. Several other officers were at the scene, buzzing with what had just occurred. Everything was such a blur, Ryan could barely concentrate. He was aware that people were asking him questions, but he wasn’t processing them. Finally, he spoke. “Can everyone just back off? I’m going to go to the hospital to make sure she’s okay. Can you just meet me there? Please?”
He was obviously upset and Mike gave him a firm clap on the back. “Try to relax, buddy. I’ll drive you there.” He waved away the chattering crowd of uniforms, speaking in a firm, authoritative tone. “You heard the man. Besides, you’ll need to get a statement from Eileen. Let’s move it.”
The group scattered, and Mike steered Ryan to the car. Once inside, he asked in a low voice, “You okay, man?”
Ryan wasn’t crying, but he was close. “I don’t think I’ve ever been so scared in my entire life. She’s my partner. More than that. She’s my best friend. I would die if something happened to her.” He was choking on his words. “She has been through so much to get to where she is. Hell, she’s been through so much helping me get to where I am. I can’t lose her, Mike.”
Mike was touched by Ryan’s words, which, given the depth of emotion, had to be true. “Try to calm down, okay? She’s going to be fine. I know it was scary for you,” and scary for me, too, he thought. “But Eileen is a tough old bird, and she’s going to pull through just fine. Besides, you saw her before the guys took her away. She looked bad, but she was doing okay.”
Ryan nodded, miserable and angry that this had happened. “I just don’t get it. I really don’t. There are cops all over that house. Day, night, afternoon. After she got that note, the department decided it wasn’t worth taking any chances. How did the bastard get to her?”
Mike was trying to be reassuring. “You can’t be sure that it was the nutjob you’re looking for. It could have been—gosh, I don’t know—maybe there was a beehive in the ductwork or something.”
Ryan shook his head. “No, no it was nothing like that. That much, I’m completely sure of. Eileen’s in that damn darkroom a few times a week. Beehives don’t happen overnight. If she’d had even an inkling that there was any type of bee, honeybee or otherwise in that room, she would have been wearing her Epi-pen on a chain around her neck.” His labored breathing was slowing down to a normal rate and he took a few slow, deep breaths. “On top of that, I didn’t say so back at Charlie’s, but when I was trying to figure out what the hell was going on, some guy got on and said Eileen couldn’t come to the phone because she was busy as a bee. That scares the daylights out of me, because that means it’s someone who knows her. Or at least knows enough about her to know she’s allergic. And specifically allergic to honeybee venom. That’s not exactly common knowledge. Hell, you and I wouldn’t have known it if we hadn’t been with Eileen two years ago when she got stung for the first time and had such a severe reaction.” He drummed his fingers on the dashboard. “No. This latest incident puts a whole new twist on things. This is beyond just a serial killer. This is someone with a personal vendetta against my best friend. And he won’t get away with it. I swear he won’t.”
Given the reptilian look in Ryan’s eyes and his venomous tone of voice, Mike didn’t doubt it for a second.
* * *
Once they arrived at the hospital, it was a flurry of activity. Ryan made an unfortunate negative impression on the head nurse in the ER, which necessitated Mike stepping in to try to get information on Eileen. He tried everything. Smiles, gentle cajoling, but the nurse would have none of it.
“Look, sir. I really can’t give you any information.”
Mike refused to be waylaid. “Ma’am, I really am a friend of Eileen Riley. I just want to know that she’s okay.”
“Again, sir. I cannot give you any information. I can neither confirm nor deny that the person you’re looking for is even a patient here. I’m going to have to ask you to leave.”
Mike found himself getting a little testy with her. “Okay. Listen Miss,” he took a quick glance at her id tag and saw E. James. “Miss James, I’m a paramedic and I do a lot of work with this hospital. Are you new here? I don’t remember working with you before.”
She eyed him warily. “My status as an employee of this hospital is really none of your concern. Again, I’m asking you to leave.”
Finally, exhausted with trying to find out if his best friend was okay, Ryan turned to his last alternative and whipped out his gold shield. “Look lady. This is official police business, and if you don’t bring me to detective Riley immediately, there’s going to be a problem.”
The nurse’s whole demeanor changed and she hurriedly waved them to the other side of the station. “Of course, sir. I didn’t realize you were law enforcement. Please understand that we can’t just give out information on our patients. It’s a violation of the privacy laws.” She walked quickly as she spoke, firing off information about Eileen’s condition. “The doctor has already seen her. She’s heavily medicated and will likely be groggy for a while. I don’t know if she’ll be able to give you a statement.”
She stopped outside of a curtained area. “Please try not to get her riled up. She does need her rest. Her body has been through a tremendous shock. My name is Ebony James, if you need anything.”
As the young nurse walked away, Mike and Ryan exchanged an odd look. Mike cocked his head to one side. “How in the world do you suppose she got a name like Ebony?”
Ryan shrugged as he watched the pale, strawberry-blonde woman walk away. “Mother with a sense of humor? Beats me,” he said as he swung open the curtain.
His heart almost stopped when he saw her. It seemed like there were tubes and wires everywhere. Eileen was still and silent, the only indications that she was alive were the gentle rise and fall of her chest and the silent blips on the heart monitor. Mike scanned the medical equipment, checking Eileen’s vital signs. He gave Ryan a thumbs up and waved him toward the bed.
Careful not to disturb the IV, Ryan gently took her hand and kissed it, tears of relief slipping down his cheeks. Eileen stirred and gave his hand a weak squeeze in return. She attempted to open her eyes, barely managing to open them into tiny slits.
Her tongue was swollen, slightly protruding from her mouth. She opened her mouth as though she wanted to speak, but no sound came out. An attempt to clear her throat didn’t help.
Mike reached past her and poured water from a pitcher into a cup, then inserted a straw and held it out to her. She slipped greedily, some of the water dribbling back out over her swollen lips. When she was through, she coughed hard, then smiled. Using her free hand, she reached over and chucked Ryan under the chin.
Ryan couldn’t understand her. “What’s that honey? Do you need something else?”
Mike started laughing. “She’s fine. She just called you a crybaby!”
Eileen was laying in the bed, smiling and nodding. She extended her hand, palm side up. Mike high-fived her, still laughing. Suddenly, Eileen started to cry. Deep sobs that caught in her swollen throat and caused her gag and cough. Ryan scooted closer, pulling her into his arms.
“It’s okay, baby. You’re safe. I am never going to let anyone hurt you ever again. I am not going to risk losing you.” Her tears soaked through his shirt, but he continued to hold her as she cried.
Mike felt tears pricking his own eyes and he had to swallow over the lump in his throat. It had been close. Too close. He leaned over and gave her a peck on the cheek. “You take care of yourself and heal up quick, little lady. I expect you to be back on the job by the end of the week.”
She nodded and squeaked out. “Ten who.”
Mike squeezed her hand. “You’re welcome. But you being okay is more than enough thanks. Ryan, you take good care of her.” He set Ryan’s car keys on the small side table. “I’ll catch a cab or take the bus. Your car is in the lot across the street.” To Eileen, he said, “If you need anything at all, you just call me, okay? I’ll be there in a flash. You know my number?”
She nodded. “Na wuh wuh.”
“Funny. Yes, you can reach me by calling 911, but it would be easier to reach me at the station house. If I’m not there, they can get a hold of me.”
She gave him a slow nod, obviously exhausted from her ordeal. Ryan continued to hold her, struggling to maintain what was left of his composure. “Thank you, Mike. Really.”
“Anytime. But hopefully, never again.” He gave a quick wave, thinking about how lucky Eileen was. Realistically, he knew that as the medication worked its magic, Eileen would be back on her feet in a few hours, but the damage to her self-confidence would probably take a while to put back together. He walked out of the hospital into the heat of the city night, the haze and humidity hanging in the air.
A light breeze was working its way through the neighborhood and heat lightning flashed in the distance. He sat on a broken bench at the bus stop, silently thanking God for helping him to save Eileen. He always remembered to thank his Maker after a crisis. Thanked Him for His help in getting everyone out alive and well, thanked Him for blessing him with quick, steady hands and sound medical judgment, thanked Him for everything.
* * *
Eileen made a speedy recovery, only staying in the hospital Tuesday night for observation. Her vitals remained strong and stable and she was feeling much better by Wednesday morning. She gave her statement to the investigators, telling them repeatedly that she had no idea how the bees got into her darkroom. They brought up the phone call that Ryan received from her cell phone, and while she remembered dialing the number and trying to get in touch with him, she didn’t remember him answering, nor did she have any recollection of anyone coming into the darkroom until Mike arrived.
She could tell that the detectives were frustrated, but she was too tired to care. Ryan drove her home and made sure she was tucked safely inside before getting ready to go back to work.
“Is there anything you need before I go?”
“For the hundredth time, no. I’ll be fine. You’ve got squads driving by my house and…”
“Fat lot of good marked squads do. There were squads driving by regularly and yet your darkroom still ended up turning into a beehive.”
Eileen rolled her eyes at him. “Look, it’s nobody’s fault, okay? What’s done is done. I know now to carry my Epi-pen all the time, no matter what.” She shifted on her couch, easing into a comfortable position. Her body still ached, but she was feeling pretty good otherwise. She clicked on the television while Ryan puttered around, checking her windows. Eileen knew he was just trying to protect her, but it was getting on her nerves. “Ryan, would you stop? I’m going to be fine.”
“I know, okay? But it still freaked me out and I worry about you.”
Her tone softened. “I know you worry. I worry, too. But that’s not going to stop me from living my life. Now get back to work and let me rest. I’m still a little groggy from all the meds I got in the ER and I want to catch up on sleep so I’m ready to go in the morning.”
“In the morning?” Ryan was incredulous. “You’re not seriously planning on coming back to work tomorrow, are you? You should take a few days for yourself and get your strength back.”
“Ryan, I’m fine. It was an allergic reaction. I wasn’t shot or anything. There’s no good reason for me not to go back. Besides, I’m on a mission now. The note was one thing, but this is now personal, and I’m not going to stand for it.” She glared at him defiantly, and he knew there was no way he would be able to deter her.
He threw his hands up in a gesture of submission. “Okay, okay. You win. But just promise you’ll call if you need anything or if there’s anything funky going on.”
“You know I will. I’m crazy, not stupid. Though, I guess sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference, huh?”
“That’s an understatement,” he agreed.
She threw a pillow at him. “You want to come over for dinner Friday night? I’m going to invite Mike, too. You know, kind of as a ‘thank you for not leaving me to croak in my darkroom’ dinner.”
“I’ll be here. Of course, I’d be anywhere with a ringing dinner bell.”
“I know that. I swear, sometimes I think your stomach is a black hole. But anyway, bring your own hot sauce. It’s going to be a light, simple dinner. Maybe some fish and vegetables.”
“Will do. Is there anything you want me to bring?”
“Just yourself. I’m going to call Mike down at the station after I squeeze in a nap. I think he’s working today.” She stifled a yawn. “Now get out of here. I’m tired. Lock up on your way out, okay?”
“Okay.” He pulled his keys from his pocket, fishing out the one for Eileen’s door. They had traded keys years ago, just as a safety precaution. There was a certain amount of comfort in being able to have full access to each other, especially in their line of work. “Call if you need anything. If I’m not at the station, just call my cell.”
“Will do,” she said as she curled up on her side.
“Do you want me to set the alarm on my way out?”
She nodded and was asleep before Ryan could say anything else. He watched her for a few minutes, glad she was back in the comfort of her own home. It was nice knowing where she was and that she was safe. As he set her alarm and locked the deadbolt on his way out, he felt a pang of guilt as he wondered what things would have been like if he’d not been gay. Eileen was an amazing woman, and he loved her more than he’d ever loved anyone else in his life. He just didn’t have romantic feelings for her, though there were days when he desperately wished that he did. She was such a good person with a huge heart and someone was going to snatch her up someday. He didn’t like thinking about it. If she fell in love with someone and got married, it would likely put a damper on their friendship. He couldn’t imagine a husband who would be willing to let his wife spend a full day with another man on the job and then still want to hang out with him at night. It would be awkward, no doubt. He pushed the thought away. Thankfully, it was nothing he needed to worry about right now.
* * *
Two hours later, Eileen began the slow process of waking up and starting her day. The medication she’d gotten in the hospital was still leaving her feeling heavy and groggy, but she knew if she wanted to go to work the next morning, she couldn’t sleep all day. She stood up a little too quickly and was overcome with vertigo. Dropping back onto the couch, she took a few deep breaths before making another attempt. When she was sure of her footing, she headed down the hall to the bathroom.
Turning on the water in the shower full blast, she thought about everything that had happened the day before. It seemed like it was all a bad dream, but it wasn’t. Peering into the mirror over the sink, she caught sight of her reflection. It was bad, but not as bad as she’d feared. Some residual swelling and hives, bruising around her neck from Mike’s mini-operation, but not bad overall. It could have been worse.
Way worse, she thought as she stepped into the shower. It could have been way worse. I could be standing here dead. A low chuckle emanated from the back of her throat as she realized her error in thinking. Standing here dead. That would be an interesting trick. Hot water ran down her back and she moaned. The heat felt good on her stiff muscles, but it also made the hives itch. She showered quickly, lathering herself with the oatmeal soap the ER doctor had recommended. Just before getting out, she turned the water all the way over to cold, letting the iciness soothe her irritated skin. A minute later, she emerged and swathed a towel around her body, using care not to rub her skin with the nubby material.
Using her forearm to wipe the steam away from the mirror, she met her own eyes. They were puffy, red-rimmed, like a child who has spent the last several hours crying and her lips were still swollen, but she looked much better than she had twelve hours ago.
Studying her reflection, she pondered the question that had been floating around in her head since she and Ryan had seen the note left with Karen. Why me? What in the world does a crazy serial killer want with me? It was a question that she couldn’t answer yet. And as she thought about it, she wasn’t entirely sure she wanted to know the answer. Obviously, something had made her a target, she just didn’t know what. It was that uncertainty that was making her head spin. This whole thing had developed so suddenly and as far as she could tell, there was no rhyme or reason to any of it.
The shrill ringing of her telephone cut through her thoughts. Clasping the towel tightly around her body, she darted into the kitchen to answer it, picking up before even glancing at the caller ID.
“Hello?” There was silence on the other end. Puzzled, she asked, “Hello? Is anyone there?” That silence again.
Her eyes went down to the caller ID and she saw that the screen was blank. Suddenly afraid, Eileen slammed the phone back into the receiver. A second later, it rang again. Her eyes remained glued to the caller ID, waiting to see the number that would pop up. It was ringing in as private. She was rooted where she stood, wanting to answer it and scream at whoever was on the other end, but after thinking about it, she decided to let it go to her answering machine instead.
On the fourth ring, she heard her own voice coming from the machine. “Hey, I can’t take your call right now, but leave me a message and I’ll call you back.” Beeeeeeep.
Relief coursed through her veins when she heard the voice on the other end. “Hi Eileen. This is Mike O’Brien. Ryan told me you were home and I just wanted—”
“Hello?” she answered.
“Hey Eileen. It’s Mike. I was just leaving you a message.”
“Yeah, sorry about that. I was just finishing in the shower and didn’t get to the phone in time.”
Mike could hear a tremor in her voice, but didn’t ask her about it, figuring she’d been through enough lately without having to deal with his prying questions. “No problem. I just wanted to see how you were doing. I saw Ryan a little while ago on a call and he said that he brought you home this morning. I’m glad you’re doing better.”
“Me too,” she answered, twisting and untwisting the phone cord around her fingers. “I really am feeling much better and I can’t thank you enough for that. I had quite a scare.” She let out a slow breath. “It’s nice of you to call.”
“No problem. I don’t usually get to follow up with any of the folks I take care of, and it’s just nice to know that something I did made a difference.”
“Oh Mike, it made a huge difference. You have no idea. I’m up and going and planning on going back to work tomorrow.”
“That’s what Ryan said, you stubborn old work horse,” he was laughing as he said it and Eileen found herself enjoying the sound of it.
“I am kind of stubborn. But listen, while I’ve got you on the phone, would you like to come over for dinner on Friday? I’d like to make something nice to thank you and Ryan for your quick response to my little crisis.”
“That sounds great. Nothing like home-cooking to make the men come running.”
Eileen gave a low chuckle. “I’ll take that as a yes. I’m planning on fish and vegetables. Unless you don’t like fish. Then I can make something else.”
“No, no. I actually like fish a lot. And even if I didn’t, I wouldn’t tell you. I’m not one to turn down a free meal. I’ll take what I can get.”
“That’s sweet, but I’m being serious. I want to cook as a way of saying thanks, and it won’t be any fun if you don’t like what I’m making.”
“Really, I like fish. I can hardly wait.”
“Good. I’ll plan dinner for six o’clock. Come hungry.”
“I most definitely will.”
“Do you need directions on how to get here?”
Eileen couldn’t see it, but Mike grimaced on the other end. “No directions necessary. I think after flying over to your place yesterday I’ll always remember how to get there. Do you want me to bring anything? A dessert or some wine maybe?”
“Nope, I’ve got it covered. Just bring yourself and your appetite.”
“Okay. See you Friday. Sorry about interrupting your shower. I’ve got to go, but I’ll talk to you later, Eileen.”
They both hung up and Eileen found herself feeling a little more settled down. She assumed that it had been Mike who had called right beforehand, though if she had given it another moment’s thought, she would have realized that there was no way that could be the case. If it had been, he wouldn’t have apologized for interrupting her shower.
* * *
Eileen spent the rest of the day puttering around her house, feeling both restless and tired. Daytime television was terrible, and as she flipped through the channels, she found herself frustrated. How many soap operas were there? And did people really watch them? They must, she thought. Otherwise, there wouldn’t be so many of them. She tried watching one for about fifteen minutes, but just couldn’t take the whole rich-people-in-woe-who-got-who-pregnant-before-disappearing-and-then-dying-and-coming-back-from-the-dead storylines.
Tossing the remote aside, she went into the kitchen and poured herself a glass of milk. Sitting at the table and flipping through the headline section of the paper, she almost fell over when an article caught her eye. “Oh you’ve got to be kidding me,” she said softly. The article was about her little episode from the day before. How in the hell did it get into the paper? Surely the department wouldn’t have released any kind of statement. As she read it more thoroughly, she was relieved to find that the only comment from the police department spokesperson was that there had been a serious incident involving her allergy to insect venom. There was no mention of her involvement in the cases she and Ryan were working on. It appeared that the department was trying to keep things under wraps until they could get a better handle on what they were dealing with.
As Eileen rinsed out the glass from her milk and began to ponder what she should make for dinner that night, a car drove slowly past her house. The man’s face, though mostly shadowed by a baseball cap, contained a dark scowl. Murder was in his eyes as he realized that his foolproof plan had failed. If he couldn’t get Eileen Riley out of the way using a load of bees, he would just have to get a little more creative.
When Sylvia woke the world beneath her was much darker than it had been before. She frowned down at the fading landscape. Across the sky was a bright red streak along the western horizon, stretching from the left all the way to the right where it faded into redish-brown and then brownish-gray and on and on until it was no distinguishable color at all.
She wondered if he was in pain.
And if he was in pain, whether or not it was her fault.
Of course, if he was in pain, it was not the kind of pain that can be inflicted by others, but rather only by oneself. Still, she felt the familiar pool of guilt in her chest, a reminder of their unhealthy relationship. She never could bring herself to use the word abusive, and yet her refusal to do so was probably more evidence of the actuality. If anything, she just didn’t want to think of herself as a victim – either of him or of herself.
But was he in pain?
“What’re you thinking?”
She turned and looked at Nate.
“How pretty the sunset is from up here.” She placed her index finger on the plane window for unneeded emphasis.
Nate craned his neck in the seat next to her for a better look. For a moment his cheek was almost pressed against hers and she wondered if he would kiss her.
“Look,” he said instead, putting his finger over the spot where hers had been. “You can see the city already.”
And sure enough, through the blue-gray haze of nightfall, the outline of tall buildings on the edges of the water was coming into view far ahead of them.
“Almost home,” he said quietly, leaning back into his seat.
The word ‘home’ seemed to hang in the pressurized air of the cabin. Sylvia turned it over and over again in her mind, like a puzzle with a missing piece.
Yes, it was home. And therefore where all the memories lived.
Friday, July 30, 2010
“A moment please,” he managed to croak out. His mouth was very dry, and there was a sensation of bile still at the back of his throat, but he pulled himself out of bed. Could the creditors be pounding down the door already? Perhaps they wished to collect their due while he still had funds.
Since he had no servants to open the door, and he could not imagine anyone of importance knocking on the door so early in the morning, he didn’t bother to change his clothes. He splashed a bit of cold water on his face, rinsed his mouth, smoothed the deep wrinkles of the clothes he had slept in, and opened the door.
“Mr. Sebastian Wylde?”
He stared at the older man for a moment. He didn’t look like a debt collector, but one never knew. “Yes,” was all he said, while still standing in the doorway. He did not invite the stranger inside.
“Mr. Wylde, you are a very rich man!”
Sebastian blinked in annoyance. The man must be a debt collector.
“I can assure you,” he said in an icy tone, “that there is no need to beat down my door at this ungodly hour of the morning. News of my good fortune must have traveled faster than my own boots carried me home last night. Tell whomever you represent that I will be sending around payments this very afternoon.”
The old man looked confused. “But sir, I have been trying to reach you these past two weeks about your new fortune. Since you were never home, your landlord has refused to let me past the front door and would not accept any letters on your behalf. Did you learn the news from someone else?”
Sebastian tried not to scowl. What was this old coot talking about?
Tuesday, July 6, 2010
As she sat across the dinner table from him, she couldn’t help but wonder: Could this be it for her? Could this be her future? She hadn’t the slightest idea, but she would have been lying to herself if she said she wasn’t interested in a fresh start.
A million of memories came back to her as she watched him twirl his fork around his plate. A million memories from eight years ago… Eight years that seemed like a lifetime ago.
She felt her thoughts being pulled back to reality as she noticed his faint green eyes watching her. “I’m sorry,” she said with a sheepish smile.
“Care to share your thoughts?”
“Not really,” she answered, her eyes redirecting themselves.
With his head tilted slightly, he found her attention again like he had done so many times in the past. “Now I don’t think that’s very fair.”
“Hasn’t anyone ever told you that life isn’t fair?”
He laughed warmly. “I believe that I was the one who told you that.”
“And my how I argued with you.”
“You’re a very passionate person.”
There was a momentary silence before she sighed and muttered, “Life can never be fair.”
“I know…” Jason answered quietly.
“This isn’t fair…”
He nodded his head.
“I can’t do this.”
He paused, then asked: “Could you try?”
The reply came too easily. “No.”
“Because eight years ago, I had to leave on day five. Because eight years ago, I got on that plane saying that I found what I wanted to find and that was enough for me. God! What was I thinking, I was a child! I didn’t know what I was doing, Jason! Why did you let us go about things in the way that we did? It should have been your responsibility to know the limits!”
“Are you saying that you wish things had been different?”
“Yes!” She shook her head. “No! - -This is not about changing the past.”
“You’re the one talking about, quote, eight years ago.”
She shook her head in frustration. “All I know is that I was the one who tried.”
He hid the pain from the punch well, but it didn’t last. “And I didn’t?” He felt his jaw tighten slightly.
“Jason - -”
“I don’t know what you mean, Ann, so don’t bother saying it. That week wasn’t one sided, and you know that as well as I do. There was something there… You felt it, you remember it just as well as I do.”
“Do you remember?” Her voice was hard. “Do you honestly remember? Because you swore that you knew me better than anyone else, and I believed you. But you didn’t. If you had, you wouldn’t have let me get on that plane.”
“It wasn’t my choice to make.”
Her eyes began to fill with bitter tears.
“You can’t be mad at me, Ann. Of all the things that you feel right now, I know that you don’t hate me.”
“You don’t know anything.” She stood from the table, and he mirrored her action. “I learned to hate you with a fiery emotion after that, but I thought that that had finally changed. I thought that I had changed, but clearly I haven’t.” She made her way for the door, but he grabbed her arm and spun her back towards him. Their lips touched in that instant, and the hatred that was there only a second earlier had vanished. When their lips finally parted, her face was mixed with emotion.
“You told me once, that you needed someone to know what you wanted. That when you turned away from someone, you needed that person to spin you around and kiss you with all their soul. Now if I didn’t love you, Ann, why would that one thing have stayed with me after all these years?”
The tears had spilled over now, but she didn’t bother to wipe them away. She was beautiful when she was sad, and the mix of emotions on her face made it seem brighter. Her lips were redder than they had ever been and the tears sparkled in her eyes in the dimly lit restaurant. She had never been more beautiful to him in eight years than she was at that very moment.
“I still love you, Ann.”
And with that sentence, she hung her head and walked away.
Saturday, July 3, 2010
Chapter One (Continued)
When Zim was almost nine, his grandmother decided that he would be best served by attending a boarding school for boys, as his older Montjoy cousins did. His mother disapproved of the idea of him being sent away while so young, but the decision was made during a rare period of time when his father was in residence. With the elder Mrs. Montjoy's foot already firmly planted down, her son had no will to order otherwise, and so Zim was sent to school in Virginia. While his cousins had remained at schools in the deep south, Zim’s father had insisted that he would have an opportunity to see him more on his travels if he was in Virginia, and while no such visits ever materialized, it seemed a valid enough reason for the boy to go further away. Thomas had also reassured his wife that it was better for Zim to be in Richmond, closer to the nation's capital and to the promise of a better life than the South was able to offer. Zim's mother knew she had no power to object, and so she instead consented, and prepared her only son for a journey that would take him much farther than she herself had ever been.
"But why do I have to go?" Zim had asked.
"Because you're grown now, Zachariah, and it's time for you to be educated as a gentleman. Don't you want to be a gentleman?"
He was not sure whether he wanted to be a gentleman, but he was sure that he had no choice in the matter, so he had left his mother to do the packing – his father having already left to make the arrangements – and went to wander through the streets. Along the way, he passed the Vanderhorst house, one of the formerly prominent families of Charleston who had managed to hang on to the remnants of their gentility in a manner similar to, but not quite as successfully as the Montjoys. In the dirt walkway that led to their front door, the family's youngest daughter, Charlotte, bent over her marbles in the dust.
"What are you doing, Charlotte?" Zim called, leaning over the short iron fence, questioning her though he could see very plainly what she was about.
"What does it look like I'm doing, Zachary?" the girl, a few years younger, pouted. "Marbles, same as always."
Zim came around the gate, reaching into the depths of his pockets to withdraw the same small bag his father had given him a few years previous as an early birthday present. It had been full of marbles and had only increased in quantity in the two years since.
"I'll play you for Ringers," Zim proposed, shaking the marbles noisily in his hand.
The girl frowned, knowing full well she'd be bound to lose, but nodded and stood to erase the lines she'd already made in the dirt and start them fresh.
"You're out strangely today," the girl accused. "Shouldn't you be at your Mamaw's still?"
When Zim was at his grandmother's, he wasn't allowed any company outside the family. Even at his own home he had few playmates other than Charlotte, but he would have been content with Charlotte and no one else. Though sometimes prone to tantrums, she was probably his favorite person in the world after his mother. He would tell her all the secrets of scrapes and troubles he'd gotten into, and since she never told them to anyone else, this made her trustworthy in his childhood eyes. Charlotte also looked up to him, not just as a boy, but as an older boy, practically infallible. Often tormented by her older sisters and teased by the other children in the neighborhood, Charlotte cried easily, and Zim was quick to defend her. Charlotte thought of him as a knight in shining armor in some ways, and Zim was not opposed to being seen thus. He also thought of himself as her natural protector, though he was too young to fully comprehend the instinct in all of its complexity.
"I’m home early from Mamaw’s this year because I'm going away to school," he said, not looking at her and instead lining up his least favorite marbles, choosing not to gamble with the better ones.
"You're going away?" Charlotte asked, gaping at him. "When?"
"Mama says Papa will come and get me in a fortnight to go to a school in Virginia."
"Papa says it's a good boy's school there. One that will help me get to a good college. I suppose I want to get to a good college."
"How're you going to get to Virginia?" the girl demanded. "Are you going by train?"
"Of course! How else're you to get to Virginia?"
Charlotte's lips rounded in awe. "Are you really going to ride the train, Zachary?"
"I just told you I am, didn't I?"
"Will you write me a letter when you get to Virginia?" she asked.
"You can't read, Charlotte."
"Not yet, but I'm learning," she glared. "And Mary can read. Mary'll do it if I ask her and if I do a chore or two for her."
Zim sighed. "You shouldn't have to do a chore for her," he admonished. "She's your sister, she should read it just because you ask."
Though he had no siblings of his own, and his family was hardly a model of the norm, Zim nonetheless had a clear vision of how familial relations ought to transpire. Unfortunately, like his own, Charlotte’s family did not quite operate as it ought to have either.
"She'll read it, that's all that matters," Charlotte said stubbornly, putting an end to the debate. "So will you write me then?"
"Oh, all right," Zim relented. "I'll write you. But not often, I'll be busy."
Zim couldn't be sure that he'd be busy, but it seemed likely enough, being school and all. If anything, he imagined it would be like the upstairs rooms of his grandmother's house, only with many more children and without the promise of release at the end of three months. He was told he'd be allowed one winter and one summer holiday and no other. He sighed again just thinking about it, taking aim at one of Charlotte's marbles and knocking it easily across the line. She repressed her own sigh, whether for the loss of her marble or her only friend it was unclear.
At school, Zachariah became Zim.
Upon arriving, escorted by his father, he was quickly assigned a room in a hall with fifty other boys, introduced to the headmaster, and then left to fend for himself. The other boys, all having been there already a year or two, were curious of the new boy – a bit young for the school – and his mysterious belongings monogrammed with the initials Z. I. M. Eventually, because "Zachary" was a long name and because he had become well-liked enough to warrant a nickname, the other boys started referring to him simply as Zim. Even some of his teachers adopted it, as it was easier and had a cheerful ring to it, just like the boy it belonged to.
Zim, who had not been very socialized previously, turned out to be blessed with the happy ability to get on in many different situations and to be accepted easily by others, partially, no doubt, because he, himself, was so accepting to begin with. By his fourth year in school, he was easily considered one of the most popular boys, always game for sports or mischief or making entertainment where there was otherwise none to be found. Sometimes this led to reprimand, but he did not often find himself under the cane. Equally, though he was bright and engaging, his marks were hardly cause for celebration, though they were steady enough. His teachers would take him aside to try to inspire harder work, and he would smile graciously, nodding and almost commiserating with them, but there was rarely any change to be seen afterward, whether in his behavior or his grades. Eventually, they became resigned, content that he was a good enough student and unwilling to be anything more.
His mother, on the other hand, would lecture him endlessly while he was on holiday, doubling the dose he was already guaranteed from his critical grandmother.
"Do you think I brought you into this word so you could be average, Zachariah? So you could be like everybody else?" his mother would occasionally demand.
"No," he would retort sourly. "I'm a Montjoy, as Mamaw makes daily reminder, and so I could never be under the false impression that I will ever be like anybody else."
This was always a sure way to quiet his mother: to reference his grandmother or any member of his father's family. He was old enough to know that such references caused her an indistinct sort of pain, but it never seemed to stop him. As he got older, he tortured his grandmother in a similar way, although he remained much more cautious of his Mamaw than his mother. There was just something about the older woman's eyes that made him certain she would destroy him without a second thought if she really felt it was for the best. She had that kind of conviction, like steel, in her bones.