Eternity's Edge: Embrace

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Chapter 6

“So according to the calendar, we are booked solid until the end of the next quarter with at least seven sales planned during that time.” Andrew paused to scribble some calculations down on a piece of paper. “That means that on average we would need to hold a sale every….” He scrawled the final figure down on the dry erase board that was the sole source of décor in the break room. He circled it then stepped back to continue addressing the staff. “That doesn’t include the time that it takes to process the contents of the house, price the items, clean and prepare the site for customers and then haul away what didn’t sell to the local resale shops.” He sighed. “Simply put, we’d need to put in some serious overtime even with a full staff.”

There was a collective groan from the other employees but Andrew raised his hand for silence.

“On the upside, you’ll be paid for this—how’s time and a half sound, Dad?”

Mr. Crossman, who had been leaning casually against the back counter of the breakroom, straightened. “Well, uh, that is….”

“Completely fair given how loyal these guys are—not to mention the holidays are right around the corner.”

I smiled as Mr. Crossman seemed to be calculating the cost of such an expenditure.

Andrew sighed. “Just think of the profits. If we pull this off at such a busy not to mention lucrative time of year, we’d put our competitors to shame. What you pay in overtime you more than make up for in sales.”

I smiled. Andrew may be shy and introverted, but his mind was definitely business savvy.

Mr. Crossman scoffed and shook his head. “You make a convincing argument, I’ll give you that. Alright then. Let’s get this train rolling.”

The rest of the employees disbanded for a quick break, but Andrew and I remained behind amid a small mountain of paperwork. This was one of the more tedious and uninspiring aspects of the job, but it was still part of my training.

I picked up a clipping of an obit from one of our clients and scanned it quickly. Thirty seven years old, died of unknown causes, survived by wife and one child. I picked up another. This one—a woman—was forty-three, in relatively good health yet had died unexpectedly.

I paused, then scanned the article again. Martha Ross—why did that name sound so familiar to me?

Andrew edged closer to me. “Something wrong?”

I shook my head. “No, it’s just that this name,” I showed him the clipping. “Sounds really familiar, but I can’t seem to remember why.”

His eyes skimmed the article. “That was the one that was featured in the news a few months back; something about mysterious circumstances surrounding her death.”

“What kind of mysterious circumstances?”

He shrugged. “Well, there was no apparent cause of death at least in the way of disease or trauma, but according to one of the witnesses she was killed by someone or something that wasn’t human. Naturally no one believed them and while the family most likely didn’t appreciate the unwanted attention, the story kind of fizzled out. I’d say drugs or mental illness was most likely to blame on the part of the witness.”

I felt my blood run cold. Gooseflesh popped up on my arms and I set the article down.

“Hey, are you alright? You look like you don’t feel well.”

He got up and handed me his jacket from the coat rack in the corner. I allowed him to set it on my shoulders and snuggled down into its warmth, the smell of his skin and cologne permeating the soft fabric.

“Thanks.”

He sat down next to me again and indicated the other clippings from the file folder. “I know that it can get kind of depressing and well, morbid, but I guess in a way that it’s part of life—what we do I mean. The vast majority of our clients experienced a loss, but sometimes many of them just want to downsize—it’s not all doom and gloom.”

I nodded, my mind still racing. As he spoke I had already scanned the remaining articles and three in total indicated that the death was sudden and of indeterminable causes, each one of the victims in relatively perfect health. When my kind fed the marks we left behind were often minimal or carefully concealed, as we simply absorbed the victim’s life force through some odd spiritual or alchemical means. Perhaps these deaths were simply unfortunate but natural occurrences, but the fact that at in at least one case a witness had reported seeing something unnatural was cause for concern. I memorized the names and dates so that I could do further research on them once I got home that night.

“Hey, so today is Karla’s birthday and we were planning on surprising her with a night out—karaoke style. What do you say?”

I cringed. Not that I had anything overtly against Karla, but the thought of hanging out with her in a karaoke bar complete with watered down drinks didn’t seem all that appealing. On the other hand, spending the night alone at my laptop doing a Google search of recent unsolved deaths within the city seemed even less appealing.

“Sounds like fun so count me in. Only....” I paused, not sure how to proceed. These newest developments coupled with the niggling little voice in the back of my mind had only served to fuel my suspicions as to the surge of my kind in the city of late, and I desperately wanted to go home to do some searching on the internet. I could go along with Andrew’s impression that I wasn’t feeling well and ask for the rest of the day off, but then how to account for my showing up for karaoke later on that evening?

“Look, I know that I was just hired and all, but I kind of need to take a few hours off today—personal business.”

“Sure, no problem. Everything’s okay, though right? I know that you’re taking care of your neighbor and all, and really, you shouldn’t hesitate to ask for time off in case of an emergency.”

I felt slightly guilty for bringing Wendell into this, but if my suspicions were right, then my actions would be entirely justifiable. “Actually it is sort of an emergency, but everything’s fine. I should have everything straightened out in time for tonight’s festivities.”

He nodded. “Great, although if I could ask a favor from you—”

“Anything.”

“Would you mind being the designated driver? This bunch can get pretty rowdy and believe me, neither of them will be in any shape to drive home from the karaoke bar.”

“As hard as that is for me to envision, yes, I’d be happy to play chauffeur tonight.” And I meant it. It had been ages since I had mingled or socialized on a deeper level with humanity, and as bizarre as tonight’s events sounded, I was mildly curious to see how the evening would progress.

“Great, I’ll let the others know. Could you pick us all up here around six? I’ll make a big show of giving you the rest of the day off—that way Karla won’t suspect anything out of the ordinary.”

“Sure thing.” This would afford me the opportunity to run home, spend a few hours researching those unsolved deaths online, and then have enough time to change and pick everyone up.

Andrew did indeed make a ‘big show’ of giving me the rest of the day off, claiming that I was suddenly feeling ill and everyone wished me a speedy recovery as I headed out the door and to my car waiting in the parking lot. Karla didn’t seem all that concerned, but I decided that it really didn’t matter at the moment. Right now I had my suspicions regarding the three unsolved deaths, and if they were right, then I was one step closer to honing in on the creatures responsible.

*************

“I am such an idiot.” I gave my forehead an exaggerated smack and leaned back in my chair.

Wendell sat up from where he had been dozing on my couch. “Something wrong?”

As it turned out, hacking into the local coroner’s and police precinct’s files had been ridiculously easy, and what I had discovered was more than a little unsettling.

The reports more or less had confirmed what I had begun to suspect: the victims—who had no previous history of heart trouble—had died due to cardiac arrest. Aside from a small nick underneath the left thumbnail or on the inside of the palm, there were no signs of trauma. The deaths were therefore determined to be of natural causes and the police reports more or less echoed the coroner’s findings: no signs of a break-in, nothing out of place or stolen. In short, nothing of note had occurred in the first two cases. The third differed in that there was a witness—a neighbor of the deceased—who claimed that they saw a dark figure come up behind the victim as they walked down the narrow driveway of their house to throw the trash in the garbage cans. The witness claimed that the victim was restrained and that at some point during the struggle “some sort of light came out of their body and entered the attacker’s,” whereupon they then dropped to the ground, dead. The police dismissed the whole thing as either attention-seeking or substance abuse, which the witness had had a history of. The fact that they had correctly identified the exact manner in which my kind fed did little to support this theory.

I set down my pen and looked over my notes, then consulted the maps that I had just printed out. Three black dots marked the locations of the mysterious deaths that I had read about in the obits and in the official police reports. A fourth one marked the location of Merle’s and several more indicated spots where I had encountered and killed others of my kind within the last six months. All told, there were no fewer than eleven hot spots, all concentrated around an area that could easily be accessed on foot, approximately a mile in diameter. I hadn’t bothered to plot the locations of other places where I had dispatched others of my kind earlier in the year—the pattern was more than apparent. Coincidence and pure random chance seemed even less likely.

The issue of how I had managed to miss that there was even a pattern present for so long was another matter entirely.

I narrowed my search to a satellite view of the area in question and plainly discerned the houses where the deceased had resided. Whoever—and I had a fairly good idea what they were—were obviously residing in close proximity to these neighborhoods and had transformed them into their own personal hunting grounds. My kind were creatures of habit and had a tendency to favor certain areas over others when it came to selecting victims. I had long held the belief that because we lived so long—or some of us anyway—that patterns helped ground us in reality. Eternity and the multitude of unknowns that it presented could be daunting and overwhelming, so familiarity offered comfort and a sense of control.

Now that I had identified the area in which these creatures were focused on, I had only to identify the neighborhood and then the specific location where they were holed up.

I turned to Wendell. “I think I just hit pay dirt.”

I brought the laptop over to the couch and he stared at the satellite image, then at the maps with my notations on them. He looked at me and I nodded. He placed a hand on my arm. “Be careful.”

“Always.” I glanced at the time display on the corner of the laptop and sighed. I had about an hour to get changed and then play chauffeur to Karla and the rest of the birthday bunch. “I have to leave shortly for the festivities and will most likely be home late. Don’t wait up for me.” I ran a hand up through my hair. “At the very least this evening promises to be mildly interesting even if I can’t drink as much as I want to.”

He quirked an eyebrow. “When was the last time that you went to a karaoke bar, or had fun of any kind for that matter?”

“About nineteen-seventy-four.”

“And? How did the evening pan out?”

I thought about it. “Three of my kind tried to jump me in an alley right after I punched the bouncer for trying to feel me up.”

He tried to hide his grin but failed miserably. “So basically it was a good night, then.”

I grinned back. “I managed to survive the Disco era in one piece. Quite a few didn’t—including the ones who tried to jump me.”

*************

“Happy Birthday!”

Karla squealed in a way that I was sure was audible to every dog within a five block radius and clapped her hands. “You guys!”

Derrick embraced her. “And many more, love. Ready to have some fun? We’ve just the place picked out for you.”

“Is it karaoke? Please tell me its karaoke!”

“Telling you would be spoiling the fun.”

She squealed again and headed towards the exit but paused when she saw me standing there in the doorway.

I held up my hand and jangled my car keys. “Looks like I’m playing chauffeur tonight. We’ll be taking my car.”

Her smile withered slightly. “Great.”

We piled into my car—Andrew riding shotgun with Derrick, Karla, and Amanda in the back—and headed off downtown. Andrew directed me to a location that can only be described as a hole-in-the-wall kind of place called Whiskey Joe’s. The orange neon sign featured a cactus wearing a bandana and a cowboy hat. A few cars were parked in the lot and the strains of classic country drifted out from the building’s wooden plank façade.

Everyone piled out of my car giddy and chattering with excitement. As soon as we entered the smoky interior about twenty sets of eyes turned to stare at us, giving us the once over. We made our way over to a table near the DJ and quickly settled in. A tired looking waitress came over to get our drink order and Amanda and Derrick went to sign up for their songs.

Andrew and Karla busied themselves with flipping through the worn binder featuring the lists of available songs while a burly trucker named Davidson sang his heart out to Hank Williams.

The next few hours stretched out endlessly before me and before I knew it I had finished my second drink. The rest of the group cheered and clapped while some of the locals performed and the drinks kept flowing. Soon enough it was Andrew’s turn, which surprised me.

“Alright folks let’s welcome Andrewwww to the stage!” The DJ raised his beer and then took a drag from his E-Cigarette as Andrew made his way to the front.

“Omigod, he is sooo cute!”

I winced at Karla’s squeal of delight as Andrew began to bob his head to the music blaring out of the karaoke machine. The crowd whooped and cheered drunkenly as the song picked up into a tune I vaguely recalled from the eighties and then he began to sing. Off-key.

Beer bottles and shot glasses seemingly rose up in sync as Andrew continued to sing loudly and at least three beats off to a song dedicated to the desire for another woman, and all the while I couldn’t help but notice the doe-like adoration in Karla’s eyes as she drank him up along with her third strawberry daiquiri.

Andrew finished the song amid wild shouts and claps on the back from the other office workers, and Karla—seemingly emboldened with liquid courage—gave him a flirtatious peck on the cheek.

I felt myself bristle, then forced myself to relax. It wasn’t like we were anything other than co-workers, and besides, he and Karla were both young and what harm would it cause if things worked out for them? I had to admit that the way he handled himself so confidently in front of everyone—despite his lack of rhythm or timing—was not only admirable, but downright adorable.

I shook my head, suddenly feeling young and very stupid. Depressed, I drained the last of my cranberry and vodka and put on a practiced fake smile as the festivities continued. Derrick was next and surprised everyone with his superb rapping skills, something which seemed completely out of line with his clean-cut, bookish appearance.

“Do you sing? Come on, I bet you’d be awesome!”

I started as Andrew leaned in close to me, still glowing with post-performance euphoria. He was looking and smiling at me in a way that sent my heart racing, namely because at least at the office he was so shy and rarely made eye contact. Embarrassed, I averted my gaze and then shook my head. “Sorry, singing in front of others is one of my weaknesses. I can’t really explain why—I mean, it’s not like I was ridiculed or something, I just…I can’t,” I finished lamely. Where the hell was the waitress when you needed her?

“Oh. Well, everyone has their quirks, I guess.” He finished his beer and signaled to the waitress who quickly rushed over. “A round of shots, please. Tequila.”

“Make mine a double!” Karla edged between us and leaned on the table top, clearly vying for attention. “If Katrina doesn’t want to sing, I will. I have the perfect song picked out.” She giggled and then strutted away to sign up at the DJ box. Andrew followed her progress, a strange look on his face.

“No question, she is completely sweet on you!” Derrick slung his arm over Andrew and leaned in conspiratorially.

Andrew ducked his head, clearly embarrassed. “Yeah, right. I have absolutely no game whatsoever.”

Derrick shook his head and motioned to Karla with his beer. “Game or no game, she wants you, mate—guaranteed.”

The strains of B-52’s “Love Shack” began blaring out of the loudspeakers and Karla began to sing and gyrate suggestively, all the while staring directly at Andrew. Derrick clapped him on the back and said something unintelligible, grinning mischievously. Disgusted, I downed the closest shot next to me—the double based on the strength—and then excused myself. The music and clapping were plainly evident even through the bathroom walls and I couldn’t help but feel alienated from everyone.

Coming here tonight had been a mistake.

Whatever feelings I had for Andrew had only been intensified by his endearing shyness and unabashed showmanship, and now that Karla was also showing interest I couldn’t help but feel jealous.

Thoroughly depressed, I made my way out of the bathroom and nearly ran into a couple secreted away in the narrow hallway. “Sorry, I was—” The words froze in my throat as I recognized them as none other than Andrew and Karla, who were thoroughly engaged in some serious lip action. I backed up awkwardly and hurriedly edged out of their way to avoid being noticed. Numb, I made my way back to our table and let the noise and conversations of the others wash over and around me. After some time Andrew rejoined our group and a few minutes later Karla returned. They both tried to appear indifferent as if nothing had just transpired between them, but others—especially Derrick—quickly caught on and then the teasing and ribbing started in earnest. Karla seemed pleased with how things had turned out, but Andrew was red with embarrassment. More shot glasses and beer bottles met their match at our table, but I had long stopped joining in the festivities.

When we left the bar around midnight we filed out and made our way across the parking lot back to my car. No one was in any shape to drive home from the bar much less from the office, and while the logistics of this didn’t occur to us until after the festivities, Andrew said that he and his dad would pick up everyone tomorrow morning from their places and drive them to work. Everyone was too mellowed out to put up much of a protest and simply murmured sleepily and sat back against the upholstery.

When I pulled up to Karla’s apartment complex, she lingered expectantly beside the open passenger door but Andrew mumbled a hasty apology and said that he had had too much to drink and needed to sleep it off. Disappointed, she slammed the door and practically stomped up the walkway before disappearing inside. Derrick seemed equally disappointed, but Andrew waved him away.

Andrew was the last to be dropped off and I felt the silence weigh heavily against me in the car. He was staring out the window at the slow-moving traffic, his expression giving away nothing. I sighed and decided to go for broke. “So,” I pretended to glance at the side mirror, checking for traffic. “I had fun tonight.”

“Yeah, I did too.”

I frowned. There was not a whole lot to read into that statement, so I decided to dig further. “You know, I feel kind of bad for not getting up there and singing like everyone else. I mean, just the fact that I even entered the building was a big deal for me. My usual m.o. is to sit these things out.”

“Well, like I said, everyone has their quirks. Not everyone feels comfortable doing that and you shouldn’t feel ashamed or anything.”

That made me feel slightly better and emboldened, I continued. “I feel kind of envious of you—not in a bad way—but it takes guts to do that. Singing in front of others, I mean.”

Silence. “Yeah, tonight has been kind of random for me. I normally don’t do these kind of things, but it just seemed like the right timing. Although there’s one thing I regret not doing.”

That would include Karla, no doubt. I tried to appear nonchalant. “Really? Like what?”

He hesitated. Then: “Karla and I, we…well, you probably didn’t notice but we had sort of a thing going on tonight between us.”

I scoffed. “Actually I did notice. I practically ran into the two of you in the hallway outside the restrooms.”

He seemed mortified. “Are you serious? I don’t want you to get the wrong impression of me or anything—”

“Of what? I’m not judging you or anything. What you and Karla do are your own business.” I didn’t mean to sound defensive, but there it was.

He ran his hand up through his hair. “It’s not that. Karla is a nice girl and all, but I kind of got caught up in the moment and now I think that she’s under the impression that there is something more going on between us.”

That was unexpected. “Oh. Sorry.”

Andrew flopped back on the seat with his eyes closed. “Ugh, I think I’m going to be sick—pull over.”

I barely managed to do that before he was out of the car and heaving up on the side of the road. I attempted to get out in order to assist him but he waved me away, clearly embarrassed at my having to see him in such a state. I sat behind the wheel watching the oncoming traffic in the rear-view mirror while he collected himself and then climbed shakily back inside the car. His skin was flushed and sweating and he looked truly terrible.

“I don’t think I’ll be doing anything this dumb in a long time.” He scrubbed at his face and then grimaced. “I need to get home.”

I had to help him up the walkway to his house by the time I pulled up to the circular driveway ten minutes later. The effects of the karaoke bar had fully caught up to him by then and he was heaving and retching violently. I helped him as best I could and cleaned him up with a damp washcloth once he recovered his composure. He was grateful yet regretted that I had to see him like that, but I waved away his concerns.

“Don’t worry about it. Besides, how do you think I’d feel if I later found out that you slipped and fell in the shower and laid here all night with no one to help you? I don’t mind hanging around until you’ve had a chance to clean up.”

“You sure? I think that the worst is over and all, so there’s no need—”

“Go.” I motioned towards the shower and he acquiesced with no further argument.

The shower began to run and satisfied that he didn’t fall and hurt himself, I stood by the window overlooking the city and watched the few cars still out at this hour roll by. Andrew’s bedroom was Spartan at best and was decorated with only a few pieces of memorabilia—most likely from either high school or college—and hinted at an athletic edge.

“So what do you think?”

I started. I hadn’t even heard the shower switch off. Andrew was coming out of the bathroom in a white t-shirt and gray sweats, a towel draped loosely around his shoulders. I couldn’t help but notice how carefree and young he looked and my heart ached at the sight of him. What the hell was I doing standing here in his house at one a.m. when I knew good and well that nothing could ever happen between us?

“Uh…it’s nice.”

He scoffed and shook his head. “It’s not much but it’s mine. Sure its lacking in the way of decoration, but what it really needs is a—”

“A woman’s touch?” Now what in the world had possessed me to say that?

“‘A woman’s touch’; now there’s an interesting concept. Based on the fact that I’m chronically single that seems unlikely.”

“You and me both.” The words were out before I could stop them.

He shifted slightly and began to fold the towel up, careful to avoid my eyes. “If you don’t mind my saying so, any guy would consider himself lucky to be with you, myself included.”

My face warmed. “Thanks.” An awkward silence descended on the room and I was keenly aware of my racing heart beat and of our mutual breathing filling the tiny space. Andrew seemed to sense it as well and I could almost hear the turn of events steadily clicking into place. To linger here any longer could potentially lead to disaster.

I cleared my throat and shuffled uncomfortably. “It’s late. I should get going.”

“Hey, if I said anything to make you uncomfortable—”

I paused, not daring to meet his eyes. This whole evening had been an emotional roller coaster already, and his genuine concern was not helping. “No—and yes,” I managed. I could feel tears threatening at the corners of my eyes and I didn’t want him to see me like this. “I’ll see you around?” I offered weakly. I was almost to the door when his hand on my shoulder stopped me. I stiffened and he pulled back, confused.

“Kat?”

“Katrina.” There was a hard edge to my voice that I made no effort to disguise.

“Katrina. Look, I’m getting the impression that something I said had the wrong effect on you but I don’t know what it is. Do you think that you could help me out here? I don’t want to leave things hanging the way that they are.”

I sighed. Dammit, I did not need this. Andrew was a good person and didn’t deserve to get mixed up in the chaos that was my life. “It’s nothing that you said. My past…let’s just say that there are some things that have happened that have come back to haunt me and I don’t want you getting mixed up in it.”

He was immediately concerned and strode forward. “Are you in some kind of trouble? There are people that could help you, someone you could call—”

“I can take care of myself.”

He paused, momentarily taken aback at my venomous tone. “That’s not what I meant. I meant that if you needed someone to talk to that I’m here anytime you want to open up.”

I felt my control slipping and fought to reign in my emotions. “No one can help me.” I made a hasty move towards the door and did not wait for a response. I paused just before exiting. “You should take Karla out for a real date—I’m sure she’d like that. Besides, you two go well together.”

I didn’t even really remember leaving his house or walking the short distance to my car, but by the time that I was behind the wheel I was crying openly. Hot, angry tears streamed down my face and I caught my reflection in the rear view mirror. Once again I was reminded of the young, frightened woman that I once was, the woman who had been thrown headlong into a waking nightmare with no warning and no means of escape.

I slammed my fist down hard on the dashboard and the flimsy material cracked under the onslaught.

Great. Now I had one more thing to fix in my already-complicated life.

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