Walking outside in the lush greens and deep browns provided a welcome change from the beige color pallet of the hospital wing. I was alive and for the first time in days, I could feel the difference between recovery and wellness. Bright sun on my face and the thin, cold mountain air revived my overly stressed mind. The air smelled like pine trees and wet dirt. Tall, thick evergreen trees rustled against the force of the wind, whispering a constant melody. Chattering from the birds high in the trees framed the wind with light bell tones; it sounded as if they were having a heated bird debate. The grounds were uneven and natural, yet the manicured grass and mulch beds beneath the groupings of trees looked deliberate, probably for security. You could see at least six feet from the ground in all directions, there were no obscured areas to hide. Of course, small animals could be hiding almost anywhere.
“You know my right knee it doesn’t hurt. I’ve had issues with it ever since my accident. Walking down stairs, trusting my balance on it, my leg didn’t have any strength. But now it feels fine.” I commented to Gerald who was busy crunching small groups of pine needles with his fingers.
“What other effects did you have from your wreck?” Gerald had an odd look on his face, he looked curious, but his tone suggested that he didn’t want to know.
“Oh, I am not going to whine about all my battle scars, nobody likes to hear that kind of crap from people. Just about everyone has some pesky problem.”
“No, I suppose you’re right. I have your civilian medical records to read. I will look over them and then we can discuss my findings.”
“I can spare you the tedium with the abridged version. I was scraped up and bruised all over. My leg was broken, my knee was twisted, and my ankle was sprained. The most bothersome thing was the anesthetic the hospital outside of Ramstein gave me. I guess I had a reaction to it. No one knew what was wrong with me. I had a high fever and brain swelling along with my lungs and kidneys too.
Once I got back to California, my mother got me into Stanford. The doctors there figured an injury or treatment from the wreck triggered an autoimmune response. I am not really sure though. Doctors label anything they can’t figure out as autoimmune. See, I have bored you to death.” Gerald had a faraway look about him; I could tell I had rambled on too long.
“No, on the contrary, I should read your civilian file more thoroughly; there might be something that was missed.”
We arrived at the steps of a dome cottage. It was much like the one Carl had on the other side of the hilltop. This one looked larger, and the roof was higher pitched. Gerald handed me the keys, and I unlocked the door. We walked into a clean, sparsely decorated room. There was a large vase of fresh cut peach-colored roses on a polished wood dining table with a note.
Missed you today. I’ll be back tomorrow morning to help you get set up, Ann.
“Wow, she thinks of everything,” I commented putting the note back where I found it. Gerald picked up the small piece of paper and read it semi-silently before inspecting the obviously blank backside.
“You and Ann were great friends before. I am sure she wants to help you get settled.”
“Yeah, she has been amazing.” I stared at Gerald for a moment watching him inspect the note in his hand before he caught my puzzled expression and set it back on the table. “There is so much light in this little place. The design is so unique.” Trying to focus his attention on something else was proving difficult.
I walked throughout the rooms, commenting on each item I noticed. It was clean to the point of newness. There was fresh cream-colored paint on the walls and new carpet on the floors. Turquoise and purple glass dishes sparkled in the cupboards. Freshly pressed draperies that matched the light, brown sugar colored carpet hung in all the windows.
The fridge was stocked with the basics including my favorite brand of spiced rum placed suggestively close to a bottle of pineapple juice. I wanted to pour myself a glass right then and there, but I continued on to the next room. The bathroom was also stocked, even my hard to find vanilla cupcake scented shampoo and my pumpkin enzyme face scrub sat waiting for me to use them.
There was a king sized bed in the largest bedroom decorated in white and deep plum sheets; the contrast was stunning. The second smaller room had a full sized bed done up in reversible brown and moss green linens. It was perfect for Matt. Ann had even left me a set of pink, jersey pajamas and a bathrobe that matched. She really had thought of everything.
“I can’t remember the last time I slept alone in an empty house,” I admitted aloud.
Gerald turned around to look at me with his clinical stare. “I can give you something to help you sleep if you like.”
“No, I’ll try it au natural tonight see how it goes. Even over the counter sleeping pills tend to make me feel paranoid.”
“I am heading back to the lab for a few hours, but I will check on you later. There will be somebody along tomorrow to deliver a few television sets and some tall bookshelves. Courtesy of Ann and myself of course.”
“Oh wow that is so nice of you two, but I can’t accept...”
“It’s nothing.” Gerald interrupted. “You are actually helping me a great deal. I had enough furniture for three of these tiny places. Getting rid of all the clutter has been wonderful.”
“Well thank you, I appreciate your thoughtfulness.” I reached out to shake Gerald’s hand, and he pulled me close to him and hugged me. He acted as if he wanted to say something. He hemmed and hawed before releasing me. He paced back in forth in front of the door seemingly not sure what to do next. “Ivan, are you okay?”
“Yes, of course, I'm fine. The thing is I had hoped I would see you again, but I …” Ivan looked up at me finally and with a forced smile and posture to match, he simply nodded and walked out the door. “I’ll be back to check on you later.” Gerald walked quickly down the steps. He seemed to be in a hurry to get back to Richard. “I’m down the walkway, my place is the one closest to the lamp post. If you need anything come by and ask.”
“Thanks, it’s nice to know you’re so close,” Gerald smiled and looked down at the ground before he headed to the group of buildings in the distance.
It was early evening, and the sky was beginning to lose the daylight. I stood at the door for a few minutes and waited to see if the lamppost would light up. I love that moment when the streetlights flicker to life signaling that night has started. The old teal lamppost seemed to know I was watching. Reluctantly it hummed and zipped to life. I could feel a smile spread across my face, an expression that felt out of place given my situation. I turned from the open door and shut it halfway, unsure what to do first.
I took stock of everything in the kitchen. I had all the ingredients for a batch of chocolate chip cookies: eggs, sticks of unsalted butter, flour, sugar and I spotted the gold bag of chocolate chips on a shelf next to the flour, right where I would have put it if I had loaded the shelves myself. I had everything I needed for Matt’s favorite turkey stir-fry too, including fresh ginger root, carrots, and the stoplight bell pepper pack. There was breakfast cereal, pancake mix, my fancy syrup, and the low-fat margarine I like.
I opened the cupboards and refrigerator wide and stood back where I could see all the items at once. I tried to breathe calmly as the panic started to rise in my chest. He had told me they were watching me. They had a perfectly legitimate reason to watch me, but the cupboards and the refrigerator were both stocked with all the things I have in my kitchen at home. And it was all placed exactly the same way.
The labels faced out in the pantry closet. An OCD trait that I just can’t shake no matter how hard I try. The cans were organized just as I keep mine. Prepared items like chili go first, then canned vegetables, tomatoes of any kind, then canned fruits, canned tuna or chicken, nothing was missed. Nothing was out of place. The shelves had been stocked with my last two or three grocery lists. How could anyone know all of this about me?
The refrigerator left open too long started to beep. The sound startled me back to the present. I pulled the rum and the pineapple juice out of the fridge and pushed the door shut. I moved my hand to the cabinet that should hold the glasses and found it full of beautiful, clear glass tumblers in various heights. They looked just like the set I had seen in the Sunday ads. These were not cheap glasses, neither were the dishes, and the kitchen had been well stocked. Who paid for all this? I consoled myself with the thought that Ann would be by in the morning, and she would explain it all to me.
I took a few cubes of ice from the freezer and poured myself a nice tall glass of rum and pineapple juice before heading out to explore the rest of the house. Walking from room to room, I noticed there were a few stacks of books, some old CD’s, and a pile of old vinyl records in the living room. A stereo had been set up, all the wires and cords tucked neatly away. The lights on the turntable were lit up, it looked like it worked. I picked a random record from the pile. I had to laugh as I saw the deep blue cover and the woman with the magnolia flower in her hair. It was one of my recent downloads; I had this entire record on my iPod.
I pulled the record out of the paper jacket. The smell of the musty cardboard held my interest, and I knew I had touched this record before. The imperfect sound of the vinyl was alive, a thumbprint in time as opposed to the digital copy I was used to hearing. I turned the volume up and sat back on the couch to listen to the old record play. There were a few windows open, no doubt to air out the smell of the fresh paint. The icy cross breeze made it feel like the air was rolling off a snow-covered peak. I found a blanket folded on the chair next to me, curled up on the new to me couch, and tried not to think of anything but the sad sound of the saxophone playing in the background.
I wonder what the people in the crowd were talking about? What was the state of their world as they sat and watched her sing? Did they realize at that moment how fantastic she was? I doubt that they did. Several songs and half a large glass of rum and pineapple later I heard the rustling of a paper bag outside my door. Quietly I walked to the window to look out and was surprised to find Gerald with a bag of bread and a bottle of olive oil in his hands.
“Gerald, what are you doing out there?”
“I told you I was coming back later.”
“Yes, you did. Come in I was just listening to a record.” I walked over to the stereo and turned down the music. Gerald was looking at all the items in the room one by one.
“I brought some fresh bread and some spicy oil to dip it in. There’s a place in town for great bread. The olive oil is from California. I thought you might like a taste of the sunshine.”
“That looks yummy. I’ll get us some plates. Can I get you a drink? I have bottled waters and soda or some rum perhaps.” I rattled the ice cubes in my glass as I made my way to the kitchen.
“Water is fine for me thanks,” Gerald placed the bag on the breakfast bar and pulled a stool away from the wall.
“I can’t believe what Ann has done. This place is stocked with absolutely everything.” Looking around I noticed the coffee pot on the counter was the same one David had bought me for my birthday last year. “Look, this is my coffee pot from home,” I laughed. Gerald put his head in his hands as I continued ranting on about the kitchen appliances. “You look tired. Today was definitely interesting wasn’t it?”
“Yes, that's one way to describe it. I got back to the lab Richard had already woken up. I collected a blood sample and sent him home for the night. I finished up a few things and here I am.”
“How did I, I mean whatever could have possessed me to show anyone that I can do this. How is it I came to be here in the first place?” I couldn’t word my questions properly, there were too many of them running through my mind all at once. Why would I cop to any of this, how did they trick me into showing them, why is everything in the kitchen put away just like in my kitchen at home? Who has been in my kitchen at home?
“The short story, you, and your first husband were living off base in Germany; he went on training maneuvers and came back with a broken arm. Nice clean break, three days later when he went back to the base doctor for a checkup, he was fine, no broken arm.”
“Was there proof of the broken bone or did they just assume he broke it?” I questioned skeptically.
“No, there were x-rays and medical reports, even eyewitness accounts to back up the reports. He had a compound fracture, which as far as they knew healed completely in three days. So he was questioned, and you were questioned. Eventually, they found you to be the reason for his miraculous recovery.”
“Okay, so I was taken by the government, sold into white slavery, what?”
“Nothing quite that sinister. You were compelled to participate in a study and from there you were given some training and sent here for mission support.”
“Compelled? That doesn’t sound good.” Gerald ignored my indirect question and moved along with his explanation a bit annoyed that I had interrupted.
“We had issues with the Middle East in those days, much like now just different players. This installation was buzzing and had some key people running it. You were needed and after you were added to the mix things worked out quite well for them.”
“So what did I do, patch people up all day?”
“No, you aided in the most advanced levels of interrogation. We would use our normal tactics. The subject would be injured, and you would heal them, calm them down, ask them what we wanted to know. If they resisted you could drain their life slowly, painfully. Then you could then heal them up and start the process all over. It usually became clear that you only die once didn’t apply anymore. Besides, you could glean the answers we needed by touching them. Even death couldn’t have stopped us from getting what we needed. We have others for that part of the process.”
“God that sounds awful. Why would I want to do that to somebody?”
“I don’t think you enjoyed it but the information we obtained was invaluable. You also were involved in some of the outside missions. We worked together on a lot of those, mending combat wounds and making it possible for longer missions to be completed. I was assigned to observe you, figure out medically how you do what you do and see if it could be duplicated or exploited. We quickly became friends and I ignored that part of my directive.”
“Why did Richard affect me so much? I mean you have been around me every day. Why didn’t I have the same reaction to you?”
“I have a genetic defect, Richard doesn’t. You have never been drawn to a subject with any kind of serious genetic defect. I’m practically immune to you because of it.”
“How bizarre, how is that even possible?” I questioned.
“Survival of the fittest usually prevails. Your abilities are primal. I have no proof for my theory, only my observations, but I believe your flight or fight mechanism fuels your ability to heal quickly. It gives you heightened awareness. I imagine you trigger this in others, tapping into the most primal aspects of our species, allowing them to heal quickly. We have better equipment now, our tests years ago weren’t conclusive.”
Gerald got up from his seat at the bar and went into the kitchen. He walked all the way around the room looking at the dishes in the cabinets and the appliances on the counters. He selected a glass and went to the freezer and got some ice then poured his bottle of water on top of it and put the empty bottle in the sink. He leaned against the sink and stared back into the living room and out the front window. He was unusually quiet.
“You look like you have something on your mind, Ivan. Why so quiet?”
“I don’t agree with pushing you to remember. As you find out more, you are going to question more. I don’t want to explain all the facts that will be hard for you to hear.” Gerald looked down at the countertop and seemed to be memorizing the grout lines between the white tiles.
“I can’t imagine there is anything you will have to worry about. I’m the monster that drains the life out of people remember.”
“No, you see that is part of the problem right there. You’re human. We are all just human. Any talents we have can be turned around. They can make us look like we’re terrible. Every move we make can be twisted to look like something it’s not.”
“Okay have I done something, or did I say something that has you worried? Where is all this sketchy crap coming from?”
Gerald took a deep breath. “You were never in a car accident Calynn.”
“Then how did I get so badly injured? Why do I have such vivid nightmares?”
“I can’t half explain my part in this without you thinking badly of me.” Gerald’s shoulders relaxed, and the anger left his voice. I could tell this was his real issue.
“If that’s all it is, I mean, I already think terrible things about you. There’s no harm done.” I said it jokingly, but Gerald did not seem amused. “Look, this is what I know so far. I am so dangerous that I can’t be trusted not to hurt my own family. I was allowed to leave, so I must have either royally screwed up, or I did something that got me some major brownie points. I remember things that you claim never happened, and I can’t remember the things you say actually did. Half an explanation is all I have. Whatever happened to me or because of me it’s over, it’s done. So just spill it.”
“You did earn your way out. You asked me to help you and I did. I have seen why they can’t let you leave, and I understand why you wanted your ability blocked. I didn’t enjoy my part in all this, but I swear on my life that I was as careful as humanly possible. When they lowered you and the car over the cliff, I was paralyzed. I couldn’t leave until I knew you were safe. I called the local police about the crash. I had to see that they found you and got you to a hospital before nightfall then I came back here.”
“I got all those injuries from being lowered to the base of the cliff?” I felt the need to be as close to Gerald as possible. I couldn’t believe what he was telling me. I walked into the kitchen and stood next to him at the sink. His gaze was still fixed on the front window as if his next word was written on the glass.
“I researched near-fatal car wreck victims and found the common, non-lethal injuries. I had to recreate the damage your body would have sustained by a wreck of that type. The cars weight, your weight, the density of the trees the car would hit, and how much that would impact the metal. I had to know just where the car would land and how long you could survive with those injuries. It had to be believable that you could survive the wreck, but look bad enough that your memory impairment wouldn’t be questioned.
“The implant was just the first step. You not having your abilities, allowed me to inflict the damage. You watched a movie of a real accident while you were under a mix of psychotropic drugs. The memory of it is vivid because you saw it happen over and over on film. I’m the one that physically caused all the other injuries, but I didn’t factor in how poorly the local hospital would treat you or that you might develop new allergies. I didn’t anticipate every possibility. The problems you have had are my fault entirely.”
I put my hand on Gerald’s arm he looked down at the floor. “I can’t imagine how hard that must have been for you, but I’m glad you helped me. I went back home and had a normal life. I have a family now; I wouldn’t have had that here Ivan.”
“No, you don’t understand what I am telling you. I broke your leg myself.”
“I heard you. If I wasn’t in an actual car wreck, then I must have gotten the injuries somehow. I don’t want to know how you did it. I must have asked you to do this to me. I can’t imagine what was so bad in my life that I would be willing to go through all that to get away from it?”
“And there it is. The million dollar question. What happened, and why would you want to leave so badly? I can’t answer that yet, it’s too soon. I won’t do it.”
“Then I guess we can slice up that bread and talk about something else.”
“You’re not angry. I just told you I physically harmed you, and you’re not angry with me?”
“I don’t know what I am. I asked you to do this for me right?”
“Yes, but I could have refused.”
“Then I would have been stuck here with whatever I was trying to get away from. I wouldn’t have met my husband and had my son. I would have missed the years I spent with my mother and my grandmother. I don’t know what happened, but I don’t think you would hurt me out of malice. I can see that this has caused you grief. I was young. Obviously, I asked for more than I had any right to. It sounds like you got me out as carefully as you could. I’m grateful for my life.”
“I have gone over this conversation so many times in my mind, wondering what reaction you would have. I was prepared for screaming and yelling, for you to hate me. It never occurred to me that you would accept it as the necessary means to an end.”
Gerald went back into the living room and plopped down on the couch in front of the bread. He tore one of the soft baguettes into smaller pieces and poured the olive oil into the two dipping bowls. I followed him and sat on a chair across from him. “I have another test planned for the morning. It may help your brain work around the implant. We need you to show some measurable use of your ability and the only way I can think to do that is to restore your memory as fast as possible.”
“You sound like you are being rushed, why so fast?” I asked.
“Yes, we are being rushed. They have their own agenda. I hope you realize your happiness is not their priority. You need to show them some measurable progress soon.”
“Who are they? Isn’t they just Richard and maybe his boss?”
“There are those who are above the military leaders you’ll see here. My guess would be the subcommittees that fund our particular black budget projects. They are going to want a return on the investment they have made by reintroducing you here. It’s all negotiation. At some point, you will have to live up to your end of the bargain.”
“But I didn’t make any bargains with anyone. I was practically captured.”
“Sure you did, seventeen years ago and again four days ago. The only difference between the two is you didn’t have any choice this time. Richard was tasked with bringing you back regardless of your opposition. We need to get you in a position where you have something they need so they are obliged to keep giving you what you want.”
“What I want is to go home and forget this place exists.”
“You are so far beyond that now. That is never going to happen. You’re here and your old life is gone. A new life is taking its place. If you are going to control what goes in that life, you have to give them something they want.”
“Ivan, I don’t know anything. I really, truly don’t remember. I’m not going to be able to do this. At some point, they are going to figure that out.”
“With no abilities, there is no need to keep you around. Your husband will be stuck with a mountain of debt and dead wife to bury. Your family will be given some lame excuse for your death and any promises they made will vanish. You wanted out. You got out. Now you have to play the game.”
“What do you want from me? I can’t control what I don’t understand. You saw what I happily took from Richard. You should have seen your face, you looked terrified.”
“Not of you, that’s why I had to talk to you. I’m not going to let them…. Someone who knows nothing but the dollars and cents of this installation has decided that you need to be fully functional in thirty days. I’m still investigating who that person is. We made progress today. We may even have something to show them soon.”
“This just keeps getting worse. I don’t know how I was able to do that with Richard. I would have happily killed him. You have no idea, do you? I couldn’t stop. I didn’t want to stop. I didn’t know I was hurting him, but I doubt I would have cared. What if I can’t remember how to control it?”
“I’ll wager that you had your entire childhood to get used to your abilities. The control you had was surgical, invisible, and I know you kept a great deal from me. I’m sure that you felt you had to. I’m confident you can get back to that control again, it will take time, but it will happen.
"If not for that huge gash in your head, who knows how long it would have taken for you to remember any of this on your own. They have been waiting for you to become aware of your abilities again. You have to remember how to dance for the organ grinder, or they will take away everything you think you can’t live without. But they won’t kill you, not now that you’ve shown progress.”
I wasn’t able to listen anymore, Ivan’s words melted into a constant negative buzzing. Finally, I told him how I didn’t believe him, how full of shit he was, how any moment I was going to wake up and find out that all this was a big fat, pain killer fueled delusion. A dream like any other terrible, cold dream I have ever had. This would all fade in the daylight, and I would go on living my life. Why else was everything the same in my kitchen? Who would do that to somebody? Who would go to my home and look in my cabinets, it had to be a dream.
We argued in circles about how he could prove everything he was saying. He claimed to have pictures and reports. He would show me his proof, and I would have to believe him.
Eventually, I stopped yelling and then he stopped yelling. After a period of agonizing silence, Gerald gave up and left. I curled up on the couch and pulled a throw pillow over my eyes. I was warm so I didn’t see any reason to move. I fell asleep chanting quietly to myself, wake up, wake up, please God please let me wake up.