July 1, 2028
Heartstrong Valley, Colorado
A blaring alarm clock went off within the light blue, newly furnished, and still unruly chamber walls. Groggily, bleary eyed, Alec shut off the resounding noise and glared at the time. He thought himself insane for awakening at seven in the morning, but it had to be done.
The sunrise filled his chaotic room with a slight red glow. He stretched, cracked his back, and slipped out of his comfortable, warm bed, still hidden under a mound of clothes.
Leo as he was, modesty was not in his genetic make-up. Without a stitch, he yawned, turned on his television, and switched the station to the national news. Yes, he was insane for waking up so early, but he had to know if there were any updates on Meryl’s whereabouts.
Megan was back in studio, on a live feed, “…Thanks Bill, I’m certainly glad to be back in the United States. It was a trying time in Paris. I regret whole-heartedly to announce the premature deaths of Susan and Justin Connelly and Cameron Pent. They were wonderful and stuck through our mission to the end. Alice Rowland and Jack Reede, who had also accompanied me to France, caught this disturbing footage, be warned, it is pretty graphic…”
The studio played the frightening video clip Jack had recorded in the nearly destroyed hospital.
Astonished, Alec fell back in his chair and watched the footage with unblinking eyes that were glued to the television.
He watched as Meryl picked up the gun and called out the name of her cousin, then, Kai’s final resolve with the mad gleam in his eyes, Meryl’s narrow escape from death, and then the blue sky of Paris, France, where the smoke and fire whipped in the wind. Jack and Meryl spoke; the latter confirmed that the enemy, her enemy, and the world’s enemy, was gone for good.
The cameras turned back to Bill and Megan.
Bill spoke first; he could not look more disturbed. Recovering slightly, he moved on, “Well Megan, it is reassuring to see you, Jack and Alice safely back here. I am truly sorry about Susan, Justin and Cameron. We are all praying for them and their families. Tell me, what happened to Meryl? Where is she now?”
In spite of all that she had been through, Megan smiled brightly. “Bill, I have no idea.”
The way she stated her final words, it was clear that Megan knew Meryl’s whereabouts, but she was not going to give it away so easily.
Dizzy with this new information, Alec turned off the T.V. and spun to his laptop. Tapping hard on his keyboard, he searched up the name: Meryl Renée Grigori.
Too many results came up about her defeating Kai and surviving. There was nothing on her current location.
From years of technological experience, even before he joined the military, Alec hacked into the C.I.A. and the F.B.I.’s not-quite-so-secretive and almost secure database and ran different searches. Still, nothing came up, at least nothing of her whereabouts.
She would be a true ghost until she revealed herself. However, Alec was momentarily perplexed by Meryl’s record; not that she was a criminal.
There were many medical bills but the debt had miraculously disappeared. Alec read the notes the doctors left about her, and the year her family was murdered.
Apparently, she lost so much blood when Kai cut and slashed at her, that it was a miracle that she was able to find her way to the emergency room. But, the doctor noted, while she may live, there will be many scars, both mental and physical; she will never fully recover.
Alec flipped through the virtual pages of her medical history. He came across the case files and crime scene photos of her murdered family.
Unable to intrude on the rest of her disturbing history, Alec closed out the documents and leaned back in his chair. He ran his fingers through his long black mane as he reflected. “What are we going to do?” he asked the room, as if a spirit was there and ready to answer him.
With no idea of the apparition’s existence, Alec stood up, pulled on a pair of shorts, and tip-toed into Ira’s room.
His captain was sound asleep, face down in his pillow with his arm hanging off the bed. His fingers suspended inches above an opened leather bound notebook that had fallen to the floor.
Cautiously, barely breathing, Alec knelt. But before he could pick it up, something more disconcerting caught his attention. Laying on the night stand was a small orange bottle with a white label.
Prying was not his intention. However, Alec could not help but read the label; Zoloft – an antidepressant.
There were only three pills left.
Cursing mutedly, Alec gazed at his slumbering captain dejectedly. There was no point in asking. Instead, he picked up the journal and read the entry with difficulty; the handwriting was scribbled hastily:
Families Farm – August 23, 2015
I fell out of the tree again! I know it means more bruises but I can’t help it. I love to climb and I keep trying to get to the top of the tallest fruit tree. The sight of the mountains and the sunset is stunning from the crow’s nest. I can’t wait until harvest time; I will be able to climb the apple trees, which are sturdier.
Well, good news is, I have no broken bones, so grandmother Swan says. But I will have a headache… I have one right now.
However, I really do not mind.
I met the love of my life! Well, I actually landed at his feet.
Apparently, his family just moved into a house closer to the town. His name sounded funny; well I am one to talk. But, Ira Byrne is his name. My grandmother says that means Watchful Raven!
So, Watchful Blackbird, Watchful Raven. It is a perfect match and he is funny, witty, and caring. Now I sound like a giddy eleven year old… even though I am fourteen.
Anyway, I just found out he will be going to my school, too! I will be sure to keep a close eye on him.
I bet he and Matt will get along very well. They have the same interests. I’ll be sure to introduce them.
It is weird, but Raven has the same traits as I do. I wonder if that will affect our relationship. I mean if we have one. But I know this at least; this is the man I want to marry, or end up having an epic adventure with – where we battle the forces of evil to be together… Okay, I need to stop rereading Homer and those fantasy books…
Alec could read no more. Meryl’s diary convinced him that the two were truly meant to be, even if they did hiss at each other now and then. However, he needed to tell Ira the truth.
But how? He thought with a sigh.
“What?” Ira yawned.
Alec gulped, wide-eyed, as he realized he said that aloud. The former squinted at Alec; they were very close in proximity.
Exhaustedly, Ira grinned broadly. “Good morning, sweetheart. What, no morning kiss for your husband?”
“Ha!” Alec barked as he pulled Ira’s pillow from beneath him and pretended to suffocate him. “Come on, sleeping beauty. There’s work to do.”
Ira slowly heaved out of bed and turned his back to his friend as he dressed; he, at least, still had some dignity left.
“Oh, here is this.” Alec handed the journal back, “You fell asleep reading it again.”
“Thanks,” Ira chuckled as he asked. “She was crazy back then, don’t you think?”
Alec hesitantly stated, “Yeah, I’d say so; reading Homer for fun?”
Both laughed aloud. Ira wiped away a cheerful and saddened tear. “She read that, Tolkien, and even Dante for her pleasure. There was not one day you’d see her without a book…” His voice trailed off as the thought of her cut into his heart. He remembered how he, Matthew, and Meryl would sit in the courtyard at the school having lunch. As they ate, Meryl would read a clever passage to them and she would have them debate the meaning whether they wanted to or not.
Alec sighed. More to distract Ira’s thoughts, he chirped, “By the way, happy birthday, captain.”
Dumbfounded, Ira was struck with reality. He was thirty years old today.
“Great, I feel old…” was his first reaction.
Alec laughed again and clapped his friend’s back. “Well, what should we do old man?”
“What do you mean?”
“Oh come on! It’s your big three zero. We need to celebrate!”
“We have work to do,” Ira corrected with a slight smile as he counted a list off his fingers. “I need to repaint the fence. Build a stable, so we can have some horses, and make a shed for the tools.”
“Yeah.” Ira shrugged. “We can breed and train horses, then when they are old enough, we can sell them to riders and lease out some stalls.”
“Horses? Seriously? We are rowdy as it is.”
“Oh come on.” It was Ira’s turn to slap Alec’s back. “We have thirty acres of land. Don’t tell me you don’t want horses to ride.”
Alec crossed his arms and chided, “Nay.”
Unable to hide a sly smile, both men laughed together as if it were old times again, when it was a much easier age.
Still grinning, Ira suggested, “We should wake the others and try to get as much done today… That’s one birthday wish.”
They stepped out of Ira’s room and split paths; Alec went to wake up Charlie as Ira woke Garth and Chris.
Once they were all conscious and half-dressed, they walked downstairs into the nicely furnished kitchen with off-white walls and grey marbled counter tops. Sleepy eyed, they yawned as Ira outlined the day’s chores and priorities as he put on the coffee.
Chancing a glance outside to see the weather, he noticed a blackbird perched on the windowsill. Unlike the most common blackbirds, who had black feathers, this one had a brown and orange spotted coat with dark wings. The morning sun highlighted the bird’s feathers with light grey and blue. Its head turned quickly and looked directly at Ira, at the studying gaze he returned.
The others, joking with each other, realized their captain was not a part of their cheery mood.
They too turned to see the blackbird just as it spread its small wings and took flight.
“Hey.” Alec broke Ira’s trance with a strong grip on his shoulder. “She’s watching over you.”
“Over us.” Ira cracked a small grin, but he was not in the mood for jokes.
After birthday cheers and a light breakfast, they placed their dishes in the sink. Ira was the first to step out into the misty morning, ready for a hard day’s work.
The others were glad that Ira attempted to act natural. Indeed, he was more cheerful now that the house was finished. And although they did not say a word to each other, they all knew that his unoccupied mind would travel back to Meryl.
Well, after their long campaign, everyone still felt restless and on edge.
“When will he get over her?” Charlie asked the silent room at large, knowing Ira was out of earshot.
“Probably never, now that she is… you know,” Alec whispered. “She fell off the grid. The hospital where she recovered was in a shambles. He is dead but she is a ghost, so far as I can tell.”
Garth leaned forward and whistled softly, “Do you think she will try to come back?”
“Pretty sure. Though, it’s been a month since we stopped hearing about her. Oh, you need to see this. Wait here.”
As swift as possible, Alec raced upstairs to his room then back down, leaping over the last few steps; his laptop was held firmly in his hand. With ease, he pulled up the clip that recorded Meryl and Jack in the hospital.
Charlie, Garth, and Chris jumped and gasped with wide eyes as they watched her fall through the floor, but breathed again when Jack pulled her from the grey smoke.
“That woman has been through a lot…” Garth felt compassion for her, as did the others. “When are we going to tell him? It’s wrong to keep such a secret from our captain. He’s the one who kept us together and it feels as if we are betraying him.”
“Are you kidding?” Alec snapped. “If we tell him, he’ll wonder if this is a sick joke, or wonder why she didn’t contact him, or he’ll take off like a bat out of hell in search of her. He’s better off not knowing, at least not yet.”
Although it stung and bit at them to withhold such damaging information, the others understood and nodded solemnly.
Charlie broke the silence. “Let’s go help him.”
Alec closed his laptop, left it where it stood, and they ventured outdoors into the soon-to-be hot, summer day.