When You Knew me

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Chapter Twenty - Dad is Gone

“Dad?” Charlotte stumbles into the kitchen, supported by Gabe. “Dad? Are you here?” She leans against the cool stone bench top, blinking at her mother’s unchanging face on the opposite wall. Gabe’s hand covers hers. Charlotte’s eyes fill with tears as the heavy grief crawls to the surface. No, not yet. Don’t give up until you know for sure. She stumbles out to the entrance hall, her faltering voice echoing like that of a lost child. “Dad? You home?” She starts up the carpeted stairs, but dizziness suffocates her and she flops to her knees. Gabe sits beside her, his hand warm on her back.

“Charlie, stop will you? You’re in no fit state to go running around the house.”

She looks into his calm, green eyes. Her heart is so tight and full it’s about to burst.

“Not Dad too…” she whispers. She closes her eyes to blot out the truth. “I can’t bear losing him too.”

Gabe pulls her to her feet and wraps his arms gently around her body.

“You won’t. I swear. We will find him. But first we need to take care of you. Are there any pills?

She shakes her head, ever so slightly. It feels like a giant is squeezing it between his bare hands.

“I… can’t remember. I think…”

“Here. Sit down.” He leads her to the stiff-backed gilded hall chair. She eases onto the blood red cushion and leans forward.

“He said the new vaccine should fix it. I don’t know. I feel just as bad as before.” She looks up at him. Gabe has two faces that keep merging and pulling apart like some grotesque, leering mask. She reaches out to cradle his jaw in her hand. “The lab. We have to see if he’s there.”

Gabe’s eyes are sad.

“Charlie, he’s probably not there. They said they have him…”

“But what if they’re lying? What if he’s at the lab anyway?”

“Maybe.” Gabe reaches into his jeans pocket and pulls out the unassuming white business card. There’s one word, printed in plain black type. He hands it to her.

“Elkwood?”

He shrugs. “I don’t know. Let’s look it up.”

“But Gabe, the lab. I want to see my father!” She’s too weary even to cry. He takes her hands.

“Look, the guys will be here any minute. We’ll go then, ok? In the meantime, let’s find out about this place. Just in case he’s there.”

She shakes her head. “I want him to be at his lab, like a normal day. Please, can’t it just be a normal day?”

“We will go to the lab. I promise.” He wrinkles his nose. “Need to get you a clean top, Charlie. Vomit cologne doesn’t become you.” She tries to smile. “Sit here and I’ll go upstairs and get those pills and some clean clothes.”

“Ok.” She doesn’t even care what he brings back. How can it matter? The vomit rises in her throat. Only the thought of losing her father keeps her focussed. Gabe returns with a bundle of clothes and a large Gucci bag, full and tightly zippered. In his hand is a small white bottle of painkillers.

“I found these. Can’t hurt, right?” He hands her a glass of water.

“Ok. I’ll take a couple.” She swallows them with a swig of water.

“Think you can make it to the study?”

She nods, letting him pull her to her leaden feet. The room is spacious with bookshelves on every wall and a heavy walnut desk displaying a clutch of silver framed photos: of her mother, of the three of them, of Charlotte as a baby in her mother’s arms, of grandparents Charlotte never knew. It’s another world in here. A lost world. Charlotte takes a few deep breaths. She has to keep it together. It’s the only way they can find Dad and bring him home. She sits on the padded lounge chair in one corner as Gabe goes to the desk and starts to type. ‘Elkwood’ is apparently the latest album of the punk band Pink Fusion, it’s also a label for a dry cleaning company and some hideous looking milk drink from Alaska. He refines the search, his fingers flashing across the keyboard.

And there it is.

He clicks on ‘images’ and enlarges it. Before them is the ugliest, strangest looking building she’s ever seen. It’s like a misshapen monster. A bulging edifice of concrete, it squats surrounded by a wide expanse of red desert sand, ringed by a concrete wall at least ten feet high. It looks like a prison. The next picture shows it from above. Charlotte gasps. Beyond the red, lifeless dirt and concrete wall are familiar green fields and suburbia.

“It’s near Harlington! Right outside the city. I can’t believe I’ve never seen it or heard of it before.”

Gabe is staring at the screen, his lips parted. He points.

“There’s a moat around it.”

The door bell rings.

“They’re here.” Gabe goes to answer it. Charlotte takes the moment to change her top. She’s just pulling down a red tee shirt to her waist when Gonzo walks in.

“Hi Charlotte.” He looks away, embarrassed. Bird, dressed completely in yellow as usual, gives a quick nod and heads for the corner near the window. They’re both wearing backpacks. Gonzo claps Gabe on the back and they grin at each other.

“Your rescue team, reporting for duty, Ma’am.” Gonzo salutes Charlotte, grinning. Birds mutters something and turns to stare out the window. Gabe shows Gonzo the webpage about Elkwood.

“I have a strange feeling,” says Gonzo, sitting down to type. “I’ll run a subversive search. Ah, yes, just as I thought.” He looks up at Gabe. They exchange worried looks.

“What?” says Charlotte, feeling as if it couldn’t possibly get any worse. Gonzo turns to her.

“Elkwood is run by the GSA.”

“Anna bloody Povic?” Charlotte’s voice rises to a strangled squeak.

Gonzo nods. “The very same.”

“Shit! Bloody Shit!” Charlotte bites her lip as tears plump themselves in her eyes. That woman scared me. I only just managed to get her out of my car. And when she landed all broken on the floor at school her bodyguards didn’t even seem worried. Why?

“Hey,” Gabe touches her cheek. “You handled her last time. On your own. Now you have all of us.” His green eyes sparkle with mischief. His perfect smile makes her heart flutter. Somehow, she believes him. He glances at his watch. “Well, we’d better get going. Got all the gear?”

“Even night vision goggles,” says Gonzo gleefully. It’s as if he is finally living out the fantasies he plays on his computer all the time.

“So will they,” adds Bird gloomily. “They’ve probably bugged this house.”

“You really think so?” Charlotte feels a chill creep inside her veins. Gabe caresses her arm absent-mindedly. The boys watch the interaction with interest. Gonzo grins, his face flushed and shiny. Bird titters, his hand over his mouth. Charlotte reaches out to hook her finger through the belt loop on Gabe’s jeans.

“Dad’s lab first, right?”

“Are you sure you’re up to this?”

She pulls herself up by grabbing his arm. Swaying defiantly she stares at him. “Just try and stop me, geek boy.” She pushes past him tottering out to the hall. The next thing she knows, the cool tiles impact with her cheek in shuddering pain. “Ow…” Tears spring to her eyes but she blinks them away. Gabe lifts her easily and carries her to the garage, her arms linked around his neck.

“You’re always carrying me to my car,” she mutters.

“You saying you hate it?” he replies, kissing the top of her head.

“Nope. But I do feel like a helpless damsel.”

“Enjoy the moment, Charlie. You can kick butt later.”

She grins, buckling herself into the front seat then leans back against the headrest. Gabe is driving, Gonzo and Bird are squashed into the back seat of her sports car. They’re gabbling excitedly about how cool the car is, their voices piercing her skull.

“Guys, guys, can you tone it down a bit? My head…”

“Sorry, Charlotte.” Gonzo says, cuffing Bird playfully round the head. Bird whines and they bicker quietly. Gabe pulls out of the drive and they speed away down the wide street, ghostly oak arms reaching out in a dark net overhead, the streetlights casting strange shadows on the footpaths.

Please be there, Dad. Please…

Gabe brings the car to a stop at the boom gate to Parson’s Industries, a large, square building of dubious architectural significance. The sheer face of black glass is resolute, unsympathetic. Even though Charlotte has been inside many times this is different. The guard emerges from his cubicle, thumbs tucked into his belt. He frowns at Charlotte’s car. Gabe winds down his window.

“Ah, hi. We’re here to see Professor Campbell.”

“Name?”

“Gabe Murray.”

The guard pulls out a small device and scrolls through.

“Not here.” He turns away.

“Wait!”

The guard swivels like a robot. Gabe’s hand comes up.

“Look, we don’t have an appointment, but he knows us. All of us. Please, can you just call him? It’s urgent.”

Charlotte takes a firm grasp of her seatbelt for support and leans forward.

“Hi, er, what’s your name again?” She offers him a weak smile. He scowls at her. “Look, I’m Charlotte Campbell. I’m sick and my dad is a doctor. I need to see him, right away. Could you please just let us in?” The guard looks her over but says nothing. Gabe throws up his hands in mock exasperation.

“I wanted to take her to the hospital, but you know how women are.” The guard just stares at him. It’s like half a day is slowly slipping past while they sit watching this stupid man watching them.

“Scanlon,” says the guard suddenly. Gabe nods.

“Right, er, Officer Scanlon.” He points a thumb at Charlotte. “Do me a favour? She’s driving me crazy!”

Scanlon grunts. His mouth curves down. He heads back into the cubicle.

“Why did you have to say that?” Charlotte seethes at Gabe. “Now we’ll never get in!”

The boom gate rises. Gabe grins, saying nothing as he drives through, giving Scanlon the thumbs up. There’s a titter from the back seat. Charlotte adjusts her visor mirror squarely upon the geeks in the back seat and glares at them. They fall silent.

In the lift Charlotte reaches out to press button six, then slumps against the wall. Gabe touches her arm experimentally. She closes her eyes, ignoring him.

“At least we got in,” he says. “Isn’t that all that matters?”

She can’t be bothered having this conversation. Her head is like a block of wood, being pounded by a sledge hammer. The doors glide open. Gabe helps her, whether she wants him to or not. They all know where to go. Gabe calls out.

“Professor? Are you here? Charlotte needs you. Professor?”

They round a corner and gasp. The lab is trashed. Gonzo crunches over glass, righting a portable centrifuge unit that has landed on the floor. Charlotte stands leaning against Gabe, her heart hammering.

“He’s gone!” She croaks and starts to cry. Gabe’s arm is warm and protective around her but nothing can protect her father from these people. Gabe seats her in one of the chairs. “They’ve smashed everything. All his work!” She cries, looking up at him. Gabe’s face is tight with anger. Then she remembers. “The pods! The cryogenics lab! Mum’s blood…” She struggles to her feet. He pushes her gently back down onto the chair.

“I’ll check.”

“No! It’s my parents!” She pushes past him and stumbles to the cryogenics lab. Pausing before the door, she listens. Gabe stands beside her his eyes wide, listening too. There’s no sound coming from within. She pushes down the handle. It’s dark and silent. Flicking on the light she stands in the doorway shocked at the completely empty chamber. There’s absolutely nothing left, not even a cable on the floor. The tall, white pod labelled ‘Ellen Campbell’ has gone. All the other pods with numbered labels are gone. There’s no electronic symphony of beeping machines, no comforting rows of coloured lights. “NO!” she screams, hiding her face in her hands. “No…”

“Charlie, let’s sit down for a moment.” Gabe leads her to the Common Room, where the fridges hum and fluro lights blare over clean tables and sofas. Charlotte sits on the nearest sofa, feeling disconnected from her limbs, the pounding in her head drowning out all thought. There is only this huge black emptiness - hoarding, gathering her energy like a black hole. Feeling breath upon her face, she opens her eyes. Gabe is kneeling in front of her. Those hard lines of his jaw stand out when he’s clenching it like that.

“I’m just going to check if he’s left any medicine for you,” he says.

“I’ll go with you,” says Gonzo. She stares after them, the black emptiness inside her mind rising higher, higher, like a dense, dark fog. Oh my God, Dad. Please be ok. Her bones feel like they will never move again. Bird sits nearby, fiddling with his wristwatch. Gabe returns. In his hand is a syringe and a length of rubber tubing. Gonzo is carrying a small vial of fluid.

“Where did you find that?” She asks, her speech slurring.

Gabe grins. “Your Dad showed me a secret stash.”

“Mm,” she mumbles, feeling vaguely glad her father and Gabe get along so well. “But you don’t know what you’re doing.”

“Gonzo’s mum is diabetic,” explains Gabe. He gently proceeds to pull up her sleeve and ties the tubing around her arm. She is shocked to see hideous black and grey marks. She pulls away, ashamed.

“Charlie please,” whispers Gabe. “I don’t care.”

She looks into his lovely eyes. How can he stand to look at me? But she relents, watching Gonzo expertly load and check the syringe, flicking the air bubbles out. Ok. So he does know what he’s doing.

“But how do you know it’s the right stuff…” The needle goes in. Charlotte’s eyes flicker. There’s a crowd of anxious male faces watching her. Shakily, she reaches out to touch Gabe’s arm. “I’ll be ok,” she says, trying to reassure him. She closes her eyes.

“Rest for a bit,” says Gabe and kisses her forehead. Charlotte sinks into the sofa and half focuses on what the geeks are saying to each other.

“It’ll take forty five minutes to get to the gate,” says Gonzo’s deep voice.

“What if they won’t let us in?” whines Bird. “What if we can’t hijack their systems?”

A silence follows. Charlotte’s feet seem so far away, like distant iron pods.

“We can’t wait here,” says Gabe. Charlotte feels his arms under her, lifting. The world spins. She gasps, grabbing his shirt and buries her face as he strides to the elevator. He’s always carrying me, like I’m some weak, useless female.

The car ride to Elkwood is done in relative silence, except for whispers and tapping sounds from the back seat. Gabe drives, expression grim, arms stiff on the wheel, lost in his own thoughts. Hot, flushed and trembling, Charlotte can feel the fight going on inside her body. She hopes the good guys win. And that the geeks have a brilliant, unfailing plan.

.

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