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The Salamander Conspiracy

By Donald All Rights Reserved ©

Scifi / Thriller

Chapter 18

Three days after the two terrorists had been killed, Cheryl got a phone call from Knox Pritchard. Cheryl had been told by Agent Rourke that her childhood friend had been a hostage, along with Levinthia Pritchard and the entire Loomis family. Athough at first, she had assumed that only she and Troy were the primary victims of the terrorists, it somehow made sense that Knox had also been involved. Maybe it didn’t actually make sense, but Cheryl thought if she could look under the right layer of confusion, she might see the logic of their connection in the violence they had suffered through—without realizing they had been connected.

Given her intuition that she and Knox shared some kind of common ground, she had not been even mildly surprised when he asked if she and her husband could come by the Loomis house as soon as they had a chance. He went on to tell her that his ex-wife wanted to offer them some explanations, but she insisted on having all of them together. From the news reports, Cheryl knew that Knox’s ex-wife had been shot while protecting him from one of the terrorists. Agent Rourke had told Cheryl and Troy that whatever explosives the two terrorists had been hauling in the back of the stolen truck had to have been similar to the chemical used to burn down their house. The truck had been vaporized to nothing, not even the engine or the transmission escaped from being turned into a few piles of dust. Of course, nothing had remained of the bodies.

Agent Rourke further speculated that the terrorists had been interrupted in their plans because they obviously needed more explosives than they were carrying at the time. A search of the Loomis house turned up blueprints of the Home Shopping Network distribution facility with marks on foundation pilings, clearly indicating where critically placed explosives could bring down the whole gigantic structure. The ATF agents had found a laboratory in the Loomis basement, but they hadn’t managed to find samples of the explosive chemicals. Apparently, the terrorists lived in a perpetual preparedness for being attacked. According to Agent Rourke, such a discipline strongly argued that the two Samoans were highly trained, no doubt with advanced degrees in chemistry or chemical engineering.

When Cheryl asked him to explain why terrorists felt the need to burn down her house, Agent Rourke shook his head for a long time. “We don’t even know what group they’re with, Mrs. Moretz. They could be with some militant ecological movement or a cultural group who sees widespread shopping as a threat to their traditional way of life—people who have decided to strike back against forced child labor. Or they could have belonged to a religious group we don’t know about yet who see a business like HSN as promoting a too materialistic view of life.”

“So they burned our house as a warning?”

Agent Rourke stroked the lapel of his jacket and nodded. “And possibly as a practice run to see if the explosive worked the way it was supposed to.”

“What about the hallucinations?” Troy had asked.

“So far, we haven’t found any sign of that chemical. I’d advise everyone to watch for residual effects. However, I’m pretty certain that all of the chemicals they had were incinerated when the truck blew up.”

With even more difficulty than she had expected, Cheryl had finally extracted herself and Troy from the hospitality of Nancy Muir. After one night in the Hibriten Holiday Inn, they had decided to move into one of their condo properties at the Carlheim. Cheryl had found the shadowy veranda and dark paneling of the hallways somehow soothing. Compared to the square footage of their destroyed home, the condo felt cozy, and Cheryl was surprised by how much she had missed feeling cozy.

Driving by her childhood home on the way to the Loomises’ house stirred up a much stronger sensation of coziness. Just as he’d promised, Troy had contacted one of the most reliable building contractors in Hibriten the day after the terrorists were killed. But Cheryl didn’t feel any sort of happy anticipation for the work to begin. On the other hand, she was anxious to get her home life back on track. With a touch of fear, Cheryl admitted that she felt an odd throb of optimism in her very core. It was distinct between her breaths, but still raw and delicate. Certainly not vital enough to endure being the subject of conversation with anyone.

“So what does this Knox Pritchard know that the ATF agents wouldn’t have already told us?” Troy reached over and squeezed Cheryl’s shoulder.

“Well, I think it’s more what his ex-wife knows.” Cheryl turned in her seat to glance back at her old house. As soon as it was out of sight, she turned her attention back to Troy. “You know, she had been held captive by those Samoans for almost two months, along with the Loomis family. So she must know more than anybody about what was going on.”

“Then I’m glad we’re going to talk to her.”

“Just go easy on her, Troy. Let her talk at her own pace. Don’t forget, she got shot.” Cheryl studied her husband’s face, his hands, both of them now gripping the steering wheel.

She wondered if she would have been able to throw herself in front of a bullet to protect him. The trick, she suspected, seemed to be in not thinking about it before doing it. And Knox wasn’t even Levinthia’s husband anymore. But she must have still felt something pretty deep for Knox to go through all the trouble of divorcing him then getting shot for him. Vaguely, Cheryl remembered Levinthia from high school, a scrawny, paint splattered girl with impossibly thick, blond hair. Now she was a respectable antiques dealer. As a rule, Cheryl didn’t like antiques dealers. They seemed a little too obsessive to her, but up until she learned more about Levinthia’s getting shot protecting Knox, she’d never have expected an antiques dealer capable of such self-sacrifice.

When they turned left onto the Robbins Loop road, Cheryl experienced a flush of nostalgia. Aside from this neighborhood being filled with some of her closest childhood friends, she recalled how on those days when school was closed because of snow, she and Knox had dragged their sleds up this hill to join the dozens of other kids riding down its other side, down past the Loomis house time after time, until they were exhausted and drenched with the snow that melted through their clothes and the sweat that seemed about to turn their inner layers into a slush under their coats and sweaters. In a way, Cheryl realized, those snow days were her first experience of winter vacations. When they couldn’t stand the cold any longer, the girls would separate from the boys and congregate at someone’s house for hot chocolate and popcorn to talk about the boys who’d remained outside.

As they drove within sight of the Loomis house, Cheryl knew she was excited to see Knox after all these years. However, she couldn’t help but feel nervous about meeting the Loomises. How they had survived being held hostage by the terrorists amazed Cheryl. They had to be considerably older than her mother. Then there was Lucy. In a way, Cheryl hoped she’d have a chance to talk to her, but then again, she wasn’t sure if Lucy was even capable of speech. Once again, Cheryl recalled the memory of those nights she’d looked out their kitchen window and seen the lights burning in the Loomis house and how comforting she had found the thought of Lucy being watched over by her parents.

“Look at that tile roof.” Troy pulled into the driveway, craning his neck to admire the dark, shiny green of the roof tiles.

“They’ve looked that way for as far back and I can remember.” Cheryl got out of the car but paused long enough to see if she could detect any sort of damage to the tiles. As far as she knew, this was the only house in Hibriten with such tiles. The roof alone was probably worth thirty thousand dollars.

If she were standing on the back side of the house, Cheryl would have been able to see across Lucy’s Field into the strip of land where her father grew sugar cane and beyond that, the back of her house. As she and Troy approached the front door, she found herself hoping that she would have the chance to get a look out a window that faced her old house. The Loomis house was not the kind of place that would have a back deck, but Cheryl was certain the porch wrapped around all the way to the other side of the house.

Halfway up the steps to the front porch, Troy paused and pointed down the hill to a dark patch of asphalt about twenty feet long. “That must be where the truck blew up.”

“Boy, they were quick to repair the road.” Cheryl studied the newly laid asphalt.

“One of the road repair boys told me that it was melted all the way down to the dirt.”

“They must have been awfully desperate to try to escape in a truck full of explosives.”

“Who knows what people like that are thinking.” Troy moved up one step but kept looking at the repaired patch of road. “For a couple of months, it looks like your plan to blow up HSN is working perfectly. Then one evening you find the ATF and local police swarming into your hideout. They probably jumped into the first vehicle that they knew could get them away from all that attention.”

“Do you think they believed the police wouldn’t shoot at them?”

“I don’t know. Maybe they were suicidal from the moment they hatched up their whole plan.”

“I’m curious to find out how they treated the Loomises all the time they had them locked up in their own house.” Cheryl hurried on up the steps, but as she passed Troy, he caressed her thigh. A pleasant weakness trembled through her knees. “Save some of that energy for when we get back to the condo.”

Even though Cheryl hadn’t seen Levinthia since high school, she immediately recognized her when she opened the front door. Her figure had filled out, but she still had that ropy blond hair. Then Cheryl noticed that Levinthia’s right arm was in a sling. “Levinthia, I’m Cheryl Moretz and this is my husband Troy. Knox Pritchard invited us to meet with you.”

Levinthia stepped onto the porch to give Cheryl an awkward hug. “I know who you are Cheryl, and everybody in Hibriten knows your husband. He brought HSN to town.” Levinthia patted Troy’s arm. “Come on in. Knox just got here a few minutes ago. “He’s bringing the coffee from the kitchen.”

To the best of Cheryl’s memory, the Loomis house hadn’t changed much if any at all since she and Knox had visited it as children. What with the elderly Loomises and the invalid Lucy, Cheryl expected the house to smell like a hospital—or at least antique and musty. But to her amazement, it smelled very much like cantaloupe—and coffee. Every room that Cheryl glanced into, she saw gleaming hardwood floors and Persian carpets. At the end of the hall down which Levinthia was leading them, Cheryl saw two huge pocket doors. In all the houses she had toured either for business or pleasure, she had never seen such magnificent doors. They looked like something you’d find in the Taj Mahal. But they were carved with all the detail that she’d seen in panels created for Chinese emperors.

Noticing Cheryl’s absorbed gaze, Levinthia said, “Some doors, huh?”

“I had no idea there were doors like this in Hibriten.”

“They are some of this house’s least surprises.” Levinthia slid one of the doors open and motioned for Cheryl and Troy to enter.

At the far end of the room, Cheryl saw what had to be Lucy’s iron lung, only instead of being stainless steel, it glowed with a teal glaze—that might have been a reflection borrowed from the color of the walls. Arranged in a semicircle facing the iron lung were six chairs. Next to the outer edge of the two central chairs sat a serving cart with wheels. It was loaded with pastry and fruit. Standing next to the iron lung were Preston and Dolly Loomis and Knox, all three holding coffee cups. To Cheryl’s way of thinking, Preston and Dolly should have been much older than they looked. For some reason, she had expected this meeting to be less social.

When Knox caught sight of Cheryl, he set his coffee down on one of the chairs and came around to hug her. “I’m sorry to hear about your house.” He stepped back from Cheryl and turned his attention to Troy. “I’m glad though that you didn’t suffer more.” He shook Troy’s hand. “I’m Knox Pritchard. Long ago, I was Cheryl’s neighbor.”

Following Levinthia, Knox ushered Cheryl and Troy to the semicircle of chairs. Preston and Dolly met them just as they reached the first chair. Preston raised his hand as if in a benediction and said, “My wife and I are sorry that we’re meeting under such circumstances, but we hope after you hear what we have to say you may feel better about all you’ve been through.”

Once everyone got settled in a chair and served coffee, Preston moved to a spot between the chairs and the iron lung. “I want to introduce you to Lucy. But before you meet her, I have to explain what’s happened to each of you.” He smiled and nodded to each person sitting in front of him. “First, I must tell you that you were not the victims of terrorists.” Preston gestured with an open palm toward Cheryl and Troy.

Cheryl turned to Knox. “How can he say that?”

“I don’t know. While I was helping them fix the refreshments, all they’d talk about was how nice it was living here back when you and I were kids.” Knox glanced at Preston who had paused to take a sip of his coffee. “They know everything about our childhood, Cheryl. Everything.”

Before Cheryl could ask another question, Preston resumed his commentary. “The two people you and the ATF assumed were terrorists were nothing of the sort.”

“If you’d seen our house and had a bomb planted in your boat, you’d think they were terrible enough.” Troy tried to sound reasonable, but his voice carried a noticeable tremor.

With a very steady hand, Preston took another slow drink of his coffee. He kept the cup to his lips until Troy finished speaking. “Iakopo and Alofa were just a diversion—and a demonstration.”

“Wait, Mr. Loomis. I don’t see how you can call a burned down house and two attempted murders ‘just a diversion.’” Cheryl didn’t want anyone unsettling the explanation, the very satisfying explanation she’d been given by Agent Rourke. At the same time, she suspected that Preston Loomis probably did know more than the ATF agents. That disturbed her even more deeply.

Dolly Preston stood up and joined her husband. “Preston, let’s tell them what we’re offering, and then we can fill in the gaps by answering their questions.”

Preston put his arm around Dolly’s shoulder. Then he faced his audience. “Dolly and I and Lucy want you to move back into your childhood homes. Lucy can help you lead fuller, happier, even healthier lives.”

Troy groaned. “Preston, you sound like you’re about to offer us a job selling Amway. Please don’t tell me you’ve brought us here to listen to a marketing promotion.”

“Be patient, Troy.” Preston chuckled as he took a few steps closer to his audience. “I assure you that what we’re about to offer you doesn’t require you to set up pyramid schemes for us. We want you to move back into this neighborhood to help us raise and protect Lucy. But mostly protect her.”

At the same moment, Cheryl, Troy, and Knox shifted their eyes to the iron lung behind Preston and Dolly.

“Wouldn’t you be better off getting people with medical experience to help you take care of Lucy?” Troy shifted impatiently in his chair.

“Lucy doesn’t need medical supervision.” Now it was Dolly’s turn to move closer to her guests. “If you will agree to be our neighbors once again, Lucy will be able to take care of your medical needs.”

Cheryl found herself straining to catch a glimpse of Lucy inside the iron lung. “How can she do that? “

“Actually, she’s already started,” Dolly replied, stepping closer to Cheryl and taking her hand. “You’re pregnant, you know.”

“What?” Troy stared at Dolly for a moment then turned to Cheryl. “Are you?”

Cheryl had to take a few seconds to regain use of her voice. “That’s not possible.”

“Oh, much more than possible, Cheryl.” Dolly patted her hand. “All we ask you to do is raise her in the house where you grew up.”

“And keep an eye on how the neighborhood is developed.” Preston strolled back to the iron lung andset his empty cup on its curved top. “We can promise you that you and your children will have healthy lives and a fulfilling existence.”

“How can you make such a promise?” Cheryl felt a strong desire to cup her hands over her abdomen, but she didn’t want to call attention to the delicate conviction that Dolly Loomis was telling her the truth. Then she realized that Preston had said ‘children.’”

“Just think about all the pure pleasure and joy that you and Troy have experienced over the last few days. You’ve lost practically everything you own, but you haven’t felt any depression, just that off balanced guilt of not caring about your house or furniture. Food has never tasted better, and you can’t get enough of each other.” Preston moved next to his wife. “Those sensations won’t get old or fade. And your children will get the same pure pleasure from life.”

“Mr. Preston, are you the devil trying to tempt us?” Cheryl heard Dolly and Levinthia laugh. “What do you really want?”

“Stability.” Preston put his hands behind his back and leaned forward. “Maybe I can provide a demonstration that will assure you we can give you a better life than you ever imagined.” He stepped behind the iron lung and retrieved a rectangular case. He carried it over to Knox and placed it on his lap. “Knox, when you were riding in the back of your truck that day Iakopo kidnapped you, what did you discover about your musical talent?”

Knox took a deep breath, turning to face Cheryl and Troy. “I gave up being a music major because I wasn’t good enough to play in college. But Levinthia gave me this trumpet and told me to see what I could do with it.” Knox paused. He felt a pain in his throat. “Now I’m pretty good.”

“Show them, Knox.” Levinthia scooted her chair closer to him. She tapped the case. Leaning across him, Levinthia said to Cheryl, “Tell him a song to play.”

“You know, Knox, when we were growing up, I never really liked to hear you play—except when you were way off in the back corner of your yard, practicing next to Lucy’s Field.” Cheryl realized that if Knox couldn’t play as well as Levinthia said he could, then maybe Dolly was wrong in her opinion about the pregnancy.

“Okay, Cheryl, tell Knox what song you want him to play.” Levinthia slid the case off of Knox’s lap as soon as he got the trumpet’s mouthpiece snugged into place.

“Oh, play that song you used to practice so much. ‘Indian Love Call.’” Cheryl was curious to find out if Knox’s version would sound like the one she’d heard that day after making love to Troy under the willow.

Preston held up his hand in Knox’s direction then walked over to Lucy’s iron lung. “Do you have the filters in place?” he asked, stooping down to speak. After a moment, when everyone in the room thought they heard a fluttering noise inside the iron lung, Preston straightened up and said, “Okay, Knox, please play.”

Knox closed his eyes, once again finding himself in the scene with Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy. Only at this moment, Jeanette MacDonald looked very much like Levinthia. What he played was more than the melody because it came out wrapped in the scent of deep forest and pine trees. It was that old legend of the two Indian lovers, their disembodied voices still searching for the meeting that never happened, but was now an echoing invitation in the forest. Because the song was old and shamelessly romantic, the love that it described made everyone in the room feel fragile and rare.

Cheryl had closed her eyes as soon as the first notes came out of the trumpet. Instantly, she was in her mother’s kitchen on an April evening. As they fixed supper, they could hear Knox playing this song in the far back corner of his yard. Back then, he sounded so much better when he was outside and far away. And yes, Cheryl decided, this was the same music she’d heard under that willow shortly before the ATF agents came to interview her and Troy. Even that memory found itself softened by Knox’s playing. Cheryl more than remembered that April evening. She was excited because the fair was in town, and she was going the next evening. She’d found out that Charles Aubain was going to be there. He’d promised to ride the Ferris Wheel with her. If she were pregnant like Dolly Loomis said, her baby would be born in April. With an almost painful longing, Cheryl knew her baby had to grow up in the same home she had. With the same smells and sounds. And at night, her child would look out a back window and see the lights in the Loomis house.

For a few seconds after Knox finished playing, no one spoke. The only sound was the strange fluttering from inside Lucy’s iron lung.

Standing up and wiping at the corners of her eyes, Levinthia walked over and kissed Knox. She put her arm around his waist and turned toward Cheryl and Troy. “Have you ever been happier to have ears?” She squeezed Knox again. “That music of pure caramel comes from a man who claims he hasn’t played a trumpet for nearly fifteen years.”

“He’s got to be lying.” Troy had to clear his throat twice before finishing his sentence.

“No, it’s true.” Knox started to rest his arm across Levinthia’s shoulders, but noticing her sling, decided to put his arm around her waist. Dimly, he realized that whatever was going on inside of him to make music was somehow related to what might be going on inside Cheryl. He moved closer to her. “If Mrs. Loomis says you’re pregnant, I’d believe her.”

Troy rubbed the back of his head and slid to the edge of his seat. “Levinthia, my wife told me that you and Mr. and Mrs. Loomis could tell us the truth about the terrorists—who weren’t really terrorists . . .” he nodded in Preston’s direction. “I certainly didn’t expect to get a proposition for such a radical lifestyle change—or witness the birth of Knox’s musical genius—or hear an announcement about my wife being pregnant.” Briefly, Troy tossed both hands in the air. “Are we all still hallucinating? Did the terrorists leave behind an open can of chemicals?”

Levinthia kneeled in front of Troy and Cheryl. “Let me try to explain.” She glanced over her shoulder at Preston and Dolly. “Lucy is a very special person. She has known us for a long time, starting back with Knox and Cheryl. When she’s interested in people, she has a way of studying them, following them.”

“Like on the internet?” Troy stretched his neck to look at the iron lung.

“Nothing like the internet.” Levinthia glanced at Knox, then at Cheryl, and finally turned her attention back to Troy. “She visited your office five days ago, the Tahitian woman we called Alofa. Knox met her the same day at my old shop. Later that day, he met Iakopo. Both times, he was also meeting Lucy . . . again.”

“I met Alofa too, when she was leaving Troy’s office.” Cheryl sat up, glancing at the iron lung.

“Before that, you bumped into her at Nadine’s house.”

“No, I didn’t meet Alofa until I went back to the office.”

Levinthia put her hand on Cheryl’s knee. “That table, all the other furniture that shifted between old and new—even the boys’ clothes—that happened because Lucy had come for a visit. She can have that effect on her surroundings when she takes a break from her iron lung.”

Knox found himself turning around to follow Cheryl’s and Troy’s gaze back to the iron lung. “Lucy’s invisible?”

“Not exactly. But she is difficult to see when she chooses to be.” Preston backed up closer to the iron lung.

“So she can walk?” Cheryl had to take a long drink of coffee. “And breathe on her own?”

“She prefers to crawl.” Preston leaned his face a few inches closer to the gleaming teal surface and smiled. “She can float.” He turned back to face his visitors. “But that takes a great deal of energy.”

“What is Lucy?” Troy directed his question toward the floor. But after he asked it, he looked first at Levinthia then at Preston.

“We don’t know,” Preston replied.

She doesn’t know.” Levinthia joined Preston and Dolly beside the iron lung.

“Would you like to meet her?” Dolly stood very still, as if she didn’t want to unsettle her guests.

“Is it safe?” Cheryl stood up because she really wanted to inspect the iron lung more carefully.

“Safe as any activity on this planet.” Preston walked behind the iron lung and motioned for Dolly to start the process of opening it.

From Knox’s point of view, the latches were invisible until Dolly slid her fingers into hidden niches and unlatched them with a slight flick of her wrists. Once the first set of latches were opened, a slight hiss of decompression drifted through the room. As soon as the Loomises had begun opening the iron lung, Levinthia had joined Knox. She squeezed his hand and leaned her head on his shoulder. Feeling her body press against him stirred in Knox an embarrassingly strong desire. Since she had gotten shot, he hadn’t been able to see her. The ATF agents had been debriefing her up until this afternoon. She’d called him to bring her from the hospital to the Loomises’. He worried that she didn’t feel comfortable in her condo because he’d been staying in it while she was recovering.

With the release of three more sets of latches, the hissing had become a chorus of escaping pressure. To Knox’s newly enhanced ears, the intensity of the sound suggested an atmosphere that would have to be almost solid. This iron lung wasn’t the one he’d seen when he’d come caroling. Holding tighter to Levinthia’s hand, he tried to remember what Lucy looked like all those years ago. He recalled those large, dark eyes. Pale skin. A small body but still too large for the tiny limbs. How would such a body change in thirty-two years? He glanced over at Cheryl to see if she was trying not to look, or covering her eyes, maybe searching for the nearest exit. Would Lucy’s deformities have gotten worse with age? Could she have grown out of them?

When the hissing stopped, Preston and Dolly raised the top half of the iron lung, which Knox realized wasn’t an iron lung at all. From where he stood, he could see some kind of deep orange material. Without realizing he had started moving, he felt Levinthia pulling him forward. Cheryl and Troy drifted along with him. The orange poured out of the pressure chamber and flowed silkily to the floor, its color growing lighter as it collected into a whispering cone that gradually shaped itself into the form of a woman, arms then shoulders, then a slender neck, a head in which the features formed out of trembling concentric circles while golden chesnut hair convolved and cascaded, reflecting the glow rising up from the dress.

Levinthia whispered in Knox’s ear, “When Lucy wants to talk, she takes this shape—it’s from her favorite painting, ‘Flaming June.’ Have you seen it?”

Without taking his eyes off of the tall woman forming in front of him, Knox shook his head.

“I’m not surprised. Frederic Leighton’s work would probably be a little too dark for bank offices. Even when he worked with brighter colors, he would expose breasts at the drop of a hat. Leighton’s model that Lucy is recreating now was an actress named Dorothy Dene. Supposedly, her relationship with Leighton inspired George Bernard Shaw to write Pygmalion.” Levinthia turned her attention back to Lucy.

As Cheryl watched Lucy taking shape, she felt an escalating joy. The woman’s face was too beautiful to be real, the skin too clear. She worried for a moment that she might be falling into another hallucination, but what was taking shape in front of her argued that what she and Troy had been feeling for the last few days was some kind of supernatural event rather than a terrorist plot –her heart being caressed instead of her brain being poisoned. She reached for Troy’s hand and squeezed it. As she’d hoped, he squeezed back. With her other hand, she touched her abdomen. At the same time, Lucy opened her large violet eyes and looked at Cheryl.

“I have waited a long time for us to meet like this.” Lucy took a step forward.

That voice reminded Cheryl of the seductive moss under the willow tree. Its huskiness invited without a hint of insistence, although underneath its freshness, Cheryl felt an urgency.

Knox had never seen a human being who looked like Lucy Loomis. Still, he felt something familiar about her. Something nostalgic about her. Maybe it had something to do with her looking like she’d just stepped out of a Victorian painting. When Levinthia had mentioned Leighton, Knox suspected that he had to be a contemporary with Waterhouse. Lucy could have easily stepped into one of his paintings and fit perfectly. But Levinthia was absolutely right, no self-respecting Baptist banker would dare to hang a portrait of this Lucy Loomis in his lobby.

With Preston and Dolly accompanying her, Lucy floated closer to Cheryl and Knox, holding out her hands. “I hope my unsteady way of moving doesn’t disturb you. When I move outside my pressure chamber, I’m kind of like a cloud trying to wear boots. I have to concentrate so hard on staying solid that I have trouble with gravity.”

Knox took the hand that she extended. “I’ve had nights when gravity was a problem for me too.” He was surprised by how warm it felt. More surprising was how nice it felt to touch Lucy. He didn’t want to let go. Just this casual meeting of hands made him want to tell her about how happy he felt because of Levinthia, because of his discovery of the music inside him.

As soon as Cheryl touched Lucy’s warm hand, she felt the same desire that Knox was experiencing. Lucy embodied that imaginary friend or lost friend or idealized friend that Cheryl found herself wanting to share with her years of good and bad experiences. That person who would always know exactly what to say. “Lucy, you’re not at all what I expected.”

Lucy lowered her head and laughed, still holding onto Knox and Cheryl. Both of them could feel the vibration of pleasure. They also shared a sense of relief. Without looking at each other, Knox and Cheryl knew this relief flowed from Lucy, but it found a welcome resonance in her two guests.

“I have missed both of you.” Lucy pulled herself close to Cheryl and Knox to embrace them.

Despite Lucy’s tendency to float, Knox was surprised to find her arms very much like Levinthia’s—except slightly warmer. He also caught a distinct scent of cantaloupe rising with Lucy’s body heat.

Releasing Knox and Levinthia, Lucy moved back from them and rubbed her fingers along her cheeks. “We have a lot to talk about. I heard Daddy tell you part of what I want to propose to you. I need your help. And I know I’m asking a lot.” She turned to Cheryl and Troy. “I am very sorry about your house. But I can promise you a much happier life if you will move back to where you grew up, Cheryl. Be my neighbor again. Give your baby the chance to be as happy as you were.”

“How can you make such promises . . . and predictions?” Cheryl clutched Troy’s arm, leaning toward Lucy.

“Don’t you think a woman who can make the kind of dazzling entrance I just did is capable of delivering a baby or two to her friends who live right next door?” As she reassured Cheryl, Lucy drifted between Levinthia and Knox. “What’s more, your kids will live right next door to a gifted musician and a remarkable painter. C’mon, face the music and relocate, please.”

Knox noticed that Lucy’s fingers around his arm had started growing warmer. But at the same time her touch felt more human. To the sense of urgency, a sadness had been added. He had no idea what Lucy really was. However, she was clearly a creature who needed them. Briefly, he wondered if spirits could be insane. Nevertheless, he wanted to believe Lucy’s promise. After all, she had fulfilled a big part of what she’d offered to them. How hard, he wondered, would it be to move back into his childhood home. At the moment, his largest assent—his whole business in fact—was just a few piles of dust in the ditch at the bottom of the hill. After the next hard rain, there wouldn’t be that much of his assets left.

Since that night he’d spent with Levinthia in her van, Knox had thought very little about returning to Atlanta. First of all, he didn’t have a ride down there. Second of all, the idea of resuming life in his apartment numbed him. He certainly wouldn’t be able to practice his trumpet with people living on both sides of him and above him. Third, Knox couldn’t imagine living so far away from Levinthia. Even if she wouldn’t remarry him, he had to be close to her. “Lucy, I have some questions.”

“We’ll answer all of them.” Lucy nodded at Levinthia, Preston, and Dolly. “Right now, though, I have to return to my chamber. I’m still recuperating from all the excitement of the last few days.” As she drifted back to Preston and Dolly, Lucy’s dress glowed with more intensity.

Preston swept her up in his arms and placed her inside the container. Hastily, he and Dolly closed the lid, fastened the latches, and watched through two small observation ports that were tinted the same teal as the metal body of the container until they seemed satisfied that Lucy was resting comfortably.

Taking Knox’s arm, Levinthia moved him and herself closer to Cheryl and Troy, forming a fairly tight circle. “Now that you’ve met Lucy, you’re ready to consider the details of what she’s asking you to do.”

“You mean to move back to Cheryl’s house?” Troy cupped his hands on either side of his neck as if his brain needed extra support to process the revelations of the night.

“That’s part of it.” Levinthia gave Knox a worried glance. “I think we need to get some fresh air.” She turned her attention back to Troy and Cheryl. “I’m really hungry. Can I interest any of you in some pancakes at the Waffle House?” She herded the group out of the room, through the pocket doors.

“I need to get some explanations.” Troy glanced back to where Preston and Dolly still stood by Lucy’s pressure chamber.

“That’s my job,” Levinthia replied, gently urging everyone toward the front door. “The plan is for me to take us to some neutral place—my condo—if you like. And answer all of your questions. We just all thought you needed to meet Lucy first, before we started discussing what has happened to all of us. But there is an explanation.”

Cheryl caught her breath with she stepped outside. The night had turned remarkably cool. Part of her felt satisfied, full. Another part of her couldn’t wait to get to the Waffle House and Levinthia’s explanation.

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