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GMO

By Kelly O'Brien Burford All Rights Reserved ©

Mystery / Thriller

Section One

Brad

The lunatic is on the grass. Believe it.

Random images, memory fragments, floated through his mind. He felt her. Sunlit smile, light bouncing off metal braces turned to green eyes shining. Golden circle around inky pupils open wide, so wide, he fell forward, hurtling through the darkness. A field of clover, little girl spinning fast, laughter ringing in his ears…

Blaring sirens pierced the pleasant image.

He tried. I’ll focus on the music… Not loud, but he knew it by heart. Pink Floyd. The Dark Side of the Moon, midway through the title track. Yes, Heather’s favorite. Played it over and over after…after…

His mind began to drift. If only that goddamn noise would stop.

“Cut the siren. Let’s see what we’ve got.”

A woman’s voice floated to him out of the darkness. Effort to answer met swift retaliation. Giant spikes pierced his jaw in a dozen places all at once. Pain broke loose filament memory, shimmering briefly, then gone. He tried again. Same pain explosion, he couldn’t hold it. He moaned.

“Let’s see if we can get him on the stretcher, but take it easy.”

Her voice was comforting, like someone he knew. Eyes wide, he strained to see her. Darkness was absolute. He was blind. Pain he never imagined possible blazed through him as hands slid beneath him.

“We got an ID on this guy yet?” Male voice this time.

Hands shifted his broken body. He screamed. Yes indeed asshole; this is the end, the end my friend.

“Oops. Sorry about that Donna.”

“Don’t touch him, I got it.”

He left them for a moment. Words bubbled to the surface of his broken mind. They began to scroll; bright blue ticker at the bottom of his screen, repeating. “Passed out from the pain…passed out from the pain…passed out from the pain.” 

A mantra, he seized them. Yes. That. Please god.

“Pressure’s dropping I need that IV started now!” Female voice again.

Relax lady friend. All the kings’ horses and all the kings’ men won’t put me back together again. I may be blind, but that…I see that just fine, sure do...

“Found his wallet in the car, license says Bradley Morris.”

Bradley Morris...Boris Brontosaurus Morris...Morris gonna gore us...gore us... Memories floated around him like lint in bathwater. He picked one up. I’m Brad, my twin sister is Heather… He chose another, it burned. He screamed. So terrible, oh god... He was crying. Tears rolled down his face. He itched like mad but couldn't move. Have to…tell them…

"Donna, his heart rate hit the roof!”

"Bradley can you hear me? Calm down sweetheart. Everything’s going to be okay. Try to be still or you’ll hurt yourself.”

Hurt himself…hurt himselfOh the irony. He laughed. It came out as a scream. Strange.

“What do you want to do Donna? You know we can’t move him thrashing around like this.”

“Alright Jeff, get the push, point ten Vecuronium. Stabilize before moving him again.” 

Wonderful calm settled over him. He was fading and grateful. Hated memory found him, bit hard and tore. He screamed again. 

A cool hand found his in the darkness. The woman jumped when he seized her but he held on tight. Done bun can't be undone. Her hair was against his face and he knew she was leaning close to hear him. "What is it Brad?"

No pain now. He sighed. Not blind anymore either. His twin sister stood beside him. He knew exactly what to say. I love you little my.

He spoke, words more liquid than air. He let go.

"What’s he saying Donna?"

"I think he said, ‘There's no Pink Floyd without Roger’."


David

"I thought you said you were going to ask her," Jody said.

"Yeah, I did, and then I thought about it and decided she'd be more likely to agree if you asked her," David answered.

"You always such a pussy?”

Jesus, not this again, David thought, irritated. "Look, will you do it or what?"

Jody laughed, "Of course I'll do it, but you are gonna pay cousin."

"Don't I always?"

"Hey it's not my fault you've always had more money than balls."

This last was a bit more than even his present desperation enabled David to take. In an instant, he dropped to the floor, swept his leg beneath both of Jody's while delivering a very satisfactory blow to his solar plexus.

Jody fell backward to the ground with a faint woof that was all he could manage while his lungs were simultaneously forced empty and struggling to expand.

Face turning spectacular shades of red and then gray, he managed a feeble, "asshole".

"What was that?" "Do you always mumble this much?" David laughed. He reached an arm down and pulled Jody to his feet. "Alright there Casanova?"

"Like you care, I don't know why I put up with this bullshit," Jody said.

"Well, like you said, we are related and the pay ain’t bad." David grinned.

"Let's get this over with," Jody said, shuffling in an exaggerated imitation of an old man’s gain up the driveway toward the house.

"Good idea, just remember you’re my only hope, so no pressure or anything" David grinned.

"Yeah, I got it, so what was the goal again?" he asked, reaching for the phone.

"Knock it off dickhead,” David said, "You know Julie won’t give me the time of day unless I can convince Heather to help me with her."

Jody dialed Heather’s number and gave his cousin a mock salute, grimacing when his recently crushed diaphragm cramped with the effort. "Hey hey, Mrs. M! Have you had time to reconsider?"

David shot him a look of misery.

"A guy can dream though can't he?" Jody asked in response to whatever rebuff had come his way.

"Well, if you insist on breaking my heart, I guess I'll just have to settle for talking to your daughter if she's around," Jody said, throwing a thumbs up to David, who could manage only a feeble attempt to smile back around the lump of dismay caught in his throat. He would never understand how his cousin could speak to women the way he did.

The few occasions he had been brave (or drunk) enough to try it, he'd felt so immediately ridiculous he couldn't remember hanging around long enough to see if it worked. Jody was different though. Even David could see that. When Brad and Heather’s dad passed away a year ago, everyone watched helplessly as their mother sank deeper and deeper into depression. The more people tried to reach her, the more she isolated herself and avoided them. Kindness and sympathy drove her away and people were starting to talk about “what should be done with the kids.”

Then came the miracle. Jody was one of those guys who never seemed to be paying attention to much of anything. The rest of them had been almost immobilized thinking about what would happen to Brad and Heather if their mom couldn’t pull it together soon. Jody never seemed to notice.  He just walked right up to Mrs. Morris, scooped her up and started twirling her around the room, belting out some song that had to be from his own mother’s collection of very gay musicals. No shit.

The memory of the two of them dancing together in the middle of the living room was not entirely a pleasant one. How could it be when Mrs. M had obviously not showered or eaten or even changed out of pajamas in what had to have been weeks?  Still, …David snapped abruptly back to the present at his cousin’s sharp intake of breath.

Jody’s body jerked suddenly rigid.

“What’s going on?” The healthy color vanished from Jody’s face during a pause that seemed unbearably long to David. He was just about to interrupt and try figure out what was happening when he heard Jody said, “But, that’s impossible, we just saw him less than an hour ago.”

David’s stomach fluttered like the bottom fell out of the earth and he just dropped a dozen feet. There must have been an accident of some kind. Maybe Brad was hurt. He leaned closer toward his cousin and strained to hear the other side of the conversation.

"Jesus… of course..." another long pause, then "Okay, if you think that we can help at all we'll be right there." Jody sagged against the counter the phone dropping from his fingers to land off kilter back into the base.

David reached forward and re-seated the phone. The little green light glowed; assuring him the connection was made. He asked, "What the hell man, what was that?”.

"Brad's dead." Jody said the words so quietly David almost convinced himself he did not correctly hear them.

"I, I don't understand." "What do you mean?"

"Christ, David, I don't know!” Jody leaped forward slamming his fist into the counter inches away from where David stood frozen.

David recoiled from the anger in his cousin’s voice, taking a clumsy step back away from Jody and throwing up his hand in a futile gesture of defense. His voice shaking, David said, “Please don’t do that.”

“I’m sorry David. I guess I’m just a little freaked. I, I was talking to Emily, um Heather's mom, and the doorbell rang so she asked if I could hold on a sec you know?” Jody took a breath and continued, “I heard her scream, and then a cop picked up the phone and told me there had been some kind of accident, and that…well, Brad was dead."

David forced himself to take a couple of slow breaths before asking, “So, you told Heather’s mom we were on our way?”

 “No dipshit, I told you she never came back to the phone, it was the cop.” Jody practically spat the words at him.

David had no idea why everything he said was suddenly so infuriating. Maybe Jody was just in shock, hell they probably both were. He really needed to pull it together here.

David tried again, “I just thought I heard you telling someone we would be right over, and I’m not sure where we are going or why.”

“Yeah, that was the cop.” Jody stared off into the distance over David’s shoulder almost like he was in a trance.

David was beginning to think Jody’s cheese may be slipping off his cracker. He tried again, “So where did the cop want us to go?”

 “When I told him we’d just left Brad less than an hour ago, he asked if we would come down to the police station and give them a statement about it.”, Jody said in that faraway creepy monotone.

David blurted, “What for? We weren’t driving with him and sure as hell didn’t see the car accident, so what could we possibly say that would matter?”

Jody paused, seeming to replaying the discussion in his mind before answering, “Well to be honest, the guy never actually said it was a car accident.”


Jody

They had pulled into the mostly vacant lot in front of the police station that doubled as an Amtrak stop and sat staring ahead at the front door like men condemned. A few seconds passed and Jody realized the car was rocking side to side and peered over at David sitting next to him in the passenger seat.

"Just so we're clear when we get in there, exactly how long were we with him and when did we leave?" David asked, his right leg bouncing up and down with enough force to shake the car.

Jody thought for a moment, reached out and placed his hand on David’s knee to still the rocking. "I'm not sure, I guess I'd say we got there about ten in the morning, goofed around with his new stereo and then had some lunch before we left, right?"

David’s arm shot out and latched onto Jody’s as he was getting ready to exit the car. "Yeah, okay that sounds about right, so what time do you think we actually left his place?" David’s eyes looked a few sizes too large for his head all of a sudden and he seemed completely unaware that his grip on Jody’s upper arm was remotely unpleasant or that he had his cousin pinned just inside the door and people passing by were beginning to stare.

"I don't know David, maybe one or so.” Jody trying to pry his arm free, noticed sweat was beaded all over David’s face and he seemed out of breath. “Are you feeling okay man?”

David practically shouted, “I'm telling you, something is not right, and we can't go in there half-assed or telling different stories!"

Spurred by shock Jody jerked free and launched himself out the car door. "What the fuck is your problem man?" Jody cautiously poked his head just inside the door, “You’ve been acting like a crazy person ever since we got in the car to drive over here and I don’t get it.”

David sat rooted to the same spot in the passenger side and Jody noticed his heart was hammering hard enough to be visible through the thin fabric of his NC State t-shirt. “Hey man, are you sure you’re alright?” “You don’t look so good.”

The agitation seemed to drain from David and he said, “Look, all I know it that we just need to be careful until we can find out what actually happened and what we’re dealing with.”

Even though Jody could not understand where his cousin’s anxiety was coming from, he knew it was pointless to argue. He was glad David finally seemed calm enough to at least get out of the car. He closed the door and walked over to his cousin. "Okay, I get it, and I’m sorry if you thought I’m not taking you seriously, let’s just go get this over with.”

“It’s alright man, I’m just, I don’t know …I wish I would have talked to my dad first. I don’t think he would think this is a good idea.” David’s voice drifted and the two of them walked across the sweltering blacktop toward the double doors.

Jody tried to lighten the mood, "Hey no worries, I had no idea hidden under all that cool was such paranoia."

David looked straight ahead, walking like a condemned man off to the guillotine. "Just remember what DeNiro said man."

"Yeah? What was that?" Jody asked, his mind beginning to drift. He had to go see Emily as soon as they were done here. Brad’s mom would be a mess and she was going to need him.

His cousin turned toward him and whispered, “It's not paranoia if they’re really out to get you."

“Har har.” Jody made eye contact with the woman behind a desk marked INFORMATION and walked forward. "Hi, I'm Jody Graham and this is David Mackey, we were asked to come in and give statements about Bradley Morris?"

The woman was wearing a headset and nodded as she pressed a button on the phone, speaking into her mic, "The boys are here, you want me to send them back?" She nodded and, and gestured for them to go through the double doors to the left of the desk.

"Real talkative wasn't she?" Jody said as they walked down the corridor painted institutional green. He wondered if there was a psychological reason for the miserable color scheme. The combination of fluorescent lights and noxious green paint did no one any favors and it made David look even more ill. Maybe he should drive him to the urgent care before he went to see Emily.

A door to the left opened and a man Jody recognized at once stepped into the hall beckoning, "Come on back boys, glad you could make it."

"No problem, whatever we can do to help," Jody said with effort and only a slight quaver in his voice. He was starting not to feel so well himself. Maybe he was coming down with strep throat again. He’d had it once when he was in junior high and remembered his mom saying it turned into scarlet fever or something. He had ended up in the hospital for over a week.

David lurched through the door and not so much sat as collapsed into one of the chairs on the other side of a beat up but surprisingly tidy desk.

“I'm detective Cole -” he raised half out of his chair and reached across the desk to Jody who was still standing awkwardly.

"I'm Jody Graham." Jody said leaping forward and extending his right hand.

"David Mackey, sir." David lurched back to his feet banging a knee loudly against the metal desk in front of him. Jody noticed his cousin was not grey and wan anymore, he looked more like he was running a pretty high fever now, or maybe it’s just nerves. Maybe David was secretly terrified of cops. Cops and women – the thought brought a burp of laughter Jody had to stifle quickly as he turned to take a seat beside his cousin.

"Well, timing can be critical with things like this so I appreciate you getting here so fast.” Detective Cole directed his gaze toward David who once again was fidgeting like he had enough nervous energy to replace the Harris Nuclear plant right outside Sanford.

“Is it okay to ask, exactly what happened?" Jody was starting to think maybe David was right. Maybe coming down here alone before talking it over with their parents was not the best plan.

"Why don't we start with a recap from the two of you of the last twenty-four hours or so and we’ll fill in the rest as we go along?" “Who wants to go first?” Cole asked.

Glancing at David who nodded with a “be my guest” bow, Jody began, "After the game last night, we thought we’d all get together at Brad's house for pizza and a movie." He took a breath and continued, “We hung out until about 1:30 a.m. and as we were leaving, Brad asked us to stop back by this morning to help him with his new stereo system.”

Cole interrupted, "For his car?"

David blurted, "Yeah, he got it for his birthday and needed some help getting the old one out."

Cole was scribbling details in something that looked to Jody kind of like a flow chart. He looked up and directed his question to David. "Okay, so about what time would you say you got there this morning?"

Jody did not like the detective's gaze though he felt silly and paranoid. He noticed David was not the only one sweating now and tried shifting to a better position with more shorts and less sweaty leg touching the plastic seat. "You guys don’t think we did something to his car that caused the wreck do you?"

David gasped and Jody tried swallowing around a lump that seemed to have taken over the majority of the space in his throat, making it hard to breathe, let alone speak. He launched into a coughing spasm that lasted less than a minute but felt like forever. When he finally got a hold on himself, he found he was holding a paper cup of water and both his cousin and the detective were looking at him like he was a kind of insect they had never encountered before.

“You alright there Jody?” Cole smiled.

Jody could not believe he had been so focused on David’s nerves that he forgot to manage his own. The sudden realization of just how stupid it was to show up here without his dad or a lawyer made his head dizzy and his heart race.

Almost as though he could read Jody’s mind, Cole turned to David and said, "I think maybe you guys have seen a few too many forensic shows." He chuckled and turned back to Jody, "You can relax, and I promise you that no one is suggesting you or anyone else tampered with Brad’s car."

Jody tried to smile back at the detective like a normal person. He was suddenly furious with David for making such a big deal about everything and getting him so worked up. He prayed silently that he could get through the rest of the questions without throwing up. He stared down at his cup afraid to add even a small sip of water to his churning stomach.

"I think we'd both feel much better if we had some idea what happened." Jody said quietly.

Cole sighed leaning forward, "Finish up with what you can remember of your timeline and I promise I'll fill you in on the rest.  As hard as this is, it's important to get your impressions while they’re fresh."

Cole prompted, "Okay so when you got there about ten, was Brad outside or did you have to go to the door?"

The question hung for a beat then David replied. "We pulled up outside and parked along the curb and got out of the car. I think we walked up the drive way and saw him already outside in the garage".

Jody added, "We all walked into the house together, sat in the kitchen and talked with his mom and sister too-"

"Heather right?” Cole asked, scribbling notes.

"Yeah, she's Brad's fraternal twin." David said, unconsciously turning his body toward Jody and away from the detective. They were coming to the heart of the matter and he wasn’t sure how his cousin would handle it. He hoped it would not be too humiliating.

There was another long pause where Jody shifted uncomfortably under his cousin’s stare. He knew the details David would be unwilling to add and felt suddenly foolish. He could see no harm in telling the detective everything; it was just embarrassing, not criminal. He shrugged his shoulders and looked past his cousin’s beseeching gaze to answer. "We aren't all that close with Brad actually; we kinda wanted to talk to his sister."

Smirking, Cole laughed and said, "Okay so you were just there to hit on his sister-"

David interrupted, "No, not her, I just, well, I really wanted to see if maybe she'd be willing to help me out with one of her friends." He blushed, looked away, knee bouncing again just shy of the metal desk.

"I know it sounds lame, she's pretty cool though and with prom and everything, I hoped maybe she could tell me if I had a shot", he blurted the rest out in a rush and then sat back with a jerk that almost tipped his chair.

Cole laughed before he could help himself. "Well whoever this girl is, if she's anything like my daughter, I guarantee the direct approach is the most successful.  So you wanted to talk with Heather, did you actually work in the car at all?"

Jody answered, "We're not total assholes, we helped him like we said, and dick-head here chickened out and never said a word about anything.” Jody paused long enough to cast a baleful glance in David’s direction. “We were in the kitchen about fifteen minutes, and then Brad got up and headed out to the garage, so we followed him."

David opened his mouth and both Jody and Cole waited. He closed it with an audible snap and turned away, staring out the window.

Jody took the hint and continued, "We spent about an hour and a half in the garage, jerking out the old system and putting in the new one.” “We were hungry after a while, so I left to go pick up some burgers.  When I got back, they were mostly finished."

David found his voice at last, "So, we wrapped up the last few wires, ate the burgers and then left at about one or so."

"So when you called at about one-thirty…," Cole began.

"It was because Casanova here talked me into calling Heather for him," Jody interrupted. Where he had been feeling a bit better for a moment, he paused now, a wave a nausea rising. He choked it back and continued, "But, before I could get her on the phone, the doorbell rang, and well, you know the rest I guess.” Jody finished quietly and sat back.

David spoke, “We know something bad happened, I guess I don’t understand why you won’t just tell us?"

Jody was glad to see that he and David were not the only ones at a loss for words. Detective Cole seemed uncomfortable now. "Yeah David, you could say that.  I'm going to tell you both some things I'm absolutely not going to be telling Brad's mom, do we understand each other?"

He looked out the window to his right, took a deep breath and said, "The primary reason I brought you two in so quickly, was to see if you appeared as though you'd recently taken drugs."

Under different circumstances the identical expressions of confusion on the faces of the boys across the desk would have been comical.

Jody spoke first. "I don't understand."

"I know you don't, and believe me, I'm relieved.  You attend school with my daughter, Abbey, so I'm sure you know we moved here from New York." Cole continued. "I guess what I’m trying to say is that I’ve definitely seen my share of strange things."

His breath seemed to catch, "But nothing like this."

Jody glanced over at his cousin relieved to see that David looked as puzzled as he felt. He turned his attention back to Detective Cole as he continued.

"As far as we can tell, Brad was traveling down Hwy 55 towards Fuquay Varina. We can guess that he must have been checking out the new system. At any rate, the paramedics said it was still on when they arrived at the scene.  They were responding to a call from one of the farms bordering the road. A guy on a tractor said a car was in the ditch near a fence and that it looked like someone had run off the road.

When they arrived they saw Brad's car, apparently abandoned, right before the Hwy 1 exchange. The passenger side door was standing open, engine running, stereo on, and no sign of impact. They walked toward the pasture looking for the vehicle's occupant and found Brad a few feet from an electrified fence. Apparently, the owner raises buffalo and the charge is minimal, barely enough to stun, certainly not enough to harm a man."

Jody hoped the revulsion he was beginning to feel in the bottom of his already protesting stomach would remain under his control.

Cole took a breath and continued, "As far as we can tell it went down something like this, for some unexplained reason Brad decelerated, the car coasted to a halt off the road, he exited the vehicle passenger side, leaped over the fence, attacked a bull, got trampled and gored pretty badly, suffered multiple fractures and internal injuries, crawled back through the fence, made it halfway to his car, lived for about ten minutes, during five of which the paramedics were working to stabilize him so they could load him into the ambulance…he died before they reached the hospital."

It was David who broke the stunned silence asking, "So, they know he jumped the fence because of his injuries, but why on earth do they think he attacked a buffalo?” Jody forced back another burp of laughter. What the fuck was wrong with him anyway? He looked away hoping no one would notice his complete lack of appropriate response to the situation. He heard his cousin droning on.

“I mean no offense, but isn't it possible there was some real reason he would have gone into the field, he's not exactly an aggressive sort of guy you know."

"Well, that's the thing David" Cole shook his head, "The bull that trampled him wasn’t exactly known for aggression either."

"He had to be put down anyway of course, he couldn't walk. Brad broke his own jaw biting through tendons of the poor animal’s leg."

Jody heard the rest of the conversation like he was listening underwater. Before he knew it, the interview was over and he and David were headed out the door and back to the car.


David

"So what do you really think?" David asked. He felt exhaustion sweeping over him as the adrenalin began to metabolize and leave his system. All he wanted in the world was to get home, crawl under the covers and sleep for a week.

The question hung in the air between them.

"I don't know.” Jody said at last, “If it wasn't so obvious that it made him sick just to tell us, I'd swear he was fucking with us."

David doubted that could be the case, but he did have to admit his cousin had a point. "I guess we can’t rule that out completely, though honestly, I think he’d try to come up with something better than that crazy story.”

Jody rolled his eyes and did not respond. They fell into a long silence driving home. Each boy lost in their own thoughts about people cracking under strain and suddenly saying or doing something completely out of character and bizarre.

David knew only too well what it was to have more going on than most people could see but this took the cake. How do you go from hanging out with your friends, to off the deep end, attacking a fucking barn yard animal? What the hell could cause someone to react like that?

“You know you should ask your dad about this,” Jody spoke, cutting through the silence.

“Yeah”, David paused then said “I’m not so sure he won’t be mad we talked to police without a lawyer.”

Jody looked at him and shrugged, “Well, it’s too late to worry about that now, and besides, he’s a molecular biochemist. If there is something that could cause a guy to drop his basket like that, I bet your dad would know.”

“I guess you’re right,” David answered slowly. “He’s just so distracted lately with this stupid GMO bullshit really messing with the start up.” “I don’t want to put anything more on him, he’s already maxed out.”

Jody nodded and fell silent again.

David knew the whole family was terrified for the risks Daniel had taken with the entire fortune left behind by David’s mother when she died of cancer a few years back. Jody’s mom was Debbie’s sister and for a while there, she talked non-stop about how Debbie would never have approved of David’s college money going into a venture so stupid. It was getting to the point that David decided to stop going over to his cousin’s house when Jody’s dad finally put his foot down and said no more discussing David and Daniel unless she had something nice to say.

Jody’s mom hadn’t said another word about Daniel since. Still, David knew it may well be in everyone’s best interest for someone with a bead on things to take a look at the water and whatever else could potentially be a source of neurotoxin.

He thought about the Salem witch trials and the moldy rye bread that seemed to have such disastrous effect on so many people and wondered if anything like that could happen now.

He made up his mind. He would talk to his dad. If anyone could make sense of this kind of crazy, David knew it would be his father.

Cole

People move away from the city for predictable reasons and Detective Cole was no exception. He had always sensed that every cop had a finite but unknowable capacity for horror and misery and once they reached the quota…outta there. He remembered vividly the day he met his.

He’d been working a double, like most everyone else in the department. They were trying to close in on a guy who was snatching little girls about his daughter Abbey’s age, torturing them over the course of a day or two and then leaving them tied to a tree somewhere in the woods outside the city to die of exposure.

The case was in process of being turned over to the FBI as a third body had just been found moments ago by hikers across the state line in a New Jersey park. Cole felt ashamed of how thankful he was to be gathering files and putting together the paperwork needed to transfer custody of the case evidence they had so far to the feeb sitting across from him when his wife Susan called completely hysterical.

Abbey had never made it home from school and she was beside herself. Cole had placed the majority of the next twelve hours somewhere far away from his everyday life but he could go and grab the file like everything else. It would always be there, just waiting for him to open it up and relive the horror.

He had been incredibly lucky that time. The body wasn’t Abbey. Her friend had car trouble and they had walked to a gas station to call for help. Neither of them had understood in the least why he and Susan were so terrified. They’d been lucky that day, but he was done nonetheless and Susan was too.

By some unspoken mutual consent, they began the process of tying off the life they led in the city. Within six months, they were one of the thousands locals referred to as “relocated Yankees” in a quiet little suburb in North Carolina.

Hands down, it was the best decision they’d ever made. Susan and Abbey both were thriving and Cole had the feeling he had extended his shelf life as a detective by at least a decade or so.

He pulled his truck into the garage, shut off the ignition and sat in the stillness listening to the engine pop and crackle as it began to cool.  After a few deep breaths with eyes closed and his head pressed firmly against the seat, he felt the tension receding from his neck and shoulders. A few breaths more and he was ready to shrug off his detective suit and join his family.

Cole walked through the door into the cool house resplendent with the smell of one of his favorite meals.

"Something smells amazing," he said, walking over to his wife of 21 years and wrapping his arms around her waist as she basted a gorgeous roast simmering in its own juices.

He felt her body relax into the embrace; "I'm so sorry John."

"Where's Abbey?" He asked a little too quickly, he knew.

Susan turned to face her husband. "She's not home yet, but she called about an hour ago and said they were nearly finished."

He still had not released her. She rested her head against his sturdy chest and listened to the steady, reassuring beat of his heart. "I feel so sorry for Emily, losing Paul like that, now this."

"I know…" his voice trailed off.

She reached up and placed a kiss in the corner of his mouth. "Why don't you go wash up and I'll fix your plate?"

"I'd rather wait for Abbey." He said as he headed down the hall toward the bathroom.

"I knew you'd say that." She said with a smile.

Cole looked into the mirror above the sink while he washed his hands. It was a habit of his to always wash up as soon as he got home. Taking a few moments to decompress and washing his hands didn’t eliminate the horror of the day, but it was one small way he created a barrier between what went on out there, and his tiny, fiercely guarded corner of the world.

The roast went back into the oven with the dial set to warm.


Daniel

He knew it didn't get better than this. He'd had his doubts at first. More than that really, he'd had nightmares in the form of rejection letters that almost ended it all before it ever even got started. God how he hated those fucking Non-GMO hippies and the god forsaken places they shop.

Thinking back on how naïve they were, celebrating that first grant that got them through the prototype phase – just barely. He had to laugh. Who knew success was only part of the equation; there remained the court of public opinion to get through? Public opinion, what a joke. The world was full of incredibly stupid people and the sad fact was they had a great deal of power.

All along, he and the team were firmly convinced that they were working for nothing less than the future of the human race. The terms of the grant were as specific as they were pie in the sky impossible. Find a way to genetically engineer a beef alternative prototype made from stem cells of cattle. The prototype must be the nutritive equivalent of the real thing, cost effective to mass produce and demonstrate positive environmental impact through the reduction of methane gas and conservation of grain and/or pasture resources required by live cattle.

Cake and pie right?

They did it though, and they were damn proud of what they accomplished. Hell, who wouldn't be? It wasn't easy being on the cutting edge of biotechnology in the new millennium. Things change at a rapid fire pace and if you couldn't stay current, well, you were left behind.

They were so proud of themselves and all set to go live with the greatest single advancement to the human food supply since the Flavr Savr tomato. It was the moment they had all been waiting for. Right up until federal version of Washington State’s prop 522 and the ignorant, hysterical masses who got it passed. Suddenly, GMO food was the new plague of the century and he and his team were out in the cold.

The terms of the letter were perfunctory and curt. “The administration commends you on your effort and appreciates your submission of the prototype fulfilling all grant criteria.” A bitter smile crossed his lips remembering the sentence that came next. “Unfortunately, this administration is no longer able to support GMO initiatives until further research into the safety and efficacy is completed.”

Daniel could not believe his bad luck.

A complete reversal of everything because of a few hysterical idiots out west starting a scientifically laughable anti-GMO war they could never hope to win was simply not something Daniel would accept.

He fought and he fought with everything he had. He called in experts and put together compelling news release to make sure his project got the face time and hopefully investors it deserved. This was the scientific breakthrough of the century. How anyone in their right mind could miss that was simply beyond him.

The end was swift and merciless. He and his entire team of thoughtful, gifted scientists were hung out to dry in a matter of weeks. “Frankenbeef” was the most popular headline and it was as horrifying as it was inaccurate to say the least. It never ceased to amaze him how so many of the same people who claimed to care about the environment would turn out in the thousands to protest his “inhumane and unethical playing god” with the food supply.

Finding a private sector investor as visionary as he and his team turned out to be much more of a challenge than he hoped. There just weren’t that many investors looking to buck the current trend. A grimace creased his face like a storm cloud crossing an otherwise clear sky. He lost more than half his talented team of scientists as expenses mounted and no investor was in sight. In fact, the only ones who remained were those like Daniel, who were somehow able to go without pay while they frantically searched for someone, anyone, with the money and sense to see the breakthrough for what it was.

Rejection letter after rejection rolled in and even he had begun to lose hope. Looking back on it, he had to admit the anti-GMO Nazis were not the only ones to feel irrational fear. He was a little unnerved to get that first email, but hell, it was a surprise. He'd spent his whole life working toward this moment, and had always envisioned the fruits of his labor benefiting the United States. A foreign investor looking for solutions to poverty in third world countries would be a secondary gain. At least that’s how he always saw it before.

If the fact that his government lost faith in him first did not entirely quell his initial resistance, the near certainty of bankruptcy without immediate financial backing did.  He would always wish it could have been otherwise, that his original prototype got the attention and support it deserved at home. He hated that it never saw the light of day and that bitterness actually fueled his determination to make the adjustments requested by his “angel investors” and bring a version of his creation to market somewhere in the world.

He refused to get sucked into the black hole of those feelings now. There really was nothing quite like a convertible on a day like this.  It was turning into a glorious night and the sun blazed red and violet across the North Carolina sky. He raised the bi-xenon, headlamps, grin stretching across his face. Leaning forward in the seat of his Mercedes he depressed the conversion control and drove down the near deserted stretch of gently curving highway.

The results were in! The modified prototype, built to specifications requested, just soared through phase 1 in a limited double-blind trial. He would have continued capital and migrate from pilot plant to full scale development. They were going to survive.

To be honest Daniel never expected to see results as good as the news today. Ten times better than projected, a complete, unprecedented success! Genetic modification was serious business and one of the most expensive undertakings in pharma today. It was also potentially one of the most lucrative in the world.

He felt a twinge of something like the unease he had when he read that first email. It was all happening so fast. He really hated leaving the FDA clinical track and the governmental oversight he felt his work deserved and would pass through with flying colors. Still, his lawyers assured him this is nothing unusual in today’s climate. When one country or government gets cold feet, it’s nothing for another more enlightened entity to come along and benefit from the short sight.

Still, he understood why he lost fully half the scientists who had hung in through those terrible months without pay. The biggest benefit for the scientists who did not own the process was publishing rights. The terms of the contract were incredibly restrictive. Even if they were successful, they could tell absolutely no one. No peer review, no accolades, no articles in the Scientific American. Nothing.

The fact that his second prototype was actually in distribution in a double blind clinical trial somewhere in the world was heady brew. The complete lack of any visibility into it was more than sobering.

It was a historical moment, and it would go completely unnoticed. Who knew where the product would eventually end up rolled out commercially or in what form. Not even the scientists doing the tech transfer. Daniel sighed, he would just have to learn to live with the millions and take the wins where he could get them. Today was a great day.

His attention had returned to the road just in time to apply the brakes and narrowly avoid slamming into the stream of cars stopped in front of him.

 “What the hell?”

He wondered what could have caused such a backup on this stretch of road. He craned forward looking over the cars in front to see if he could determine the source of the delay.

Must be some sort of accident. The cars began to inch forward directed by an officer waving a flashlight. Ah well can’t be clear skies and empty highway every day.

 He was just passing of the area cordoned off to his right when he thought he recognized the car. Not the car exactly, but the sticker in the rear window. Where had he seen that before? It came to him. It was the oddly shaped backwards N in the logo for Nine Inch Nails, one of his son David’s favorite groups. A worm of fear twisted in his stomach. He pushed it aside with a physical effort. As soon as they lay them in your arms, you are hardwired to fear the worst and worry about them every second of their lives from that point forward. He knew he was being ridiculous; it wasn’t even David’s car.

Still, since his wife died, he’d been particularly tuned in, searching his son for the slightest sign of distress. He loved him so much. Of all the things he’d accomplished in his life, nothing compared to the way he felt when he looked at David.

I can’t wait to tell him. He’ll be so happy. Daniel knew he couldn’t share the specifics yet. The contract commanded absolute discretion and for good reason. He couldn’t help cringing when he walked down the food isle and saw the “organic” section broadcasting their refusal to incorporate any of the so called “Genetically Modified Organisms” in the ingredients of the products they made.

Truthfully, it was absurd. Without GMO’s millions of people in countries that were not populated with arrogant, self-centered people who could afford to spend five bucks for a cucumber would have starved in the last five years alone. It infuriated him seeing them in front of the grocery store waving their protest signs and trying to keep people from entering the store, and for what? Because a Nobel Prize winning genius actually doing something for humanity had managed to engineer soybeans that miraculously were able to grow in barren regions where nothing had thrived before. It made no sense.

As crazy as they are, it would not do to overlook the power they have. No, as much as he would like to shout his breakthrough from the rooftops, he knew there would be an immediate negative backlash. He released a breath he had no idea he’d been holding when he pulled into the driveway and saw David outside.

His son was bent at the waist, working under the hood of his labor intensive ’68 Dodge Charger. Daniel jumped out of his car and walked over to his son.

“Hey pal, good news, you can finally get rid of this heap and ride in style”. Daniel launched into the results of the days test and walked with his son toward the house. “What do you think of steak for dinner”, he asked grinning.

Attempting to answer his dad with something lighthearted, David burst into tears instead.

Daniel stood still like he’d been struck with lightning. “My god what’s happened?”

David stood in the middle of the driveway clutching his dad and sobbing. He finally took a deep lungful of air and said, “Brad’s had some kind of accident Dad, he died.” His voice cracked and he looked like he did when he was a small boy, needing comfort.

Daniel immediately thought of the car cordoned off on the way home. It must have been Brad’s. It was strange though it hadn’t looked that bad. In fact he couldn’t tell when he passed where the car had been hit. He put his arm around David and steered him toward the house. “David I’m sorry, come inside and sit down. I’ll spike some hot chocolate for you.”

David walked into the house with his dad’s arm around him and over to the couch. For the second time that day, he more collapsed than sat down. “I didn’t mean to lose my shit like that, I guess I couldn’t keep it together anymore.”

Daniel walked over to his son and sat down beside him, wrapping an arm around his shaking shoulders. He noticed how broad those shoulders were and wondered when the hell that had happened. “God, no need to apologize, I’m so sorry I just started blabbing away at you and never even paused for breath.” Daniel realized how little time he’d actually been spending with his son over the last few months and determined to rectify that situation immediately. “You sit tight and I’ll be right back with that hot chocolate I promised.”

David was just starting to breathe normally again when Daniel returned with the hot chocolate. The dog poked a tentative nose around the corner. “Come on Tosh, its okay girl.” Tosh the beautiful black lab of 103 Lennea Way, made a crouching, but determined entrance and scuttled against David’s leg shivering.

Daniel noticed her shaking as he handed the steaming hot beverage over to his son. “Gonna storm soon, look at her shaking.”

David took a sip of the delicious chocolate, grateful for the warmth spreading through him and said, “We need to get her one of those storm jacket/blanket things.”

Daniel laughed, “You know those made for TV products are garbage David.”

David took the cashmere throw off the back of the overstuffed chair and laid it gently around the shivering dog. “Couldn’t hurt to try.”


Heather

Heather jumped at the sound of the phone. It was dark and she had no sense of how long she’d been sitting at the window, staring without seeing. She picked up the phone.

“Hello.”  David’s voice on the other end surprised her. “I need to talk to you. Can I come over?”

She was silent trying to figure out why on earth David Mackey would suddenly want to see her. It had to be related to her brother. She didn’t feel ready to face anything like that just yet and she knew her mother would be in no condition to see one of Brad’s friends if she happened to wake up.  “I don’t know, David.”

“It won’t take long I promise. Besides, you shouldn’t be alone right now.”

Heather’s heart skipped a beat. She tried hard to remember a time when the sound of David’s voice hadn’t made it difficult to breathe. “Okay, but you’ll need to come to my window. I don’t want my mom to wake up; she’s been through enough today.”

Even as the words were out of her mouth she instantly regretted them. She was in no condition to see David right now. Who knew what would come out of her? She felt like a person with nothing left to lose and capable of anything.

“I’ll be there in ten minutes.” He disconnected before she had a chance to tell him she had changed her mind.

Heather hung up the phone with a sigh. She’d long ago given up thinking the amazing friendship they’d had since third grade was going to miraculously grow into something more. Still, she was in love. It was impossible to remember exactly when or how. It simply was. He broke her heart almost every day.

Heather stood up and stretched. She walked softly into her mother’s room to check on her. She hadn’t moved or shown signs of waking. She kneeled by the bed and gently brushed her mother’s hair from her face. Even in sleep, the weight of her grief was etched indelibly. Heather kissed her mother where the compression of her forehead created a furrow.  How many times can you eat your own heart?

She gently pulled the blankets up over her mother’s shoulders and moved silently out of the room.  The doctor had given her a shot, but it had taken an extraordinarily long time to work. If there was a saturation point for grieve and loss, she was fairly certain her mother had reached it.

It couldn't be real and yet, it was. Her brother was gone. He got in his car drove down the road and was not coming back. A sob rose in her throat and she choked it off. She thought of David and didn't even notice the tears that were again rolling silently down her face. She sat on the window seat in her room and stared bleakly out at the final vestige of sunset.

She wondered as she often did, if things would have been different had her father lived. She wiped her face briskly and took a deep breath. She had to pull it together.

Heather knew she would never forget the way her mom's face literally collapsed when the officer sent to their house told them Brad was not coming home.

She knew people who had lost a brother or a child. They say the same thing over and over. Time heals all wounds. A sound like a bark tore from her against her best effort to repress it. She knew if she were not careful she would start screaming and never stop. She was rocking back and forth, arms crossed over her body in a vain attempt to create a barrier between her soul and the crushing weight she did not think she could survive.

Thunder boomed loudly and her mouth opened wide, eyes tightly closed and tears running rivulets down her face, traveling the crevices created by the grimace of her grief. A storm seemed to have sprung up out of nowhere, almost as though the universe was mourning with her. She sat still and watched the rain beat against the glass, oblivious to everything but the sound of the rain, wind and thunder.

The knocking at her window snapped her back to reality. She was so lost in thought, listening to the sounds of the storm raging outside that she had no idea how long it had been going on.

She jumped to her feet and went to the window. ““Come on in, but please be quiet. Mom’s still sleeping.”

David grasped the window sill and launched himself into the room, cracking the top of his head on the bottom of the open window. ““This window seemed so much bigger when I was a kid.”

David stood soaking wet, water streaming down his legs to soak her carpet. Heather walked to the bathroom that joined her bedroom to her brothers since they moved into this house ten years ago. The door to Brad’s side was closed and a shudder went through her. She reached for the towel rack on her side of the room and closed the door quickly retreating back to her room.

“Seriously David, what are you doing here?” She tossed him the towel and stood with her arms crossed in front of her stomach.

David caught the towel, began drying off and attempting to mop up some of the puddles he brought with him. Heather couldn’t remember the first time he’d climbed through this window, maybe third grade? It seemed like they’d been friends forever. She was always the first place he went when things were bad at home. In fact he’d spent more nights over here toward the end, when most of the first floor of his own house was taken over by hospice and his mother’s pain and his dad’s crying was too much for him to take.

The window was always open a crack in those days. Heather never said a word. She’d just move over and make room for him. His mother finally passed and he and his dad began to figure out life without her. He didn’t stay the night anymore. Still, he’d come sometimes just to talk or lay out under the stars on her trampoline.

He draped the soaked towel across the back of the chair in front of her desk, walked over to her and pulled her into a tight hug. Heather returned the hug with a tearing sensation in the center of her chest. “So what was so important it couldn’t wait a few days or be said over the phone?”

His smile faltered slightly and she kicked herself. It was so hard not to be short with him when he hugged her so platonically, so completely unaware.

“I’m sorry David; I guess I’m not really myself right now. I am glad to see you. I just feel so strange and disconnected.”

David pulled her to a seat beside him on the futon. They stared out the window mutely neither feeling compelled to speak just yet. He turned to rest his back against the wall and hauled her up in front of him, her back against his chest. From the vast loneliness that seemed too ancient to be hers, a longing broke loose and rose to the surface.

Heather shuddered with the effort to contain it. How could she survive? First her father, then her brother and now…now…she leaned forward away from his warmth and twisted out of his reach.

“Heather what can I do? I can’t stand to see you in so much pain. You’re the only person I could be myself around through all that hell with my parents. Please let me help you.”

It suddenly occurred to her that she had never once revealed herself to him. With sudden insight she saw their entire friendship laid bare. It was not fair of her to expect everything to miraculously change because for once, she needed him. The basis of everything that existed between them had always been his pain, his grief, his needs, his fears…her calming presence, quietly soothing, accepting him as he was…no expectations.

“Heather, look at me.” He pulled her around to face him.

No David, she thought. You look at me. For once in our lives…see me. Why can’t you see me David?  She felt suddenly foolish. “I want to let you help me, there just isn’t anything to say.”

“Let me comfort you then. I’ll just sit here hold you for a change. We don’t have to talk.”

Heather sighed. He looked so sweet and earnest. She really wanted to punch him in the face. She quelled a giggle that threatened to burst out of her. She was on the edge of hysteria and she knew it and fervently wished she’d taken that doctor up on his offer to knock her out too. The phones could have been unplugged. She wouldn’t be standing here with him less than a foot away offering her the comfort of a twelve year old when what she really wanted was…was what?

She honestly didn’t know. Trying hard not to think about Brad wasn’t working out for her at the moment. Her mind kept flashing through memories at random. It was almost as though she were dying. When he was alive, they were so close they almost never had to speak. She supposed it was just part of being a twin.  She could not imagine life without him. Suddenly she became aware of the tears that were once again rolling steadily down her face. She allowed herself to be pulled into his arms and rested the back of her head against his chest with a sigh.

She refused to be afraid of him anymore. “You can stay with me tonight, if you want. There’s always room.”

This childhood ritual was a sacred hold over from when David lost his mother, and it felt like the most natural thing in the world. This was the place of no words and they were the sole inhabitants. For a time, there was no need for anything else.

Heather woke with a jolt from where they had fallen asleep, curled up like spoons on the uncomfortable futon. She noticed two things almost at once. The first, that her hip was throbbing where the metal bar that ran the length of the futon was pressing into it. The second, her lower back was also under quite a bit of pressure. At least one part of her friend was wide awake and pressing rather insistently against her.

She was pondering what to do when she felt David stir and begin to wake. With no thought of consequence she arched her back and sighed while her hand reached out of its own accord, slid around his hips and pressed him against her rear end even more uncomfortably.

What was she doing? Her face burned bright red and she was incredibly grateful it was both dark and that her back was too him. Was he awake? She held her breath, the sound of her own heartbeat deafening in her ears.

His breathing was deep and regular, he was still asleep. She didn’t fucking care. This isn’t about him anyway, this is about me. What I want. I love him, and I’ve loved him since we were five. Is it my fault he is a total retard?

At some point during her internal argument David had apparently woken up. She felt him take a deep breath and move his hand from her waist. “Oh wow, sorry about that. I guess we’re not kids anymore.”

Heather felt like screaming. She settled for a sigh. “No David, we’re not.”

The hand she thought was leaving stalled against her hip and slid against her side sending a delicious shudder through her. Okay, so maybe he was awake and not totally disgusted if what was currently pressed against the small of her back was any indication.

Heather had read about near death experiences leading to a false sense of closeness and a huge desire for life affirmation in the form of sex. Reading about it was as much as she had ever experienced so far. In her role as unofficial best friend, she had the feeling David may well be in the same boat.

Fine then, she would drive. She reached her hand around her body and slid it down the taught slope of David’s body and felt his hand slide from her hip up the smooth plane of her stomach to cup her breast.

“You feel amazing.” His voice was husky and hollowed out in the dark. She arched against him and guided his hand beneath the fabric of her shirt. The texture of his hand against her bare skin was electric. The smell of him filled her with an ache she had no intention of ignoring a second longer.

“How have I never noticed how entirely lovely you are?”

Despite herself she said, “You may have noticed sooner if you didn’t have your head buried under the hood of that hoopty mobile 24/7.” Not pausing to give him time for a clever retort that may break the spell, she slid her hand behind her back, between their bodies and down the slope of his lower stomach to the fascinating bulge beneath.

Holy fucking shit. She had her hand on his cock and he still hadn’t pulled away. She was pressed against him in a way that made the whole universe seem upside down and yet finally right all at once. Her hand slid up and down against him until she was throbbing with all the pent up longing she had been stuffing for so long.

His body moved away for a moment and before she could protest, she found herself pulled beneath him in one fluid movement that took her breath away. He lay on top of her now, neither of them quite sure what should happen next.

Everything aligned in a way she felt to the core of everything she was. She felt like laughing out loud with the sheer thrill of it and settled for, “Thank god, that metal rod was really starting to dig a trench in my hip.”

He laughed and she joined him, the two of them staring into each other’s face in the dark. She arched and pressed upward at the same time, with absolutely no idea where to go from there. How could she have thought this would be easy?

David swallowed and the sound was loud in the silence of her still and dark bedroom. “Heather I don’t know if this is right, I don’t want you to regret me tomorrow.”

“Regret you?” She practically gasped, “David, I’ve loved you for so long I know there will never be a single person I would want to share right here, right now with other than you.” Heather struggled to get air back into her lungs with his weight heavy against her diaphragm.

David needed no further encouragement. He reached up under her shirt and slid his hands along her ribcage up to the slight but beautiful curves of her breasts. “I’m right there with you. It’s just that…..” his voice trailed off and she realized he had no idea how to put into words the things he was feeling either.

Heather rocked her hips against him. “David.” She said his name just like she had a thousand times before. “David,” she said again, sliding her hands down his back and bringing them under his shirt to caress his chest. She looked deep into his eyes in the faint glow of the moonlight streaming through her tiny window. “You fucking asshole, don’t you know I love you to time indefinite?”

He half sat up. “Wait, what?”

Suddenly his puzzled look, combined with the absurdity of the moment and her incredible loss combined to a boiling point of emotion she could not have described if her life depended up on it. How do you fuck your best friend in the world the day your twin brother dies a horrible and inexplicable death? She shoved him away.

The world that moments ago seemed fraught with peril and full of uncertainty suddenly coalesced into crystal clarity. “Oh for fucks sake just leave. I don’t need your pity.”

Anger flared in his eyes, “Fuck you Heather.” She was still trying to extricate herself, so embarrassed she wished the floor would just open up and swallow her whole when he dragged her back beneath him.

Her shirt caught on the metal frame and he tore it free. Before she had a chance to catch her breath it was sliding up over her head and sailing away in the darkness. His hands were at her waist now, tugging the lime green pajama bottoms with frolicking puppies away from her body and tossing them into the air as well. Some part of her noticed they landed on the wet towel and she quelled the absurd impulse to get up and move them. She was naked beneath him, speechless and breathing like she had just run a marathon.

God how she wanted him. Heather felt her entire body in a way that she never knew was possible before this moment. She was so incredibly alive. So completely full of excitement and anticipation that she could almost forget everything else but right here, right now. She pushed the thought of her dead twin forcibly from her mind and said, “Your turn.”

David stood in the pale moonlight filtering through the tiny window and slowly took off his clothes.

“I’ve been in love with you since the first time I saw you.” He said the words as he realized the truth for himself. I don’t pity you Heather.”

Naked he stood before her, body young and strong and glorious. “I just want to know you want me too, that I’m not taking advantage of you that you’re not just out of your mind with grief.

“You are a moron.” Heather stood up as well, and the two of them naked in the moonlight, embraced. It was a long time.

Eventually, Heather became aware that David’s hands were shaking as they slid slowly down the side of her body and back up again. She also realized she was alive with an ache so deep and so profound that she had no idea what to do with it. She reached out and pulled him tightly to her. “Please.”

“You are so beautiful.” David had no idea if that was ridiculous and corny, and he didn’t care. She was.

“So are you.” It was true. David was a gloriously beautiful man. His strong shoulders were strong and tapered nicely to his washboard abs and well, though he was her first, she could not imagine a more impressive example of the male form below the waist than what was currently pressed against her.

“I know I’m not your first choice David, and I know you wanted me to talk to Julie for you, but I want you to know you are my first choice. You are the one and only that I want.”

It was David’s turn to laugh out loud. “Seriously, you were so far out of my league I never considered you for a moment.”

She threw him to her bed and shocked herself by leaping on top of him when he landed. Peering into his eyes in the dark she said simply, “I am your league David, now let’s give this losing our virginity thing our level best and see what’s what ‘eh peach?”

David laughed, “You really are the perfect woman you know. How on earth am I supposed to not mess this up considering we’re 16 and complete idiots???”

“Life is not fair.” She said it half laugh and half sob.

He rolled her over gently this time. Pulling her under him and framing her face between his hands, he said, “I love you Heather, it’s the most wonderful thing in the world and I’m so grateful I figured it out now and not twenty years and two failed marriages later.”

She burst into laughter and wrapped her legs around his waist. “You’re the love of my life David, unless you throw up on me, I think whatever you do will be the best thing that ever happened to me.

“With encouragement like that, how can I possibly fail? David laughed.

He settled between her legs and kissed her deeply. Heather spread her thighs further apart and raised her hips to press against him. She had no idea what to expect next. She heard so many things that she basically threw everything out and gave herself over to the moment entirely. She was in her body completely, and she felt the tip of him against her, probing.

She smothered a scream as he bore down, pressing past her body’s soft barricade, penetrating her completely. This was not like the movies. She gasped, feeling like an idiot, unsure of what to do to make it work, the pain was much more than she expected. How could something she wanted so much hurt like this? Her body involuntarily shifted, retreating away of the pain.

He began to move slowly against her. He was fully inside her, rocking against her.  The pain that seemed beyond endurance moments ago ebbed away and a wonderful pressure began to build inside her. She pulled him tight against her whispering, “Please don’t stop.”

“Okay” he managed as she arched against him. He groaned. “You’re driving me crazy you know.”

“I love you and I want you more than anything David. I’m so glad it’s you.”

She trembled as he began to rock his hips against her, moving slowly and ever so slightly. Her body responded beneath him, rocking in the rhythm he set. He pulled out suddenly and shuddered against her. She felt hot liquid spreading across her stomach between their bodies and he crushed her to him, his breath coming out in warm gusts against her neck.

“I held on as long as I could, I…I’ll do better next time.” She shifted beneath him and wrapped her shaking legs around him, pulling him close with everything she had. “I love you David.”


James

He sat up with a jolt and looked around, confused. His head ached something fierce and he was incredibly thirsty.

My god, I'm filthy. He looked down at the nearly unrecognizable jeans he'd put on this morning as well as the Life Is Good t-shirt now hanging in tatters accented with deep rivets of mud and grass and something thick, dark and viscous.

"What the fuck?" His voice sounded hoarse and strange to his ears. He wasn't just thirsty; his throat was on fire, raw and throbbing. Hot tears welled behind his eyes, the pressure inside his head intense.

"Mom…" he whispered as he lay back down, curling into a fetal position.

He lay still, afraid to move for several long minutes. Get up you moron, go find help. Gingerly, he rolled from his side, onto his hands and knees, a wave of nausea crashing over him. He lurched forward onto his elbows and vomited explosively.

Spots clouded his vision and he wasn't able to give a name to the object in the center of the mess before him.

At last his fevered brain made the connection and he lurched back with an inhuman wail. Scuttling away on his hands and feet crouched low like some kind of an animal. He tried to stop the piercing, keening noise that seemed to be coming from some primitive part of him that he had no more control over than his heartbeat.

He didn't know a human could make that sound. The sun had set and it was beginning to get dark. He could not believe these normal thoughts were going through his head. He realized that this is what it was to be in shock.

His eyes strayed to the ground a few feet to the left and he jerked them back.

"Uh uh uh uh uh uh uh uh..." The wail had subsided to some kind of animal grunt. He was more terrified than he had ever been in his life. The urge to vomit again welled up and he staggered to his feet bending at the waist, dry heaving.

Nothing there now, no not a thing... Empty, empty, empty, empty, he was screaming again but his raw and burning vocal cords were no longer emitting any sounds.

How long had he been here? Every time he tried to remember his head throbbed with the effort and he felt a strange slipping sensation inside his skull.  He tried to stand up-felt instantly dizzy-fell back with a thud. His eyes darted irresistibly to the thing he would not let himself believe was there.

At last, some small echo of the track and field athlete with a four point GPA, fought to the surface of his mind like a desperate animal trying to free itself from a steel trap. He would have to look for her...to find her. He had to know if she was…if he did…he pushed the paralyzing thoughts away.

 “Abbey!” His scream was barely a whisper, his voice long gone. He staggered to his feet. The now familiar feeling of dizziness and vertigo washed over him. He stood still, taking deep breaths, waiting for it to pass. Deliberately, he turned and walked directly to the place he’d been avoiding with all his might. He forced himself to bend close and look for it. His eye caught on a small reflection of the light from the setting sun. There it was.

He realized his hands were clenched in his hair and he was pulling with all his strength.  “Stop it!” Barely a whisper even though he shouted.  “My name is James Hagan,” he said out loud, forcing his fingers to relax and his hands to drop to his sides.  “This is not real.”

But it was. There was the proof right in front of him. He was outside himself. He watched his hand reaching toward the ground. His thumb and forefinger pinched together around the band. He watched his body straighten and his hand close around the object. He placed his class ring in his pocket almost automatically, Abbey’s beautiful finger still inside.

It was almost completely dark now and he knew it was now or never. Something unspeakable had occurred. He had no memory whatsoever of what it could be. He began to look around for signs of struggle and found a bloody trail leading back toward the Swift Creek tributary. He began piecing together fragments of memory. An image of the group dragging equipment they used to clear fallen logs and brambles from the Chestnut Oak Loop Trail, Abbey laughing when they startled a beaver who chased them up the creek. He even remembered Abbey calling her mom from his phone to let her know they were running late. His phone! Where was his phone? He could call for help, he could…his groping fingers found the horror in his right front pocket and he recoiled, tripping over the uneven ground, falling to his hands and knees in the mulch covered path.

He lurched back to his feet like something out of a zombie movie, eyes scanning, while his mind raced. He was tracking an injured animal. He was not allowing himself to consider much beyond that. He refused to consider what he would do when, or if he found it.

The trail of blood he’s been following ended at the mouth of the creek. There was a bench for sitting down and taking in the view. He sat down and listened to the forest, searching for any sign of Abbey or of anything else that could possibly help him recover more of what had happened. The bulge in his pocket pressing against his hip made sitting unbearable. He could not afford to think about that now. He had to keep focus and get moving.


Cole

 “What time is it sweetheart?”  Cole tried hard not to sound as paranoid as he felt. Abbey was a good girl; he knew he was lucky in that respect. She seemed to sense he had enough grief with his job and almost never gave him any cause for alarm. Probably why I freak out if she’s even a little bit late he thought wryly.

“It’s almost eight.” Susan said surprised. “I hadn’t realized it was so late.” She walked over to the phone in the kitchen. “I’ll just give her a quick call at James’s house.”

He tried to smile at his wife but his face seemed frozen somehow. Today had not been the sort of day that made it easy to relax and put even small variances in his family’s schedule into any sort of reasonable perspective. Cole picked up the latest Popular Science and began idly leafing through it. Abbey said the father of one of her friends was featured in this month’s edition. Cole had a subscription to the magazine for as long as he could remember and loved to read about the fascinating new things people were coming up with all over the world. He’d often told Abbey when she was little that they’d probably have hover boards by the time she was old enough to drive. She loved teasing him about that one.

Funny how some things were farther along than he could ever have imagined while others seemed stubbornly stuck by the fossil fuel debate. He looked up expectantly when Susan came in from the kitchen. His stomach clenched.

“I don’t understand it. I just spoke with James’s mom and she said she thought he’d be back at least an hour ago, but that she hadn’t seen or heard from him yet.”

“What did Abbey say when she called you earlier?” He forced calm into his voice that he did not feel.

“She called from the park to say they had one last part of the trail to finish mulching, and they’d be back in a half hour at most.”

 “And what time was that approximately?”

“I hate it when you do that.”

“Sorry hon.” He reached for her and she sat down on his lap, slapping him lightly when he made the customary grunt pretending to struggle with her weight.

She brushed the hair back from his forehead, planting a kiss on the permanent furrows between his eyes. “Everything is okay Cole. She’s just late. We’re spoiled. She’s a bright, responsible kid. James’s mom said her car is still parked in front of their house and she promised to have Abbey call us as soon as she gets there so we can stop worrying.”

“Today was a hell of a day. I just wish she had been home when I walked through the door so we could relax.” He hugged her and smiled through the knots in his stomach he knew would be there until his daughter walked through the door.  “I know you’re right, I’m probably overreacting as usual but did his mom happen to say if they took his car or if they were with a group of people?”

Susan rolled her eyes heavenward and heaved a sigh, extricating herself from his lap. “I’m going to open a nice Merlot and you are going to sit down and drink a glass. If she’s not here in ten minutes, we’ll have a quiet romantic dinner. When we’ve finished we’ll practice what we’ll say so she doesn’t forget to let us know when her plans change ever again.”  She turned and walked toward the pantry where they kept the wine rack.

Cole watched his wife open the bottle and pour out two glasses. She’s right. I know she’s right. Why can’t I relax? Why can’t I get past this feeling that everything is not okay? The breath he didn’t realize he’d been holding went of his lungs in a whoosh and he rose from the chair, walking over to his wife. He put his arms around her waist resting his chin on the top of her head. “Which trail were they working on?” He asked casually though they both knew what was coming.

“She told me it was Hemlock Bluffs across from Lochmere, in Cary I think. I honestly can’t remember the name of the trail but she said it was the longest one that runs down by Swift Creek.” She sighed, turning to face him. “I suppose I’ll just let this guy breathe while you go check it out and make sure all is right in the world.”

God he loved this woman. “I won’t be gone long. I just need to make sure they didn’t get stuck out there or run out of gas…or something.” He was halfway out the door.

“I love you John.”

He stopped in the doorway and blew her a kiss.  “I’ll be right back.”

Cole

Cole pulled into the deserted parking lot of the nature preserve and parked directly at the mouth of the trail. He saw James’s car still parked in the lower lot and relief flooded through him. He popped the trunk, grabbed his flashlight and a small pack that contained his first responder medical kit.  Let’s hope it’s something simple like a stuck piece of equipment, or worst case scenario a sprained ankle.

“Always come prepared,” he said under his breath, sliding the pack over his shoulders and cinching the strap.

He walked up the slight incline directing the light from his flashlight across the path to the Stevens Nature Center. The information board indicated Hemlock Bluffs had three loop trails which began just beyond the courtyard of the Stevens Nature Center. An arrow pointed down indicating that fifteen-point, self-guided brochures of the Swift Creek and Chestnut Oak trails were available to increase his knowledge and enjoyment of the Preserve.

He picked up a brochure from the weather protected plastic enclosure.  The longest and most rugged trail was the Chestnut Oak Loop. Based on the information he had from Susan, Cole decided it was most likely the one the kids were working.  The trail wound around Swift Creek and was marked by red circles on trees spaced about every 30 yards. The brochure also suggested caution as it was less travelled by preserve visitors, and that he was likely to encounter shy wildlife such as gray foxes.

He moved past the information post toward the trail with a large tree prominently marked with a bright red circle and started down the recently mulched path. He had not gone far before he came to a fork in the trail. The first tree visible on each of the trails had a dot of color at eye level to correspond with the color-coded trail legends. He saw that the tree to the left was yellow and turned right, toward the tree marked in red. He started to hum quietly under his breath like he often did when he was stressed or nervous.  He forced himself to stop.

Cole walked slowly and deliberately down the path, flashlight traveling in a grid, scanning first the trail, then the woods surrounding them before moving forward. A vise like grip of anxiety prevented his chest from fully expanding. Something was terribly wrong. He just knew it.

“You don’t know anything yet.” He said the words out loud and realized up to this point he had been moving along as quietly as possible. Cole believed in instincts and he trusted his own. Something was telling him to be careful. His light touched metal and bounced back, momentarily blinding him.

Blinking the spots away, he bent to examine what appeared to be some kind of shovel. He also saw several empty sacks of mulch off to the side of the trail in a wheelbarrow. He picked up the shovel and placed it on top of the empty sacks.  Playing the flashlight down the trail he could see the fresh mulch ended.  The trail narrowed and showed evidence of roots and overgrowth had recently been cut and cleared from the trail.  He decided this must be where the “rugged terrain” began.

The path began a sharp descent and he heard running water; the creek must be nearby though he could not see it yet. He checked his watch surprised to see that he had been on the trail for almost half an hour already.

His foot slipped and he barely missed going ass over tea kettle by grabbing onto a vine-wrapped tree at the last second. He leaned against the tree for a moment breathing heavily thinking I remember now why I always hated hiking.  He took a final deep breath and continued down the trail.  Shadows seemed to lurch and play around him as he kept the flashlight trained on the ground, scanning for something, anything that would tell him where his daughter was.

The beam of his flashlight landed on a clearing up ahead and he saw a park bench facing out over a drop-off. This must be one of the “scenic overlooks” the brochure mentioned. He stepped carefully to the edge and shined the light down the ravine.

Thick undergrowth everywhere and none of it appeared to have been disturbed.  Relief washed over him.  No broken branches or skid marks indicating a fall off the side to the creek below was a good thing.

He turned back to the trail and continued forward. So far the path showed nothing but the signs of recent maintenance. He was beginning to worry that he had chosen the wrong path when his foot caught on a root and his hands shot out in front of him to break his.  He landed face down on the trail, sliding on his stomach painfully for several feet.  He lay in the dark for a moment before realizing that his flashlight must’ve gone out when he dropped it.

“Damn!”  He got to his knees, brushing mud and leaves from his clothes. If he wasn’t careful he would end up needing rescue himself. It was only too easy to misstep on uneven ground like this and it didn’t take much of a fall to break a leg if you landed wrong.

 Now where did that flashlight go? The fall must have knocked the batteries loose or it could have landed on the off switch. Either way, the sun was long gone and he was in total darkness save a sliver of moonlight peeking out from behind thunderous looking clouds. In his haste and panic he had not even noticed that a storm looked to be on the way and right soon.

The thought of Abbey out in a thunderstorm, alone and possibly hurt spurred him into action. He got on all fours crawling on the trail, fingers searching for the flashlight in the general area he thought it must have landed.  He was just about to turn around and make a second pass, thinking it surely could not have gotten farther away from where he fell, when his groping fingers found a warm spot in the undergrowth and hit the bottom of his flashlight.  He gave a little shout of relief. He scuttled forward, snatching the flashlight and rocked back on his haunches.  He twisted the bottom of the flashlight to make sure it was tightly seated before clicking the switch to try turning it on. 

Bright light flooded the area where he sat and gratitude flooded through him swift and sweet. It turned to ashes in his mouth. His beam of light reflected back at him from a large pool of blood just ahead and to the left of where he sat.  He stared at it for a moment; I would never have seen this with my light focused on the trail.  He changed his mind once he got to his feet and moved closer. The blood pooled beneath a tree covered in blood spatter. It did not seem to be a pattern that could have been created in any other way than by blunt force trauma. Blood dotted the leaves and vegetation around the tree in a perfect arc.  Panic ripped through him.

“Abbey!” He screamed his daughters name, all thought of caution blown from his mind in a wave of terror.  “Abbey!”  He bellowed at the top of his lungs sending night time creatures he had not noticed scurrying all at once.

A loud crack of thunder burst overhead and the first fat raindrops began pelting him.  He watched in horror as rain hit the tree, misting over the blood.  There won’t be anything left to follow if it really starts pouring.  Thought spurred him to action and he yanked out his phone frantically calling reinforcement.

Reception was terrible but he managed to convey his location and the nature of the emergency before a flash of lightening split the sky above him.  Thunder cracked so loudly above him that his ears were ringing when the call abruptly dropped.  He sent a silent but fervent prayer that the rain would hold off long enough for him to get help and find Abbey.

Shining the flashlight on the ground around the tree he found more blood, leading off into the woods, away from the trail and toward the creek.

“Abbey!” He broke into as much of a run as he dared to risk, following the bright red spatter in leaves, on rocks and some of the trees, as if someone bleeding profusely, staggered off the path, leaning and bleeding against a tree every few feet for support.

He was so intently focused, following the blood trail that he almost tumbled off the edge when the ground abruptly ended and the ravine opened beneath him. It was much less steep here than the section he had looked out over before. Shining his flashlight below he saw that he could make his way down here, it would be dangerous but he could see by the blood smears beginning to melt away as the rain began to fall in earnest that he was not the first to attempt it this evening. He screamed his daughter’s name as loud as he could over the ravine, the sound of his voice booming almost as loud as the thunder.

The wind and rain were the only reply.

Cole tucked the flashlight under his left armpit, pressed it tightly to his side and began scooting down the incline on his backside, feet out in front of him, hands behind. He could still see glimpses of blood here and there in spots the rain had not yet reached but it was getting harder and harder to see.

Desperate he cried out again and again. Calling Abbey’s name while he inched forward as fast as he dared, filled with despair at the amount of blood loss the trail he was following indicated.  His feet slid out from under him suddenly and into empty space. 

He was falling.

He hit the ground with a thud that knocked all the air out of his lungs and sent the flashlight flying.  This time at least, it was still shining and he scrambled over to the edge of the creek, snatching it back before the fast flowing water swept it away.

He stood on shaking legs, playing the beam all around, frantically searching for blood or footprints or anything to tell him which way to go.

“Abbey!” he screamed, tears of terror mixing with the rain hitting his face.  “Abbey!”

No answer.


James

Someone was coming. James felt a strange calm come over him. He may not remember what happened. His mind refused to explore that arena at all at the moment. His self-preservation instinct kicked suddenly into high gear. Things that were not going to help were not going to be given consideration.

“Solve the problem” he said out loud. His voice sounded alien and frightened him badly.

“Solve the problem” he said again. It was slightly better that time, but he had no more time to waste talking to himself. Someone was coming and they would find him. He had to find Abbey first.

The beginning of a plan had formed in his confused and broken mind. He refused to acknowledge the horror of what he was contemplating. It was a matter of survival that’s all. Something terrible happened. It wasn’t his fault. He had to find Abbey. He stumbled over a root and nearly fell to the ground. His entire body ached and he was becoming aware of a throbbing pressure behind his eyes. He forced himself to continue. James searched desperately for the trail he had no memory of leaving fighting the urge to scream in frustration.

His feet suddenly went out from under him and he landed on the ground with a thud. Instinctively reaching back to break his fall, his hand landed in the pile of leaves he had slipped on. They were slick. He drew his hand to his face in the dim moon light. It was difficult to see, but the strong odor of copper left no room for doubt. It was blood. He rolled over to his hands and knees. He pressed his face close to the ground trying to determine if it was an isolated spot or a trail.

As it was impossible to tell by sight, he’d have to feel his way. Fingers groping across the trail he had a momentary flash of memory. James stood up and looked to his right. He saw the hulking shape of a wheelbarrow they’d been using to haul what they were clearing from the trail out to compost. He remembered they had a larger one they used for mulch at the beginning of the trail. He walked toward it. Standing completely still he listened. There was no way to know the exact location of the person he had heard screaming Abbey’s name from somewhere on the trail. He’d just have to take a chance.

The vague recollection briefly in focus just moments ago seemed to have disappeared. He had no idea what he was looking for or why the wheelbarrow had seemed important. James began to despair. His only chance hinged on getting to Abbey first. He had to find out if she was alive, if she knew what had happened to them. He cut himself off…thinking about that would only paralyze him and he had to keep moving. He refused to consider what would happen if he did find Abbey alive, if she were afraid, if she knew.

Thunder boomed loudly and James new he had no time left. As the rain began to fall he could hear that it was Abbey’s father calling her name and guessed he was about a mile further down the trail than where James had back tracked toward the trail entrance. He’d been looking everywhere he could think of and he couldn’t find her. He thought maybe she would have tried to get to the car. He was considering that himself when he heard the sounds of someone looking for them and realized he could never leave until he knew for sure if Abbey was alive or dead. His right eye began to spasm and tic painfully and he pushed back another wave of nausea as he walked as fast as he dared back down the trail, and toward the creek.

He stopped in his tracks when he remembered suddenly why he wanted the wheelbarrow. He turned away and continued down the path. His thoughts were disorganized, all over the place. The wheelbarrow could wait. He wouldn’t need it until he found her anyway.

As the rain began to fall steadily, James felt a bit more optimistic. The steady downpour was proof the universe was on his side. Rain washed away evidence. It was washing him right now. He turned his face toward the sky and relaxed for the first time since he woke to this nightmare. For all he knew, she attacked him. His hand reached down unconsciously skimming over the outside of the pocket. Mustn’t forget about that, yes he would have to take care of that.  His mind slid away and rolled like an eel in a tank settling on a more pleasant train of thought. The beginning of his story, their story really.

He decided that whatever he may have done had to be in self-defense, nothing else made any sense. Besides, he certainly felt like hell.  His body was wracked with pain in so many places that James had no doubt a trip to the ER was in his near future. There was no reason to believe that Abbey was the victim here. Dead people may or may not tell you about how they got that way. It all depended upon how much physical evidence there was. He knew quite a lot about things like that from dating Abbey. The irony of it was not lost on him.

He also knew that most people got caught as a direct result of incriminating or just plain stupid behavior on their own part. His head gave another painful throb, the tic over his right eye seemed to be getting worse as well.

“It’s amazing my eyes don’t pop out” he said under his breath. .

Now that he had decided how he was going to handle things with Abbey, he turned his thoughts to her dad.  James knew that he was really in no shape for a fight, he couldn’t fully stand and his left arm seemed to be hanging rather awkwardly at his side. He noticed for the first time that his left shoulder was twice the size it should have been and that it seemed not quite in the right location. He imagined Abbey had put up a hell of a fight before letting him do what…his stomach roiled…and he burped tasting something oily and unspeakable and bent forward gagging dry heaves until his sides ached and lights were floating in front of him.

 “Sick, …I’m just sick…that’s all. I need a doctor.” he forced himself to silence before the self-pity he was feeling overrode his survival instincts. Have to get a grip. He tried desperately to clear his head. He could go to her father. He could say that something happened. They were attacked. People were attacked all the time. The woods could be dangerous. There was a federal prison in Butner and from time to time there had been inmates who walked off of camps and work crews. His mind worked feverishly. Cole would never buy it. He’d kill me on the spot if he thought I’d hurt Abbey. What choice do I have?

He could hear Cole much closer now, calling out more softly and less often. He knows something’s up, James thought. He knows and he’s coming for me.  “Stop it you idiot.”

Thinking like that will only get you killed. He’s not making as much noise because he’s exhausted from all that screaming is all. He hasn’t found her yet either and that is a good thing, but who to take care of first. Did he dare to keep looking for Abbey with her father right beside him? So if he found her first, where would he take her body with her dad literally breathing over his busted shoulder?

 James took a ragged breath and considered his options. I haven’t found her. Maybe he won’t find anything. It’s dark. It’s possible he never saw any blood; the rain must have washed most everything away by now.  Maybe if he doesn’t see us he’ll assume we went home with someone else. If I hide and he leaves, I’ll have more time to look. If I find her I’ll know if there is a way to salvage this or… if I have to run, his mind raced. His mind tortured him. What if he finds her first? I’ll stay hidden, but I’ll get as close as I can.  If he finds anything, I’ll cross that bridge if I have to.

Determined to act while he still could, he crept carefully off the trail and down the sloping ravine about a hundred yards to the right of where Detective Cole had made his own descent. There was a very small enclave near the bottom of the ravine about six feet before the ground and he made for it as quietly as he could. It wasn’t entirely hidden in the light of day but even most people who volunteer on the trails didn’t know about it and it was unlikely to be spotted from the creek in the dark with all this rain. It would give him a good vantage point to look out and keep an eye out for Abbey and her dad. It would have to do.


Cole

Cole came to a halt and held his breath listening. He felt certain he’d heard the sound of movement somewhere not far from his position although it was nearly impossible to be sure with the sound of the rain hitting the creek water and bouncing off stones, trees and him. He took a deep breath and turned back the way he came. Senses heightened he walked to the face of the ravine he had just descended and stood silent, watching. He heard nothing more and began to slowly walk alongside the creek bed where it touched the ravine. Each time the thunder boomed and lightning split the sky he scanned the wall above him, searching for something, anything.

He was just about to give up and go back in the other direction next when a brilliant flash of lightening seared the sky and he saw briefly, the outlines of some sort of a cave about six feet up and 20 yards down from where he was standing. He also had the barest glimpse of a movement in the thick brush just to the right of the opening.

It could be nothing, but the shiver that ran down his back made him wary. He turned his flashlight off and dropped to a crouch. As his eyes began to adjust he thought he saw more movement above and to the left of the opening this time.

Cole turned his body slightly sideways and moved cautiously forward in a low, crouching stance. He was operating on autopilot now and no longer questioned either his sense of danger or the feeling that time was of the essence. The hair on the back of his neck was standing completely on end.

When he was almost directly below the outcropping, he undid the strap holding his pack in place and slid it silently to the ground. He pulled a G30 Subcompact Pistol from the center compartment and checked to make sure it was loaded. Rising slowly he drew his revolver and waited for the next flash of lightening. Thunder boomed and the sky lit up almost immediately after. The storm was almost on top of him now and rain that had been relatively light just moments ago began pelting him with an intensity that made it hard to keep his eyes open with his face tilted up. Cole began to pray in earnest now, please God let my baby girl be okay. If I’ve ever been useful, if I’ve ever done well, please let me find her safe and sound. Cole realized the hand that was not locked around his weapon had found its way to his mouth and he’d bitten down hard on his knuckles filling his mouth with the metallic taste of his own blood. He forced his jaw to relax and dropped his hand to his waist. He began carefully to pick a path up the ravine toward the outcropping above.


James

James had to force himself to slow down and move silently. He almost fell a moment ago when he heard movement directly below him.  He had no idea Cole had doubled back toward him.  He stopped making noise. He knows. He’s coming. Stop it…stop it…stop it…he chanted over and over in his head. Just a few more feet and he would be completely hidden from view.

Thunder boomed above him and the sky lit up like it was high noon and he nearly screamed. He froze afraid to breathe. He knew it had only lasted a moment but couldn’t help feeling completely exposed. His eyes strained in the dark, desperately searching for the man he knew was closing in on him. It was no use, he was blinded by that flash and it would take more than a few seconds to get his night vision back.

On the good news front, the rain was really coming down now and the wind had picked up and that would make it much easier for him to move around without being spotted. He had only about another three feet down and one or two over to get to the safety of the cave. He forced himself to get moving.

Another boom shook the ravine and he had the sense to duck as far under the brush as he could, keeping his eyes closed this time when the world once again exploded in light. When it passed, he was on the move again, directly parallel to where the ledge stuck out about six inches from the rest of the rock wall. In fact, the cave went back some ten feet but during the summer, with all the overgrowth, it looked like nothing more than a small dark break in the ravine where nothing much could grow. He decided to wait for the next round of thunder and lightning before darting inside.

His eyes were adjusting and he thought he saw Abbey’s dad for a second almost directly below him. He considered trying to launch rocks down on the detective’s head and thought better of it. No sense giving away his position unless he absolutely had to. For all he knew Abbey’s dad had just decided to try searching in the opposite direction. Thunder boomed and he flattened himself, eyes tightly closed against the light.  Darkness returned and he slid over the last few feet. Turning his body over until his stomach was flat against the wall, placing his right foot on the ledge and gripping the roots of one of the sturdy little tree shrubs with his right hand; he pulled hard to launch himself sideways into the safety of the cave. A moment of horror when he thought he’d misjudged and would go tumbling down the wall to land at detective Cole’s feet. He landed with a thud that he hoped would be muffled by the storm and sat pressed against one side of the cave near the opening panting.

Time passed, he had no idea how much and he began to look around for a more comfortable spot further back from the wind and the pelting rain. The adrenalin that got him this far was largely spent and he was shaking with muscle fatigue and exhaustion. He was crawling forward on his right hand and knees, his left dragging the ground useless beside him when his fingers brushed hair and stifled a scream, scuttling away ready to defend himself from whatever else had also decided to take shelter in his cave.

When nothing charged forward out of the darkness to attack him, another thought flared like a bonfire of hope and he crept forward cautiously allowing his fingers to explore the darkness in front of him. Her hair fanned out around her, tangled and matted and wet in exactly the same place as he first encountered it. It was Abbey, and she wasn’t moving. He touched her face in the dark, placing his hand over her nose and mouth, trying to determine if she was breathing. He could feel nothing but the wind and the occasional gust that carried rain along with it and he bent his head forward, laying his ear against her chest while he pressed the fingers of his right hand against her neck to see if he could feel a pulse or hear her heart. She was cold but then again so was he. He could not tell if she was dead or just unconscious.

The smell of blood filled the cave. He wondered how he hadn’t noticed it before. She was lying in a sticky, congealing pool of it and he wondered if it was all coming from her hand or if she had some other injury he couldn’t see. As he moved his good hand over her body, searching for something that could help him figure out what went so terribly wrong; a terrible sense of loss overwhelmed him. He began to cry and he pulled her into his lap, resting his back against the wall rocking them both. He had no idea how long he sat there like that, his tears falling onto her face in the dark when a piercing beam of light cut through the darkness of his shelter and stabbed at his eyes.

He was caught! An inhuman wail, equal parts anguish and rage tore from his throat and he charged blindly at the light, determined to put it out and get back to the safety of his dark.

He was going to shove as hard as he could and throw the intruder off the ledge and back down to the ravine where he belonged. He was going to murder him for daring to intrude. He was – the flash of something less than a foot in front of his face was the last thing James Hagan saw on this earth.


Cole

The body landed almost on top of him and he barely managed to avoid going over the edge backward to the rocks below. He shoved the weight off his body and searched for his flashlight. Absurdly, he thought that he would never go anywhere again until he had purchased one of those headlamps used by coal miners the world over. He had only had the briefest glimpse of Abbey covered in blood, lying limp in the arms of something that bore only a passing resemblance to his daughter’s boyfriend before the thing had screamed in rage and launched at him.

Hand closing around the flashlight, he scrambled forward to his daughter lying face down in a broken heap. Propping the light up against the wall he knelt beside her, gently rolling her over onto her back, brushing the filthy, matted hair away from her – oh jesus her face. Her beautiful face was almost unrecognizable. Her left eye was swollen shut and she had been bleeding from dozens of cuts and scratches as though she made a desperate run for her lift through thick brambles.

He pulled out his phone and barked orders to the rescue team that had arrived and was searching the trail. They needed a helicopter now. He refused to even consider that she may not be alive. He reached out to hold her hand, talking softly, letting her know that daddy was here and everything was going to be okay when his fingers found the ragged stump where her forefinger should have been, he screamed in rage. 

He rocked her, crooning nonsense words of comfort while he waited for the medics to arrive. His poor sweet baby girl, she must have been so scared. He sat there in the damp of the cave, burning with a white hot anger and his eyes landed on the thing lying on the floor a few feet away. He had never seen a human being look like that before. Not ever. He could only imagine the terror his daughter must have felt facing it alone, with no gun to defend herself.

First Bradley Morris, now this. Cole trusted his instincts and his instincts were screaming that there had to be a connection between the two boys. At the sound of the helicopter approaching, he grabbed his flashlight, directing the beam out of cave opening and into the night, guiding them to him.

He promised himself that he would not rest until he found out what happened to the two boys and why.

Donna

When it rains it pours and this summer storm was a doozy. A gust of wind rocked the HH-60M medevac and Donna was grateful for the full body harness securing her to the winch that was slowly lowering her to the outcropping where Detective Cole waited anxiously with his daughter. She could barely make out the tiny opening they were aiming for and that was with the spotlight. Honestly, if it were anyone other than Cole, there was no way they would even be attempting a rescue in this weather. Another gust of wind sent her rocking wildly back and forth where she dangled like a ball attached to a paddle.

She continued her slow decent, finding it nearly impossible to stay oriented in the right direction while not getting her brains bashed against the rocky outcroppings or entangled in the brushy overgrowth.  Zero visibility and wind gusting at 40 mph were an added challenge.  The helicopter bucked like a horse trying to shake its rider. She estimated she’d need to get about three feet lower before she could swing in to where Cole stood waiting for her.

She was almost there, maybe another two feet.  Her muscles were vibrating under the strain. I haven’t seen this much action in one day since Afghanistan. She’d been an Air Force medic attached to an Army unit in a high conflict area. Though all combat medical personnel are universally referred to as "medic", she was one of the few addressed as "Doc" on the front lines.  The honor and respect was mutual. 

 When her tour of duty was up and she decided not to reenlist, she’d volunteered to be a coordinator for the Sanford Sherriff’s Office Search and Rescue team, or SAR. She wanted to put her skills to use for folks on the home front now that she was no longer on the battle lines.  That was almost six years ago and this was the first time she had ever been called out for a mission. The call came on the same day as the most bizarre and heartbreaking accident of her paramedic career and was a non-weather extrapolation of the “pouring when it rains” phenomenon.

Another gust of wind had the pilot rearing back away from the rock face to stabilize while Donna dangled below, swaying back and forth in a nauseating arc. She was fine with it. Her own internal turmoil was far worse.  Losing Brad en-route to the hospital broke her heart and she was grateful for something to take her mind off the despair of that failure. 

Donna did not administer paralytics blindly.  More than a decade of experience had permanently transformed the things that could go wrong from a mere academic list, to names of people she would never forget and always feel she had somehow failed. 

She replayed every second and every decision she made on arrival at the scene this afternoon and knew in her heart she had done everything possible to save Brad’s life. She also knew that she would forever second-guess her decision to knock him out in order to move him.

She took no comfort in the medical examiner’s preliminary report suggesting the internal injuries were far too grave for him to have survived. The brief moments she had with him went into the file she reserved for self-recrimination and doubt. Even if he had no chance of survival anyway, she had no doubt that he had been trying to communicate something important. Her decision robbed him of those last few moments of consciousness and no one would ever know what he was trying to say.

The communication unit strapped to her vest squawked loudly, issuing a hiss of static and screech of feedback followed by two or three completely incomprehensible words. She waited for a beat to make sure he was finished and depressed the send button. “Get away from the speaker mount! Nothing but feedback noise, come again.”

I got him twice in one day, what a treat.

“Sorry, I forgot! The pilot wants to know how much farther?” Rolling her eyes because she couldn’t help herself and because no one could make out her facial expression in the dark, she tried to keep the irritation out of her voice when she replied, “Tell him about two feet down and one more forward.”

“Roger that!”

His name was Jeff but everyone called him Ichabod for both his physical appearance and the consistent clumsiness that made her cringe every time she saw his name on her roster. If ever there was a guy not cut out for this type of work it was definitely Mr. Jeffrey Dalton. Word was he had family connections.

She had nearly lost it on him on the scene with Brad and the fact that he was now seated above her, serving as the critical link in her communication to the pilot was just icing on the cake of her shitty day.

This is about as close as I’m going to get. She gave the A-OK signal and spoke into her comm. “Tell him to hold steady, I’m going in.” She kicked off against the rock, swinging hard toward the opening. It was much larger than it appeared from the outside and when her feet hit the landing, Cole grabbed her by the harness, pulling her the rest of the way inside.  She dropped to the ground and immediately began to assess the patient.

She was checking vitals when she noticed there was another body heaped in the back of the cave. “Holy shit, who is that?”

Cole snapped, “Never mind him, he’s dead. Focus on Abbey, she’s your patient.”

Donna could see by the posture of the body and the fact that half of his head seemed to be missing that she had no argument there. Abbey was alive, but barely. Donna gasped when she saw the missing finger. “Jesus, what happened here?”

“Never mind that now, let’s get her to the hospital. We don’t have time.  Where is the hell is the stretcher?”

The stretcher appeared, dangling in front of the opening she’d just entered.  Donna reached out and dragged it inside. The two of them loaded Abbey carefully and strapped her in tight. They slid her over to the opening and Donna connected her harness to the stretcher and the winch cable. She was just about to give the signal to go when Cole reached for her.

“I don’t know if anything can be done with this, but I found her finger.”

Donna pulled a plastic biohazard bag out of her kit and placed the finger inside.  “We’ll do everything we can Cole, you know that.”

He surprised her by pulling her into an awkward hug.  “I’m so glad it was you, I know you’ll take care of my baby.”

Donna gave him her most confident smile with a “thumbs up” and then spoke into her comm.  “Let’s go!”

They were swept out into the darkness and the rain with the wind buffeting them while the winch drew them steadily toward the belly of the copter above.  Her thoughts were racing. Donna couldn’t be sure due to the darkness of the cave but she felt sure the body in the back was someone Abbey’s age. Maybe even her boyfriend.  If that was true it meant that two teenagers died violently today.

They were level to the side door and Ichabod reached out to help pull them inside. He immediately lost his footing and would have gone sailing out the door had she not seen what was happening and landed a foot squarely in the center of his chest shoving him back.

“Where the fuck is your harness?”

“Sorry, sorry, I forgot.” He was useless.  She managed to swing herself and the stretcher inside for the most part unaided while he babbled on about how lucky she was to be a woman because it was so much easier to wear the gear if you didn’t have a cock and balls, har har har.

She could not believe the stupidity of this man and made up her mind that family connection or no, she would not be paired up with him again. They only had about a fifteen-minute ride to Duke University trauma center and she wanted to make sure she did as much as she could to get an IV started and the patient ready for the transfer.

She worked in silence, and no one watching her would have seen any hint of her anxiety and self-doubt as she triaged her patient.  She was not losing another one today, no way. She was so focused on Abbey that when the intercom crackled to life informing them that they were cleared for landing, she couldn’t believe the ride was already over.

As soon as they hit the tarmac, the hospital trauma team rushed to meet them and Abbey was gently lifted from the medevac to a stretcher and whisked away. Donna jumped down and ran after them calling out.

“Just a minute, you may need this.” She held out the biohazard bag containing Abbey’s dismembered finger and handed it over.  “It’s probably too late, but just in case.”

The woman whose name tag read “Paula” grabbed the bag and was off and running with not as much as a backward glance. Donna stared after them for a few moments, sending a prayer out into the universe that whoever took care of children would look after Abbey now.

“We done here or what? I’m starving!” Ichabod’s whine sliced through the noise of the helicopter and she turned and began walking back to the chopper. “Yeah, we’re done here.”


Cole

Cole was incensed. It had taken eight minutes for the first group of officers dispatched to the scene to arrive. It was the longest wait of his life. He stood at the edge of the ravine pacing as he waited for them. They were not going to be able to do much more than recover the body tonight and the majority of the crime scene would undoubtedly be destroyed by tomorrow.  Every second he spent here was time stolen from his wife and daughter who needed him.

He had made the worst phone call of his life to Susan just moments ago, letting her know where Abbey was headed and giving her no details other than that there had been a terrible accident and Abbey was critically injured. She was confused and terrified and began to pepper him with questions until he broke in to tell her that he was stuck at the scene until relief came and their daughter should not be at the hospital alone. 

Susan was still crying when they said good bye as she was heading out the door to go be with their baby. He promised her that he would fly to her side like a rocket was strapped to his ass the second he could leave and god love her, she didn’t curse him for not dropping everything and coming with her now.

He was never more grateful to be married to her than at that moment as he knew she had to feel abandoned and terrified but she never complained.  His thoughts snapped to the present as he recognized the man walking down the trail toward him from a training he’d had a few years back in rescue and recovery.  He greeted him with relief. “Hey Jake, thanks for coming.”

“No problem Cole, why don’t you give me an overview?” Jake dropped his backpack and began pulling rappelling gear from the center compartment. 

“My daughter and her boyfriend never made it home from working on the trail tonight; I came out here to see if they may have had an accident or some car trouble.” Cole took a breath.  He didn’t know if it was the storm or the shock or the fact that the adrenalin that carried him this far seemed to have metabolized in an instant, but he was suddenly more exhausted than he could ever remember being in his life.

Jake reached out and gripped his arm.  “Take it easy man, if you need a few minutes to recover it’s nothing to me.  From what I understand our guy ain’t going nowhere.”

“Thank you, I’m alright, just…really tired.”  He forced himself to stick to facts of only those details he knew for certain.  It was a damn short list.  He had no idea what happened to his daughter.  He had no idea why.  He followed a blood trail to the edge of a ravine and was drawn to the cave where he found Abbey by movements in the brush above him whose source he never positively identified.

Cole believed he had followed James, but as his first glimpse of him came only after he entered the cave, he could not be certain.  Upon entering the cave, he had fired a single shot in self-defense and found his daughter bleeding and unconscious on the cave floor.  He had found his daughter’s severed finger in the right front pocket of the James’s jeans.

He left out the fact that after the medevac took off with his daughter inside, he did a more thorough examination of James’s body and determined that there were injuries present other than those inflicted by his own shot.  He imagined that his daughter must have put up a hell of a fight but again, this was not yet established as fact and so he kept those thoughts to himself.

Jake cut in, “Do you think it’s possible there’s another perp out here?  I mean, you never saw who or what you were following when you discovered the cave.  Could be that James and Abbey were inside the whole time hiding from whatever you were tracking.”

Cole had to admit there was no reason to assume that Abbey and James were the only people out on the trail.  His gut told him that was the truth but they would exercise caution all the same.  Four more men came into view, walking carefully down the trail toward them.

Jake brought them up to speed.  The rain was their enemy tonight but they would do the best they could to get down to the cave, take pictures, document what they could and haul the body out and back to the medical examiner.  The trails and surrounding woods were literally crawling with law enforcement now and he could hear the K-9 units baying when they scented blood. 

 “Alright Cole, lets you and I head back.”  Jake said when the body was gone and there was nothing else for Cole to do.  “How bout I give you a ride to the hospital and make sure you and Susan have everything you need.”

Cole appreciated the offer but he knew that Susan was waiting and he intended to keep his promise.  There was no one who would get him there faster than he could drive himself.  “Thank you but no, I’ll be alright from here.”  They walked the rest of the trail in silence, past the Stevens Nature Center and down to the parking lot below.  “Goodnight Jake and thanks again, I’m really grateful for all you did to help me get out of here.” 

“You’re one of us, and Abbey is our girl too.”

They parted ways and Cole climbed into his truck shutting the door to the pouring rain with relief.  His hands were shaking as he turned the key and the engine roared to life.  He took one moment more to dial his wife’s cell phone and let her know he was on the way.  She answered on the first ring and he could hear the strain in her voice.

“Thank god, I was starting to get worried.  They’ve had Abbey in surgery for hours now and I still have no idea what happened to her or how badly she’s hurt. No one’s talking to me at all.”

Cole told her he loved her and was rocketing to her side immediately.  She tried to laugh and burst into tears instead.  “Not too fast, I can’t handle another accident tonight.”

He agreed and promised to get there in one piece and as fast as he safely could.  He hung up and pulled out of the parking lot onto Kildare Farm Road, navigating carefully around the law enforcement vehicles and search and rescue first responders.  He drove in silence thinking about his daughter and the thing that used to be her boyfriend.

There was nothing he could think of to account for the sudden violent attack that came his way when he climbed onto the ledge and shined his flashlight into the darkness of the cave.  He replayed it moment by moment and came to the same conclusion no matter how he looked at it.  There was no choice.  The thing had murder in its eyes and every intention of hurling Cole off the ledge to the ravine below.

That fact did absolutely nothing to ease his torment.  He had cross-examined himself without mercy in the soul deadening time between when he placed the call requesting a SAR team to when the medevac arrived, praying it wasn’t too late.  He knew that in the split second he had to make the decision to pull the trigger, he’d had no idea it was a sixteen year old boy who was rushing at him. 

He also knew that when he turned the body over and shined his flashlight on the ruined face, his heart sank.  There would be a very serious inquest and he would have to give a detailed account of every single action he took out there in the woods alone. 

Of all the thoughts swirling through his exhausted mind, that one rubbed the hardest.  Why hadn’t he called in back up the moment he found the first drop of blood?  None of the officers he spoke with tonight had asked him and that made it so much worse.  The answer was so obvious it tore at him.  He just wasn’t thinking like a cop.

From the second he stumbled onto that first puddle of blood, he was a father.  That was the truth and he would end up having to answer for it.  Had he played by the rules he knew there was every possibility they would have James in custody right now, giving them answers instead of another dead teenager in a day with one too many already.

He also knew that when he reached into the boy’s pockets and found his daughter’s severed finger, if the son of a bitch had been alive, he would have shot him point blank then and there.  That was one memory he knew would stay with him for the rest of his life no matter what came next.  The bastard hadn’t even bothered to remove his class ring and the sight of it pierced his father’s heart and he had broken down sobbing with rage at what his little girl had suffered.  The fact that up until now, he’d always liked James and been proud of his daughter for having the sense to date a guy with a good head on his shoulders, only made it worse.

Cole realized the exit was just ahead and that the majority of the drive must have gone by with him on autopilot.  That wouldn’t do.  His family needed him and it was time to set aside self-recrimination and focus.

He pulled into the trauma center parking lot and hadn’t even made it to the sliding doors before Susan was running to him.  She almost knocked him off his feet and probably would have had she not also clung to him so fiercely that he couldn’t move. 

“Oh thank god, thank god. I don’t know how much more of this I could have taken without you.”

He cupped her chin and tilted her face up to meet his gaze.  “As long as it took sweetheart, I married well.”

She tucked herself under his arm and they walked slowly back toward the hospital.  “Okay, let’s leave it at ‘I’m enormously grateful that you’re here now’.  I married well too, you know.”

“Fair enough.” The glass doors slid apart with a whisper and they walked through the door, holding each other tight.


Daniel

He was standing at the podium addressing a crowd of distinguished scientists, and he was slaying them.  Each step of the process he was outlining was a revolutionary leap forward and all eyes were on him as he brought up the projections for climate impact.  He was just getting ready to go over the potential for a thousand fold reduction in methane gas and farm pollutant alone, and it was one of his favorite talking points.  His grin faltered.  What was that noise?  Who forgot to turn off their…?

The dream vanished and he sat upright, disoriented and irritated.  His phone was bleating plaintively from where it had landed on the floor by his bed.  Jesus, what time was it?  His myopic eyes strained to make out the glowing green numbers on the alarm clock.  Who was calling him at 4 a.m.?

He groaned, rolling over to the side of the bed and scooping up his electronic leash.  “What is it?” Not the most cordial of greetings but he had been having a very good dream and this was definitely not business hours.

“I think we may have a problem.”

The voice on the other end was that of his lead scientist Albert Davis.  Ordinarily, he was one of Daniel’s favorite people to talk to. Not so much right now.  “Couldn’t it have waited four more hours until I got to the office?”

“I don’t think so, you’d better come now. There’s something you need to see and I don’t think you’ll want to wait.”

“Well can you at least tell me what it’s about? What on earth are you doing at the office right now anyway?  You didn’t stay up all night again did you?”  Daniel was exasperated.  The hard part was over.  They had a green light for tech transfer based on the first round of preliminary trials alone.  The heavy lifting was done and now they just needed to tie up a few details around scaling for a production environment.

“Not over the phone.  Come now, as fast as you can.”  The line went dead and Daniel sat up, confused and still irritated.  Jesus what now?  He dragged himself into the shower and stood under the reviving blast of water as hot as he could take it. 

It was 4:30 a.m. before he was out the door and en route to the lab in Sanford.  Years ago it had been a meat processing plant and he picked it up for a song.  He loved the idea that they were building the future on the bones of the past, literally. 

He pulled up to the guard shack and presented his ID for inspection.  Security was tight and for good reason.  Corporate espionage was a very real threat and absolutely no one without pre-approved security clearance was ever allowed back to the development lab.  The guard greeted him by name, and checked his ID carefully just the same.  Daniel made it very clear to every member of the security team that not even he was permitted to pass through these gates without proper identification.  So far there had only been two times he had forgotten his badge.  He’d immediately turned around to go get it, further driving home the point. No one passed through without clearance. No one.

Waving to the guard as he pulled through the gates he couldn’t help feeling proud of all they had accomplished and with not much more than shoestrings.  He valued each and every one of the people who had stuck by him, even the ones who no longer could when they realized getting to market was going to be a far longer haul than they ever thought when the project started.  He missed the feeling of those early days when they still believed the sky was the limit and that their efforts would directly impact quality of life right here at home.

Daniel pushed those thoughts aside as he parked and jogged to the front door of the lab.  He swiped his badge releasing the lock and stepped inside.  The entire facility had been meticulously upgraded to a state-of-the-art Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP) laboratory and was one of only about a dozen that was not owned by a university. The fruit of his labor was 4,000 square-feet of custom-designed, switchable manufacturing room pressurization, a strictly controlled environment for cellular manufacturing, and clinical grade fluorescent activated cell sorters in a true biosafety cabinet with a GMP-grade Hot Cell chamber for the manufacture of clinical grade reagents.  It was his baby and he loved every cubic inch of it.

He entered the locker room and gowned up according to procedure, taking less than five minutes from years of practice.  When he walked out of the gowning area and into suite one, Albert was practically at the door waiting.  “Oh good, you’re here.”

“You said to come right away and I hauled ass to get down here, now are you going to tell me what’s up?” 

“No, I’m going to show you.”  Albert turned and walked toward the door leading to the second set of suites where the tissue assays were produced and tested.  Daniel was surprised to see a few of the test animals had been brought into the work area and was about to ask why when he glanced at the first cage and froze.

 “What the fuck happened here?”  His legs felt like jelly when he looked at it.  They carefully labeled each of the animals they used and there were never very many.  According to the sign at the top, this was Charlie, one of about a dozen of their outbred mice.  Most lab mice are inbred on purpose to assure testing of identical genotypes but Daniel and his team were far better served by genetic variation more in line with the diversity of the human population. 

“I have a theory and that is why I asked you to come down.  He is the only specimen left.  All the others are dead.”

Daniel was stunned.  “What happened to them?”

“We’ll get to that in a minute.  Tell me what you see.”

Daniel walked to the cage and peered down at the tiny creature he barely recognized.  “I see dystonic posturing.” He looked closer and continued, “He’s missing his tail and left front paw, and there pronounced contracture in the remaining limbs.” 

“What else?”

Daniel watched as the tiny animal struggled to breathe, sides heaving.  He noticed something he hadn’t seen initially.  “It looks almost like facial spasms, the snout is twisted to the right and there seems to be some kind of, I don’t know, rippling effect to the muscles along the entire right side of his body.  I don’t understand this.  I checked all the cages before I left yesterday evening and every one of them looked just fine.”

“Exactly.”  Albert walked toward the door at the end of the suite.  “Let me show you the others.”

Daniel followed reluctantly.  Today is supposed to be a celebration.  The whole team will be here for an all hands meeting in less than five hours. His mind raced. Maybe we failed to detect a genetic anomaly. We’re using stock not strain and genetic diversity has its drawbacks.  The more he thought about it the better he felt.

That has to be the answer, some faulty gene not captured during the standard prescreen. Maybe even a metabolic disorder or...

His train of thought exploded like he’d hit a brick wall going 90 mph.

“Jesus Christ.” 

It’s a bloodbath. The animals in each of the cages had clearly experienced brutal, violent deaths.  He walked from cage to cage with a sinking feeling in his stomach.  He could barely look at them.

“They did this…to themselves?”  Daniel was finding it difficult to breathe.  His voice sounded faint and faraway to his own ears.

“There is no other possible conclusion.  As you can see they are all still locked in their individual cages.  Nothing out of place, nothing disturbed.”

Daniel thought fast, trying to wrap his mind around the catastrophe.  He had the strangest feeling that he had seen something like this before.  Suddenly it clicked.  Lesch Nyhan.  That was it!  Relief flooded through him and he turned to face Albert.

“Something about this was familiar and I’ve just remembered what it was.  My second clinical rotation was a trial unit for an investigational drug to treat Lesch Nyhan disease.  The condition was artificially induced in our lab animals so we could test the protocol.  The behavior was very similar to what I’m seeing here, massive self-inflicted injury leading to death if the animals were not restrained.” 

He laughed with relief.  “We got a bad batch, some kind of genetic anomaly that we missed in our protocol.”

Albert shook his head.  “I thought that too at first, so I ran some tests and I think we may have a problem.”

Daniel sighed.  “Alright, show me what you’ve got.”

Albert walked him through the series of tests he ran and Daniel could see that he’d ruled out all the most likely genetic disorders like hyperuricemia, Tay–Sachs disease, orotic aciduria and Lesch-Nyhan.  His heart sank, “Okay so maybe there is some other mutation in the fragile X family we don’t have the ability to test for.” 

“I’m not done yet, take a look at these.”  Albert handed him a series of assays.  Daniel was surprised to see that he chose to isolate and test the Testis Brain RNA-binding protein (TB-RBP) from each of the mice. 

“Whoa, what are you thinking?  We modified these proteins on purpose remember?  Any anomaly you found would have to be a result of binding to the nucleic acid so we could make a more direct comparison to the human protein, Translin.”

Albert nodded, “Precisely why I chose to start here.  If you will take a look on the fourth page about midway down I believe you will understand.”

Daniel flipped to the forth page and he saw right away what rang Albert’s bell.  He was not willing to get worked up about it just yet himself as even if it was as bad as it looked, there was no correlation whatsoever between what they did with the mice and the human trials. 

“Okay, I see your concern.  I agree this is very disturbing and we will change our lab protocols from this point forward.  We’ve already worked out the RNA messaging for the taste reward and appetite stimulation in humans.  We won’t need to modify our mice to be sure of the efficacy so what’s the problem?”

Albert answered by flipping the report to the last page.  He pointed to the very last assay summary.  “Right there, do you see what happened?  It wasn’t the protein itself, it was the message carried by the RNA.  We seem to have underestimated the potential for mutation and as you can see, acid radically transforms the message.  In essence, these animals ate themselves alive and they did so because of the message we planted into their genetic code.”

Daniel rose from where he had been seated on a stool next to the cages and looked carefully at Albert.  “You know I value your opinion.  Hell I would not be where I am today without you but you need to understand that if you ever make another wild conjecture like that in my presence you are off the team.”

“I’ve had the great pleasure of working with you for 15 years Daniel.  You are not only one of the most brilliant scientists I’ve ever met.  You are my friend.  I know how much this means to you and I know how important this tech transfer is for the company.  Rest assured, if you move forward despite these findings you won’t need to worry about letting me go.  I’ll walk out the door right now.”

Daniel was stunned.  He was over tired, overwhelmed and the last twenty-four hours had been a roller coaster of highs and lows that he still had not had a chance to fully process let alone recover from.  This was the last thing he needed.

“Albert can you not see reason?  You ran a single assay and while I understand your concern, there simply is no basis for throwing out everything we’ve worked so hard to achieve.  We have an all hands meeting in a couple of hours.  I need you by my side.  This is everything we’ve worked for, and it’s happening.  It’s finally happening.  Don’t throw it away over a few lab rats and a crazy theory.  You’re better than that.”

“You are better than this.”

Albert turned away and began walking toward the door.  “Where are you going?”

“I can’t be part of this Daniel.  I know I’m right and if you want to move forward with something none of us ever felt good about in the first place, I have no place here.”

“So that’s it? No more discussion, you’re just bailing on me now when I need you most?”  Daniel was more hurt than angry but that balance was shifting by the second.

Albert opened the door and was halfway out before looking back, “If you change your mind, you know where to find me.  I hope you will take a closer look at what you have in your hands.  We are not gods Daniel.  We had no business creating protein messengers in that prototype.  They had no right to ask.  Our original prototype was something we were all proud to have been a part of and I’m sorry the world changed under our feet.  Think carefully now, the road you are on leads to only one place.  You will send the entire movement back to the dark ages if this ever gets out and I hope you come to your senses before it’s too late.”

Enraged Daniel snapped, “You signed a legally binding non-disclosure and I promise you this Albert, if you fuck me, I will bury you.  You will never work in biotech again.  No one will touch you.”

The flash of pain that moved across his old friend’s face as he nodded and let the door close behind him was the only reply.

Daniel sat alone in the semi-darkness of early morning with the tiny corpses staring sightlessly back at him.  Fuck it.  If the old man lost his stones and wanted out that was fine.  As he’d told himself a thousand times before, biotech was not for the faint of heart.  He began dumping the bodies into the biohazard incinerator.

When the room was clear he felt much better.  Albert would come to his senses.  He stayed up all night on a witch hunt and he was obviously not thinking clearly.  He walked to the sanitation station and washed his hands, eyes shifting away from his reflection in the mirror.  Today was a day for celebration.  Nothing was going to derail that. 

David

The pins and needles sensation of circulation returning to his arm woke David from a surprisingly deep sleep.  He gently shifted Heather’s head and drew his arm from beneath her, opened and closed his numb fingers a few times with a groan.

He looked out the window and saw the sun was just beginning to rise and knew he’d better get back home before Heather’s mom woke up.  He looked down at her sleeping face and traced the contours of her face with his finger.  Her eye’s fluttered open and she smiled up at him.

“What time is it?”  She stretched and sat up, leaning her head against his shoulder.

“I’m not sure, looks like the sun is coming up so I’d say around 6 a.m.”  He wrapped his arm around her and pulled her against him.  “I’d better get going before your mom wakes up or my dad sends out a search party.”

Heather stood and pulled David to his feet, wrapping her arms around his waist and pressing her ear against his heart.  “I love you David.”

He tipped her chin up and looked into her forest colored eyes.  “I love you too Heather.”

“Well thank god for that,” she laughed.  “I’d feel awkward as ass otherwise.”

“So do you think it’s safe for me to go out the front door, seeing as how I don’t fit in the window quite as well as I used to?”  David laughed with her.

“I think if we’re quiet, the front door should be fine.”  She took his hand and opened the door, stepping out into the dark hallway.

David followed and could not help noticing her graceful movements as she navigated the narrow hall, pulling him along behind her.  His mind was a whirl of random thoughts and strange emotions.  The world had tilted on its axis and he had a feeling it was not likely to feel solid beneath him anytime soon.

Heather opened the front door and the sunlight streamed in, turning her chestnut hair to gold.  She really was way out of his league.  He decided to steal a kiss a moment too late and smacked his head loudly against the screen door as it was closing behind him. 

“So much for stealth mode,” she poked her head out of the screen door with a laugh.

“Yeah, well, I guess it’s safe to say you didn’t fall in love with me because I’m so smooth with the ladies.”  His forehead was throbbing and he was pretty sure it would leave a decent mark.

“Nah, I just want you for your body.”  Heather reached up and pulled him in for the kiss he didn’t want to leave without.

“Thank god for that, otherwise I’d feel awkward as ass.”  He winked at her and felt somewhat less of a dork as he turned and skipped down the porch stairs.  He turned to wave at her once more before breaking into a run for his house.

His dad had worked late last night and there was a chance he hadn’t noticed David wasn’t home.  Still, he’d have to take the world’s fastest shower and skip most of his normal routine to make it to school on time.

He rounded the corner and sprinted up the street to his house.  Scooping up the key hidden above the doorframe, he let himself into the house as quietly as he could.  He showered and got ready in record time and went to his dad to say goodbye before heading out.

His dad’s room was empty and the car was not in the garage.  “Shit,” he muttered walking out of the house.  He hoped his dad was not looking for him.  He took his cell phone from his pocket and dialed.

His dad answered on the third ring.  “Hey dad, is everything okay I didn’t see you this morning?”  Always better to lead with a question rather than an admission he decided.

“Nothing to worry about just had to take care of a few things at the lab.  Are you okay? Do you need to stay home from school?”

David exhaled the breath he’d been holding with relief.  “No, I’m good.  I’m better off going to school than I would be laying around thinking about things.”

“That’s my guy. Dave, I’ve got to run now but thanks for checking in.  I love you kid.”

“I love you too dad.”  David hung up wondering what was so urgent that his father not only left before dawn, but also hadn’t noticed his son was not in bed.  Whatever it was, his dad was obviously still in the middle of it.  He sounded distracted and not at all like himself. 

David pushed the troubling thoughts out of his mind and broke into a run.  His dad was fine and he wasn’t grounded for life for scaring the hell out of him by disappearing in the middle of the night.  All things considered, it was a pretty good start to the day. 


Cole

He tried to open his eyes and found that they were sealed shut.  He tried to raise his hands to clear the crusty seal and found that one of them was anchored beneath the weight of his wife.  Yawning with his eyes glued closed he gently disengaged his arm from beneath his sleeping wife and rubbed the crust from his eyes.

Early morning light poured through the waiting room window in a gummy haze.  He stood and blinked a few times clearing the residual and set off looking for a warm body to talk to.  He found his way to the nurse’s station and asked for what seemed like the hundredth time about his daughter.

He felt a pang in the center of his chest when the girl looked up.  She could not possibly be much older than Abbey.  Cole felt tired, old, and worn thin.  She tapped a few keys and let him know that the attending OR nurse would be down shortly to give him an update.  He nodded and turned to walk away when she called out to him, “There’s a fresh pot of coffee in the break room to the left.”

He thanked her and trudged off in the direction she recommended.  The fact that he or Susan had fallen asleep at all seemed a miracle.  The sleepless hours of anxious misery had at some point transitioned to a fitful and restless sleep.  He felt no better than he had when he first walked through the door but he knew that Abbey must still be alive or he would have heard otherwise by now.  That tiny flame of hope was all that sustained them in those bleak, nerve wracked hours and he clung to it still.  She was alive.  There would be an update soon and it did not include the finality of what he feared most.

The break room was painted a cheerful shade of yellow and a skylight above let in the sun.  He poured a cup of coffee for himself and one for Susan.  Two sugars and a cream for him, black for her.  She stopped adding anything to her coffee when she turned 40, two years ago in just a few months.  He remembered laughing at her when she came home from her annual physical announcing that now that she was middle aged, sugar was the enemy.

He shuffled slowly back toward the waiting room, still half asleep.  Rounding the corner, the waiting room popped into his field of vision and he saw his wife slumped over where he left her.  Susan was a fresh faced beauty, never needing much in the way of make up or artificial enhancement.  She was more than beautiful, she shined.  Her light was equal parts strength and kindness and he had never doubted for a moment in his life that she would always be the most beautiful woman in the world to him.

Her face was creased with worry and the puffiness around her eyes spoke to the tears that had rolled ceaselessly down her face through most of the night.  He felt an overwhelming urge to scoop her up and get her out of here.  He saw the three of them walking out of this antiseptic sterility into the morning sunshine, never to look back.  This was his worst nightmare and more than anything, he just wanted to wake up.

He sat down beside his wife and gently shook her shoulder.  She sat up suddenly almost spilling his coffee.  “What’s going on, where is Abbey?”

“It’s okay sweetheart, nothing new to report just yet.  I thought we could use some coffee, the head nurse is coming down to give us an update soon.”  He handed her the cup and wrapped his arm around her shoulder.

“Thank you.”  She took the coffee and gulped it down, seeming not to notice that it had not had time to cool.  Cup empty, she rested her head against his shoulder and stared out the window.

Cole sipped from his cup and sat in silence with his wife, thoughts churning through the events of the past 24 hours.  He was more certain than ever that whatever happened to Brad had also affected James.  He didn’t know if it was drug related, or something else, but he felt in his bones that what Brad had done to live stock had everything to do with what James did to Abbey.

The inhuman wail and fevered eyes that charged at him in the dark of the cave were indelibly burned into his memory.  He was only now beginning to remember there was also desperation in those wild eyes and plaintive wail.  That boy was out of his mind and clearly aware of the fact.

Cole didn’t know if that made it better or worse, but he suspected the latter.  If you were going to drop your basket, it was probably better that you didn’t realize it was happening.

A tall man in blue scrubs appeared in the doorway snapping Cole back to the present.  He stepped forward into the waiting room and said, “Detective and Mrs. Cole? 

Cole lurched awkwardly to his feet, coffee still in hand and nodded.  “Yes, we’re Abbey’s parents, how is my daughter?”

The man walked forward, closing the gap between them and said, “Abbey’s been moved out of surgery to critical care.  She’s not out of the woods yet, but the surgery went very well and the doctor should be down to speak with you within the hour.”

Cole hadn’t realized Susan had stood up next to him until he felt her body sag against him.  “So she’s alive, she’s going to make it?”

Her voice was barely a whisper but Cole felt each word like a giant church bell sounding within him.  Abbey was alive.

“She pulled through surgery like a champ Mrs. Cole.  My name is Zach and I’ll be getting your daughter settled in.”

He reached out to shake her hand and Susan grasped it like a lifeline.  “Is she, conscious?  Can we see her?”

“Dr. Krauss will be down in just a moment to go over all of that with you.”  He gently disengaged his hand from Susan’s grip.  “I’ve got to return to my patients now but I’ll be seeing you soon.”

“Thank you Zach.”  Cole turned Susan gently around and guided her back toward their chairs. 

She pulled away, “No, I can’t sit anymore, I’ll go nuts.”

Cole understood as he was feeling much the same way.  “I guess we could just pace here for a while until the doc comes down.”

She tried to laugh but it came out more like a sob and he closed the distance between them in one stride, pulling her into his arms.  They were standing in the middle of the tiny room, holding on to each other when Dr. Krauss stepped through the door.

Cole noticed him first and turned to greet him.  “Dr. Krauss?”

“Yes, and you are Abbey’s parents, Mr. and Mrs. Cole?”  He stepped toward them holding out his hand.  Cole shook it nodding.  “How is our daughter?”

Dr. Krauss stepped toward a small table and chairs at the back of the room.  “Do you mind if we sit for a moment?”

“Not at all,” Susan took a seat and smiled up at Cole.  He sat down next to her as Dr. Krauss settled in across from them.  “All in all, the surgery went incredibly well-“

Susan cut in, “Can we go to her now?  I just want to see her.  Please can we just see her?”

Cole placed his hand over Susan’s in an unconscious gesture of comfort.  Dr. Krauss nodded, “You can definitely see her although we are keeping her in a medical coma for the next few days to give her body a chance to heal and recover.”

“What do you mean?  How can a coma be good?”  Susan sat suddenly forward, accidentally knocking into the table.  Her face flushed, “I’m sorry, I just- I didn’t mean to interrupt, please continue.”

Dr. Krauss smiled at her.  “It’s okay Mrs. Cole-“

“Please, call me Susan.”  She sighed, “Last interruption, I promise.”  She smiled at Cole ruefully.

“It’s okay Susan, I’m sure I’d have the same questions in your shoes.”  Dr. Krauss continued, “Abbey has been through a very traumatic ordeal and her injuries required extensive surgery.  We’ve learned through trial and error caring for thousands of patients like your daughter that sleep, without stimulation, is the very best remedy we can provide once the surgery is complete.”

Cole nodded, “Can you tell us exactly what the injuries were?  We haven’t heard anything about her condition since we got here last night.”

“Absolutely…”  Dr. Krauss paused and Cole supplied, “Just call me Cole, everyone else does.”

“Alright, Cole it is.”  Dr. Krauss smiled and continued, “Abbey’s most pressing issue when she first arrived was blood loss.  She lost a great deal of blood through a number of external injuries and we discovered she was also bleeding internally from a skull fracture.”  He paused, presumably giving them a chance to ask questions or comment.

Susan made a fist with her right hand, pressing the knuckles against her mouth but she made no sound.  Cole was having trouble getting air into his lungs and couldn’t speak if he wanted to.  They waited in misery for Dr. Krauss to continue. 

“She had a few other areas of internal bleeding as well, possibly from a fall.  We were able to repair the majority of the ruptured vessels and her torn liver.  There was a great deal of pressure building in her skull and we inserted a shunt behind her left ear which I’m happy to say worked very well and she stabilized.”

Cole used the pause this time to ask what he dared not before, “and her hand?”

Dr. Krauss nodded, “I was just about to get to that.  We can’t offer any guarantee at this point but we believe there is a good chance we were able to safely reattach her finger.”

Susan gasped, “She lost her finger?”

Cole could have kicked himself.  He hadn’t mentioned anything about that to Susan last night and this was not the way he wanted her to find out.  “I’m so sorry hon, everything happened so fast and I…”

The look on his wife’s face stopped him cold.  He could have cried with relief when Dr. Krauss immediately resumed, “It was one component of her surgery that took some time as it is a two part process.  We first address the bone, which must be shortened, fixed, and then stabilized with special sutures called K-wires.”

Susan stared straight ahead with a dazed look on her face.  Cole tried to keep his focus on Dr. Krauss and not allow his mind to drift to the repercussions that were surely headed his way for leaving out so important a detail. 

“After we had the bone stabilized, we repaired the tendons and reattached the nerves.  She has a single vein graft for one of the blood vessels that was too damaged to reattach.”

Susan cut in, “So isn’t a graft where you take something from one part of the body and move it to another?”

“Exactly, in your daughter’s case, we were able to take a vein from inside her left thigh and the scarring should be minimal.”

Cole felt a surge of relief and took his first normal breath since they sat down.  “I know we aren’t out of the woods yet, but can you give us any idea of her prognosis?”

“She lost a great deal of blood and what was there was very poorly oxygenated.  We honestly won’t know until we pull her out of the coma and she regains consciousness.  There is a possibility her brain went without enough oxygen for too long.  If that is the case, she may suffer brain damage.  It’s just too soon to tell.”

The color drained from Susan’s face and Cole felt his soaring hopes plummet.  Dr. Krauss responded immediately, “The worst possible thing you could do is lose hope at this point.  Abbey needs you focused on her recovery no matter what.  Best case scenario is that she comes out of this essentially whole and it does not benefit anyone to think about worst case scenarios unless we are actually facing them.”

Susan shook her head vigorously in the affirmative.  “Abbey is alive, we can go see her and hold her and that’s enough for now.”  She stood and began walking toward the door, Cole and Dr. Krauss leapt to their feet after her.

“I need to see her right now, please just take me to her or tell me where to go.”  She was almost through the door before they caught up to her.  Cole put his arm around her as much to slow her down as to offer comfort.  She shrugged him off and turned back toward Dr. Krauss.

“I’m sorry, I’ve just processed as much as I can for right now.  I don’t mean to be rude.  I just have to see my baby girl, please.”  Her voice was steady but her red-rimmed eyes flooded and she dashed the unshed tears away briskly.

Dr. Krauss lead the way saying, “Absolutely, elevators are right around the corner and we want the 4th floor.”

They followed in silence.  Cole reached out to clasp Susan’s hand and tried not to feel stung when pulled it away, staring straight ahead.  Why hadn’t he told her?  What the fuck was wrong with him?  He imagined how he would feel in her shoes and knew he would be equally angry if not more so. 

Dr. Krauss was speaking to them about the general lay out of the hospital and explaining that no one but immediate family would be allowed visitation while Abbey was in critical care, but that they could stay with her as long as they want.  When he got to the part about a pull out bed being available Susan spoke quickly, “Yes, please, I won’t be leaving her side until she can come with me.”

Cole knew his wife well enough that this was no surprise, still, it hurt to hear her say “I” rather than “we”.  The elevator doors opened with a loud ding and the three of them stepped inside.  Cole tried to catch her eye while Dr. Krauss pressed the button for the 4th floor and explained how they would be able to order food for themselves from the cafeteria if they chose.  Susan steadfastly refused to look at him and his heart sank.

They needed each other now more than ever and because of him, the comfort they usually took for granted was shattered.  He arrived at a conclusion as the elevator stopped on their floor, announcing their arrival with another loud ding.  He may have left things out when he talked to his wife but he was not going to hide from himself.  He knew very well what had kept him silent.  The terror and ugliness of the night was so fresh and raw it was like a bleeding wound in his mind.  Susan may be angry now, and rightfully so but he had no doubt that he would make the same choice if he had it to do over again.

Those long terrible minutes alone in the dark were something he had no hope that time would ever fade.  Those first few moments of shocked terror, tearing out the first aid kit, trying to staunch the flow of blood from Abbey’s hand and her head were all things he could in time be able to share with his wife.  Searching for identification in the pockets of whatever had hurled at him in the dark and finding his little girl’s finger in one of them, was not.

When he realized it was James, that he had shot and killed Abbey’s teenage boyfriend, he was confused and devastated.  When he found his little girl’s finger, ripped and torn off with jagged bite marks, the devastation turned to rage.  He didn’t tell Susan because no one should ever have to know something like that. 

He realized with a start that Zach had joined them and Dr. Krauss was holding out his hand.  He shook it numbly and heard himself mumble something about appreciating everything that was being done for his daughter.

The head nurse who had greeted them this morning took them the rest of the way.  He paused when they got to room 421 and said, “She’s not going to be able to respond as I’m sure you know, but there is a great deal of evidence to suggest she may still hear you and know that you are here.”

His wife nodded and he said, “Thank you Zach.”

“I’ll be back in about 15 minutes to check her vitals and make sure you guys have everything you need.  Abbey is in good hands.”  Zach patted Cole on the shoulder and left to go check another patient.

Susan opened the door and he followed her though to the dimly lit room inside.  The antiseptic smell was stronger in here and he saw a sign posted above wall mounted hand sanitizer reminding everyone that nosocomial, or hospital acquired infections accounted for the majority of preventable illness and to please disinfect their hands each time they entered the room.

He and Susan both reached forward at the same time, hands clanging awkwardly together under the nozzle.  She jerked away like it burned and turned away from him, toward the bed where Abbey lay sleeping.

Cole pumped the nozzle twice and stepped toward Abbey, rubbing his hands briskly.  Susan turned and followed suit, keeping about a foot of distance between them at all times.

“Susan…“ He began, but she shook her head firmly saying, “Not now.”

He fell silent and followed her to Abbey’s bedside.  She looked so small under the sheet.  His breath caught in his throat and he heard his wife choking back a sob.  There was a chair to the right of the bed and he pulled it over.  Susan sank into it and clasped the hand that was not covered in bandages.  “My poor sweet girl, what happened to you?”

Susan’s voice was barely a whisper but her words sent a vibration through his soul.  What had happened?  He had held back the more horrifying details of what he found in that cave, but that was one question for which he had no answer.

Donna

The insistent beeping of her alarm jerked Donna instantly from a dream she couldn’t remember but suspected had not been very pleasant.

She groaned and rolled over, slamming the off button with gusto. Donna was not a morning person.  She stretched and began the process of maneuvering her protesting body out from beneath the warm cocoon of her bed to face the day.

A chorus of aches and pains greeted her.  “Ah the song of the middle-aged who refuse to accept they’re not twenty anymore,” she said to no one in particular.  Ping looked at her unblinking from his perch atop the cushion which covered the window seat, yawning hugely as if to say, “That was boring, what else have you got?”

“Everybody’s a critic.”  She walked over to the window and gazed out at the gardenia tree in full bloom. Ping nudged her hand with his nose and rolled over exposing the soft fur of his belly for her attention.

She sat down beside him and rubbed his belly. If my old friends could see me now, she thought as Ping used his forelegs to grab her hand and nibble her fingers. Donna lost touch with so many of them when she left the service. She knew she’d made the right decision, but she missed the camaraderie of those days.

She smiled thinking of the “boy” she’d followed back to his hometown of Sanford, North Carolina. Donna hadn’t seen or heard from Kyle in about three years now. Turned out love forged on the battle lines had a tough time surviving the hum drum pace of civilian life.  Still, she’d never once considered leaving Sanford.  She liked it here.  It felt like home and for an Army brat that moved every three years, that was no small thing. 

She’d found a good job, made some new friends and settled into a comfortable if somewhat lonely life. “Except I didn’t even know I was lonely did I?” Ping paused, his assault on her fingers temporarily forgotten as he looked up at her unblinking. She long ago stopped feeling crazy when she talked to Ping. He may not speak human but she thought they understood each other all the same.

Why on earth am I thinking about all this now? Her mind drifted listening to Ping purr as she rubbed the soft fur beneath his chin. She tended toward introspection after a brush with death. Maybe we all do, it’s probably human nature to take a look at how much we have to be grateful for when we see another life cut short.

She leaned her head against the soft cushion of the window seat and thought about the first time she’d noticed the “for sale by owner” sign two years ago. She’d been riding in the passenger seat en-route to the home of a little girl whose parents had called 911 for an asthma attack they couldn’t get under control. The sign caught her eye the moment the ambulance turned onto the street.

Donna was not impulsive by nature and when she found herself frantically scribbling the number listed on the sign, she figured the urge would pass.  She smiled remembering the phone call she placed less than an hour later.  The “owner” turned out to be the eldest granddaughter of the original architect. She knew a great deal about the house and the town and the phone call lasted almost twenty minutes.  Donna had arranged to go by after work, figuring a closer look would put an end to her temporary insanity.  Instead, she fell in love.

It was an old craftsman, built in the 1930s by a gifted architect who designed houses for textile and tobacco magnates.  Less than two thousand square feet, but each room was filled with clever storage and beautifully cut windows that beckoned a person to curl up with a good book or just take in the view. 

The cat showed up the day she moved in.  At first, she had put up signs in the neighborhood.  Later, she tried to find him a home.  When a few months passed with not so much as a nibble from any of the dozens of flyers she put up, she resigned herself to unwitting cat ownership.  He was a beautiful black with perfect circles of white down the back of his head and around his left shoulder.

She’d named him “Ping Pong” more for his habit of bouncing from one impossible height to another than the white spots that covered him. At some point she’d shortened it to Ping and once in a blue moon, he actually came when she called him.  She had to admit, he had grown on her.  She’d installed a small doggie door in the back and he came and went as he pleased which suited her just fine.  She had no more desire to deal with a litter box than Ping had to be locked inside all day while she worked.

Ping batted her hand and she realized she was running very late indeed.  “Sorry kiddo, gotta get a move on.”  He leapt from his perch and disappeared out the door and down the hall. 

Donna dashed through the rest of her morning routine in half the usual time.  She was pulling out of the driveway when she remembered she had intended to get in early this morning to check on Abbey.  She looked at the clock on the dash of her car, it was too late now.

“Shit.”  She would just have to wait until her lunch break.  She hoped the news would be good.  In truth, she had a peculiar feeling of unease she’d been unable to shake.  Donna told herself it was her body’s normal, healthy response to the incredible stress of yesterday.  She knew in her heart it wasn’t so.  Her instincts were no longer as critical as they once were, out in the field where one wrong move could literally get you blown away.  They were nonetheless screaming at her now.

Donna drove with anxiety fluttering in her stomach like a moth against a light bulb.  She pulled into the parking lot in front of the station, grateful she’d managed to fight off the nearly overwhelming urge to make a U-turn in the street, haul ass back to the comfort of her old house and dive under the covers to wait for the feeling to pass.

She parked, grabbed her gear and gave herself a mental shake.  Maybe it was time to consider a career move.  Maybe she just wasn’t cut out for this sort of thing anymore.  There was always teaching, she’d had the offer enough times to know it was a viable option she could take whenever she chose.  She consoled herself with the idea like a religious person fingering a rosary as she walked through the door to begin her shift. 

Jody

The morning went by in a blur and he had a splitting headache. I should have stayed home. He looked at the clock above Coach Hensley’s head for the hundredth time.  The clock seemed stuck, each second taking exponentially longer than the previous. 

Everyone was staring at him.  Blood rushed to his face and he felt the tips of his ears burning.  He mumbled “Um, I’m sorry.  What was the question?”

The classroom rang with laughter and the pounding in his head intensified.  Coach Hensley taught World History and was a favorite among most students and faculty alike.  He had two nicknames.  “Coach Chinsley” which he accepted with good humor from both students and staff alike, and “Ass Face” whispered quietly as possible by a few of the more resentful students who landed detention with him on a Saturday afternoon.

Coach Hensley smiled wryly and the deep dimple in the center of his jaw slid up a notch, splitting his chin neatly into the twin halves that earned him both the nickname he knew of and the one he did not.  “I said, open your book to page 172 and let’s take a look at the Warsaw Pact.  Clearly your inner world is much more compelling than my classroom today Mr. Graham, so by all means, do share.  We’re all very interested, as you can see.”

More laughter. Jody felt sick. He wished the earth could open up and swallow him or at the very least, take his head away from his body so he could escape the throbbing pain that seemed to be migrating from behind his right eye through the center of his brain and down the back of his spine in a nauseating wave.

He opened his mouth to reply and found to his misery that he’d forgotten how to talk.  He broke into a sweat, droplets beading on his forehead and upper lip.  Time had slowed to a crawl and he felt himself float outside his own body, turning to look back at his own humiliation with something like an academic interest.

A slick and vicious thing came alive underneath the skin on the right side of his body.  He watched fascinated, as it distorted his face, rippling through muscles, twitching and pulling.  His right arm shot up like he was about to catch a fly ball, hanging suspended for an instant, veins distended and pulsing.  It dropped just as suddenly, elbow clanging against the sturdy metal connecting his chair to the desk. 

A second, he watched in amazement as his torso contorted grotesquely, caving in on itself at an impossible angle.  Someone was screaming.  He was relieved when his body slumped forward over the desk, smacking his forehead sharply before sliding to the floor limp and boneless.  In the shocked silence that followed, he realized the screams must have been coming from him and was deeply embarrassed. 

Well, at least no one was laughing now, he saw with some satisfaction.  The class erupted in chaos.


David

I should have stayed home. All hell broke loose in Coach Chinsley’s class and now the whole school was on lock down. It was all so stupid. No one was telling them anything and unless you had a bathroom emergency, your ass was going nowhere. Like everyone else in Ms. Gardner’s Honors English class, he gave up on playing the bathroom card the second she informed them they would be escorted to and from by one of the custodians.

What the fuck is going on in this town? News of Brad’s death was making the rounds and he heard several of the teachers talking in the hallway about another accident on the trails last night.  His eyes drifted toward the empty seat in front of him.  Abbey was absent today and that chick never missed school. The fact that she was Detective Cole’s daughter made his stomach feel a bit queasy. He hoped nothing had happened to her.

Or if it did, please god let it be nothing her dad would want to talk to me about. He felt a bit guilty for that thought but really, never wanting to see her dad in a professional capacity was probably a fair objective considering the misery of yesterday.

David slouched down in his seat and took a covert glimpse at his phone. They weren’t supposed to have them on during class but this class should have been over forty minutes ago so he decided to risk it.

Still nothing.

He’d been texting Jody for the last thirty minutes trying to figure out what was going on in the class next door but the fucker wasn’t texting back. Maybe Coach Chinsley was in Ass Face mode and had collected all the cell phones? David had only served detention once this year and that was enough. He loved World History but the guy who ran Saturday detention had very little in common with his favorite teacher. It was easy to forget he was decorated vet who ran missions in Panama when he was reading famous speeches in funny accents or dividing the class into “warring factions with disparate economic drivers”.

It was not so hard to believe sitting across from him without all that distraction in the penalty box. David yawned and stretched. He didn’t get much sleep last night and sitting for so long was a misery.

His mind drifted to Heather and the reason for his fatigue and warmth flooded his crotch. Think of something else! He opened his eyes wide and looked around the classroom for something to take his mind off Heather before an uncomfortable and embarrassing erection could be added to his list of woe.

Ms. Gardner was staring right at him. There was nothing sexy about getting busted trying to send text messages and he slid the phone back into his pocket as surreptitiously as he could manage. She was still looking at him with an expression he couldn’t quite make out.

“David, can you step outside with me for a moment?”

Fuck.

He got to his feet slowly, yesterday’s exertions had taken a toll on more than his sleep. He felt achy as well as tired. “Sure.”

He walked like a man condemned, conscious of all the curious eyes following him as he stepped through the door into the hall.

“You’re Jody’s cousin aren’t you?” She asked as soon as the door closed behind them. The question caught him off guard and he blurted “Well yeah, he’s in Coach Chin- um Hensley’s class. I just wanted to know what’s going on. I’m sorry I know I’m not supposed to text in class-“

She shook her head and interrupted, “No that’s not…what I mean is-“ She didn’t get to finish the thought because a man in uniform emerged from Coach Hensley’s class and turned toward them.

“Are you David Mackey?” He asked walking toward them. Oh shit not again. David tried to swallow but his mouth went dry. He coughed instead. “Yeah, I’m him…that’s me I mean.” Jesus what was he fucking Rain Man now?

“Can you come with me?” The officer turned and began walking, not waiting for a reply. Ms. Graham patted his arm awkwardly and gave him a little shove. He looked back at her once more and she made a shooing motion. David shrugged and followed the officer down the hall.

“Can you tell me what this is about?”

 “They want to talk to you in the counselor’s office.” The man was moving along at a decent pace and David had to practically trot to keep up.

“Hey listen, I don’t think I should talk to anyone without my dad.” He hated the whine he heard in his voice.

“Here we are.” They rounded the corner and the officer opened the door gesturing for David to go inside. He stepped into the room, resigned. The door closed behind him.

Write a Review Did you enjoy my story? Please let me know what you think by leaving a review! Thanks, Kelly O'Brien Burford
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reads4fun: I like how the characters are in this story, Death seems sporadic and fun, while Dimitri seems to be more focused but they will argue over the littlest things.

Carolyn Hahn-Re: I really liked this story! The writing was well done, and the plot was suspenseful. I couldn't stop reading chapter after chapter, on the edge of my seat! The characters were well developed, and true to form. Thank you so much for this wonderful read.

Alex Rushmer: I really love your writing style in this story. Usually the whole narration from a journal sort of thing doesn't work for me, but you really pull it off here. I like the main character's blatant way of putting things. I think that it lends a lot to his character and to the story. You tell it like...

Jacquie Walker: This is one of the best books I have had the pleasure to read. Claudio has created a very "real" world brought alive as his words paint a rich tapestry of the lives of his characters and the world they live in as they journey toward their destiny.I recommend this to all who love this genre.... it...

Girl on Fire: Great story, line Alex!!!It really has a edge on it. It put me on edge with its thrill. Can't wait to read the rest.!!!

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FreakyPoet: "you made me laugh, made me cry, both are hard to do. I spent most of the night reading your story, captivated. This is why you get full stars from me. Thanks for the great story!"

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Ro-Ange Olson: "Loved it and couldn't put it down. I really hope there is a sequel. Well written and the plot really moves forward."