A two-acre quadrangle of trees and grass occupied the center of the Neural Research facility. Employees ate lunch at picnic tables and smoked cigarettes under the trees. Ethan was now allowed in the quadrangle as long as he didn’t talk about the research. Easy enough, since he had no intention of telling anybody anything anyway.
At the opposite end of the park from where the employees gathered, he sat with his back against a maple tree, letting his mind roam up into the azure sky. A shadow fell across his face and he squinted at a figure standing above him. “You’re West, aren’t you?” the shadow said.
Ethan caught a whiff of familiar perfume. “Who are you?” he asked as the woman in green surgical scrubs settled on the grass. Her dark curls and sharp features looked familiar. So did the rounded bulge that pushed out the front of her scrubs.
“My name is Angie Warner. I was one of the nurses working on you the other day.”
Now Ethan knew why he recognized her perfume. “Thanks.”
She had eyes so dark they looked like all-pupil as they bored into Ethan. “Do you always stare at people you meet?” he said.
She looked dazed for a second, then her face broke into a smile. “I’m sorry. Are the rumors true?”
“You leave your body?”
Now it was Ethan’s turn to stare.
“I don’t care what the rest of them want from you. I just wanted to ask if you ever met others out there.”
“People who have passed. Do you encounter them?”
“Why do you ask?”
“My son.” She lowered her eyes. “He was only ten when I lost him. And my husband. I never got to say goodbye.”
“A museum trip. My husband was one of the chaperones. It was a freak thing really. A front tire blew, the driver lost control, and the bus hit a power pole. Brought the line down. Half the kids got electrocuted. Now I’m all alone, except for my little girl, Annie. And these.” She held her stomach.
Electrocution. The blue globe of energy leaped into Ethan’s mind. Beth screamed in his ears and he felt his skin flayed by a thousand spicules of wood. He grabbed at his temples to stop the throbbing.
“Are you all right?” She settled in the grass facing him.
“Not usually. I’m sorry about your boy.”
“His name was Steven. My husband was Keith.”
“How long ago?”
“How far gone are you?” Ethan gestured to her stomach.
“Almost seven months.”
Ethan frowned. “I’m terribly sorry.”
She was laying her grief in the open. It pained Ethan to see her loss. The same agony cut through him every day. He just had more skill in hiding it.
“If I meet anyone with those names, I’ll tell them goodbye for you.”
“Don’t humor me, Mr. West.”
Ethan suddenly realized what a hard case he had become. He trusted nobody. Grief had twisted him into something he barely recognized. He suddenly found his mouth moving. “Listen to me. Your son and husband are not gone. People die, but their energy goes on. Somewhere, somehow, they exist.”
Now her eyes blazed like furnaces. “Don’t lie to me. I can get priests to do that.”
“I’m not. I only understand a fraction of it, but believe me, they’re out there. Somehow, you’ll find them. It may take a thousand lifetimes, but you will.”
For a moment, she saw into him. Her eyes softened. “You’re looking too.”
“Yes.” He didn’t know why he answered her.
“Your wife.” A statement, not a question.
A haunted look came into Ethan’s eyes. “It’s not a good idea to be seen talking to me. You may be questioned.”
“They don’t have microphones out here. I’ll say we talked about the weather.” She gripped his hand for a brief moment, rose, and waddled back into the building.
Ethan did not look down immediately, in case someone was watching. He pulled his knees up and, behind their shield, he opened his right hand. In it nestled a thumbnail-sized photograph, laminated in plastic. A boy’s face smiled at him, hair gold in the sun, his permanent teeth looking too big for his mouth.