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The Hunters

Fan Fiction by Adam Smith (USA)

Chapter 12


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Chapter XII

She was standing at the foot of a green hill beneath a brilliant blue sky.  At the top of the hill there was a swingset.  A figure was on one swing, swinging back and forth.  There was joy in the swinging; a carefree happiness that drew her upward.

She smiled and began to run up the hill toward the top.  The wind blew softly, rippling the grass and causing its hues to change as the blades waved to and fro—dark to light, light to dark.  It was a cool, Spring day and her feet were bare.  The grass felt a bit wet, as it will in mid-morning before the Sun calls all of the dew toward the heavens.

As she drew near she began to hear the rhythmic creak of the chain against the top bolts.  Back and forth the person swung, and now she saw that the person was a boy; and at almost the same moment, she saw that it was Oskar.  There was no other person that it could be . . . the thin, blond hair flashing about his head; the soft blue sweater with its scarf flapping behind him; the brown pants; the boots that pointed toward the sky at the top of each arc.  And when she was quite near, she heard him laughing.

Although his back was to her, he knew she was there.  Neither of them thought it necessary to exchange greetings.  It was as if she had only left him for a few moments, and was now returning so they could continue to be together.  She sat down in the swing beside him, backed up a few steps to get started, then pulled her legs up to go forward and began the old, familiar pumping.  Soon she had caught up with him, the height of their arcs roughly matched, and they exchanged grins as they passed by one another, the twin squealing of their chains adding to the excitement.  Pure happiness.

“Do your trick!”

He huffed and strained on the chains to go higher.  “Not yet.  I want to keep going for a bit.”

“Okay.”

They swung a while longer before she spoke again.

“I miss you, Oskar.”

“I know.”  He swished by her, laughing, his bare forehead glinting.  “The sun is very bright today, isn’t it?”

“Yes.”  She pulled harder, not quite to the point where the chain would jerk at the top of her arc but close, her toes silhouetted against the shimmering fluffiness of a bright white cloud passing by.  She shut her eyes against the brilliance and kept them closed on the downward arc, feeling the pull of gravity in the pit of her stomach.

“Whoa.”  She glanced over to see him extending his head back on an upward swing so that it was almost upside down, then keeping it there as he swung back.  He started to giggle.

“You should try that.  Makes you sick.”  He laughed some more.  “Oh man.”

Eli joined him.  The giggling was unavoidable, part and parcel of the dizzying, nauseous sensation.  She could only do it for a few moments before straightening.

“Where did you go, Oskar?  When will I see you again?”

“I’m not very far from you.  I see you all the time.”

“I wish I could see you.”

“You found a good egg with Jed.”

“I know.”

“One in a million.”

“That’s what you were.”

He chuckled.  “You shouldn’t talk about yourself so much.”  He swung back, and then forward again in a particularly graceful arc, his scarf and hair flying behind him.  “Did you ever think of letting go and just flying straight off into the sky?  I’ve always wanted to do that.”

“Yes, I have.  But I’m afraid that if I let go, I’ll fall and hurt myself.”

“You can’t be afraid to let go, Eli.”

She blinked.  The tears were cold and wet, the rushing air fanning them out on her cheeks.  “I want to be with you.”

“You will be.  But it’s not for me to know when.”  He swung a few more times, and seeing that he was slowing, she followed suit.

He turned toward her in his swing.  His face was just as youthful and open as the first day she had met him.  He smiled and then without stopping, he took her hand into his.

“I have to go now.  Be careful with your egg.”

The sadness welled up in her throat and she held his hand more tightly.  The swings began to slow and move discordantly.  “Please don’t go.  Please, Oskar.”

He squeezed her hand and then gave her a beautiful, dazzling smile.  “I love you, Eli.  But you have to let go now.”

She did not want to, but she could not disobey his smile.  As soon as she did he began pumping again, hard and fast.  She knew what he was going to say before he said it.

“I’m gonna do it!”

She wanted to be happy for him, but couldn’t because his trick would take him away. 

And it did.

Friday, December 20, 2002 – 8:35 a.m. – Culpeper Family Practice Associates

Dave Cook was reviewing the chart for Ted Satterfield, his first patient of the day, when Brenda, his scheduling nurse, handed him his list of nonpatient callbacks from the night line answering machine.  He skimmed down the column of names and numbers and stopped when he came to Dr. Andrews.  He had called not too long ago—7:45, to be exact.

He frowned, irritated that Bill had not heeded his request to call him back last night.  Now he’d probably end up playing phone tag most of the morning, trying to reach him in between patients.  He closed Mr. Satterfield’s folder with its brightly colored identification tabs and dialed up Bill.

“Fairfax Neurology and Sleep Medicine.” It was Rita, Bill’s receptionist.  Dave smiled, pleased that he had avoided the phone tree and could talk to the old warhorse herself.  He introduced himself and asked for Bill.

“Good morning, Dr. Cook.  I think he’s in, but . . .” There was a rustle and the muted creak of an office chair.  “Hang on, he’s got someone in his office.  Mind if I put you on hold?”

“Not at all.” He did, actually, but what could he say? He was not a pushy guy, and thought it rude to say otherwise.

He opened the chart again and looked at Ted’s most recent urinalysis as the morning talk program of some soft rock station in D.C. played into his ear.  It hard to concentrate because he kept thinking about what Bill would have to say.

There was a click.  “Dave?” The voice at the other end of the line sounded quite anxious, not at all like Bill.

“Hey, Bill.  How are you?”

“Ah—okay, I guess.  I owe you an apology for last night.”

“Yeah.  Well—”

Bill rushed ahead.  “I’m sorry.  I just—it was a little too much for me.  To put it mildly.”

“Well, you know, Bill, I had to wonder later on whether I should’ve reacted differently.  Gotten the hell out of there, like you.”

“Yeah.”

“And I regret now that I asked that question.  I should’ve realized that you weren’t quite there yet.  And then Tom—well, you know.  He sort of forced our hands.”

“Yes.  That’s kinda how I felt.  Unprepared.”

“So where’d you go last night? I asked Dr. Mazda to have you call me.”

“Well, this probably sounds strange, but I drove around in my car, mostly.  Pretty much trying to get my head screwed back on.  And by the time I settled down and went home, it was late.  Shirazi left me a note, but I figured you’d probably gone to bed by then, so I just planned to call you this morning.”

“That’s okay.” Dave tried to picture Bill cruising around Northern Virginia is his . . . what did he drive--a Lexus? --for hours on end, but couldn’t.  “How are you today?”

“I’m better.  I think I’ve pulled myself together.”

“Good." Dave debated whether to tell Bill about what Dr. Goodwin had found during the ultrasound.  How would he react to the news? Was he still too fragile? But he was the neurologist, and Tom's discovery was definitely a neurologic issue.  He hesitated.

"Did you want to try and get Eli into your sleep clinic tonight?”

“Yeah.  In fact, I wanted to call Jed, but I realized I don’t have his phone number.  Do you have it?”

“Sure.” He gave it to him.  The thought came to him: would Tom's discovery influence how he might want to conduct the sleep study?  Perhaps.

"Bill, there's something else you should know."

"What's that?"

"Tom did the TEE last night."

"And?"

"And we've got a better handle on that extracardiac mass.  It appears to be cortical tissue."

A pause.  "You're kidding me."

"Nope.  I wish I were."

"That's incredible."

"Mmm hmm.  He's got two brains."

"So how does it . . ."

"It's wired itself into his spinal cord, Bill.  God only knows what it's doing."

"I . . ." Another pause, longer this time.  Dave tried to picture Bill's face at the other end of the line, but before he could, Bill continued.  "I should probably call Tom directly and get his impressions."

"I agree.  Maybe the two of you should watch the study together."

“I'll get the tape and try to connect with him this afternoon."

"Good.  So you’ll call Jed about tonight, correct?”

“Yes.  Is there anything else planned for today?”

“Not yet.  I want to talk to Dr. Marsden about a functional MRI.  If we can get a better handle on those structures in the brainstem, I think we’ll be close to recommending some course of action for this poor kid.”

“He’d have to go downtown for that, wouldn’t he, Dave?  Couldn’t do that at Culpeper.”

“I'd think so.”

“All right.  Well, give me a call if the plans change, all right?”

“Will do.”

“Good. Talk to you later.”

Bill returned the phone to its cradle.  The man sitting across his desk put a folder into his briefcase and stood up.

“What tape?”

He could not conceal the nervousness in his voice.  “It’s an ultrasound study--of the heart.  They took it yesterday.”

“I’ll need a copy of that, too.”

“That shouldn’t be hard.  They have the equipment in the ultrasound suite.”

“Good.  I’ll pick it up the next time we meet, or give you instructions on where to send it.”

“All right.”

“Call me as soon as you’ve talked to Inverness and have the departure time from your clinic pinned down.  The more lead time I have, the better.”

“I will.”  He paused.  “You’re not going to hurt anyone, right?”

“That’s not the goal.  And like I said, he’ll be in the hands of skilled medical professionals.  Top-notch people.  No family doctors.”

Once again, Bill felt relieved.  It would be for the best.  Eli could not be exposed to the public—he was just too dangerous.  And once it was all said and done, Dave and Tom would understand that they had been in over their heads.

Jed awoke to echoing, muted voices and a metallic, rattling sound.  At first, he was disoriented and did not know where he was; then he remembered.

For a few irrational moments he lay on the thin, uncomfortable mattress of the hideaway sofa, frozen with apprehension.  The voices, a woman and a child, were somewhere down the hall, and he relaxed as they continued.  It was just some folks moving something in or out of their space; there was nothing to fear.

He had extinguished his lantern before falling asleep, but with pupils maximally expanded, his eyes were able to make out the dim outline of his boxes and furniture from the faint traces of light that found their way in around the edges of the door.  Belongings from another life--they were part of him, but now seemed unimportant, representing a life that was now over.

He found his flashlight and turned it on; then he checked his watch.  It was 12:42 p.m.  He was shocked at the hour; how could it be so late?  Then he remembered how late he had fallen asleep. 

He shined the light over at the lump beside him.  Eli was still sound asleep.

He groaned and sat up.  He had not slept well, and his head felt as if it was full of rocks.  It occurred to him that Chrissy had picked out the couch they were now using, but not once during their marriage had they used the bed.  A good thing, considering how his back felt.

He waited impatiently for the people to go away, fighting the urge to urinate while he got on his barn jacket and made sure he had his cell phone and keys.  Once things were quiet, he removed the screwdriver and pulled up the locker door, stepped out into the hall, and had the door pulled halfway back down when he realized he’d left his pistol.  He swore softly, pulled the door back up a bit, and got it.

Once he had the door all the way down, he realized he had another dilemma—whether to lock it.  It seemed wrong to lock Eli up inside the little room; but on the other hand, to leave it unlocked seemed unsafe.  He stood indecisively outside the door for several moments, debating what to do.  Finally he slipped the gun into one pocket, opened the door again, and went back in.  He maneuvered around to Eli’s side of the couch, pulled the sleeping bag up over his head, and zipped it up as far as it would go.  Eli would come with him, even if it meant lying wrapped up like a dead body in the back of his truck.

He headed north on James Madison Highway and stopped at a convenience mart/gas station in Remington to relieve himself.  It was a cold, overcast day, and there was about an inch of fresh snow on the ground from the previous night.  He grabbed a cup of coffee and a donut on the way out and once he was back in his truck, he got out his cell phone and called Dave’s back office line.  In less than a minute, Dave came on.

They exchanged greetings and Jed asked what was planned for the day.  In response to Dave’s question he stated that he had not heard from Bill, but that he had just gotten up a few minutes ago, and that his phone had been off.

“Late night with Eli, huh?”

Jed thought about the exhausting series of memories that Eli had shown him.  The entire episode had now taken on a surreal, dream-like quality in his mind.  “Very late.”

“How’s he holding up with all of this, Jed?  I didn’t get a very good read on his reaction to the ultrasound.”

Jed tried to sound nonchalant.  “Oh, he’s hangin’ in there.  He’s kind of a little trooper, you know.  Pretty stoic about things.”

“Good.  Well do your best to keep up his spirits, Jed--don’t let him get discouraged.  I tried to make it clear that this process is going to take some time.”

“Yep, yep.  I’m tryin’.

“I know you are.  You’re the best thing that ever happened to this kid, Jed—you know that, don’t you?”

“I’m just doing what any decent human being would do, doc.  No more, no less.”  Before Dave could reply, he continued.  “So what’s the story with Bill?”

Dave paused.  “Well, he seems to have gotten over his fear, thank goodness.  Talked to him this morning, and he wants you and Eli to come to his office this evening to do the extended EEG.  So you need to call him to discuss that.”

“Will do.  I’m glad to hear he’s back on board.”

 

Dave gave him Bill’s number, and then told him that he had a call in to Dr. Marsden about doing a functional MRI.  Once he had more information about whether it was a viable option, he would call him back.

“All right.”  Jed paused.  “And thanks, Dr. Cook.  I’m sayin that for me and for Eli.  Both of us really appreciate everything you’re doing.”

“No problem.  It’s been a privilege.”

“Thanks.  Talk to you soon.”

Jed punched “no” and then dialed Dr. Andrews’ number.  As the call went through, he watched a couple of rough-looking guys come out of the convenience mart with some beer.  They got into a beat-up Toyota Celica parked next to his truck.  The motor blatted loudly through its rusty muffler; then the car backed out in a cloud of smoke.

“Hello?”

He was not expecting to get through directly to Dr. Andrews, and was a bit unprepared to hear his voice.  He waited until the Celica’s engine had receded; then spoke.

“Hi.  Dr. Andrews?”

“Yes.  Is that you, Jed?”

“Yeah.”

The relief in Dr. Andrews’ voice was palpable.  “Good!  Thanks for calling—I’ve been trying to reach you.”

“That’s what I heard from Dave.  I’m sorry; I had my phone off.”

“That’s all right.  I’d like you to bring Eli to my sleep clinic tonight, as we discussed.”

“All right.  He told me he’s up for that.”

“Good.”

“What’s the address?”

“8503 Arlington Boulevard.  Fairfax.”

“That’s Route 50, right?”

“Yeah.  Just outside the beltway.”

“What time would you like us to be there?”

“Well, I’d like to capture a good 12 hours of tracings and video, so if you could come as soon as he wakes up, that’d be good.”

“Okay.  Will do.”

“And, uh, what time does he usually wake up?  Just so we can be ready.”

“When the sun goes down.”

“Ah—yes, of course.  I should’ve thought about that.”

“Mmm hmm.  So figure us bein’ there around 8:30, quarter to nine.”

“All right.  Will he be all right with staying overnight here?  Can you take him home tomorrow morning, once he’s asleep again?”

“Presumably.  I guess we’ll have to see.”

“Okay.  Well, I hope he understands how important this study is.  We really need to get this done.”

“I’ll do my best to make him understand that. “  Jed switched the phone to his other ear.  “So doc, how are you doing?  We were worried about you last night.”

Bill hesitated, and when he spoke, his voice sounded mechanical.  “I’m better now.  I just needed to—you know, get a breath of fresh air.”

Jed nodded.  “Yeah.  No, I understand.  It’s a bit hard to take.”

“Yes it is.”

“But you’re better now.”

“Yes, I am.”

“Good.  Well, we’ll see you tonight.  Oh--is Dave gonna be there?”

“I—I don’t know.”

“It would be better if he was.”

“Okay.  I’ll call him.”

“Thanks.”

“See you tonight, then.”

“Yeah.  If anything comes up, we’ll give you a shout.”

Jed ended the call and ate the last of his donut.  He took another slug of coffee, then started his truck.  It was time to get back to the cabin and get cleaned up.  Then he’d pay a visit to Katie while he waited for Eli to wake up.

 

It was after 2 o’clock when Jed made the final turn off the mountain road to get to his cabin.  On the way out, his mind had been filled with thoughts about what else he was going to get out of the cabin, and where they were going to go once the old guy who ran the U-Stor-It discovered they were camping out.  And thus preoccupied, he did not realize until after he had passed Carson’s home that there were tire tracks on the final leg of his long, winding driveway.

He stopped and threw the truck into park.  There was no sound except the idling of his engine.  He sat, frozen in his seat, searching up the lane for anything unusual, but there was nothing.  Then he rolled down his window and peered out over his shoulder at Carson’s place.  Not surprisingly, there was no car since Carson usually did not come out until Friday after work.  And Jed doubted that he would come out the weekend before Christmas in any event.

Could it have been his postman?  It had snowed last night; he had heard it while they were at the storage place, sometime after midnight.  But J.B. usually didn’t deliver until four or five.  Katie, then, eternal worrywart that she was, had probably come up to pay a visit this morning.

He got out and walked around to the front of the truck, his breath puffy white in the frosty air.  He hunkered down by his front bumper, feeling the heat from the pickup’s engine on his back, and studied the tracks.

There were actually two sets of tracks, he realized; one laid, more or less, on top of the other.  He pictured Katie’s Subaru in his mind and thought about whether it could have left them.  He doubted it; the tracks seemed too far apart for her narrow little car.

A cold finger of fear traced down his backbone.  He swore softly.

He got to his feet and climbed back into his truck, trying to think of anyone who would have wanted to come out and visit.  He couldn’t think of a single person. 

When the notion that the tracks had been made by a stranger fell into place, he suddenly felt hyperalert.  He put the passenger window down and turned off the engine.  Off in the trees to his left, a crow cawed; then another answered.  Other than the birds, there was no noise. 

For several moments he did nothing; just sat there, looking and listening.  It was dead quiet; there wasn’t even any wind.  At last he started the engine, shifted into Drive, and crept on up toward his cabin at a walking pace.

After passing the shady dogleg and proceeding the final 200 yards or so toward his home, he stopped the truck every fifty or hundred feet, scanning for anything unusual, but saw nothing.  He felt considerable relief when at last he saw that there was no car in the driveway of his cabin.  The driver had come and gone.

He pulled the truck off into the grass so he wouldn’t disturb the tracks where they terminated in his turnaround.  Whoever it was had pulled into his parking spot, then backed up, turned around, and headed away.  There were no footprints in the snow from the tire tracks to his porch.

He got out and took a closer look at the tracks.  Their margins and tread marks were not fresh and crisp, so he supposed whoever it was had come not too long before the snow had stopped, either last night or early this morning.

Notwithstanding the absence of footprints, he approached his front door with caution.  Nothing appeared amiss, so he pushed it open and went in.

Inside, the cabin looked just as he had left it the night before.  The fire in the stove had long since died out, and it was almost as cold inside as out.

He had not packed Eli’s egg, so he carefully scooped up the loose pieces and poured them back into the box that Oskar had made.  As carefully as possible, he lowered in next the partially completed base that Eli had been working on, followed by the gold yolk; then he closed and latched he lid.

He decided that he needed a cardboard box, so he went to the ladder and began to climb up. He ascended a single rung and when he encountered difficulty swinging his broken leg up to go further, he remembered his walking cast.

Thwarted, he stepped back down to the floor and looked dumbly down at his broken leg.  The anger took him by surprise, swelling up unexpectedly in his chest.  It was not just because of the immobilizer, but the plastic boot had suddenly become the focal point of all that had gone wrong with his life come lately.

“You doggone thing!  Shit!”  He limped over to his ottoman, sat down, and with clenched teeth he quickly began to unlatch the snaps.  The anger he felt was bitter iron in his mouth.  “The Hell with it!”   He yanked it off most of the way, then furiously kicked it onto the floor with the booted heel of his good foot.  The loathsome device came to rest by his kitchen table.

A sharp pain in his calf followed the sudden flexing of his ankle, but he ignored it.  He got up and walked as best he could over to the mud mat, where he had put  his left boot after Katie had brought him home from the hospital at the end of November.  Then he took it over to his bed and put it on.

It felt good to have something normal and familiar on both feet, even though his leg was beginning to ache.  He climbed the ladder, dumped out the box full of unused kitched utensils, and tossed it over the edge to the floor below.  Then he yanked down the tarp he’d hung up over the entrance to the loft and kicked the air mattress down, too.

The next 25 minutes was spent filling the box with his stuff--anything he could not bear to part with, or thought might be useful.  Eli’s egg, the Escher puzzle, his journal, his carvings, his Bible, a few of his favorite books, and a coffee can full of cash and some war decorations.  His knives and the ammunition stored in the bottom drawer of his gun rack.  His extra lantern, oil, some food from the kitchen, and a roll of duct tape.  Three or four days’ worth of underwear, shirts and socks, and two pair of jeans.  His work gloves and his favorite cap.  After putting the box into the back of his truck, he returned and carried out the bigger stuff: his air mattress, the tarp, some blankets, and his water jug.  His toolbox, from which he retrieved a padlock before sliding it in behind the cardboard box.  Then he took his hunting rifle and extra clips.  And last, but not least, the Remington 870 he had inherited from his father, which he loaded with buckshot and put on the passenger seat.

Once he was done with the loading, he carried the big bag of cat food around to the back, tore open the top a bit wider, and put it down by a pile of firewood he’d stacked near his chopping block for Frito Bandito.  Then he got his tent out of the shed and returned to the front.  He was about to padlock his front door when he stopped, sighed, and went back inside to get the walking boot.  Then he locked up and headed down to Katie’s.  He’d get cleaned up there.

Friday, December 20, 2002 – 2:45 p.m.

At his home in Northwest Washington, Tom Goodwin sat at the desk in his study.  For the first time since he had been in recovery from his bypass operation six years ago, he was home early in the middle of a weekday.

The pain that he had experienced the night before had returned while he had been preparing to leave Culpeper Regional Hospital and head to Reston to see patients there.  It had not been as sudden as when Eli had made his demonstration, but it had been stronger and longer.

He knew what he should have done—called one of his partners and checked himself in right then and there.  Instead, he had found the nearest restroom, shut himself into a stall, and sat on the toilet while he waited for his breath to return and the pain to subside.  After about five minutes, it had; but the feeling of impending doom had remained.  Could he survive another bypass?  He who had, against all common sense and his own doctor’s orders, continued to smoke a pack a day after his first heart attack? 

And so, after leaving the bathroom, he had taken the elevator down to the lab and requisitioned Eli’s blood sample.  He had not thought about what he was doing too deeply, because if he had, he would not have done it.  It was only by not thinking that the thought which had formed in the back of his mind since doing the TEE could be transformed into realty.  What was that old notion?  That you first imagined yourself taking a course of action before you actually did it?  There was a lot of truth in that, he’d learned over the years.

The chest pain had returned after he had crossed Chain Bridge and was headed up Arizona Avenue.  This time it had spiked down his left arm, so intense that he had knocked the side-view mirror off his Mercedes as he pulled into his garage, and banged into the snow blower sitting by the back wall under its vinyl cover.  He didn’t think he would make it into the house, but the dagger-like sensation had retreated into a dull burning under his breastbone, as though someone had put his chest into a giant vise.  Excruciating, but tolerable.

As he panted for breath and drew up the syringe, heavenly voices drifted in from the empty hallway, broadcast by a local classical music station.  Verna had not liked classical, so keeping the kitchen radio on 24/7 was  something he had done only during the last two and a half years.  It made him feel less alone. 

He strained to recognize the music.   Ave Verum Corpus?  Yes—had to be.  Composed less than half a year before Mozart had died, as he recalled.  He smiled; ironically fitting, then, that it just happened to be playing at this moment.  Was it beautiful enough to stop him?  Was God trying to send him a message?  Telling him to gracefully accept the inevitable?

The music ended.  A man’s voice came on, asking for donations to keep public radio going.  Even $25, he solemnly intoned, would be a big help.  Tom felt a twinge of guilt; not once had he donated.  Would his apathy be cured or made worse with the change?  There was only one way to find out.

He twisted the rubber tourniquet tighter on his bicep and made a fist, then snapped his finger against his cephalic vein.

Four thousand, five hundred square feet of empty house surrounded him.  His nearest child—his 36-year-old son, Brian--was 24 hours away in Houston, Texas and hadn’t spoken to him in four years.

He chucked the antiseptic wipe onto his blotter and felt the small, cool patch in the crook of his arm recede. He brought the tip of the needle to his skin, directly on top of the vein.  The man on the radio stopped talking and the music began again; this time, Verdi’s Dies Irae from Messa da Requiem.  Perfect.  The pain clamped down and spiked down his arm again, adding to the drama.

Ten cc’s . . . would it be enough?  He pushed the needle in and compressed the plunger. 

Dave was preparing to leave his office and go to the hospital to meet Dr. Silver when his cell phone rang.  It was Jed.

“Hey, Jed—how are you?  I was just getting ready to—”

“Something’s going on.”

“What?”

“Something’s going on.  Someone’s spilled the beans.”

Dave let his jacket slide off his left arm and stood, still as a stone, by his office chair.  “What do you mean?  How do you—”

“Come downstairs.  I don’t wanna to keep using this phone.”  The line went dead.

Dave lowered his phone from his ear and stared at it, as if the device itself was the cause of his confusion; then he quickly put it away.  Marjorie peeked her head into his office, her voice remarkably chipper after a long office day.  “Need anything, Dr. Cook?”

“No.  I’m heading over to CRH for a meeting with Becky Silver.”  He paused.  “How many clinic patients are lined up for tomorrow morning?”

“Five.”

“Get on the phone and reschedule ’em.”

She stared at him with surprise, waiting for him to clarify.  But all he did was shrug on his jacket.  When he realized she was still standing in his doorway, he looked at her.  “Marjorie—get on the phone, willya?”

“Yes, sir.”

His voice trailed back to her as he moved quickly down the hall and out into the reception area.  “And if Tom Goodwin or Bill Andrews calls, tell them to try me on my cell.  Got it?”

“Got it.”

“Thanks.  I’ll call you tomorrow.”

Jed was waiting in the nook for the water fountains when he came off the elevator.  Dave was not sure why, but his attention was immediately drawn to the fact that he wasn’t wearing his plastic walking boot.  Then he saw the dark anxiety in his eyes.

“Jed, what’s going on?”

“Let’s talk in my truck.  I got Eli in back.”

He had backed his truck into the space directly adjacent to the big green trash dumpster for the office building, making it less visible from the street.  As soon as they were in, he started the engine.  The shotgun rested between them with its old, wooden butt on the floor; its business end yawned toward the ceiling.  Dave, who abhorred guns, was deeply unsettled by its deadly appearance, but he did his best to conceal his feelings.  It would be best to try to keep things light.

“Going duck hunting, Jed?”

“Very funny.”  He ran a hand through his unwashed hair.  “Wish I could laugh.” 

“What’s going on?”

“Someone came up to my cabin last night.  We weren’t there at the time.”

“Did someone break in?”

“No, but there were tracks.  Tire tracks in the snow.  I found them after you and I talked.  I just finished cleaning out my cabin—got everythin’ that matters to me in the back.”  He motioned with a raised thumb.

Dave frowned. “Tire tracks.  Jesus, Jed.  Is that so unusual?”

“I’m sort of a recluse, Dave.  I don’t have what you’d call a wide circle of friends.”

“What about Katie?”

“They weren’t from her car.  It was a bigger vehicle.”

“Did you ask her?”

“She wasn’t home.”

“And it couldn’t be some other friend.”

“I have exactly one other friend.  And he wouldn’t have come, out of the blue, in the middle of the night, without leaving some kinda note on my door.”

“Jed, do you think maybe you’re over-reacting a little?  I mean, come on.”  He motioned at the shotgun.  “Where are you staying, anyway?  Do you need a place to sleep?”

“I’d rather not say.  And no, I’m fine.”  The windshield was beginning to fog up, and so he reached over and turned on the defroster.  Then he stared at Dave.  “I’d love to believe I’m just being paranoid, doc, but I can’t afford to think that way right now--I’m too mixed up with this kid.  And I’m the one who talked him into going out on a limb with you guys.  Now I’ve got to tell him what’s going on.  I’ll be lucky if he doesn’t up and leave tonight for good.”

“Do you think he’s really likely to do that?”

“Dave . . . we’re talkin’ about a kid who’s been living by his wits for a coupla centuries.  Who said he got to the States by stealing away on a freighter from Sweden.  Are you kidding?”

“Do you think he’d leave you?”

“I don’t know.  It’d probably be hard for him, but yeah, he might.”

“Well, what’re you going to tell him?  That you saw some tire tracks up at your cabin?”

“Yeah.”

“And that you think—”

“And that I think some government types are in the know.  Yeah.”

“That’s a big assumption, Jed.  Huge.”

“Maybe, maybe not.  How much do you know about those folks at Walter Reed?”

“Not much, really.  They have a very sophisticated lab . . . that’s why they were pulled in to help us analyze Eli’s tissue.”

“They’re military, right?”

“Yeah.  But—”

“Military docs?”

“Yes.  But Jed, that doesn’t mean anything.  They have the same duties of confidentiality toward patients as a civilian doctor.”

“Did they do a report on the skin thing?”

“Yes—I received it today.”

“They keep a copy of it up there, right?”

“Well, it’s computerized.  So yes, it would be maintained in their lab database.  Sure.”

“And who has access to that?”

Dave shrugged.  “I don’t know.  If it’s anything like most hospitals, the doctors and nurses on staff could see it, if they knew the medical record number.  And some of the hospital’s administrative people.”

“An awful lot of folks we don’t know.”

“Yeah, sure.  But they’d have to have a reason to go looking, Jed.  I mean, they probably issue hundreds of lab reports every day.  I’m sure no one is reading through all of them, lookng for something supernatural.”

“But all it would take is one phone call.”

Dave sighed.  “I suppose that’s true.  But I can’t imagine someone doing that.”

“Dave—for God’s sake, get a clue.  Do you have any idea how valuable Eli’s powers would be to the military?  Supernatural strength?  The ability to fly and see in the dark?  His healing abilities?”

“Yeah, sure.  But who’d want to live that kind of life, Jed?”

Jed uttered a cynical laugh.  “That would mean nothing to those people--absolutely nothing.  A small, technical problem.  Hell, look how fast Dr. Goodwin figured out the answer.  Each Green Beret type would just be assigned his own little platoon of blood donors.  No problem.”

Dave sighed.  “You’re probably right.  But still, I have a hard time believing that any of us would do that.”

“No offense, doc, but I don’t--there’s too much at stake.  And don’t you understand how vulnerable Eli is?”

“I guess.  I mean, that’s not really my business, but from what the two of you have said, I think I get the picture.”

“Well, I have a very clear picture—and it’s not pretty.  In fact, it’s as scary as hell.”  He shook his head.  “This kid’s past, Dave . . . you just heard the tip of the iceberg last night.  It’s unbelievable.  Turn your hair white.”

Dave sat back and sighed.  “What do you want me to do, Jed?”

Jed shrugged.  “I don’t know.  Maybe I am just being paranoid.  I want to believe that.  But I feel as though we need to assemble the team and ask some tough questions.  And if anyone breaks, then that’s it—game over.”

“If someone did it, they wouldn’t admit it.”

“You’d be surprised what might happen, face-to-face with Eli.  He has a way of gettin to the bottom of things.”

Dave recalled Eli’s solemn face at the cabin; his eyes, drilling into him.  I’m choosing you as my doctor.  And what else had he said?  If I read about myself in the papers, I’ll know who to hold responsible.  How would Eli fulfill that promise?  Suddenly his throat felt very dry, its wetness mysteriously transferred to his palms.

“Yeah—I know what you mean.”  He cleared his throat.  “Well, I was getting ready to meet Dr. Silver at Culpeper Regional just before you called to talk about getting another skin sample.  We could call Dr. Goodwin and Bill if you’d like, ask them to come.  But the pathologist at Walter Reed—I’m sure he would view traipsing all the way out here as an extraordinary burden, particularly because they almost never deal directly with patients in their work.  But I have their phone number, so we could certainly ask.  Aren’t you going to see Bill tonight, anyway?”

“Yeah, that’s true.  But how about the x-ray docs?”

Dave shrugged.  “Don’t know if Dr. Oliverio is working tonight, but it’s no problem to find out.  And I was just talking to Dr. Marsden earlier this afternoon about the MRI.  So I’m sure we could at least get him on the phone.”

“Okay.  That’s a start.”  Jed turned his head away from Dave to look out his driver’s-side window.  His hands rested on the steering wheel, and his eyes roved up and down the street, studying the passing cars.

The tone of Dave’s voice grew softer; confidential.  “Jed . . . I really think you need to be careful how you break the news to Eli about all of this.  I suspect that this is his first real chance to find a way out of everything.  I wouldn’t want to jeopardize the progress we’ve made.  If he over-reacts and flees, everything could go down the toilet.  And I know you wouldn’t want that.”

Jed nodded, but did not stop scanning the traffic.  “I understand that.  I don’t want that either.  But I owe it to him to tell him what I think.  He’s put his trust in me to look after him while he’s asleep.  And as I told you before, we’ve become sorta attached to each other.”

Two thoughts ricocheted off one another in Dave’s mind like a couple of billiard balls:  Jed’s admission that he’d kissed Eli, and what he’d said about how he’d fed Eli with his own blood.  “Sorta attached” sounded like a gross understatement.  Just what had been going on in that cabin?  And did he really want to know?

“I understand how responsible you feel for him, Jed.”

“I’m all he’s got.  His best friend died, and he came over here all alone.  He needs me, and . . . and I need him.”  Jed glanced at Dave.  “He’s become like a son to me.  Do you have a son?”

“Two.”

Jed nodded.  “Then you know just how far you’d go to protect them, don’t you.”

“Yes, I do.”

“All the way—no limits, right?”

Dave nodded.  He did not like the direction that their conversation was taking, but of course he could not disagree.

“That’s right.”

“Damn straight.”

Dave felt the urge to disengage.  “You ready to head over to the hospital?  I don’t want to keep Becky waiting.”

Jed sighed.  Some of the tension left him, and suddenly he just looked frazzled; on edge and worn out.  “Yeah, I’m ready.  I’ll follow you.”

“Good.  See you in a few.”  Dave climbed out and headed to his car.

“Eli.”

A soft touch on his cheek.  Oskar.

“Wake up, Eli.”

He opened his eyes.  Not Oskar—Jed.  The back of Jed’s truck, and still in his sleeping bag.  Most of his body was on the air mattress, but his head and shoulders were on his pillow, which was in Jed’s lap.

He looked left and right.  Duct tape over the pill-shaped windows on the sides of the camper top.  A cardboard box and a toolbox to his right.

“Where are we?”

“We’re at the parking lot of the hospital.  I was waiting for you to wake up before we go in.”

He sat up and turned to face Jed.  “Why are we here?  Is this for the sleep thing, or—but isn’t that supposed to be over at Dr. Andrews’ office?”

“I think we need to meet with Dr. Cook, Dr. Goodwin, and anyone else we can round up before we go over to the sleep clinic.  Dr. Cook is inside already, talking to Dr. Silver about further testing for your skin.  I told him we’d be in as soon as you were ready.”  Jed turned away, pulled down a corner of some cardboard he had taped over the flip-up window of the camper top, and peered out.  “Hell’s bells.  Can’t see a damn thing from in here.”

“Why do we need to meet everyone?  Some new test result?”  He looked around at all of Jed’s belongings.  “Are we taking all of this to the storage place?”

Jed looked him in the eye.  “Eli . . . someone came up to the cabin last night.  While we were away.  I don’t know who it was, but I don’t think it was Katie.  They didn’t go inside the cabin—it doesn’t look like they even got out of their car—but there was definitely someone there.”

Eli straightened.  “You don’t think it was anyone you know, I guess.”

“I suppose it’s possible, but I don’t know a lot of people anymore, Eli.  You know—I sorta pulled away from all that.”

“So you want to meet with the doctors to find out whether someone told on me, is that it?”

Jed nodded; sighed softly.  “Yeah.”

Eli looked down, and then reached into his sleeping bag and pulled out his bunny.  “And what do you think we should do if one of them did?”

“Huh.  I was kinda figurin’ I’d be asking you that question.”

He studied Jed’s face.  “You’re thinking I’d leave.”

“Yeah.  I mean, given what you’ve said.”

Eli nodded.  “And if they all deny it?”

He shook a little, pulled his jacket up around himself, then ran a hand over his face.  “I don’t know, Eli.  I really don’t know.  Maybe I’m just over-reacting to something that don’t mean Jack.”

“Jack?”

“That don’t mean nothin’.”

Eli was quiet for a moment.  He looked around as if searching for something, and then back at Jed.  “I want you to adopt me.”

Jed smiled the smile of one trying to humor an ignorant child.  “Eli, that’s a court thing.  We can’t just do it.  There’s all kinda people who’d need to be involved.  Lawyers, judges—you know.”

“I don’t care.  I just want to.”

“Well, we can, if you want.  I don’t know how much it’ll mean to anyone, but—”

“It would mean something to me.”

Jed smiled again, more warmly this time.  “Me too.  But I aint’ got no paper in here.”  He paused.  “Well, wait a minute.”  He reached into the cardboard box and dug out his journal.  “We could use this, I reckon.”

Eli smiled.  “That’ll work.”

“You want to do it inside?  They got plenty of pens in there.”

“Okay.”

“The docs’ll be our witnesses, huh?”

He smiled.  “’Kay.”

When they came into the conference room, all three doctors stood up: Dave, Becky, and Dr. Ted Oliverio.  They exchanged polite hellos before Jed and Eli sat down.  Although neither of them understood the purpose of the meeting, Dr. Silver and Dr. Oliverio knew that something important was in the air, and they both looked on with quiet reserve.

Dave remained standing and began to speak.  “Eli—Jed—I paged Dr. Goodwin.  I suspect he’ll call in just a minute.  I haven’t told Dr. Silver or Dr. Oliverio very much about why we’re all here.  But I thought that maybe Jed could—”

Eli spoke.  “Dr. Cook, before we begin, could the three of you help us?  I want Jed to adopt me.”

A look of confusion passed over all of the doctors’ faces.  Dave’s mouth hung open for a few seconds before he regained his composure.

Jed intervened.  “Eli understands it’s not an official court thing.  But it would mean an awful lot to both of us.”

Becky smiled.  Eli looked like such a child; so small, sitting next to Jed and clutching her stuffed toy.  “Of course we will.”

Dr. Oliverio could not help but smile as well.  “Sure.”

Dave slowly resumed his chair.  “Well, I . . . I don’t see any harm in it.”  Then he frowned, displeased with how he sounded.  “In fact, I’d be honored.”  He looked around the room at everyone.  “Does anyone know how such matters are worded?”  No one did.

Jed pointed at Dave’s jacket.  “Mind if I borrow your pen, doc?”

“Oh—sure.  Of course.” 

“Thanks.”  Jed opened his journal and flipped to the first clean page, smiling ironically as he did.  “Never thought I’d be using my journal for this.”  He removed the cap from the pen and then rubbed his chin.  “Okay—let me think.  I suppose I should go first.”

Ted spoke.  “Maybe you should include that you’re, you know—what they put in wills.  That you’re an adult, and uh, competent.”

Dave nodded.  “Yeah.  That you have a sound mind.”

Ted leaned back.  “Exactly.”

“All right.  I got it.”  Jed spoke as he wrote.  “I, Jed Inverness, being an adult and of sound mind, hereby say—”

Becky interrupted.  “Declare.  Hereby declare.”

“Okay.”  Jed made a correction, then stopped.  Then he tore the sheet out, crumpled it, and threw it onto the table.  “Let’s start over.  I want this to look decent.”

“I, Jed Inverness, being an adult and of sound mind, hereby declare that I want to adopt Eli as my own son.”

Ted motioned to get Jed’s attention.  “What about his last name?  Eriksson?”

Eli spoke.  “That’s not really my last name.  I just borrowed it from a friend.  I’m really just ‘Eli.’”

Ted frowned, then gave Eli a small, perplexed smile.  “Oh.  Okay.”

Jed drew a line under what he’d wrote.  “I’m signin it now.”

Dave spoke.  “Date it, too.”

“Yeah.”  Jed added the date.  “Now, let’s see.”  Once again, Jed bent to the task. “I, Eli,  being of sound mind . . . .”  He paused and then looked up around the table.  “Should I put down that he’s a kid or an adult?”

Eli touched his arm.  “That will confuse everything.  Just leave that out.”

“Okay.”  Jed continued to stare at the page.  “Do I need to say that you’re by yourself now?”

Ted spoke.  “Probably.  So it’s clear that he doesn’t have parents who could claim him.”  Eli nodded.

“Okay.”  Jed resumed.  “Being of sound mind, hereby state that my real parents are dead, and that I want Jed Inverness to adopt me.”  He hesitated, then frowned and said softly, “Seems like it should say more.”  After a few seconds, he once again put his pen to paper.  “As far as I am concerned, he is my father.”

He paused.  “That ought to do it.”  Then he made a signature line for Eli and the doctors, and handed it to Eli, who signed it and passed it to Dave.

After everyone was finished, Dr. Oliverio volunteered to go make some copies and excused himself.  He returned after a few minutes and gave two to Dave, one to Becky, and one to Jed and Eli before sitting down.  “I wasn’t sure, but I made five copies.  Dave, maybe you can speak with Jennifer Simon about including a copy in Eli’s hospital chart.  It’s not a official hospital record, but maybe she’d think it should be preserved like they do with those living wills.”

“I’ll do that.”

There was an awkward silence.  Ted looked at Dave and then at Becky.  “So, what’s going on?  Did you need me here to talk about getting a functional MR or a PET scan?”

Dave slipped his copies of the adoption paper into Eli’s patient chart and cleared his throat.  “No—I talked to Dr. Marsden earlier this afternoon about that.  And I’m sorry to say this, but it sounds like there won’t be any way to do those scans, because they require either the transfer of oxygen from hemoglobin, or metabolic activity in the form of glucose uptake.  Neither of which seem to be occurring in Eli’s case.”

Ted nodded.  “That sounds correct, from what I know.  So what else is it, then?”

Dave turned nervously in his chair toward Jed and Eli; he was not looking forward to this.  “I cede the floor to you, Jed.”

Jed crossed his arms in front of his chest and opened his mouth to speak, but Eli gently interrupted.

“There is nothing else, unless--Dr. Silver, do you want to talk about getting more of my skin?”

There was an awkward pause.  Dave and Jed both frowned, and Dr. Oliverio raised his eyebrows, his face registering mild confusion.  Under the table, Eli touched Jed’s knee reassuringly. 

Dr. Silver looked from Eli’s face to Jed’s, then back again.  “Well, I—well, yes, Eli, we would like to schedule that as soon as you are able.  Dr. Marguerite Chevalier is a plastic surgeon, and with your permission I would ask her to do the procedure.  She would explain everything to you, and it could be done at this hospital.”

“Okay.”

“Good.  I’ll call her and tell her what’s going on.”  She produced a business card and handed it across the table to Jed.  “Here is her number.  Once you’ve gotten through, press 2 and you’ll get her scheduling nurse.  Tell them that I referred you to Dr. Chevalier for a split-thickness skin graft.  They’ll know what’s up and can handle it from there.”

“Great.  Thanks.”  Jed pocketed the card.

Dr. Oliverio rose.  “Unless I’m needed further, I’ll excuse myself at this point.  I’m reading for the ER tonight.”

Jed, Eli and Dave stood, and the men thanked him for coming.  Then Eli stepped forward and, standing before him, took his hand into his and looked up into his eyes.  “Thank you so for much for helping Jed adopt me.  It means an awful lot to both of us.”

Ted’s smile faded and was replaced by a blank look as his eyes locked with Eli’s.  He was speechless, the words caught in his throat.  Then, finally, he said, “You’re . . . you’re very welcome, Eli.  It was my pleasure.”

For one or two more seconds they stood staring at each other, their hands together; then Eli let go.  Dr. Oliverio stepped back, mumbled “good night,” and left.  Eli quietly returned to his chair.

Dave cast a worried glance at Eli.  “Jed, Eli--Becky and I talked with Dr. Presad a little bit ago.  You might recall that they had done some testing of that skin punch sample that Becky procured.”  Jed and Eli nodded, and he continued.  “They had trouble processing the skin for microscopic analysis.  They thought the problem was that the skin cells were still alive, and therefore resistant to chemical fixation.  This seemed to be confirmed when they looked at the cells using darkfield microscopy and discovered that they had repaired themselves after being cut with a microtome.  But then, later on, this regeneration appeared to stop.

“So I told them to try exposing a sample of the skin to Eli’s blood.  They did, and lo and behold, the skin appears to have maintained its restorative powers.”

Jed rubbed his temples.  “So his blood does what?  Keeps everything else alive?”

“That’s the working theory, yes--that somehow, exposure to Eli’s blood prevents his tissue from dying.  Once the skin was separated, it continued to live for a little over 24 hours.  The blood cells themselves, though, have never died, even a sample that was not banked like normal, but was left exposed to air at room temperature.”

“So it’s his blood that’s—”

“—immortal.”

Jed nodded.  “Gotcha.  So how does that help us lick this thing?”

“What we’re thinking is whether Eli might be cured by doing a total blood transfusion at the same time a surgeon operates to remove the tissue on his heart.”

Eli spoke.  “How would that work?”

“Well, I’m no heart surgeon, so I don’t have the expertise to explain this to you in detail.  But basically, you would be anesthesized and placed on a ventilator.  Your chest would be opened and you would be attached to a cardiopulmonary bypass machine.  Your heartbeat would then be stopped with an icewater solution.  The surgeon would remove the mass at the apex of your heart.  Then all of your blood would be evacuated through the bypass machine, and fresh blood would be introduced, also through the machine.  Samples would be taken to ensure that the fresh blood is not tainted; if it was, the process would have to be repeated.  Once everything was in the clear, your heart would be warmed and would start pumping again.  Hopefully, you would then perfuse your tissues like everyone else.”

Eli smiled excitedly.  “Wow.  Then I’d be cured?”

“Maybe.”

Jed rocked back in his chair.  “Whew—kinda sounds like it’s all or nothin’.”

Dave nodded.  “There are all kinds of risks, even when performing open heart surgery with bypass on a normal person.  In Eli’s case, it’s hard to know how his body would respond--in other words, whether his body could revert to its former method of metabolism via oxygen and glucose.”

Jed nodded.  “And if it couldn’t . . .”

“If normal perfusion could not be restored, the surgeon would have to reverse the process.  Pump his old blood back in, and hope for the best.”

“Meaning, hope he could live without his second brain.”

Dave nodded.  “That’s right.”

Eli spoke.  “What about those things in my brain?  Would those have to be cut out, too?”

“The problem, Eli, is that we don’t really know what they do, and there’s no easy way to get at them surgically.  They’re deep down under the base of your brain.  And there are an awful lot of delicate structures in that area that maintain basic functions.  You know, stuff like breathing, your heartbeat, your blood pressure.  The risk of injury would be substantial.”

“But if I’m able to regenerate . . .”

“If you’re able to regenerate, then sure, maybe those risks would be reduced, or perhaps even eliminated.  Problem is, though, that we don’t really even know what’s responsible for your regenerative powers.”

“I thought you said it was my blood.”

“I did, but what gives your blood that power?  What if those structures in your brain play some role in that process?  We operate, take them out, and boom—suddenly you aren’t healing so well any more.  Then where are we?”

“So would those just be left in, then?”

Becky shook her head.  “We just don’t know yet, Eli.  We need more information.”

Dave nodded.  “That’s right.  And since we can’t get a functional MRI, we’re hoping that the EEG with Dr. Andrews might tell us more.”

“Okay.  I understand that—and I told Jed I’m willing to go.”

“Good.”  Dave paused, then frowned and stared at the phone.  “Where is Dr. Goodwin?  I paged him over 30 minutes ago.”

“Maybe he’s helping a really sick patient,” Jed offered helpfully.

“Could be.”

Becky stood.  “Dave, I think I will be leaving, unless there are any other questions that I can answer for Eli or Jed.”

“Okay.”  He glanced toward Jed and Eli’s end of the table.  “Is there anything else, you guys?”

“Nope—not that I can think of.  Can you, Eli?”

“No.”

“All right.  Well, good night, then.”

“Good night.”  She left.

Once the door was closed, Jed spoke.  “Nice lady.”

Dave nodded.  “Becky’s just a fine person, all the way around.”

Eli turned to look at Jed.  “She didn’t do anything.  Neither did Dr. Oliverio.”

“How do you know?”

“I can just tell.”  Eli nodded at Dave.  “And I know Dr. Cook didn’t, either.”

“I told you I would never do that, Eli—and I meant it.  I’m hoping that the whole thing is just some kind of innocent misunderstanding.”

Jed nodded.  “I am, too, doc.  Believe me, I am too.”

Dave picked up the phone.  “I’m going to call the night-time on-call cardiologist for Tom’s group and see if I can find out what’s going on.  Then I think we should call Bill and explain that we’re running a little late.”

“Okay.”

Eli spoke.  “Are you coming with us to the sleep clinic?”

“I can, if it would make you feel better.  At least until you’re settled in and feel comfortable.”

Eli smiled.  “Thanks.”

Dave punched in the number.  There was a brief pause; then he began to speak.

“Hi, this is Dr. Dave Cook.  Who’s this?”

“Hi, Dr. Fiske.  I’m trying to reach Tom Goodwin, but he hasn’t responded to his page.  Do you know how I can get in touch with him this evening?”

“Sick.”

“Huh.  Okay.  Well, thanks for letting me know.  May I leave a message for him to call me?”

“Yeah, he has my number.”

“You too.  Thanks.”  He hung up the phone; then looked at Eli and Jed with a puzzled expression.

Jed spoke.  “He’s out sick?”

“Yeah.  Since around 1:30 today.  Left the hospital, called from his car to say he wasn’t feeling well and was going home.”

“Huh.”  Jed swiveled in his chair and looked at Eli.  “Well, do you want to try and get ahold of Dr. Presad?”

Eli looked into Jed’s eyes and saw the fear and uncertainty; then looked to Dave.  “Dr. Cook—do you think Dr. Goodwin would get angry if we called him at home?”

Dave shrugged.  “I doubt it.  He gave me his home number yesterday evening after your little demonstration because he wanted to make sure I could reach him for anything related to your care--particularly in case you got hungry again.”

“Is he out sick very often?”

“I don’t know, Eli.  I know Tom fairly well, but I don’t see him that often.  It’s not like we cross paths every day.  But he has a reputation for being a real go-getter.”

Eli was quiet for a moment.  “I think we should call him.  It would make Jed and me feel better about the car at the cabin.”  Jed nodded in agreement.

“All right.”  Dave pulled the phone closer to himself.  “I’ll just put him on the speaker phone.  That way you can talk with him directly.”

“Great.”

Dave punched a button and a dial tone filled the room; then he pulled a piece of paper out of his breast pocket and dialed the number.  At the other end of the line, the phone began to ring.

After four rings, a mechanical voice came on.  “Hello.  No one is here to answer your call at this time.  Please leave your name and number, and someone—”

There was a click, followed by a rustling sound, as if someone had carelessly picked up the phone and dragged it across his shirt.  Then the rustling stopped and there was the faint sound of classical music, a lively cello concerto.

Dave frowned.  “Hello—Tom?  You there?”

There was no answer.

Dave leaned closer to the handset so that his face was only a few inches from the speaker and raised his voice.  “Tom?  It’s Dave Cook.  All you all right?”

Suddenly there was a loud clunk.  Jed imagined the handset being dropped on a countertop.  Then there was nothing but Vivaldi.

“Tom, if you’re there, pick up, please.  I’ve got Eli and Jed here.  We need to talk.”

Jed stood up, came around the table, and stood next to Dave; leaned over his shoulder.  “Hey doc, it’s Jed Inverness here.  Can you pick up?”

The faint music ended, followed by the smooth voice of a radio announcer.  “That was Yo-yo Ma, playing Vivaldi’s Concerto in G Minor for Two Cellos.  And now, Vivaldi’s Concerto in C by Wynton Marsalis.”  The beautiful, crystalline tones of a trumpet began to play.

Dave and Jed looked at each other, frowning deeply.  After a few moments, Jed picked up the handset and terminated the call.  His stomach was doing a lazy barrel roll.

“Where does he live?”

Friday, December 20, 2002 – 7:27 p.m.

“Slow down—I think we’re getting close.”

Jed complied with Dave’s instruction and let up on the gas.  Concerned about Dr. Goodwin, Dave, Eli and he had driven in Jed’s truck all the way to D.C., and were now heading up the long hill that was Arizona Avenue.

Traffic had not been as bad as Jed had anticipated.  Route 29 had been slow, but I-66 had been manageable, as most of the traffic had been moving westbound, away from the city.  As they traveled east past the car-choked lanes of commuters headed in the opposite direction, Jed had felt pity for them--to be caught in that miserable commute, day after day.  When he had worked, he had had to deal with the traffic like everyone else.  But having lived in his mountain solitude for so long, he now would have found it intolerable it, even for a day.

Although most of his thoughts had been on Dr. Goodwin, the long ride in had evoked memories of his life before he had moved out to Flint Hill.  He could not remember the last time he had been inside the beltway, but he had built a home or two in Falls Church, and so, when they had exited 66 and headed north on 29, he felt as though he had gone back in time.  Moving through the broad, gently rolling streets, lined with trees and modest brick homes, was like slipping on an old pair of comfortable boots that had been in the back of a closet, and he was pleased that the neighborhoods hadn’t changed much.

The hour-and-a-half spent in the truck had passed in anxious silence.  Dave had attempted to call Tom three times, but on each occasion the line had been busy, so he had finally given up.  He had called Bill, too, to tell him that they would not be arriving at the sleep clinic until much later in the evening.  Quite anxious over the news, Bill had pressed him for details, but Dave had remained steadfastly uninformative.  Bill was nervous enough; news about Tom’s sudden illness, the weird phone call, and the fact that they were sufficiently concerned to be going to his house in person, would just upset him further.

None of them could understand what might have been wrong with Tom.  Had they simply gotten a recording, they probably would have just left a message for Tom to call back when he was feeling better.  After all, none of them really wanted to impose on the man if he was ill.  But the fact that someone had picked up and then dropped the phone without returning it to its cradle was troubling and vaguely sinister, especially in light of Jed’s tale of the mysterious tire tracks at his cabin.  And after the third attempt to reach Tom had proved unsuccessful, Dave’s sense of forboding had deepened.

In anticipation of Christmas, the holiday decorations were up on the streetlights as they passed through downtown Falls Church, and Dave smiled as he watched Eli staring at the brightly lit candy canes and bells.  But he felt about as far removed from the spirit of the season as he could be.  He was an Episcopalian, but he and Jennifer only went to chuch at Christmas and Easter, and her faith had always been stronger than his.  Because of his heavy patient load, it was hard for him to get into the mood for the holidays, so he usually found himself on Christmas morning knowing that he should be getting more out it than he actually was.  Over the years, the exchange of gifts had become the focus of the day, and getting to worship had taken on the flavor a duty; something that had to be done because they had always done it.  Then Eli had come along, and everything had changed.  He wondered whether Christmas would ever mean anything to him again.

The child sat between them on the bench seat, bright-eyed and alert.  Before they had left the hospital Jed had quietly put his shotgun behind the seat, so it was just the three of them, sitting shoulder to shoulder.  After the round of calls had ended and they had driven in silence for awhile, the tension had lessened due to the sheer monotomy of the trip, and Eli had asked Jed if he could find a radio station.  Jed had readily agreed, and so Eli had spent several minutes playing with the radio controls, checking out the AM and FM stations.  He found a station with Christmas music and after discovering the bass, treble, and fader controls, he changed the pitch and tone of the music, and made it move from the front to the back of the cabin and back again.  But after a time, his fascination with the stereo had waned.  As Dave watched, his attention had been attracted to the other dashboard dials and controls, but he did not ask Jed about them, nor venture to touch any of the buttons and switches.  At last he grew still, staring out the window at the cars, trucks and signs. 

Dave had smiled when Eli stared with interest at the Metro train that ran down the middle of the interstate, throwing off blue sparks as it approached a station.  Nothing appeared to escape his attention, and Dave wondered, not for the first time, what thoughts were running through that little head.  What did he think about adults—about Jed; about him?  He did not understand how Eli could trust anyone, given what he had said about himself.  The terrible story of his turning; of the dark life in Sweden that he had described—living in the wilderness with thieves and robbers, or holed up in some apartment with a convict who bought and sold women and children.  What other terrible experiences were locked up inside that mind?

This kid’s past, Dave . . . it’s unbelievable--turn your hair white.

As the truck began its slow ascent up the hill he glanced over at Jed.  Illuminated in the dashboard lights, his face looked haggard and drawn.  A deep line ran from his nose to the corner of his mouth, and the skin beneath his dark, sunken eyes appeared puffy and gray.  His hair poked out untidily beneath his green John Deere cap, and from the five o’clock shadow it was obvious that he had not shaved for a few days.  Beneath all of this there was an expression of unhappy determination; the look of an ordinary guy who had been drawn into circumstances not of his choosing, and was being tested to find his way out of them.

How much of Eli’s past did Jed know?  And how had that knowledge affected him?  Eli obviously needed someone, and the fact that Jed had found it within himself to step up to the plate and be his father figure had deeply impressed Dave.   The love he felt for Eli was obviously profound.  But was it healthy?  What did it mean to be caught up in a relationship with someone like Eli, whose past was full of darkness, and who, some would argue, was not even human?  And what would happen to Jed if their efforts to cure Eli failed?  Would he just live out the rest of his life caring for the boy as best he could, all the while serving as a living blood bank?

Dave surpressed a shiver.  He needed to get a surgeon lined up, and soon.  His gut told him that the longer things dragged on, the greater the risk that something would go awry and blow the whole thing to smithereens.

“Forty-two Fifty Three, right?”  Jed’s raspy voice cut across Elvis’s smoothly crooning refrain from “Blue Christmas,” and at the same time, he reached out and turned off the radio.  They were almost to the top of the hill, where Arizona intersected with Loughboro Road, and Jed slowed the truck even further, his gaze shifting between the house numbers and the street, with its thin coating of snow.  Roused out of his thoughts, Dave looked out the passenger window, searching.

“That’s right.  And that’s it, right there.  The one with the double garage.”

No traffic approached them from behind, and Jed brought the truck to a standstill in the middle of the road as he looked over the beautiful brick home to their right.  It was set on the side of the hill, and the garage opened onto a generously wide, concrete driveway that led down to the street.  A flight of stairs with a wrought iron handrail led from the driveway up to a spacious front porch; floodlights in the well-manicured curtilage illuminated an expensive oak door and the front elevation to its left.  One of the garage doors was up, the rear end of an older model Mercedes visible in the shadows.

“That his car?”

Dave nodded.  “I think so.”

“All right.  I’m gonna pull on in.”

After setting the parking brake, Jed turned off the engine and opened his door.  He started to get out, but then paused and turned to look at Eli.

“You wanna wait here?”

Eli shook his head.  “I’m coming.”

“Okay.”  The pocket of his barn jacket sagged sharply as he climbed down off the seat, pulled down by the weight of the pistol concealed inside.  He had not told Dave he was carrying it.

Jed was uncertain about whether to go up to the front door, or knock on the door that surely led from the garage into the house, and so they paused near the bottom of the steps.  Peering into the gloom for the door inside the garage, he saw something shiny dangling from the driver’s door of the Mercedes.  At first he thought it was something behind the car, but when he stepped closer he realized that the side mirror was broken and was hanging from its mount by some wires.  He grunted and they stepped to the threshold of the garage door.

“See that?”

Dave nodded.  “Yeah.”  Then he touched the broken trim on the left frame of the garage doorway.  “Looks like he whacked it on the edge here.”

“Mmm hmm.”  Jed looked over his shoulder at the steps leading up to the front door; then he shook his head and lowered his voice.  “Something’s wrong.  I don’t think I want to go up there and ring the doorbell.”

Dave looked at him with concern.  “Are you saying you just want to go in through the garage without knocking or anything?  I’m not sure I’m real comfortable with that.”

“Let’s just check and see if the garage door is locked.  Then we’ll decide.”

They stepped into the garage, and before their eyes had adjusted, Eli pointed.  “It’s right there.  And it’s . . .”  He stepped in front of them and padded quietly around the corner; Jed and Dave followed.

The door leading into the house was around to the left, standing half-way open.  Inside, the lights were off. 

For the first time, real fear began to creep into Dave’s bones.   Sometimes people forgot to put their garage door down, but no one living in Washington left their garage door up and the door to the house standing open and unlocked.  No one.

The door was about a foot above the floor of the garage; before it sat a small, concrete step.  Eli stopped a few feet from the door.  When the men came to his side and Jed began to speak, Eli put his hand up and whispered.  “Shhh.  I want to listen.”  He cocked his head and stood absolutely still.  After a brief time he straightened.

“Don’t hear anything except that radio music.”

Jed stepped forward and brought his fist up to knock loudly and call out for Tom.  He felt a strong urge to break the tension: make a lot of noise, flip on all the lights, and thereby bring some clarity to the situation.  But at the last moment, he saw Dave’s fear-filled expression out of the corner of his eye and stopped, his curled hand poised two inches from the door’s painted metal surface.  Dave emphatically shook his head—don’t

Jed sighed; then opened his fist and gently pushed the door open with his palm.  It swung noiselessly inward, the dim light from the yard revealing a washer and dryer below a row of white cabinets.  A small, round plastic laundry basket sat on top of the dryer, and there was a bottle of bleach on the floor next to the door.  As quietly as they could, they filed into the utility room.

Behind the door to their left a large, gas-fired water heater came to life with a soft whump, casting small, irregular splashes of light on the darkened floor around its base.  Dave quietly pulled a set of keys out of his jacket and after a second or two, a narrow beam of intense, bluish-white light illuminated a mud sink opposite the washer.

The door at the far end of the narrow room was open.   The music grew louder as they approached it.  When they passed through the doorway, they heard another sound—the annoying, I-will-not-be-ignored beeping of a phone off its hook.

They entered into a small hallway/foyer leading to the kitchen.  There was a darkened powder room to their right, and a large, framed floral print hanging on the wall to their left.  A set of white french doors divided the foyer from the kitchen; one of them was open, the other closed.   As quietly as they could, they passed through them and into the kitchen, which turned out to be a combination kitchen and breakfast nook that extended to the rear of the house.  Through the large picture window behind the kitchen table and chairs, illuminated by a security light mounted somewhere on the back of the house, they could see a redwood deck and the dark lump of a covered grille.  At the other end of the deck, an empty bird feeder swayed gently in the wind on its curved wire pole.

The kitchen was dark, but a faint light came from the front hall.  The phone dangled by its cord from the marble counter next to a set of Italian ceramic kitchen canisters.  Jed went over and returned it to its base.  As soon as the beeping had ended, the ticking of a clock could be heard coming from the front of the house. 

Eli and Dave moved through the kitchen and peeked around an arched doorway on the opposite wall.  It led only to an equally dark and empty dining room, and after a few moments they rejoined Jed, and all of them moved down the central hall toward the front door.

The front hallway was two stories high.  An elegant crystal chandelier hung over the front door, and a spiral staircase with a cherry balustrade led to the upstairs bedrooms.  A grandfather clock sat next to the staircase opposite the front door, its ticking heavy and slow.

The light was coming from a study off the front hall.  It, too, had french doors, these held open by reproduction busts of Apollo and Diana on marble pedestals.  They paused at the bottom of the staircase and Dave shined his light up toward the bannister at the top, but there was nothing.  Then they looked into the study.

An L-shaped executive desk was situated facing the front windows at the far side of the room in front of a large, matching bookcase.  An old-fashioned, wooden swivel chair lay overturned on the floor.  The light was coming from a brass lamp with a green shade sitting next to a heavy glass ashtray.  Jed saw what appeared to be medical supplies of some kind in the middle of the blotter.

Tick-tock; tick-tock.

All of them stepped over to the desk.  Without thinking about it, Jed pulled the chair back up on its wheels.  It did not seem right that it should be tipped over in such a beautiful and orderly room.  Then Dave gasped and snatched a small plastic vial off the blotter.  Jed frowned and looked at him as Dave held it up to his face in order to read the tiny print on the label, but Jed could not see it.  Then Dave lowered the bottle.  His face was white.

“Eli’s blood.”  Jed looked down at the blotter and saw the syringe.

“He’s--”

A bolt of stone-cold fear gripped Jed in an icy fist.  “Oh, Jesus.”

Eli stood slightly behind and between them, his eyes huge, his mouth open.  Then he whispered, “We need to get out of here!”

Dave grabbed the syringe and pocketed it along with the vial.  They turned and headed back toward the front hall.  When they reached the bottom of the stairs, they heard a sound.

Dave jerked the beam of his pocket light up.  A figure was standing at the landing above, looking down at them.

Dave spoke, his voice high and nervous.  “Tom?”

It was, indeed, Tom, dressed in a white oxford button-down shirt over dark-colored slacks.  Nothing seemed amiss, except that the shirt, which glowed with ghostly intensity in the unsteady beam, was no longer neatly tucked beneath his belt; it was pulled up in a flaccid bulge on one side, and a shirt-tail hung out on the other.

Tom began to come slowly down the stairs, holding the bannister with his left hand.  His left shirtsleeve was unbuttoned and flapped loosely at his wrist.  Dave flickered the light in his face and he paused; blinked.  His eyes were open abnormally wide, and although he was looking down at them, he did not seem to recognize them.

Jed saw his vacant gaze and his fear intensified.  No one’s home.  He slipped his hand into his pocket and withdrew the Colt.  With one smooth motion he drew back the slide and let go.  Then with his free arm he pulled Eli to himself and stepped back toward the front door.

Dave continued to stand at the foot of the stairs, staring upwards.  “Tom?  You didn’t do that, did you?  Tom?”

Tom’s head turned slightly toward Dave, and for a moment Jed was almost convinced that he was really seeing him.  The eyes beneath the heavy brow glinted silver; the mouth was utterly expressionless.  Except for the soft tread of his loafers on the plush, carpeted steps, he made no sound.  The tick-tock of the grandfather clock marked his downward progress.

He was now only five or six steps from the floor; but still, Dave did not move.  His free hand had settled onto the newel post, and was now squeezing it in a death grip as he continued to shine his penlight at Tom with the other.  His body was rigid, and he appeared to be rooted to the spot as he continued to stare helplessly up at Tom’s blank face.  He began to plead.  “Tom?  Talk to us.  Stop it and . . . and talk, for Christ’s sake.  Stop.”

But Tom did not stop; and now he was only two steps up from Dave.  He extended his right hand toward Dave’s head.  Suddenly Eli’s voice exploded from his chest and he surged forward out of Jed’s grip.  “Dr. Cook!  Get away!”

Jed reached out with his gun hand and flicked the lightswitch by the door.  The chandelier over their head blazed alive with brilliant, yellow-white light.

Tom rocked back as if he had bumped into a soft, invisible wall.  His grip on the balustrade tightened.  He squinted, and a grimace slowly worked its way onto his features; then he drew back his arm and held his hand in front of his face, attempting to block the light.  He swayed slightly, then groaned.

Eli grabbed Dave’s wrist and dragged him backwards.  He stumbled and almost fell, but the spell was broken.  Jed brought the pistol back up and stepped forward.  “Open the fucking door!”

Dave swung behind Jed and fumbled with the latch.  His voice was hot and fast, but forming a coherent sentence suddenly seemed impossible.  “Can’t.  It’s—the deadbolt.  You need a key!”

They began to move sideways away from the front door, past the study and toward the hall leading back to the kitchen.  Tom stopped wincing and lowered his hand; then he took another wavering step.  Jed’s voice was high and hard.  “What is he, Eli?  For God’s sake, what is he?”

“I don’t know!

Tom reached the bottom, now separated from them only by six feet of hardwood floor.  They continued to sidle sideways toward the hall.  Tom turned and began to walk toward them.  Jed felt the adrenaline rush through him and his trigger finger tightened.  “Stay away or I’ll shoot, Tom.”

Dave’s voice, behind him.  “Don’t hurt him, Jed.  Don’t.”

Jed’s attention remained on Tom as he advanced.  “He ain’t there, Dave.  Move.  Move!”

Tom was only three feet from Jed when their eyes locked.  Jed’s knees weakened.  The eyes were terrible, lacking the faintest trace of humanity, yet . . . they were intelligent--a dark, consuming intelligence.  His arm trembled, the heavy weight of the pistol dragging it down.  Wordlessly Tom raised his arms, seeking an embrace.

“Jed!”

The bark of the Colt was stunningly loud, and Eli screamed when it went off.  The ejected brass struck the wall to Jed’s right and landed on the floor with a clink. A hole appeared in the center of Tom’s chest, a small, round piece of white fabric disappearing from his shirt just below the second button from the top.  Tom stumbled and fell onto his back in the middle of the foyer.  Everyone froze.

For several seconds Tom remained motionless on the floor.  Stunned, Jed continued to sight down the barrel, but finally lowered the gun.  Eli gasped softly behind him, over and over, as if on the verge of tears.

Silently Tom slowly rose to a sitting position, a marionette pulled upright by invisible strings.  His face was no different than it had been before.  He groaned, then rolled to the side and began to stand, and when he did they saw his back; saw a ragged, irregular hole the size of an orange, a dark stain spreading rapidly around and below it.

Tom regained his feet and staggered toward them as they retreated down the down the hall and into the kitchen.  The top half of his body swayed unnaturally, tipping back and forth as he advanced, as if only loosely attached to his lower half.  Jed stared at him in disbelief.  Once again he was overcome by a feeling of powerlessness, and it was not until Tom’s swiping hand narrowly missed the muzzle of his pistol that he fired a second time.

Tom’s right cheek exploded, the bullet tearing the skin and tissue into ribbons.  A pinkish-white shard of bone flashed out from the back of his head in a misty red spray.  Tom’s body spun to the right, one gangly arm flapped upwards, and then he fell once again.

“Jesus!”  Dave stood behind and slightly to Jed’s side, his incredulous eyes shifting between Jed’s smoking gun and Tom, who now lay sprawled on the floor.  Yet, he was not motionless, as Dave had expected; instead he writhed like a snake caught by its tail, his body twisting and turning at the threshold between the hall and the foyer, his legs jerking and kicking.  As his head slid to and fro across the floor, blood and brain tissue from the shattered backside of his skull painted the floor in an erratic zig-zag pattern, the kind a preschooler might playfully make with a watercolor brush on a fresh sheet of paper.  Eli squeezed Dave’s hand tightly as they watched with horrified fascination.  Then Tom’s torso ceased moving, followed shortly by his thrashing legs, and he lay still.

Eli whimpered and let go of Dave’s hand as Dave stepped forward.  “Oh my God, oh my God . . . Tom.  Tom . . .”

“Don’t get too close, Doc.”  Jed’s growled warning was harsh and raspy; he had no spit.  He lowered the pistol and stepped cautiously forward.  And as he continued to stare at the body while the seconds ticked by, a sense of dissociation grew from the pit of his stomach and gained momentum, coursing through his body and numbing his brain.  I just shot Dr. Goodwin.  Me?  I did?

Eli crept forward and stood between them.  All of them continued to stare wordlessly at the body.  Dave glanced at Jed, his face agape.  “Holy shit, Jed.  The neighbors are gonna call the police.  What should we do?”

“Get the hell outta here.”  Jed straightened and pocketed the pistol.  “Come’on.” He took Eli’s hand and began to turn away, but Eli didn’t move.  “Wait!”

At the tone of Eli’s shout, a new icicle of fear rammed itself roughly down Jed’s back.  He turned to look at the fallen body once more.

Before their eyes, the blood on the floor grew thinner, fainter, and then faded into nothingness.  At the same time, the skin and muscle on Tom’s shattered cheek knitted itself back together with wet, secretive sounds, and his head trembled freakishly as his cranium was reassembled.

Eli spoke, tersely and with barely controlled emotion.  “Fire.  We need fire.”

Tom’s eyes opened; then he slowly turned his head to stare at them.  At their backs in the darkened kitchen, Luciano Pavarotti began singing “Nessun Dorma” with a deep, exquisite tenor.  Slowly, Tom rolled over onto his stomach and began to crawl toward them with jerky, uncoordinated movements, grunting like an infant who has just discovered its powers of locomotion, his eyes gleaming up at them under his bushy eyebrows.

Jed again withdrew his pistol and began to back up.  “Eli!  Find some matches or a lighter in the kitchen!  Dave—go check the garage for gas or somethin!”  He heard their footsteps behind him, but he dared not turn and look; dared not, even for a moment, take his eyes off the creature creeping slowly toward him.  With amazement he noted that beneath the shredded cloth on Tom’s back, the hole where the slug had passed out of his body was now gone, replaced by fresh, pale skin.

Five rounds left.  Would it be enough?

The floor beneath his feet turned from hardwood to tile; he was now in the kitchen.  He could hear Eli janking drawers open around the counter; rolling sounds followed by thunks and the rattling of silverware and cooking utensils, one after another.  Tom began to crawl faster, and his intermittent grunts became one long, continuous groan.

“Hurry up, dammit!”

Eli’s voice was frantic.  “I’m looking!  I’m looking!”  Plates and dishes shattered as he shifted to the upper cabinets and began to throw them to the floor.

Jed turned, backing toward the hallway leading to the utility room and garage.  Soon, he realized, Eli would be left behind, cut off in the kitchen.  Tom reached up with one groping hand, seized the corner of a cupboard standing next to the wall, and began to pull himself up.  His eyes never left Jed.  Just before he was fully upright, Jed shot him twice in short succession, one bullet in each thigh; he could not bring himself to shoot him in the face again. 

Tom’s legs crumpled beneath him and he went down.  He did not break his fall with his hand and landed squarely on his face.  His groaning was abruptly cut short.

“I found some!”

“Good!  Get back over here—now!”

Tom lifted himself up with his arms, reminding Jed crazily of a fat schoolboy cheating at pushups.  Blood pulsed thickly from his broken nose, and when it reached his upper lip, his tongue emerged to lick it off.  He emitted a gasping moan and crawled forward with his hands, his legs trailing uselessly behind him like the tail of a hermit crab out of its shell, leaving bloody streaks on the gray and white checkered terrazzo. 

Jed was almost to the french doors that opened to the hallway with the powder room when Eli joined him at his side, leaping, stag-like, the last five feet to keep away from Tom, who made no effort to grab for him as he did so.  A box of Blue Diamond kitchen matches was in his hand.  They backed through the doorway, Jed forgetting to shut the door before Tom could pass through.  He cursed.  “Where’s Dave?”

“I don’t know!”

“Gimmee them matches!  Go help him!”

Eli handed him the box and then he was gone.  From the garage came sounds of things being knocked over and rearranged.  In the brief period that his attention was diverted, Tom crept dangerously close, moving faster than before as he regained the use of his legs.  One hand grabbed the toe of Jed’s left boot with incredible strength, but before he could get a firm purchase, Jed yanked his foot away with a surprised expletive. “Fuck!”  Then he kicked Tom squarely in the chin with his other foot. 

Tom’s head rocked back and he keeled over onto his right side.  The force of the blow propelled his jaws closed with a click, impaling the exposed, wormlike tongue between them as it busily licked more blood from his oozing nose.  The moaning stopped.  Then Tom once again attempted to stand.  This time he made it, staggering upright on his freshly repaired legs.  He shuffled toward Jed with a gurgling sound. 

Jed shot him through the left knee.  Tom spun in the direction of the damaged leg and fell.  He was motionless for a moment, but after a few seconds he resumed his crawl, the leg below the knee now flopping loosely, attached only by a few bloody strands of muscle and ligament.  A fresh quantity of dark blood spilled out of the shattered joint.

Jed heard running feet passing through the utility room, accompanied by the unmistakable clunking, sloshing sounds of a metal gas can; then Dave and Eli were once more with him.  With shaking hands Dave spun off the adjustable metal spout.  Tom began to make rhythmic grunting noises as he crabbed closer.  In the kitchen, Pavarotti hit an unbelievably clear, high note and held it for what seemed an eternity--Vincerò!  The gasoline splashed across Tom’s upturned face, shoulders and back as Jed pocketed the pistol, opened the box, and struck a match.

A dry zip followed by a brief popping noise; then he held it alight between two nervous fingers.  A thought passed through the back of his mind like a minnow darting upwards in a pond, trying to break through the surface: a deeply ingrained voice crying out at the wrongness of what he was about to do. 

Tom raised an outstretched hand, straining to seize Jed’s leg.  His eyes shifted away from Jed and focused on the small bright spot.  Jed tossed down the match. 

In its downward arc the flame fluttered and grew smaller; almost disappeared.  It landed on Tom’s collar, smoked a little, and for one, panicky moment Jed thought it would simply roll off.  Then bright orange flames spread almost instantaneously across Tom’s body, hungrily following the path of the accelerant.  In less than a second his neck and torso were ablaze.  The smell of gasoline gave way to the hot, nauseating odor of burning flesh, which rapidly filled the confines of the darkened hallway.  The flames crept down Tom’s arms and buttocks, then advanced into his legs, their yellow-orange tendrils leaping higher.  Smoke began to roil off Tom’s body in a dark-gray cloud.  Dave screamed, screamed, and screamed again.

Jed had thought the reaction would be different; thought that Tom would withdraw and curl up, or begin to thrash about as he had done before.  But he did neither.  Instead he merely stopped, one hand still outstretched.  The flames leapt over his face and suddenly his eyes were on fire; more intensely, it seemed, than his cheeks and forehead--two densely brilliant yellow patches where moments before, there had been corneas and sclerae.  Then his arm dropped and he began to creep forward once more, but no longer directly toward Jed; instead, he drifted erratically to Jed’s left and bumped into the wall beneath the flower painting.  There he slowly raised a burning hand and found some purchase on a chair rail molding that divided the wall at the level of Jed’s hips. 

Unable to pull himself up with one hand and one functioning leg, he slowly swung himself around to face the wall and grasped the molding in both hands.  A heavy Rolex watch slid loosely down one forearm, almost reaching the elbow.  The paint and french wallpaper underneath the hands began to smoulder and burn. His arms contracted and he inched himself upright, leaning against the vertical surface, his left lower leg still dangling uselessly at the knee.

The fire had now spread over almost every part of Tom's body.  A living torch, he appeared to grow taller as he stood up and the last of his hair burned away, the flames rising from the top of his skull and scorching the ornate crown molding overhead.  Yet he remained standing, utterly silent, his forehead lolling against the burning wall.  One hand scrabbled out erratically and hit the picture to Tom’s left, knocking it down; it struck the bare wooden floor with a heavy crash and fell forward, the cover glass shattering.

Dave stopped screaming, struck dumb with horror.  The flaming body pivoted and leaned against the wall on one shoulder.  In the front hall, a smoke detector began to chirp, the shrill noise making Eli grimace and slap his hands over his ears. 

For a moment Jed thought Tom would come for them again and he brought up the 1911; but he remained where he was.  He wobbled away from the wall and with a strange dignity, briefly stood on one leg.  Then he stretched out his arms, palms up, in supplication.  The hands trembled unsteadily, small pieces of smoldering flesh falling away to expose the skeleton beneath. 

With a loud sob, Eli burst into tears.  

Tom began to groan again.  But this time, Dave heard articulation, muffled and thick.  Two words, barely intelligible, from the burning mouth.

"I'm . . . sorry."

He collapsed into a huddled, motionless mass; a flaming lump of black and orange.  The roar of the fire momentarily abated, revealing with its lull the faint noise of sirens.  Jed pocketed the Colt, turned, and sprinted toward the garage.  "Come'on!"

The pickup's muffler banged heavily against the asphalt as Jed backed rapidly out of the driveway in a quarter circle and onto the street.  Behind them, at the base of the hill, blue and red flashing lights approached, the yelping sirens growing louder.  The rear wheels broke traction on the wet pavement and Jed's belongings rattled back against the tailgate as they accelerated up the street toward Loughboro Road.  When they reached the intersection Jed turned left and headed for Virginia, exercising every ounce of self-control to moderate his speed.  It was 8 p.m.--barely 30 minutes since they had pulled into Tom's driveway.  To Dave, it felt as though a lifetime had passed.

 

Continued next week

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