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Knock, knock, knock” I stirred at the muffled noises melting into my dreams. Keys scratching in the lock and the whine of the metal hinges from the heavy front door annoyed me enough to cover my face. The sound of quick steps across the wood floor woke me.

“Good morning.” Ann sang out into the room. “Sorry to barge in but there’s a delivery scheduled today.” Ann made a beeline across the room to turn off the record player that had been on all night. “How can you stand that scratching?”

“Ann? Hi, how are you doing?” I rubbed my eyes as I struggled to situp on the overstuffed couch.

“There you are. How am I? I heard Richard forced you to take his energy. Then Ivan calls and says he dropped by to bare his soul and argue. He told me he left you passed out on the couch, and here I find you still. I’d like to know how you’re doing.”

“I’m fine, Ivan is so dramatic. Hey, did you know they stocked this place with my last few grocery lists? Even the brands I usually buy; it’s all arranged just like my kitchen at home. Everything is almost exactly the same. How is that possible?”

“That is kinda creepy, but that’s not what you should be focusing on.” Ann raised her eyebrow and looked at me with pity on her face; she tapped her fingers on the couch back a few times.

“What do you mean?” Ann walked over to the front window and opened the curtains flooding the living room with sunlight.

“Who did all of this? Who is going to all the trouble to make you cozy here and why would they bother?” Ann fluttered through the house collecting the dishes left over from my evening with Ivan. “They created a human female habitat, that’s why they copied your kitchen.”

“Ivan couldn’t even remember to supply me with underwear. He doesn’t have the focus for this type of thing. It has to be that damn Colonel. Do you think my place is bugged?”

“Oh, how sweet. You think this is an episode of Charlie’s Angles? Bugged I seriously doubt. If there’s any surveillance they use micro cameras and you and I won’t be able to find them.”

“Cameras? Why what the hell do they think I’m hiding?”

“Who knows what twisted protocol they’re following. Maintenance will be here with the televisions and end tables in about thirty minutes. We can have this place ready for your weekend visitors by lunchtime. We need to focus entirely on that. Leave the rest of these issues for later.”

“Ugh, I’m supposed to see Gerald later for some test he devised. I don’t want to be poked with any more needles. I had my fill yesterday.” I rubbed the skin on my arms and looking for needle marks. There were none. “That nurse Gerald uses is good. I half expected to look like a pock-marked junky today.”

“Ick, please let’s not dwell on that. It's very unpleasant. I’ll go put some coffee on.” Ann busied herself in the kitchen and went to my room to get ready.

I let the water run in the shower and stripped my clothes. My superficial wounds looked even better today. The bruises on my back were a slightly noticeable light brown. I grabbed a couple of aspirin, ran through a quick shower and found myself some clothes. Four helpful men arrived shortly after with televisions, coffee tables, and a few tall bookshelves. Ann had sketched a simple map of the cottage and labeled where the larger items were to be placed. The men followed her instructions to the letter. Ann darted around the living room from table to table spraying cleaner and wiping down the new items as the men were leaving.

“Thank you for all of this Ann, I haven’t been in the right frame of mind to do much of anything let alone prepare a home.”

“Don’t mention it; I tend to take over when given these kinds of creative projects. I hope you don’t mind. It seems I have taken over completely again.”

“No, not at all the house looks perfect; I couldn’t have done all this on my best day.” Several cardboard boxes remained stacked in the corner of my bedroom. “I’m half afraid to open those last few boxes after talking to Ivan last night, who knows what’s in them.”

“It’s just old stuff you left behind. Believe me, those boxes have been gone through many times. There is nothing in there those boys don’t want you to have.” Ann’s logic seemed sound. Reluctantly I opened the first box it was layered with cookbooks and miscellaneous kitchen utensils, nothing too impressive. The second box was marked bedroom and had several wooden jewelry boxes, stacks of old mail, and a few empty wicker baskets. The third box was packed full of sweaters.

“I might actually be able to wear some of these sweaters. Is there a laundry on base? I didn’t notice a washer and dryer in the house.”

“They like us to conserve water up here so all the laundry is done by the housekeeping staff. Put them in a white plastic bag, write your house number on the outside, and leave it by the front door. You should get it all back in two days. The lead girl, Char is her name, she runs this area. I can ask her to hang up your stuff when she brings it back. She likes to make everything perfect, it’s almost annoying.”

“Wow, that sounds great. Is there a grocery store or a bank close by?”

“You are kidding right. They haven’t told you how things work?” Ann looked shocked. She pulled a neatly folded white plastic bag out of her purse, shook it open, and started shoving sweaters into it.

“No, but I’m a captive Ann. Why would give me the grand tour.”

“Don’t be ridiculous, you’re not a captive. Where have you been since you arrived?”

“I’ve been to the medical building, Carl’s house, and here.”

“Oh, those two idiots have pissed me off now. We will get this all sorted out, even if I have to do it myself. There’s no grocery store or bank on site. We have liaisons. They fetch whatever we need from town and online: groceries, movies, and clothing, anything really. We are civilian contractors so our benefits and pay rates are different from the uniform stuffers, but we still have access to any type of service you could want.”

To appear at least marginally helpful, I grabbed a few of the jewelry boxes and arranged them on the new bookshelves in my bedroom. Ann continued explaining how supportive the liaisons can be. There was a lot of costume jewelry packed tightly in the various jewelry boxes along with a few expensive looking pieces. There were several single item, jewelry store boxes but one stood out from the rest it was overly ornate and heavy.

“This is a nice little goodie box. Do you know anything about this one Ann?”

“Open it and see what you think.” Ann stopped her cleaning and sat on the bench at the end of my bed. The brown, hard leather box had bronze carvings and a scrolled metal latch. I opened it to find a heavy carved ring with a huge, round purple stone surrounded by triangle cut diamonds.

“Oh my God, where did this thing come from?” I asked in a hushed tone.

“Where do you think? It’s from Richard and if my memory serves it is platinum and alexandrite, with some diamonds to add a bit of sparkle around the edges.”

“He was more than just somebody I hung out with on the weekends wasn’t he?” There was something about Richard that I just couldn’t put my finger on. There was an odd connection with just about everybody I met. I walked out on an entire life with no thoughts of ever coming back, or what would happen if I did.

“You two were planning to leave together as soon as he could. He had a year left, maybe less, but after you went back home, he stayed on.”

“From Richard, really, and it’s just sitting here in this box. Wouldn’t this be valuable?”

“Alexandrite, I think it’s more expensive than a diamond. As I recall, it was your favorite stone.”

“I think it’s still my favorite stone.” There was a square business card stuffed in the lid of the box. “This writing looks Russian. It’s a gorgeous ring but can’t keep this here for David to find. This thing will cause problems. Do you think I have a safe here?”

“I haven’t found one, and I know my place didn’t come with one. But we have safe deposit boxes in the administration building, it’s not too far from the medical wing.”

“Let’s see what else I need to stash away, maybe I can get done this morning before I see Gerald.” Ann and I went through the jewelry boxes, and I moved the expensive looking pieces to my backpack. It felt like I was lying, keeping these things from David, but I certainly couldn’t answer questions about where I had gotten the jewelry.

I made a trip through the house gathering empty cardboard boxes and tossing them on the back deck to deal with later. To my surprise, there was already a mountain of broken down cardboard outside. The toaster, the dishes, and the microwave all their boxes were on the back deck. Crates and plastic sheeting from the dining table and the couches, everything in the house was new. I was shocked, all the expense and hassle Ann had gone through to set up a home for me. I kicked the boxes away from the back door and went back into the house to find Ann.

“Ann, I can’t imagine how much all this stuff must have cost you. There is a truckload of empty boxes outside. You have to tell me how much all this cost and let me pay you back for every piece of it.”

“Oh, I have no idea what it cost. Ivan made a phone call and a few hours later all that you see here showed up along with three helpful young ladies to unpack it. I just came to unlock the door and supervise. You have to take it up with him, but I can tell you right now he won’t take your money. Speaking of which, we need to get going if you are going to keep your appointment.”

I was stunned, I had been gone for so long. Why anyone would care that I was back was a mystery to me. I followed Ann to the group of administration buildings with little to no comments to contribute. Ann carried the conversation pointing out the different buildings and their purposes along the way, noting the best places to get lunch and who has what food on which day. The flood of information was dizzying. Still stunned by my crude calculation of how much Ivan had spent on my new home. I was speechless.

Upon entering the large, quiet administration building, I found the odd reaction to Ann was not limited to the cashier at the Snack Shack. The girls at the front office of the administration building looked uncomfortable and genuinely frightened. Ann’s liaison worked on the second floor, she asked to speak with the woman before leading me over to a nicely decorated bulletin board layered with family and travel activities set up for the months ahead.

“They have a lot of stuff for the kids to choose from on the weekends. Look a video gamers club. Once Matt finds out about that, I will never hear from him again. My son is turning sixteen this summer, his whole life is video games.”

“I hope I can meet him when they visit. They do a nice job keeping the little buggers occupied year round.” Ann chortled a bit loudly, attracting curious attention from the clerks behind the counter.

“Ann dear, how are you, what a pleasant surprise.” A polished looking woman peeked around the corner. Ann greeted her with a relieved smile.

“Janet, thank you for coming down to see me. I know how busy you are, but I have a problem that I know you can handle. Do you have a minute and a private place to talk?”

“Sure thing we can use this office over here; it should be empty.” Janet was a nicely dressed woman in her mid to late fifty’s. She was wearing a black skirt with a matching suit coat and had long, nicely manicured nails. It felt like I was at a bank asking for a home loan.

“Janet this is my old friend Calynn McNair she was here with us years ago as Calynn Lopez. She is back, and I’m afraid no one has set up her banking or provisioning. I don’t believe she has a liaison assigned to her?”

“That’s highly unlikely. How could this have happened?” Janet looked embarrassed and confused. I felt compelled to relieve her of the guilt she seemed to be experiencing.

“I was brought in badly injured and I have been with Doctor Gerald for several days recovering. He moved me to a cottage across the way yesterday. I need a safe deposit box for some jewelry. Richard didn’t mention setting up anything for me any official paperwork either.”

“Richard? Colonel Richard Wolfe brought you here?” Janet asked, still confused her crinkled brow line disturbing her otherwise calm demeanor.

“Yes, Ma’am a few days ago. Monday night I believe. It was very late.” By Janet’s tone, someone was in trouble.

“Very interesting. What is your rank and who is your commanding officer?” Janet demanded.

“She’s a civilian, a specialized civilian like me.” Ann’s voice was low. As she spoke, she patted Janet’s hand and nodded. The polished woman slowly realized what type of person was in the tiny office with her.

“Oh, that does change things, but only a bit. No matter the Colonel should have made the proper arrangements for you. I’m sorry for your inconvenience. This is highly unusual. I’ll be happy to take you under my group, anything you require, you can ask me and I will help you get it.”

“That’s wonderful thank you. I’m still getting the hang of things. It hasn’t gone as smoothly as I think everyone would have liked.” I admitted apologetically.

“You don’t need to concern yourself with that; I will get to the bottom of this. Give me five minutes. Write your social security number down for me dear. I’ll see if you already have a box.” I jotted my social down and handed it to Janet she seemed supremely capable. I almost felt bad for pointing out Richard’s oversight, almost. Ann and I sat and waited in the small, undecorated office for her to return.

“What is it that you do here Ann if I’m permitted to ask that kind of question?”

“You can ask me anything you like sweetie. The main purpose of this installation is to gather information, which requires interrogations. We get some of the worst to question hence the restricted access and remote location.”

“But there’s a town below us. People are living down there, don’t they notice all the helicopters flying above them?” The thought of that many people sharing a secret so large just seemed absurd to me.

“I’m sure they do, but those people are our families. The people who work here live in town. They all know the drill.” Ann began to flitter around the room tidying piles of travel brochures before returning to straighten the container of pens on the desk in front of her.

“You haven’t actually answered my question, Ann. You don’t seem like the type that shoves bamboo splinters under people’s fingernails. What do you have to do with all this?”

“There are eight of us here with uncommon talents.” Ann patted my arm as she sunk down into an overstuffed chair next to me. “We all lend something to the process. My part is a bit morbid. I talk to the dead. Once the usual tactics are exhausted, and the subject dies. I can prevent their crossover, hold their soul here so we can get the information we need from them.”

“Is that successful? I mean, do we still know everything we did once we die?”

“It’s not a hundred percent successful. Sometimes they didn’t have anything we needed. In that case, they’re terminated needlessly.” Ann began to fidget with a loose thread on her sleeve and seemed a bit self-conscience. “Don’t get me wrong they are all deep into something heinous before they make it here, and I don’t do the actual killing. That’s not my area.

“From my experience, we are still aware right after death. Most will linger on with all the knowledge they had when they were alive for some time, days even. I can stop their progression beyond our consciousness. Usually, I get the info we are looking for at that point.”

“How did you figure out you could do this?” The whole prospect of talking to dead people sounded terrifying to me. Ann had puzzled look on her face, but she quickly recovered her normal pleasant smile.

“We have had this conversation before you know, years and years ago, but your questions are similar. Anyway, I was very young, maybe nine or ten. I had vivid nightmares. Mangled bodies calling out to me, grabbing for me, sometimes they just stood there staring at me. I woke up screaming most nights. Scared the hell out of my parents.

“I wasn’t sleeping, and I guess they weren’t sleeping either. I would do almost anything to stay awake. I snuck coffee, poked myself with pins, but none of it lasted, and I would fall asleep. My face was gaunt, and the bags under my eyes were so dark. Once my hair started falling out in small clumps, my parents took me to Dandridge. It was a local, upscale loony bin back in the day.

“There were various evaluations and medication to force me to sleep. One of my therapists started trying to help me with my dreams. She was convinced my mind was showing me the gruesome images to eliminate some trauma my parents had inflicted on me. My poor parents had never laid a hand on me. They were afraid, they just wanted to find out what was wrong with me.

"Eventually, a few more doctors joined in, and she began a guided sleep study of sorts. She helped me to find the courage to ask the dream people who they were and what they wanted. When I woke up, I would tell her every detail I remembered. She took great notes and was genuinely interested in helping me. I have her journals; she willed them to me years ago. I’ll have to show them to you some time.

“Anyway, she came across one of the names from my dreams in the newspaper. It was a story about a high school basketball star that died instantly after falling from a train trestle. The boy and his friends were goofing off where they shouldn’t have been, as boys generally do, but it was foggy that night. The boys had been drinking, and he walked right off the edge. Fell more than forty feet to the rocky ground below. He came to me afterward. She was amazed. The details from my dream the night of his death were recounted in the paper two days later.

“The news was a bit slower then, so she went back and researched the recent deaths. She found all my dream names, but she didn’t find all of the recently dead in my journals. My dream people all had one thing in common they all died unexpectedly. They were confused and didn’t know what to make of their new situations.

“It took a few months, but with everyone’s help, we figured it out. The dead needed a shove in the right direction. They needed to tell someone what had happened or find out what had happened to them. My Doctor shared her findings with a few noted psychics and together they found me a therapist who specialized in unique areas of study. By the time I was fourteen I had accepted my duty to usher the unfortunate to the edge of the veil. The dead didn’t scare me anymore. I could sleep through the night. My health improved, and my life had possibilities again.

“I went to a private school shortly after at the request of my therapist and was fast-tracked into a government program for the spooky and gifted. By the time I was nineteen, I was here, and this has been my home ever since. I enjoy not having to hide what I am. There are eight, well now nine people, who know what I do and they accept me. I don’t know that I would get that same reaction anywhere else.”

“I can’t imagine being so young and having to deal with all this. That must have been terrifying for you and your parents.” I was shocked. She told her unbelievable story in such a matter of fact way. I believed her even though some rational part of my brain was screaming bullshit.

“They didn’t know what was going on. They were simple, hardworking people and had no experience with anything like this. I’m not sure what the doctor told them about my condition. We never spoke of it in more than broad terms. They were glad that I was healthy and that I was in a fancy school. I could tell they didn’t understand everything but my happiness was all that concerned them.

“I visited them at the holidays, and they came to visit me here a few times. I hid behind the top-secret work excuse, never gave them any details, they were proud I was working for our country. My mother knew there was something I wasn’t telling her, but she never pushed me for answers.”

“God, I can’t expect anyone to accept me. It feels like I’m vanishing. I don’t expect anyone to understand. Still, I don’t want to be treated like some kind of monster.” My situation was strange at best and dangerous at its worst. How was I ever going to have a normal life again?

“Carl understands, it’s what he does. He counsels all of us. He has many subtle abilities, but in my opinion, is his ability to stand alongside you in your thoughts is his most valuable. He can feel your anguish, your pride or disgust as if it were his own. I’m sure you will feel better once you talk to him. You are not the freak you try to make yourself out to be. All of our abilities are explainable they just aren’t commonplace. Anyway, if you have to wait for a deposit box you can put the jewelry in one of mine, with instructions of course, in case something happens to me.”

“Ann, don’t say that we’ll see what the lady finds. Besides, you are not going to be kicking the bucket anytime soon. I have a nose for these things.”

“You can tell when people are going to die?” Ann was almost giddy with excitement, her eyes lit up, and she bounced her chair around to face me.

“Yeah, I can tell when it’s the last time I am going to see a person alive. It’s like ice water in my veins or a cold smack in the face, the feeling is just there, bam. You’re fine I’ll see you again.”

“How does that even work? Do you tell the people that you have this feeling?” Ann’s excitement was overwhelming.

“Oh hell no, that would make me sound crazy. Besides what if they didn’t die?”

“What if you telling them, changed something, and they didn’t have to die just then? I’ve heard of dogs that can tell if somebody is going to die. I figured the dog smelled some kind of actual decay on the person, but maybe they sense something divine.”

Janet came back in the room with a smile on her face. “You already have a box in the vault, and I spoke to the Colonel. His staff sent the paperwork to the wrong office. This is his fault entirely. He asked me to extend a dinner invitation to you both for tonight at seven at his residence. He is leaving for a trip tomorrow morning and would like to speak with Calynn beforehand.”

“Thank you so much, Janet. I just have these few things to add to the box.” I pulled my stash of treasure out of my backpack and put them on the desk for Janet to see.

“Don’t you want to see what’s in the vault now dear?”

“Sure, I suppose I should take a look.” Janet led Ann and me to an old bank vault. She had two keys and code to punch in before the huge door would open. The room easily held a few hundred, safe deposit boxes and there seemed to be twice as many in the room on the opposite side. Janet led me to a large box and handed me a key.

“You gave back this key before you left years ago. There were instructions to hold the container for twenty-five years before searching for an owner or surviving heir. It looks like you made it back here a few years sooner than you planned.”

The keys slid in the locks and the little door opened. Ann took a few steps back and struck up a lighthearted sounding conversation with Janet while I opened the long shoebox-sized container. There were a few letters wrapped together, a checkbook, an expired passport, a small bag of colored loose gems, and a short stack of hundred dollar bills.

One letter had pictures of my family tied to it. All their names, birthdates, and addresses jotted on a page in what looked like my handwriting; even a picture of Lila that I didn’t remember seeing before. The largest pile of paperwork was a collection of old mail. There was an owner’s title for a 1967 Mustang. A stack of GIA certificates and a folded note taped to another small envelope.

I chose to leave, and I hope things go well in my new life. I gambled everything. The cost was more than I should have risked. What I have asked Ivan to do is terrible, but he is the only one I can trust. What I want for myself can’t be found here. I wish for happiness and peace, for a life far away from this constant tragedy. I accept what the universe sees fit to provide for me.

I peeled the note from the envelope and handed it to Ann. “Do you think I wrote this?” I tried prying the envelope open with my keys, but the thick packing tape had all but melted into the paper.

“No stop, don’t open that today, wait a few more weeks.” I looked at Ann and wrinkled my nose at her. I managed to rip a corner of the heavily taped envelope open and watched as a small negative slid out and float down to the table below.

I held the scrap up to the light. “What do you think this is Ann?”

“What does it look like to you?” She replied quickly.

“A picture of something, I hope it’s not a classified something.” I continued to examine the film, but I couldn’t tell what it was. I put almost everything back in the box and added my jewelry. I kept the checkbook and bank statements to show to Janet.

“Can you see if I have anything left in this bank account, Janet?”

“Of course, I bank there myself. I’ll see what I can find out for you.”

“We had better get you back to Gerald. Didn’t he want you there this morning?” Ann stepped closer to me and grabbed my free hand. She slowly coaxed me toward the doorway.

“Yes, I need to be done with him, so I can go home and make some cookie dough. My boys will be expecting cookies. Thank you, Janet. I can’t tell you how much better I feel after getting this figured out.”

“It is my pleasure. I will have all this sorted out by morning. Stop by tomorrow, we can go over what I have found. Ann tells me you were brought here with only the clothes on your back.”

“Yes that's true, but she found some nice things for me, I’m fine for now.”

Janet smiled and patted my shoulder. “In three days I can have everything you need, shipped, laundered, and hanging in your closet ready for you to wear.”

“Damn, I’ll be sure to stop by in the morning.”

“Okay let’s get you back to Gerald.” Ann pulled me out of the bank vault while Janet finished putting my safe deposit box away. “She can handle it come on.” We hopped in a golf cart parked outside the administration building. Ann drove us back toward the medical building and stopped halfway between the two complexes.

“I am dropping you off here. I’m headed to the technology building to see Gregg about your machine.”

“My machine and who’s Gregg?” I questioned.

“Yeah, there’s an energy and magnetic distortion thing Gerald wants it to be interfaced. Gregg is our head computer guy. What do you talk about all day when you are with Ivan?” Ann questioned disapprovingly.

“Nothing about what goes on around here, hey you are coming to dinner with me tonight?”

“Oh definitely, I want to hear how badly Janet reamed him. Should make for a good story.” Ann seemed to delight in the idea of Richard getting scolded.

“See you later then, thanks again for your help today.” I watched Ann as she sped off in the other direction. Gerald’s lab was just across the grass, but I walked the short distance as slowly as I could. Once inside I heard movement in the far back corner of the room. I walked toward the shuffling noises and found Gerald hunched over a fancy looking microscope, next to a plate with a half-eaten sandwich. The whole thing was perched on the edge of his lab table threatening to fall.

“Calynn, there you are. I think what you trigger in others is rooted in the endocrine system.”

“Hi to you too, what are you talking about?” I carefully slid the plate away from the edge and moved closer to get a peek at the slide.

“Oh that’s right, you think I’m full of shit and that you are going to wake up at any moment. How did that work out for you?” Gerald contorted his face and changed his voice in a crude attempt to mock me.

“Yeah well, I still think you’re completely full of shit, but I suppose this place is all real enough.”

Gerald laughed and patted my hand. “Small steps, I am referring to the hormone system that, among other things, controls how we heal. The blood sample I took from Richard yesterday shows certain hormones depleted while others were off the charts. I wish I had thought to get a sample from you. I don’t need any blood from you today. I would like a sample from after you have interacted with a subject.”

“Good luck with that one. I seriously doubt you can get anyone to volunteer to be cannibalized.” I hopped up on a wooden stool next to Gerald’s worktable. “Who is Gregg and what kind of machine is he making for me?”

“He and I are working on a photosensitive heat device, it’s like a camera but the computer attached to it reads heat-related anomalies. We need something sensitive to record your energy work. Gregg is the best guy we have for these kinds of complex projects.”

“Sounds like a fancy toy to me. Why are you staring at me?” I asked

“Yes, I am. You have lost weight?”

“These jeans fit this morning, I swear they were too small a few days ago.” I tugged at the waistband of my jeans, they fit loose enough that I should have worn a belt.

“You weighed one fifty-eight on Monday. What do you weigh now?”

“A few pounds less I would guess. Pain while chewing helps me not to snack.”

“Come with me let’s find out what you weigh.” Gerald led me around the other side of the wall to the full sized scale in admitting. I pushed my shoes off and stepped up on the wobbly machine. He started the first measure on one fifty, but that was too high. He moved the marker to one forty and then to one thirty, he adjusted the second weight and settled on one thirty-eight.

“Twenty pounds Calynn, in less than five days, that’s not possible. That’s over seventy thousand calories in a very short amount of time.” Gerald looked concerned; he went back to his desk and picked up my file, confirming my weight when I arrived.

“You should market that protein shake you make Ivan they work great. Are you using whey or is it an egg, milk blend?” I had been trying for months just to drop five pounds. I was thrilled to hear I had lost twenty.

“Those shakes have around 500 calories each. They are not meant for weight loss, they help maintain my muscle mass and electrolytes. I get distracted and forget lunch, the high protein helps make up for it. I’m not trying to sound insensitive, but you look much thinner. The energy transfer with Richard used a lot of calories.”

“That must be why I fell asleep so fast last night, the rum helped too. But this is good right, maybe one more time and I will lose another ten pounds.”

“No, this is not good at all. You never had this issue before. You took what you needed from something else.”

“Someone else you mean. Maybe this is better. I can be more self-sufficient this way.”

“No, you can’t possibly understand what I’m telling you. You burn fat, muscle, organs and then your brain in that order. If this is your new fuel, then you need to have the calories to burn or your body will consume itself.”

“Can you control what part of my body burns fat first? I have always wanted a flat stomach, washboard style, like the models on the covers of those fitness magazines.”

“You’re just mocking me right. If it only took you twenty seconds to burn the lion’s share of those calories, you can’t interact with anyone until you gain some of it back.”

“What, don’t I have at least fifteen pounds to lose before I cannibalize my important pieces?” I pinched the skin on my stomach and tried to show how much more fat I had to lose before he needed to worry.

“That could be one twenty-second session. We are going to have to up your muscle mass and try to keep at least ten pounds of extra body fat on you at all times, and that’s just to protect your organs. We have to find someone for you to work with. We were, to begin with, a single target test today, but now I don’t think that is such a good idea.”

“Do you have someone in mind for that kind of test?”

“I was going to suggest myself.” Gerald walked back into the lab leaving me in admitting to putting my shoes back on. He had the look of a man who had been caught hatching an obviously ridiculous scheme.

“You don’t know what I will do to you Ivan, what if I hurt you. I have so little control over any of it yet. I only know how to take from people. What if I couldn’t figure out how to fix you fast enough?”

“I thought you would shy away from me because of that.”

“I am not shying away from you. I’m being realistic. You saw what happened to Richard, what would I do to you after twenty seconds. The residual effects. Richard had a headache and what sounded like a full blown panic attack. What would your reaction be? And don’t try and guilt me into it either. I’m the mother of a teenage boy. I’m totally immune to whining.”

“Fine, but I am a logical target for a quick test.” Ivan protested. It sounded like I had wounded his ego. But I leveled a strong old man, I would probably kill a weak one.

“Is there anything else you have noticed since yesterday?” Gerald was still annoyed with me, but I could tell he was trying to be adult about it. I got the impression that he isn’t told no very often.

“Sort of, this morning while I was out with Ann. I saw a man walk across the grass by the administration buildings. He had color on his chest outside his clothes. It just hung there in the air in front of him. I have noticed a few others with a similar glow all around them, some of them are brighter than others. I was going to ask Carl about it. More his area of weirdness.”

“What you are describing is the chakra view. You could heal or consume energy based on how well you could see the targets energy or so-called auras. We would have a prep session before you were to assist a group. It let you see their energy. Even if they were physically out of your sight, you could locate them.”

“That makes some sense I guess, but I don’t know how to start it. It just happens when I’m not thinking about too much of anything.” I explained.

“That’s a relaxed state, but you may have to work on forcing that until you have a better handle on your stress. Have you noticed anyone around the area that you can see now?”

“No, but I am not exactly relaxed, aren’t you going to poke needles in my eyes?”

“Please, I am not an ophthalmologist. There are very few reasons I would ever need to poke a needle in your eye.” Gerald winked and went back to his microscope.

“Right, then what are you going to do to me today?” I asked.

“I need to map a series of brain function. I have a chemical test, fewer needles. We need to coax your brain to reroute the area affected by the implant. Plus, with your weekend guests, you will have a few days to recover before we resume on Monday. It’s perfect timing.”

“Fewer needles, does that mean one big ass needle?” I choked back the panic that began to roll in the pit of my stomach the moment the word needle was uttered.

“No, only two and it will be fine, with a topical painkiller, you won’t even feel them.”

“Anybody else would have to strap me down to get me to do this, you know that right.”

“I have my best nurse available.” Gerald bent down and kissed me on the forehead. I wasn’t sure how to react. I just smiled. There was something innocent about his extra attention but after his tirade last night. I didn’t know what to think.

“I’ll send Carol in after a few minutes, get comfortable, but take off anything that has any metal on it just to be safe, no buttons, or hooks, no metal of any kind.”

“Why, do you anticipate a problem?”

“Anticipate yes, I try to anticipate every outcome, but I don’t expect any problems.”

“I brought something for you to look at. What do you think it is?” I pulled the tiny piece of film out of the envelope and put it on the desk.

Gerald looked at the film for a few seconds before his face went white, and he all but pushed himself away from the tiny item. “Where did you get this from?”

“From my safe deposit box. I have all kinds of stuff in there. So what do you think it is, do you think it’s classified?”

“It’s quite dark. I have no idea what it is.” Gerald held the film up to the light and examined it quickly before putting it back down.

“Oh come on, you barely glanced at it. This note was attached to it.” I handed Gerald the faded note and watched his expression change from defiance to defeat as he read it.

“You got this from the vault, your own personal safe deposit box, here on the site?” Gerald looked oddly upset that I had the dark scrap of film.

“Yeah, I guess I left a bunch of stuff when I went home. Janet is handling my affairs now. She found the box for me.”

“That is interesting, give me a few days maybe I can find something under better light, enhance it somehow but I won’t promise you anything,” Gerald stated firmly.

“If there’s anyone here who can figure out what it is, it would be you. Ann told me about all the trouble you went through to fix up my cottage. It’s beautiful but…”

“I didn’t have anything to do with getting it ready. Ann did all the work. Really it’s her that you should be thanking.”

“Ivan, Ann told me you paid for all of it. I can’t …”

“Financing a project and actually being involved with the finished product are two different things entirely. I want you to be happy here. I know how you appreciate orderly, useful things around you. I’m glad you like it, but you are not required or permitted to repay me. It was a gift.”

“I can’t accept all this from you, Ivan, it’s too much.” I protested.

“Too much? So a relative, quantifiable figure is what’s bothering you. What if I had brought you a pie from the bakery in town, or a movie. Let’s say it was a special edition blue ray, would you have accepted those gifts from me?”

“I don’t do gifts well, and those things are much less expensive. It’s not the same as a house full of furniture and everything else that goes with it.”

“To me, it is exactly the same, a movie or a couch, a pie or new kitchen appliances. I don’t need the money. I need you to focus here and now on restoring your ability back to before I hacked it out of your brain.”

“You didn’t do anything to me. I asked you for this. You don’t owe me anything.” I explained.

“I need to know you are content and have things you need to care for your son and yourself without hassle. After my failure with your clothing, I called my youngest sister-in-law, she has a business decorating things. I told her a little about you and that I wanted everything taken care of. I’ll let her know you are pleased with her work.”

“I don’ know what to say, Ivan. It’s absolutely perfect.”

“Thank you is the common response, but I don’t need a thank you. All I need to know is that you like it, nothing more is required from you.”

“I love it, it’s perfect, thank you.” There was pain on Ivan’s face. He wasn’t going to explain it to me, I was sure of that, so I smiled and tried not to appear as uncomfortable as I felt.

“Good, now that we have all that settled let’s get on with our day.” Gerald clapped his hands together and turned his attention toward tidying his workbench.

“I have been kind of wondering about something. Tell me it’s none of my business if you like, but how were you able to pass boot camp with hemophilia?”

“You had me worried there for a second. No that’s easy to explain, medical professionals, we have more of an orientation than a real down in the mud style boot camp. I have weapons and combat training, don’t get me wrong the Navy made sure of that, but my indoctrination was not entirely like a traditional boot camp. Besides my condition wasn’t diagnosed until I was almost thirty.”

“How did you manage to avoid being cut for thirty years?”

“A simple cut may not always be an issue. In fact, I was scraped and cut a few times as a child I’m sure. My condition, presumably, progressed quietly through the years but hadn’t given me any real problems. Looking back there were medical signs that were missed, but no one put two and two together.

“I didn’t play sports or have any physically demanding hobbies as a child. I was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. Coming back to a field hospital with a few other doctors. We were on a commonly traveled road in a small civilian car. We were hit with shrapnel and debris from a roadside bomb that exploded four cars ahead of us. I was one of the many injured in the incident, but that’s how I found out my blood wouldn’t clot properly. Luckily even in all the commotion of the attack, a colleague recognized my condition as something more serious, and I didn’t lose a fatal amount of blood.”

“That sounds awful. You didn’t have any family history or anything to warn you.”

“No, my mother was adopted at two. Little was known about her birth family and on my father’s side, they are all healthy. I have three older sisters. Females can carry the gene without symptoms, but male offspring have a fifty percent chance of inheriting the disease. We had no idea my mother was a carrier.”

“What about your sisters don’t they have children?”

“Yes, I have two completely healthy nephews and one niece who is a confirmed carrier. I have no children, nor will I ever. I refuse to pass this on to anyone. My younger sister and her wife chose to adopt rather than risk the possibility of passing on the genes. My middle sister is just getting around to starting a family. She’s a carrier; I don’t know what she’s thinking. It’s a sore subject in my family, but we manage Thanksgiving dinner without police involvement, most years.”

“Have I ever tried to fix you, I mean in the past, did we at least try to fix you?”

“What I have isn’t an injury, it’s in my DNA. My X chromosomes are damaged, that’s not something anybody is going to be able to fix. You were able to repair the degenerative effects that occur as a result of my condition, but anything more than that isn’t possible.”

“That doesn’t seem fair. If I can heal other people, why not you?”

“See there, you are limited and flawed like all the rest of us. Believe me, if I’m injured, I’ll come running to find you. Now get ready, Carol will be here in a few minutes, and she gets cranky if everyone isn’t in their proper places.”

“Fine, but once I’m able to control this again, we are going to revisit my limitations. There has to be something I can do for you.”

“What we did all those years ago has lasted. I take my maintenance drugs, I watch my diet, exercise moderately, and I only drink on special occasions. Believe me, I have been fine. When you’re ready, I’ll gladly take a refresher session.” Gerald rubbed his hands together again, I hadn’t noticed before, but he seemed to be in pain. “Until you are fully recovered we need to focus on you.”

“I already feel a little jumpy. I don’t want to see the damn needle.”

“Not a problem, I will relay the message to Carol, calm down think of something else. Think of the ocean waves that roll in and out against the sandy beach. Just breathe and relax.” Gerald sounded like he was reciting some relaxation technique he had read recently. The monotone delivery was completely out of character for him. He swiped the scrap of film off his worktable as he walked out of the room. I couldn’t help but notice how strangely he and Ann had reacted to the negative; maybe it was something highly classified.

I could hear women talking in the main hospital, and I assumed Carol had arrived. The familiar clammy, nauseous feeling began to crawl over my skin. Gerald had left me a bottle of cold water. I used some of it to splash on my face and sipped the rest of it slowly.

Once I changed clothes, I climbed up on the table and laid back to rest. The sounds of busy people in motion were getting closer. I tried to ignore the noise that signaled the time for needle poking was near. I focused on the empty black void in my mind. When I closed my eyes, I found the once calm blackness to be filled with the colorful shapes of the people walking around in the other room. It was as if my eyes were still open and I could see through the walls.

There were four bodies in varying poses. Carol got up from a seated position, walked a few feet towards me, and appeared to be washing her hands. Gerald was further away on the other side of the room. His aura burned a bright blue, different from everyone else’s muted orange or green energy. Carol had a soft peachy colored glow around her. The color clung tightly to her shape, neat and tidy but soothing, nothing like the rigid, cold personality she physically puts forward. It’s as if she controls her every move afraid to make a mistake. She’s not at all as unconcerned and jaded as she appears to be.

I opened my eyes just to make sure it was truly her and not some delusion conjured in my brain. I let her know I was awake by repositioning myself on the table. Carol looked confident, but inwardly she seemed unhappy about what she was doing. I took a deep breath and closed my eyes again but this time, I found only blackness; all the color was gone. I couldn’t force the calm I had found early to return to me.

A few minutes passed without conversation. The pinch of the IV was minor, but still, I dreaded it. “Is that okay?” Carol asked, her posture still rigid and cold, an obviously forced smile on her face. I nodded yes in response trying not to move.

It was as if someone had told Carol she had to smile, so she practiced contorting her face in the mirror over and over until she achieved the odd expression she wore now. Her energy clung to her tightly, but it had erratic jagged edges. She was afraid to touch me. The fear was like a perfume wafting in the air, and I sucked in as much of it as I could. I watched her tape the monitoring equipment to my skin; it looked strange to me as if I was looking at someone else’s arm, someone else’s skin. I was already off somewhere else in my mind, disconnected from what was going on around me and trying not to dwell on what would follow.

Gerald was in the background his voice getting closer; he was giving Carol orders in a hushed tone. The sound of his whisper annoyed me to no end. It would have been better if had yelled or screamed at least that would have shown some balls. I realized the trivialities were beginning to get the better of me. I took a few deep breaths and focused on my goal of going home.

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