Secrets. Duty. Shadows. Benjamin Hadley, a talented young cop turned professional investigator still haunted by his girlfriend’s unsolved murder, thought he understood those concepts.
When things turn violent during a client’s bitter divorce Benjamin reluctantly receives aid from Dawn, a black eyed woman whose motives are as unfathomable as the occurrences that seem to follow her. Ever curious, Benjamin is soon thrust into a world steeped in shadows that brings everything he believes into question. A world where Death walks beside him closer than he ever imagined and black eyes do not mean a cold heart. Before long his fate is forced in an unlikely direction causing Benjamin to find that noble causes can lead down dark roads, and not even Death is exempt from consequences.
Click below to get a sneak preview into the first installment of the Storm Season series:
The boundaries which divide life from death are at best shadowy and vague. Who shall say where one ends, and where the other begins?—Edgar Allen Poe
Chapter 1: Half Measures
I no longer heard the words. No matter how many times I replayed the message it was the girl’s tone I found myself fixated on.
I listened to the message a dozen times in the last hour alone. Not exactly the healthiest activity, but that’s the problem with spending so much time behind the wheel of a parked car—it gave you a lot of time to think. Or overthink, in my case. Going into this line of work one of the first things they drill into you is you need infinite amounts of patience. What they didn’t tell you is that nothing can prepare you for the brutally dull hours spent waiting for your mark to show. Yes, life as a professional investigator had its thrilling moments, but this part was definitely not one of them.
I leaned back into the seat of my dated black Chevy Chevelle and retrieved my phone to play the message again, as if somehow this time it would be different from the last hundred.
Hey dad. Look, I know you’re still trying to find me. Just please stop already, or I won’t leave these messages for you anymore. I’ll come home when I can, if I can. I . . . I have to go okay? I love you.
Fear. It was laced into every rushed word, wrapped around every syllable. I had my share of clients bursting into tears in my office, blankly staring at me as I delivered my evidence, or on occasion even fly into a blind rage. But this was something altogether different—especially given the voice belonged to the woman I was hired to find.
Two weeks ago Arthur White hired me to find his daughter Natalie, a twenty year old student who vanished after drawing a substantial amount of cash from her trust fund. She left a note vaguely explaining her disappearance that her boyfriend Trent found. But, being a legal adult, the police wouldn’t get involved so four days later Arthur called me in. At the time it seemed like an almost effortless job I’d close in two days, three at the most. Well, guess you can’t be right all the time Hadley.
After speaking with some of her close friends I quickly learned each of them heard a different story from her. Between the disinformation, never leaving a paper trail and always moving I had to admit Natalie was a smart young woman. It also told me she probably had a damn good reason to disappear. That thought right there should’ve stopped me dead in my tracks, but it was also the only job on my desk right now, and me being me I just couldn’t let go when I got inquisitive. What could possibly have happened to make Natalie walk away from her home, her family? I had to know.
So I stuck with the case, my heart only half in it as I chased down a few dead ends. Nothing popped. Then one morning her father forwarded me that message, and before it finished playing my resolve to find her was reignited—but not for my client. I liked to joke with my friends that this job was nothing more than being a glorified stalker. Sadly the reality was I potentially had the power to cause a lot of damage. The client wasn’t always the one who truly needed help, and I couldn’t shake the feeling Natalie needed mine.
It took a little coercion on my part to obtain this latest lead from a close cousin of hers, but it looked promising. Okay, promising was a little strong. From what I learned about Natalie, this seedy, bare bones motel on the outskirts of the city seemed too remote, too edgy for someone like her. After playing him the message the cousin readily confessed to dropping off a burner for her here this morning. People I spoke to lied on her behalf before, which made me a little skeptical as to his credibility. Unfortunately, Natalie never stayed in the same place for more than two nights, so if it was true this was my only chance to catch up to her before she moved on again.
A brief dimming of the neon vacancy sign caught my attention, the sign so largely out of proportion it dwarfed the ageing building it pointed to. After more than two hours gazing at the same deserted parking lot, the slightest change seemed monumentally noticeable. I knew if she showed tonight it wouldn’t be long until she arrived. So I kept myself alert, but as the hands of my watch ticked down at a near glacial pace my mind inevitably started to drift—it always did.
Three years ago if someone told me I’d spend my nights watching other people’s lives unfold framed by my car’s windshield I’d have laughed. It seemed so long ago now I was that man. A second generation cop, dead set on working up the ladder and foolish enough to think he could take on the world. Set hours and a solid paycheck seemed almost alien now. Claire, my then girlfriend, had just begun working towards her dream of becoming a nurse. We knew each other since high school, and it seemed almost natural that we became a lasting part of each other’s lives. Sometimes when I close my eyes I can still see the grin on her face when she walked through my door every night, deep brown eyes brimming over with her trademark enthusiasm. I was too much of a realist to say things were perfect, far from it, but life was pretty good. Then it all changed.
Looking back at the choices I made since that life shattering night three years ago I no longer regretted the path I had taken. But at times like these, trapped in my box of glass, polished leather and steel, I still wondered. No, this is not the life I would have chosen as that man, but now even with the waiting ad nauseam that came with the gig I couldn’t imagine myself doing anything but this.
Thankfully I was shaken from the bittersweet memories of Claire tugging at me by a cab pulling off the street, stopping outside the door of number nine just long enough for a woman to step out. She was too quick for me to catch a glimpse of her face through the lens of my camera, but the long blond hair trailing behind her was a dead giveaway. Natalie had arrived.
After securing my camera under my seat I locked the car behind me, pulling my jacket close to fend off the worst of the early autumn chill. There were a lot of cars on the road for this late on a weeknight, mostly heading over the nearby bridge that formed the border into my hometown of Greystone, Massachusetts. Nestled in a natural rocky bay roughly between Boston and Plymouth, the small city’s roots could be traced back as far as the late nineteenth century. As you moved further away from the coast the buildings became more modern, though whole blocks of the original double story houses still stood—their time worn red clay bricks a defining feature of the city.
Funny, I never thought of myself as that guy who lived his whole life without ever straying more than fifty miles from home. After Claire’s death I promised myself every year that one day I would leave this place in my wake, yet somehow every time I found myself seriously contemplating leaving, life found a way to suck me back to Greystone.
Standing under the pale blue veranda looming over Natalie’s room I hesitated to knock. I had no idea how to approach this girl who I knew so much about, yet never actually met. I wanted to help her, but for all I knew she was running from the man who hired me. What reason would she possibly have to trust me? If I were her, would I trust me? Figuring it was best to stick with the truth I took a steadying breath, and knocked twice.
“Who is it?” a timid female voice spoke through the door.
“Good evening Miss White, my name is Benjamin Hadley,” I answered, hoping I sounded somewhat reassuring, “I’m an investigator your father hired to find you.”
Upon learning my identity, her voice took on a hard edge, “I’m sorry, but you have the wrong person. Now go away.”
Well, that went about as well as expected. I ran my tongue along the back of my teeth, a habit I had for years, and after taking a second to assess my position I abandoned all subtlety and skipped straight to a confrontational approach. “The way I see it, right now you only have two options. I could call your father and wait outside here until he shows, or you could let me in and we can talk first. Your choice.”
I paced restlessly past the door, my feet dragging across the uneven concrete every time I swiveled around. Giving her time to think probably wasn’t the best idea, but just as I turned towards the door to knock again I heard a drawn out sigh, followed by the metallic clink of the door chain.
I managed to pull a picture of Natalie from a website a week before she disappeared so I knew what she looked like, but when the door swung open and she peeked her head out I barely recognized her. The woman from the picture was sitting with her friends at a café, smiling and perfectly at ease, kind green eyes and long blond hair framing full, rosy cheeks. This frail, twitchy woman standing in the doorway was a grim shadow of the Natalie in the picture. She looked ten pounds lighter, skin pale and blemished, and from the dark circles set under her eyes it seemed like she hadn’t slept in weeks.
Her eyebrow rose ever so slightly as she did her own assessment, and after checking either side of the doorway she gestured for me to come inside. “Come on then, quickly.”
Natalie stepped aside just long enough for me to enter the small, neat single bed motel room before she hastily shut the door behind her and snapped the chain back in place. Every surface was covered with black and white squares, from the sheets to the oversized shower curtain I could see through the crack in the bathroom door. Less than ten seconds inside and I could feel a headache coming on.
Natalie travelled light. Besides her purse on the nightstand and a small brown leather suit case half tucked under the bed there was nothing else around the room to indicate she was living here—which also meant I was right about tonight being my only chance to find her before she was on the run again.
“Okay I’ll admit—you’re not what I expected,” Natalie said tentatively as I glanced around the room.
“Oh? And what exactly did you expect?” I asked.
“I don’t know.” She shrugged, throwing her hands on her hips. “Someone older I guess. Aren’t PI’s usually sketchy middle aged men?”
“Sure,” I said, breaking into a half smile. I was good with sarcastic, maybe getting her to talk to me wouldn’t be difficult after all. “And they all have gruff names like Steele, struggle with drinking problems and speak like they just walked off the set of a seventies gangster movie.”
“Point taken.” Natalie flopped down onto her bed and slid a pack of cigarettes out of her pocket. “You don’t mind, do you?”
I shrugged. “Your room.”
“Thanks, I only started a few days ago and sometimes I forget to ask. So, what exactly do you want?”
Good question. The second I saw her face I knew this wasn’t some form of rebellious acting out. Lying barely beneath the surface of her wary sarcasm was a frightened girl, just a year younger than Claire was before she was taken from me. It was at that moment it clicked why this job was so personal, and I felt a little selfish wanting to help her when a part of me knew I was only doing this because of old memories and cold promises still haunting me. Still, no matter what my motivations were I liked to think I was someone who cared enough to help. I wracked my brain trying to think of something, anything to get her to trust me. Remembering how much Natalie’s own words impacted me I took my phone out my pocket. Scrolling quickly through my media files I found her message to her father. Natalie stiffened at hearing her own brittle voice echoing through the small room, shutting her eyes tightly as the words faded away.
“What I want,” I said, pausing to lean against the door frame. “Is to help.”
Natalie straightened, crushing her half smoked cigarette into the empty astray on the nightstand as she shook her head in resignation. “You can’t help me.”
“You don’t know that, and even if it’s true I’m pretty sure you could use someone to talk to. Even if I’m a stranger, hell maybe because I’m a stranger.”
I don’t know whether it was my words or something else she saw in me, but Natalie nodded after a moment, more to herself than me. “Why not, can’t really get any lower than this. I’m sure by now you’ve spoken to Trent?”
“That psychopath is not my boyfriend,” she hissed. “Not anymore at least. Sure, he seems nice at first, sweet even, but you have no idea just how screwed up he is.”
“Alright, it was an honest mistake.”
“Sorry. You’re right.” She nodded. “Long story short I broke it off with him three months ago, after the second time he cheated on me. Well, Trent didn’t like that one bit. See, after giving him the boot I didn’t hear from him for a few days, so I thought he got the message. Then the phone calls started—sixty or seventy a night, always from payphones and always after midnight. It doesn’t sound bad, I know, but no one has any idea what it’s like to have your phone ring for four hours straight. I ignored them at first, turned off my phone and tried blocking the numbers but that only pissed him off more. So he enrolled to audit my classes. He never spoke to me in public, just watched me from the back of the class and tried calling me later.”
Natalie looked out the window for a moment, taking a shallow breath before she continued. “When that didn’t work it was quiet again for a few days, and I hoped, prayed he had given up. That’s when things started to go missing from my car and apartment. It was little things at first. Books, jewelry—nothing I couldn’t deal with, but then one morning on my way to class I found my car’s tires slashed. He drew broken hearts on the windows with my lipstick. After that . . . well, I kinda snapped.”
“To be fair it sounds like a pretty good reason to. Did you try and talk to the police?”
“I tried. Didn’t do any good.” Natalie looked down at the floor, her jaw setting in a tight line. “They said if I couldn’t prove he did something wrong, then there was nothing they could do until things got worse—as if things weren’t bad enough already. I couldn’t sleep, barely ate, always watching over my shoulder for the creep. Nobody believed me.”
“I believe you, and for what it’s worth I can empathize when it comes to cops and red tape. Trust me.”
“Thanks, it’s kinda nice to hear someone say that.” She smiled weakly. “Even from a stranger.”
I returned her smile, wishing I had more comfort to offer her. “There’s one thing I still don’t understand. I get trying to break away from him, but why keep your father out of the loop?”
Natalie let out a short, bitter laugh. “Are you kidding? My dad loves Trent like the son he never had. I tried talking to him about it, telling him how scared I was and you know what he said to me? ‘Don’t worry about it honey. I’m sure you kids will work this out’.”
“That’s . . . troubling.” And I thought I had family issues.
“I love my dad, but he’s a clueless idiot sometimes,” Natalie shook her head, and there was something fragile about the movement. “So I ran. Probably not the smartest idea in hindsight, but more than anything I just needed to get away. I’m not going to be one of those girls who waits around for her own funeral.”
“No, considering your options it was probably a good idea to take some time away, get some perspective.”
“Yeah, fat lot of good that’s done me. I don’t suppose I could just pay you to beat him to within an inch of his life for me? You look like you could.”
“That’s not going to solve anything. Not with guys like him. Truth is there really isn’t much I can do to help you at this point, but I might know someone who can.” I sighed, smoothing the collar of my jacket before unlocking the door chain. “Give me ten minutes.”
The last thing I wanted to do right now was call the police. I knew better than anyone how easily things got lost in the system, how stuffy all the politics were and how much simpler, and more effective, it would be to remedy the situation with an aluminum baseball bat. Sadly the simple fact was short of me breaking half a dozen laws to get the message through to Trent, the police were the only ones who could help Natalie right now—if they could even help. Okay, that sounded cynical even to me. I still believed in the system, even with all its flaws—I just didn’t want to be a part of it any more.
As I dialed the number I couldn’t help noting the irony in all of this. I left the force because they wouldn’t let me pursue the course I thought was right, keeping me from helping the people I cared about. So I went my own way, and now here I was calling them because at the end of the day I rarely ever got the chance to make a real difference anymore.
“Evening Benjamin, I haven’t heard from you in a while,” Oliver Parker answered after the third ring. I trained with Oliver at the academy, one of the few officers I still knew well enough to call a friend. We didn’t see each other much anymore, but maintaining contacts was the backbone of the industry. He did me favors I couldn’t manage alone, and I helped off the books with anything his hands were tied on. “How’ve you been?”
“Good. Busy, but good. You?”
“Can’t complain really.” He laughed lightly, pausing for a moment. “I take it from the time this isn’t a social call?”
“Sadly no, and to make things worse I need a favor.”
Chapter 2: Idle
Four days later I received an early call from Natalie asking if she could meet up with me. After a late breakfast I hopped in my car and took the short drive to the small building in the downtown business district that housed my office. Nothing particularly grand, but it was affordable and out here I had little in the way of competition.
As I unlocked the steel framed door my hands brushed against the thick glass panels that made up the outer walls of all the offices in the building. The words “Benjamin Hadley, Professional Investigator” were neatly emblazoned across the surface. Even after almost three years I couldn’t help chuckling at how ridiculous it sounded in my head—twenty four seemed far too young to have my own title. The room had a stifling, clinical feel to it that always reminded me more of a solitary office cubical—right down to the back wall lined with a row of filing cabinets that seemed so out of place in the twenty first century. Flitting around the room I turned on the black and silver coffee maker next to my peace fern in the far corner, starting a fresh pot of coffee while waiting for the email program to open on my brand new laptop.
Skimming quickly past the junk mail and miscellaneous messages, I just opened my first work related document when a knock at the door caught my attention.
“Miss White, what brings you to my side of town?” I asked as I opened the door for her, hardly believing how much younger she looked without the rings under her eyes.
“Natalie, please. And I just came to personally hand you dad’s check,” she said. “Well, I also wanted to say thank you for your help, that friend of yours really came through for me.”
“So I heard. Oliver mentioned after receiving the restraining order Trent ran into a spot of trouble.” I grinned. A spot of trouble was a very vague way of saying we may have manipulated a few variables to ensure there was a violation.
“Not much trouble admittedly, and I have no idea how you guys did it, but after everything he put me through it still feels like a win. I can’t stay for long. I just wanted you to know what you did for me made me realize I have to take control. I need to make a clean break, so I’m transferring over to Phoenix next week to finish out my semester.”
“Glad we could be of service.” I nodded, following behind her as she walked towards the door. “You take care of yourself now.”
“Will do,” Natalie said, lingering by the doorway. “If you’re ever in Phoenix and need a favor . . . call me up, okay?”
I chuckled. “It’s unlikely, but I’ll definitely remember that.”
Once back at my desk I took a sip of my coffee, internally congratulating myself for actually doing something useful for once. It was far too often I had to give bad news, and the job I was working on right now was a pretty cut and dry suspicious spouse gig, so it would probably be a while before I got a chance to make someone smile again.
I planned to pay a visit to the hotel of said cheating spouse after I closed up the office in a few hours, and with nothing else to do until then I busied myself with paperwork to kill time. I tried to keep my workspace in impeccable order, never knowing when I might need to revisit old cases or when curiosity called. Fully engrossed in the set of photos I was poring over, the loud knock at my door caught me by surprise. For a second I thought it was Natalie again, but setting the file aside I waved a familiar looking man into my office.
“Good afternoon,” I greeted him politely, struggling to place where I had seen him before. The man was just shorter than my six foot, early forties and well dressed, short salt and pepper hair and a streak of grey running down the middle of his close-cropped beard.
He shook my hand briefly while his dark brown eyes gave me a cursory glance, and I wasn’t quite sure why but something about this man made me instantly dislike him. “So you’re Hadley.”
“That’s me,” I said, gesturing for him to take a seat at my desk. “Can I offer you some coffee, Mr.—”
“—Hyde, and no coffee.”
“Alright, so what can I do for you?”
“Some time ago you did some work for my wife, Susan.” That’s when it hit me. He wasn’t an acquaintance or even a client—a few months ago he was a job, your basic adultery package. This was quickly shaping up to be an interesting day.
“I trust she’s well?” I asked, keeping my expression level. Susan Hyde hired me almost five months ago to catch her philandering husband, a job I completed to her satisfaction.
“Quite well, I’m sure. She’s filed for divorce.” His voice was measured, almost as if he rehearsed the response, but his eyes failed to hide the less than pleased emotions swimming behind them.
“I’m sorry to hear that.” In a way, it was partly true. I was sorry a lovely woman like Susan ended up with the likes of him. “So, how can I help?”
“My lawyer tells me you’re the one who collected all of Susan’s evidence against me. I understand you’ll be presenting what you’ve found in court.”
“Correct.” I nodded, knowing exactly where this conversation was heading.
“I’m a business man, Mr. Hadley, and I’ve done quite well for myself. I married Susan long before my various businesses took off, while she stayed home and did the gardening. Now she’s trying to take all my hard work away from me. So I’m sure you can understand I’m a little . . . frustrated.” His face remained impassive, slipping only at the mention of his wife. Good liar this one, probably been going behind her back for years.
“Divorce is messy business,” I agreed, keeping up my innocent act. The simple truth was I couldn’t care less what his situation was. It’s not like anyone forced him into it.
“So it seems,” he said coolly, “but it doesn’t always have to be that way. I’ve heard facts can get . . . lost along the way.”
Don’t smile. “I don’t believe I follow you?”
“Let’s cut the bullshit shall we? How much is it going to cost me to make this go away?”
“Not how we do business here.” I finally smiled, no longer able to hide my amusement at his lack of guile. What was he expecting me to do anyway, lie under oath in front of a judge?
Your Honor, I’m terribly sorry but I did not take these photographs. My client is clearly delusional. Yeah, no.
“Everyone has a number son. I’m sure I can make it worth your while.”
“I’m not for sale.”
Hyde shot up from his chair, his face becoming flustered as his calm façade melted away. “You’re making a big mistake here.”
“It wouldn’t be the first time,” I kept my tone neutral, not moving from my seat, “and it sure as hell won’t be the last. Now, if there isn’t anything else you need—get out of my office.”
He held my gaze for a long moment, his face flipping through shades of red before he dropped his shoulders. Reaching into his pocket he threw a business card on my desk.
“In case you change your mind,” he called over his shoulder as he walked out the door.
I sat dumbfounded for a moment before shaking my head in disbelief. You meet all kinds in this business. Running my tongue slowly across the back of my teeth I turned back to my work. As tempting as the offer may have been, it wasn’t something I would ever consider. I saw too many people go down that road in my time on the force. Okay sure, I did some questionable things since I became an investigator—some of which were not exactly legal. Part of the reason I found myself in this line of work was my discontent with the way things were handled by the book. So I played by my modified version of the rules, but to me they were ironclad.
After a quick meal at my favorite diner, a great little mom and pop joint on Wilson Street I frequented with my family since I was a kid, I set my sights on the Wicker Hotel. It was still early evening when I pulled up in front of the tall tan and beige building on the corner of Main and Third. If I waited a little longer the odds of my mark being in her room were higher, potentially saving me another trip, so keeping my eye on the clock I passed the time watching the sunset with my sketchpad on my lap.
I never thought of myself as particularly talented, or even an artist at all. Claire had always encouraged me so I pushed myself to keep practicing, though it wasn’t until very recently I decided to pick up the hobby again. It felt good to lose myself in something other than work for once. I ran the stubby piece of charcoal delicately back and forth, gradually adding shading to the street that was forming across the page. I left the outlines of the buildings on the horizon hazy and indistinct, creating the illusion of movement as my hand danced around the paper.
When the light became too dim to see the paper clearly I tossed the half-finished drawing on the backseat and left my car, the cold air battering me as I crossed the double lane street. If everything went according to plan all I would need was the right room number and a bit of luck.
I had been in this hotel before, not the biggest in the city but it had a good reputation. The dark wood paneled burgundy walls reminded me of a little hotel I visited on vacation with my father and little sister many years ago. A woman sat behind a large carved wooden desk delicately lined with light marble strips. She nodded politely as I walked past her to the elevators. I rocked back and forth on my heels as I rode the elevator to the second floor, and I was almost halfway down the corridor to my mark’s room when my phone rang. I couldn’t help smiling as I answered.
“Jen, bad timing as always.”
“How are you Benjamin?” I knew I was in trouble when she didn’t call me Ben. Jennifer was my best friend, and I practically considered her extended family since high school.
“I’m actually a little busy right now,” I replied quickly, lowering my voice as an elderly couple walked past me.
“I’ll make this quick then. Your presence has been missed, and that’s getting to be very annoying. You can’t keep dodging me forever—I know where you live.”
“I know it’s been a while. Work’s been keeping me really busy these days.”
“No excuses,” she chided, mustering her best authoritative voice.
“Alright, alright, I’ll make it up to you. Drinks, this Saturday? I’ll invite Eric too.”
“Don’t be late again.”
“Yes ma’am!” Ten minutes late one time, and she never forgets.
Keeping my phone in my hand I walked down the hall to the room my client’s credit card was paying for, and took a deep breath before knocking. Show time. I heard faint footsteps behind the door, followed by the click of a lock as the door swung open. A tall thirty something woman stood beside the doorway, her black pixie cut a stark contrast against her pale skin.
“Can I help you?”
“Good evening. Is Mr. Tanner here yet?” I lied smoothly, feigning mild surprise at her presence. Playing the role of someone else was definitely one of the highlights of the job.
“Tanner?” She frowned. “I think you have the wrong room.”
“Who is it?” A man’s voice called from inside a second before he came to stand beside the woman, freshly showered and wearing a bathrobe.
I frowned too, swiveling my head around to look at the door number. “My apologies, it seems I have the wrong room. Please enjoy the rest of your evening.”
“No problem.” She shrugged, closing the door behind me as I turned to leave.
After all the time spent looking for Natalie this felt almost too easy. Walking down the corridor at a leisurely pace I stepped into the elevator, waiting for the doors to close before checking the photos of the happy couple I stealthily took on my phone.
I spent most of Saturday finishing up all the paperwork I neglected during the week. My stash of chocolate marshmallows was running dangerously low, a guilty pleasure I picked up from my sister, so on my way home I picked up a few things from the convenience store across from my office. My apartment was on the outskirts of the business district, directly under the shadow of the Brampton tower. The family home was gifted to me by my father after he left my sister and me to make the permanent move to Mexico with his new wife. It was something he longed to do all his life. Other than the holidays we only spoke briefly a few times a year.
To call the home I grew up in small would be grossly overselling the humble two bedroom apartment that despite my best efforts I had come to cherish. It felt like weeks since I left this morning, and the off-white walls I had been meaning to repaint seemed oddly comforting after my long day. The front door opened into a rectangular room, taken up equally by my tiny kitchen and the loose grouping of pale green couches, rickety wooden coffee table and TV I called the lounge. Unframed charcoal drawings I created in high school hung between the eclectic mix of paintings Claire masterminded when she still lived here. My favorite hung next to the door, a small bright acrylic of a young smiling woman streaming ribbons behind her as she danced across a dim subway station.
The rest of my apartment was split between the modest master bedroom, the spare bedroom I converted into a makeshift office and the closet sized bathroom between them. Apart from the thumb sized mouse that took up residence a few years ago I had lived alone for the past three years. After I made the mistake of leaving a cracker out one night he gradually grew tame, and seeing as how he never seemed to make a mess I named him Hansel and considered him a free roaming pet.
My room was in the same disarray I left it in this morning. Clothes were strewn across the floor, mirroring the tangled mass of royal blue sheets on my unmade bed. I dragged my laundry basket into the room and dutifully started my daily hunt for stray clothing. The rest of the room was occupied by the nightstand next to the bed, a modest antique wooden dresser and a wall cupboard with one door that refused to close all the way.
When Claire was taken from me three years ago I moved all the personal effects that her mother left me into two boxes in my office cupboard. Still, there were a few things of hers I kept around the apartment. Like the porcelain reading lamp by my bedside she gave me for my birthday and her grandmother’s pear-inlaid music box that lay silent on the dresser.
Once the room vaguely resembled something livable I pulled a set of weights out the cupboard and cycled through my brisk workout. Part maintenance, part ritual, the sessions were the perfect way to unwind after a long day. I felt the tension roll slowly off my body with every exertion of my muscles, and before long I was covered in a fresh sheen of sweat. Pausing only to peel off my shirt and toss it in along with the rest of the laundry I shuffled off to my tiny bathroom. My shower’s pipes groaned softly as the water coursed through them, taking far too long to warm for my liking.
After brushing my teeth I peered into the mirror above my basin, idly contemplating whether the man in the mirror needed a shave. Short stubble ran across his strong jawline, a shade darker than his dirty-blond hair. Even wet the fringe refused to fall flat, stubbornly holding its naturally disordered peak. Brilliant emerald green eyes stared mischievously back at me, the flecks of gold strewn across them easily visible in the dim light. His sharp nose was just noticeably crooked when I turned my head from side to side—a football injury that never healed correctly. My hand glided roughly across my jaw from ear to ear before I shrugged and closed the door behind me to change. Digging through my cupboard I produced a white T-shirt, comfortable jeans and my favorite pair of black leather shoes, my work persona slipping off effortlessly as I dressed.
Not wanting to prove Jennifer right I left for the bar a few minutes early. Mandy’s was a popular spot on this side of town, and my friends and I came here on the weekends since it opened a few years back. The parking lot was just beginning to fill when I arrived, and as I walked through the large wooden double doors on my way to our regular booth I was reminded why I liked Mandy’s so much. There seemed to be no consistent theme to the dive, a quality that perfectly reflected its patrons. Any mix of college kids, bikers, middle aged couples, and anyone in between could come inside and feel welcome here.
“Ben!” Jennifer squealed before I could reach the table, grasping me in a bear hug. She was practically bouncing with excitement, her warm caramel hair tied back in a sloppy pony tail that along with her glasses gave her the appearance of a spunky librarian.
I rolled my eyes, returning her hug warmly. Her bubbling enthusiasm was infectious. “It’s good to see you too, Jen.”
“Hey Eric,” I said, shaking his hand when Jennifer finally released me. “How you been?”
“Good, good,” he said absently, his hazel eyes glued to the pretty blond that entered the bar behind me. Eric was dark haired, always overdressed and a year older than Jennifer and I, though from his usual behavior sometimes it felt like he was still in high school.
“So what’s new?” I asked after ordering a beer.
Jennifer smirked, her distinctly Boston accent coming through in her excitement. “My boss just got canned.”
Eric chuckled. “Got one too many harassment complaints?”
“Oh, I have some theories. But who cares really, he’s gone.”
“Gunning for the job Jen?” I asked curiously.
“That little tart Paige will get it. I have no doubt about it.” She pouted. “What about you Ben?”
“Just work, the usual,” I said.
“Anything juicy?” Eric asked, his attention shifting back to me. After the initial shock my friends had when they heard about my career change Jennifer took on the supportive role, while Eric thought it was the coolest thing to ever happen to our group. I think in Eric’s mind a PI was somehow more debonair than pulling the graveyard shift at the precinct. It really wasn’t.
“Nothing scandalous,” I remarked, knowing Eric wouldn’t buy it. “It’s been a pretty dull month all in all.”
“How can you have the most interesting job at the table, and nothing to show for it?” Jennifer quipped.
“Yeah mate, all this work and never any play. When did you become so boring?”
“The most interesting? With all the gossip you always seem to have Jen, I highly doubt that’s true,” I countered before turning to Eric, “and not everyone has the luxury of ‘working’ for daddy dearest. The rest of us mere mortals reside within the confines of the real world.”
“He’s got you there.” Jennifer laughed.
Eric shook his head sadly. “You know what your problem is?”
“You need to get laid,” Jennifer and I both said in unison before rolling our eyes. When in doubt, deny everything. Never wake up before ten. Eric’s solution to just about any problem usually came in the form of these five word quips.
“I still say you’re no fun lately. At least I could count on you as a wingman when you were still in uniform,” Eric persisted.
If I didn’t do something to prove him wrong, and quickly, we could be stuck on this topic all night, so I settled for something flashier than usual.
“Okay,” I said, slipping on my best poker face. “See the blond by the bar, the one you were staring at earlier? A hundred says I can get her number without saying one word to her.”
“I wouldn’t make that bet if I were you,” Jennifer warned him.
Eric looked over at her for a moment before turning back to me and smiled. “I’ll pay a hundred just to see him do it. You’re on.”
Winking at Jennifer I got up from the table and walked up to the bar, hanging on the edge of a crowd ordering drinks as I waited for my opening. A few minutes later I got my chance when the blond stood up and headed in the direction of the bathroom. Wasting no time I slipped into the gap beside the friend she arrived with.
“Excuse me, miss?”
“Err, hi,” the tall brunette said warily, no doubt expecting me to start hitting on her.
“I’m really sorry to bother you with this, but I’m trying to prove a point,” I said as politely as I could, turning to face the table where Jennifer and Eric were watching intently. “See, my girlfriend over there doesn’t believe people are friendly anymore. If it’s not too much trouble, could I please borrow your phone for a moment to call her number and prove her wrong?”
I chose my lines carefully, making it difficult for her to deny my request without feeling like she was the bad guy. She bit her lip for a moment before she nodded. “Sure.”
“Thank you so much.” I smiled as she handed me her phone. “By the way, your friend looks very familiar. Any chance she went to UMass?”
“She did,” the brunette replied. “How do you know Amy?”
I didn’t—but I did recognize the emblem on the scarf she was wearing. “We had some classes together.”
“She will be back in a minute or two, I’m sure she would love to catch up.”
While we continued to chat about her friend who I didn’t know I kept my hand under the counter and opened the contacts list on her phone, scrolling down to Amy. When I was sure I had the number memorized I called Jennifer. Afterwards I thanked the girl for letting me use her phone before heading back to the table, just in time to see Amy leaving the bathroom. Ignoring my friends’ skeptical looks I slipped my phone out of my pocket and pointed in Amy’s direction as I dialed the number.
“No bloody way,” Eric groaned as she opened her handbag and answered the phone.
We spent the next two hours eating greasy bar food that I made Eric pay for, chatting non-stop as we caught up on each other’s lives. The music turned up a little later, signaling the opening of the small dance floor in the middle of the room. The tables around us began to empty, and a riot of color flashed around the bar as people began to twirl under the shifting lights. Eric was the first of us to head out for the night, eager to meet up with an old flame that was back in town for the week. He was barely out the door when Jennifer pounced.
“Why do I get the feeling this will be trouble?”
“No doubt, but Eric seems to be enjoying himself. Let him have his fun,” I said, waving her off as her glare turned to daggers.
She sighed theatrically. “It’s usually you I have to worry about. I’m starting to feel like the parent of the two of you.”
“Oh I’m sure you’re just buckling under the pressure.” I chuckled. “Please Jen, like you’d have it any other way.”
“Okay, true,” she agreed, beaming for a moment before her expression turned somber. “How’s Lisa?”
“She’s about the same really.” I sighed, pushing around my empty plate. Jennifer was the only one besides me who still visited my sister. “I’m heading over there tomorrow.”
“You’ll say hi for me?”
“I always do.”
“I’m just glad to get you out, whenever I call you’re working.” She paused for a moment, her voice dripping with concern. “It’s been a while since I asked, but how are you, really?”
I kept my gaze level with hers, trying my best to convey that I didn’t need to be coddled. “I’m good Jen, really.”
“Alright. I’ll get the next round,” she said hesitantly before stalking off to the bar, knowing me well enough to see I wasn’t in the mood for where the conversation was heading.
The last thing I wanted to do tonight was to think about Claire, but now thanks to Jen she was at the forefront of my mind. I knew it wasn’t really Jennifer’s fault though, like any good friend she was just trying to be there for me. The truth was it was almost three years since Claire died, and I still hadn’t gone a day without thinking about her. It was inevitable, inescapable. Not that I wanted to forget—my obsession with the circumstances of her death bordered on the fanatical, but sometimes I wished after all this time I wouldn’t remember everything so damn vividly. I was eternally grateful for Jennifer and my sister for getting me through the first weeks and months, helping to ease the pain and curbing my anger before I came to a healthier place in my mind. We grew a lot closer as a result of our shared grief, but as time marched on Jennifer became far too protective of me. Though I was glad that never stopped her from chewing me out whenever I needed it.
“I can’t believe they call this music,” Jen said as she returned a moment later with a drink in each hand, her earlier concern filed away.
I grinned as my glass clinked against hers. “I couldn’t agree more.”
“You’re still coming to Eric’s party next weekend right?” Jennifer asked as I walked her out.
“Wouldn’t dream of missing it,” I promised. When we got to her car I handed her one of the sodas I bought for the drive home.
“I take it you won’t be bringing a date?”
I laughed dryly. “Not that I’m aware of.”
“Not to sound like a hypocrite, but you really should.”
“Sure. Anything’s possible, though I wouldn’t hold my breath.”
“I won’t, I know you too well. I’ll see you soon, okay?”
“Of course,” I answered, hugging her tightly. “Drive safe.”
I waved to Jennifer as she backed out of the lot, smiling at how cautious she was behind the wheel. I fished around my inside pocket for my keys on the way to my car, and when I looked up my entire body stiffened as I realized my mistake.
Chapter 3: Blood
The figures slithered from the shadows behind me, their heavy footfalls echoing across the empty parking lot. I slowly turned, cursing under my breath as I assessed the situation. Three men stood in a loose grouping. The closest was stocky and heavily tanned, undoubtedly the one in charge. On the right was a tall and wiry man, younger than the others and sporting an expression of absolute boredom. Larger than the other two, the third man could only be described as a slab of unshaped muscle—and they were all here for me. I had no idea what trouble I just walked myself into, but whatever it was I didn’t like the odds.
Somewhere in the back of my mind I wondered why I even bothered getting a permit to carry my .357 when it never left the safe in my bedroom. The threat of a loaded gun would’ve quickly dissolved any ill intentions. They wore open smirks, letting the silence settle in before the stocky man stepped out in front of the others.
“We have a message from Hyde.”
Dammit. I should’ve guessed that slimy philanderer wouldn’t take no for an answer. Unfortunately for me, he also seemed to have more money than sense.
“Message received, you can leave now,” I said slowly, trying to stall for more time as I rattled my brain for a way out of this mess. There was little chance I could make it into my car, not easily enough, and no way to get around the wall of flesh. Then the thought of running all but evaporated as my hand brushed over the outside of my jacket pocket. They inched closer, trying to corner me between the parked cars. I wasn’t about to give them the opportunity.
I wrenched the unopened soda can free from my pocket and whipped it at the closest man’s head. Not pausing to see if my improvised projectile landed I slipped through the gap their surprise created, lunging at the spindly man on my right. Reacting just in time he threw his hands up defensively and I diverted low, ramming his legs out from under him. I tried to right myself as he fell, but I couldn’t recover quickly enough. A solid blow caught me between my ribs and I cringed in pain, desperately ducking the wild swing that followed it. I kicked down hard at the man on the floor as I backed away, trying to put distance between me and the thickset man beside me.
At the same time he began charging towards me I flung my body to the side, and as he slipped past I added my weight to his momentum and pushed him into the wall. A sharp pain flashed up my leg where the stocky man kicked out, and it buckled. Scrambling as I dropped, my hands latched onto the front of a nearby car to break my fall, and I struggled to right myself in time to face the meaty fist connecting squarely against my jaw.
And then they were on me.
Blows began to rain down over my body wherever they found purchase. I was forced against the hood of a car, keeping my hands up as best I could in an effort to protect my head. My limbs became sluggish and unresponsive as my strength started to wane, and I could taste warm blood sloshing around my mouth. Throughout the punishment an image of my lil’ sis flooded into my mind. The only thing keeping me conscious was my concern for what would happen to her if I was gone. I was about to let the only person in the world who needed me down.
My vision had just begun to blur when an awful tearing sound behind the men caught their attention, loud enough that it all but halted the systematic beating. Uncounted heartbeats passed as the men stood unmoving, and then to my disbelief the stocky man caught the other’s collar and they broke away running.
Unable to keep my eyes open a moment longer I sagged against the car. I wasn’t sure how much time passed as I lay unmoving, listening to the sweet sound of their retreating footsteps. Blood pounded behind my ears as I drew a ragged breath, then my adrenaline level reached new heights as the sound of lighter footsteps floated towards me and I realized I wasn’t alone.
“Are you alright?” a sweet, near-panicked feminine voice asked over me, so wildly out of place that at first I thought I imagined it.
Something brushed over me, and the ache pulsing across my body became a light tickle compared to the new burning stab of torment that lashed out across my right shoulder— by far the most painful thing I endured in living memory. My skull rattled as I bit back a howl. Then a second passed and the agonizing flash dimmed to a throbbing ache as quickly as it appeared. I panted heavily, cringing for a long moment before I managed to ease my eyes open.
“What—” I began, but the woman that filled my field of vision was so stunning the question died in my throat. She stood over me, arms crossed and motionless, her long raven black hair flowing loosely across her shoulders hiding the alabaster skin of her slender neck. The moonlight and my throbbing head worked in tandem to mask her features, though she seemed to be frowning.
“You can relax now,” she answered mechanically, her aloof expression not shifting an inch. I slowly pushed myself upright, my body protesting with effort.
“What happened?” I asked, still shaken. Just to be sure we were alone I craned my neck around the parking lot, searching for any sign of my attackers. It seemed all that remained of them was the prone form of the spindly man lying next to my car.
“I saw them run off,” she replied stiffly, turning towards the man on the floor. “This one is just injured.”
“Thank you,” I said. That was all my brain could manage as she turned back to me. Far from imposing, her lovely, lithe frame barely made it to my shoulder, but though I couldn’t fathom why, somehow I just knew she had something to do with the men’s sudden disappearance.
“There is nothing to thank me for.” She scowled, her steely expression marred by the trace of doubt I heard in her voice. Wow, that hit a nerve. Closing her eyes she took a deep, drawn out breath. I watched her shoulders rise and fall, so graceful it left me dazed again.
“Sorry, I thought you . . . never mind,” I mumbled, rising slowly to my feet. As I brushed my hand along the shiny surface of the car I was forced on, I was surprised to see it remained largely unscathed. I only wish that I could say the same about my bloodstained shirt.
Her voice was calmer when she spoke, eyeing me cautiously. “You should get to a hospital.”
Eyes tightening, she nodded distractedly. My fingers cramped awkwardly as I struggled with the zip on my jacket pocket for my phone. Carefully, one tiny motion at a time, I slowly scrolled through my contacts.
“What are you doing?” she asked.
“I’m calling the police.”
My head jerked up in confusion at her pleading tone, only then realizing she was standing right beside me. Close enough for the first time to see her eyes clearly, an audible gasp escaped my lips. Her irises were a brilliant midnight black, no distinction between them and her pupils. My body froze reflexively, unable to break my gaze from her unfathomable expression. After a moment I shook my head, unsure if it was a trick of the light or just my imagination.
“It is hardly necessary,” she answered coldly, taking a measured step back that finally broke my trance. Strange—why wouldn’t I call them? It’s not like any of this was my fault. Perhaps she knew them? Glancing over my shoulder to the man on the ground that just attacked me I pushed aside all the thoughts bouncing wildly around my head, focusing my priorities.
“I don’t have a choice.” The words tumbled through my gritted teeth, harsher than I intended.
When no reply came I turned back to the woman who no longer occupied the empty space behind me. Panning my head across the parking lot I saw no sign of her. How did she—
“—Police Department.” I almost jumped, the calm voice at the other end of the line reminding me that I already dialed the number.
I slowly let out a breath. “I need to report an assault.”
The lone police car crept into Mandy’s parking lot ten minutes later, thankfully without sirens on, and a familiar frowning face greeted me as he climbed out of the car. “Hadley.”
“Evening Parker,” I said, nodding casually to the approaching policeman and immediately regretted the movement. The muscles in my neck had begun to tighten up in the cold air. “Keeping tabs on me?”
“Closest unit,” Oliver shrugged, motioning to his partner. “This fresh blood here is Officer Kelly.”
“So what do we have here?” Kelly asked gruffly, shining his torch over the now conscious man firmly pinned under my boot.
I spent the next thirty minutes hammering out the details of the night’s events in as much detail as I could recall, mostly to Parker while his partner secured and Mirandized the spindly man. The only time my version of the events came into question was when I mentioned the other two making a run for it. Parker’s eyebrow rose skeptically after I finished my story.
“You know, if anyone else told me this, I’d probably have them in handcuffs right now.”
“Is that professional courtesy, or trust I hear?”
“Let’s say a little of both. Know why they took off?” he asked, his puzzled expression confirming I wasn’t the only one who found it odd.
“Maybe they knew her,” I offered my earlier thought, the only plausible theory I had come up with so far.
“Maybe,” Parker allowed, nodding absently. “When we get this one talking, we’ll be sure to ask him.”
“What about Hyde? I wouldn’t have gone through all this trouble if he is just going to walk away from this.”
“We’ll talk to him in the morning, assuming your story holds up.”
Good, if nothing else at least I’d make Hyde sweat. “You need anything else from me?”
“You know the drill, can’t tell you anything else until we’ve interviewed him,” he answered, nodding over to the man being loaded into the car before lowering his voice. “Between you and me, it looks like you put up quite a fight.”
I laughed humorlessly. “Feels like I got far more than I gave.”
“True, you’re a mess. I’ll take you home.” The look on Parker’s face brooked no argument, but after the adrenaline wore off and my injuries made themselves known it didn’t sound like a bad idea.
It was only after I was back in my apartment that I realized the flaw in accepting a ride home. With Eric working every Sunday, the only person I could call for a lift back to my car was Jennifer. When she found out about this she would go nuclear. I planned on taking a shower when I got home, but the flights of stairs up to my floor had taxed the last of my strength and I barely made it to the couch before my leg seized up. I took a moment to catch my breath, having to drag the useless limb onto the couch with both hands. My body felt like a churning war zone. Everything around me was murky, like I was peering through dirty water. With some effort I closed my swollen right eye, and the last thing I remembered was trying to concentrate on slowing my breathing to take my mind off the pain.
I woke after eleven, still fully clothed, not having moved an inch from the spot on the couch I fell asleep on. I usually slept restlessly, flinging the sheets around as I tossed and turned. Last night flew by so quickly that I struggled to recall the finer details. Wishing dearly that I didn’t have to leave the couch I got up slowly and hobbled to the bathroom, trying to keep the weight off my throbbing leg. Undressing was a daunting prospect, but hot water would help to soothe my stiff muscles. Dirt and dried blood washed away as I worked a sponge lightly across every inch of my body.
My chest was covered in splotchy bruises in various stages of discoloration. Small scrapes and cuts crisscrossed my arms and knuckles that stung when the soap washed over them. Feeling like a new person after stepping out of the shower I dried myself gently before examining the rest of my injuries in the mirror. A small gash ran along my eyebrow that started to bleed again. The swelling had gone down enough that the scrape no longer interfered with my vision, but it would probably leave a jagged scar. I shook my head sadly—another to add to the collection. At least the majority of damage was superficial, most of the bruising and cuts would heal soon enough.
The only injury I couldn’t wrap my head around was the bizarre mark on my still tender shoulder. Scanning through last night’s events over and over again nothing seemed to explain the patch of ruined, itchy flesh, nor the blinding pain I felt when I received it. It looked almost like a scratch from a large cat, the long lines of irritated red skin thicker than a pencil. The wound had raised edges, but the skin looked unbroken and there was no blood. Almost like a burn.
Closer now to lunch than breakfast I tossed a handful of mini pizzas into the oven. I worked on washing the few dishes that had piled up, cowardly avoiding my call to Jennifer for as long as I could. I retrieved two painkillers from the bag of first aid supplies just as Hansel scurried out from behind the fridge, his beady eyes following me around the room.
“Wish me luck,” I said as I tossed him a crumb, and grimacing internally I called Jen.
When the line disconnected I calculated that I had roughly thirty minutes before the yelling started, and I cherished the short lived silence on the couch while the painkillers kicked in.
“What the hell happened?” Jennifer growled the second I closed the door behind her, and grabbing my face in her hand before I could reply she began a thorough examination. Her horrified expression would have me laughing uncontrollably if I didn’t know it would only make her angrier.
“It’s nice to see you too,” I mumbled, the words sounding baby-like between my squashed lips. Scowling, she released my face so I could speak. “Relax Jen. It looks much worse than it is.”
“What happened,” she repeated, ignoring my attempt to downplay my injuries.
Grinning sheepishly I recounted last night’s events to Jennifer while I made us each a cup of coffee, leaving out as much detail as I could get away with.
“How do you get yourself into these messes?” she complained, her eyes lingering over the cut on my face.
“Hey, it’s not like I planned any of this.”
“I know Ben. I just hate seeing you like this.” She shuddered. I couldn’t blame her for overreacting, it wasn’t the first time she had seen me battered and bruised.
“Sorry for taking up your afternoon, hope I didn’t ruin any of your plans?” I asked as casually as I could, desperately trying to change the subject.
“Don’t worry about it,” Jennifer said, smiling for the first time since she walked in. “I’ll just add it to the list of favors you owe me.”
“Sounds fair,” I nodded readily, more than glad to have the inquisition over.
“You still plan on visiting Lisa?”
“Honestly, it slipped my mind.” Realizing what I must look like I exhaled sharply, wincing from the sudden movement. “I’m afraid that seeing me like this will give her nightmares.”
“You want me to go with you?” Jennifer asked innocently, though I suspected it had more to do with her thoughts on my ability to drive than as moral support.
Still, I wouldn’t mind the company. “She’d like that.”
“Well then we better get a move on before we miss visiting hours, we’ll have to pick up your car on the way back.” She grabbed her handbag from the kitchen counter and was halfway out the door before I managed to get up.
“Let me just grab my jacket,” I grumbled quietly. Keeping up with her energetic stride was going to be a problem.
The Patrick Fords Psychiatric Institute lay eleven miles outside the city borders, tucked away inside a small valley just off the main road towards Boston. The drive only took about half an hour, but to me even this short a distance away from home felt like another world altogether. Lisa was just seventeen when the first symptoms of her condition started to show. That was almost four years ago now. She would miss weeks of school at a time while my father kept her at home, and eventually as things progressed she was forced to drop out altogether. With my father working during the day and my crappy hours at the precinct we made the decision to move her here to get the best treatment she could.
It was a small facility, housing less than fifty non-violent patients at a time, yet it still left me feeling uneasy every time I looked up at the tiny barred windows of the un-plastered brick building. I visited my sister at least twice a month to make sure she was well treated and comfortable, company was good for her. My father would’ve never been able to afford this place on his retirement fund, but I wasn’t going to let my sister go to a state facility, so a large portion of my income went towards paying her medical bills every month.
Jennifer came to visit with me a few times a year, and she knew the way around the paved walkway to the entrance as well as I did. The old varnished oak doors led into a small waiting room, occupied by a few dark couches and a middle aged nurse behind the smooth counter top who smiled as we approached.
“Afternoon,” she said, looking up curiously at the tape and bruising around my eye. “I’ll have Carl take you through to her.”
Jennifer and I took a seat while we waited for the orderly to arrive. She shuffled her feet around anxiously, never having gotten truly comfortable with coming here. Lisa and Jen were good friends once, and it hurt her to see my sister so . . . changed. I patted her shoulder encouragingly, and her cheeks glowed briefly as she tried putting on a brave expression.
We followed Carl the orderly through a heavy iron gate into the left wing of the building, working our way down a long corridor filled with small rooms on either side. The off-yellow walls were bare down the entire length, broken only by the wooden frames of the numbered doorways. My nostrils always burned from the smell of fresh bleach and ammonia. Carl slowed to a stop near the end of the hallway at number eleven, nodding to us as we reached the door.
“Yell if you need anything,” he said sternly before walking back along the way we came.
The room itself was little more than a cell. Lisa’s padded bed was secured against the wall, covered with a thick gray blanket. A small metal desk with rounded corners sat across from the bed, along with an empty plastic folding chair and a waist high cabinet that housed all her clothing. The room was devoid of all color, like the very paint on the walls were stripped of its joy—its soul. Yet Lisa never once complained. She was the strongest person I had ever known, even after she was doomed to this half-life.
My sister sat curled up in the other plastic chair, looking out of the barred window. Her hair was cut recently to just above her hunched shoulders, a lighter shade of blond than mine. She hummed a slow, lovely tune I didn’t recognize, bobbing her head along to the wordless rhythm.
“Lisa,” I said soothingly, not stepping closer in case I frightened her. The humming stopped when I spoke, but her head continued to sway gently.
“Rabbit,” my sister replied softly. She started calling me rabbit after I read The Tale of Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter to her as a child before bed. I couldn’t remember the last time she called me by any other name.
She always recognized my voice, even on her worst days. I walked around the bed to her side as she uncurled her hands from around her knees and slowly stood, barely an inch shorter than my height. Her baby blue eyes stared at me for a long moment before holding out both her hands, palms up. I took her hands in mine and squeezed gently. She seemed fairly lucid today. Her heart-shaped face was filled with warmth and wonder, sweet and innocent like a child’s, which made her sad smile that much more painful to witness.
“How are you, lil’ sis?” I asked warily.
“Kay.” Tugging on my hands she gestured to my chest. “Missed you.”
“I missed you too kiddo. Look—Jen’s here with me.” I kept my hand in hers as I turned to Jennifer still standing in the doorway.
“Hello Lisa.” Jennifer waved, and I felt Lisa’s hand grip mine tighter as her eyes dropped to the floor. Lisa was easily frightened, never looking into anyone’s eyes but mine, and even that was difficult for her at times.
“Hi,” Lisa squeaked meekly. I shot Jennifer an apologetic shrug, mouthing ‘she’s shy today’ as I led Lisa back to her chair. I took a seat on the bed next to her while Jennifer quietly crept up to the second chair. Lisa was staring out the window again, always watching something I could never seem to see.
Her expression was vacant as she spoke, frowning up at the clouds. “I dreamed you went away, away. I was so scared.”
“I’ll always be here,” I said reassuringly, “you know that.”
“Rabbit always keeps his promises,” she crooned to herself. It was heartbreaking seeing my beautiful sister reduced to this. Once so kind and full of life, what had she ever done to deserve this?
“Everyone treating you well?”
“I share my candies with José. They won’t let me visit you.” She scrunched her face, looking like she had just taken a bite out of a lemon.
“We’ve talked about this,” I said, running my tongue against my teeth as I tried to find the right words. “You can’t come and see me yet, that’s why I visit you. Remember?”
“I want to see the planes again,” Lisa said, stamping her foot lightly against the floor. Her favorite place in the world was an airport. Lisa wanted to become a pilot for as long as I could remember.
“I know you do. I’ll take you as soon as you’re a little better.” My voice cracked on the last word, a necessary little lie I hated telling her. The fact of the matter was she probably wasn’t ever going to get better, but I told her the lie anyway. What kind of man would I be if I didn’t give her hope? Man . . . no, around my sister I still felt like a boy. She was fragile, so for now the brief outings I took her on were almost always confined within the city limits.
“Kay.” She nodded. Her easy acceptance of my half answers always left a vile taste in my mouth.
An hour crept past as we sat together, not speaking for minutes at a time. I don’t think she truly grasped how long she was in this place for—time seemed to pass differently to her than the rest of us. Despite the heavy regimen of medication she was on, Lisa drifted in and out of reality sporadically, never truly present. When she wasn’t staring out the window her eyes danced about the room, watching the hollow phantoms her mind created.
She turned to me during another round of silence, her face lighting up as her expression became expectant. “Did you bring me splooshes?”
“Have I ever forgotten?” I asked, not the least bit surprised it took her this long to remember.
She seemed lost for a moment, deep in thought as she mulled over my words. Reaching into my pocket before she could reply I produced a folded square of bubble wrap and handed it to her with a grin. She squealed something unintelligible as she stroked the plastic, carefully popping a single bubble. Seeing her joy at something so simple was all the reason I needed to love her, all the reason I needed to protect her. She was my rock when I needed reassurance and I made sure she was never alone, but it still killed me that there was nothing more I could do for her as she wilted away behind these empty walls.
“It’s getting late,” Jennifer spoke softly.
A quick glance at my watch told me it was far later than I realized. “True. Lisa, I need to go now.”
She looked away from the window with an anxious expression, the bubble wrap clutched tightly between her fingers. “Are you coming back?”
“Of course,” I said, hugging her tenderly. “Don’t you worry, lil’ sis.”
“It was nice to see you Lisa.” Jennifer smiled at her warmly. Lisa responded by looking down at the floor and nodding awkwardly.
“See you soon.” I said before kissing her forehead. My sister’s hands were outstretched, grasping the empty air as I closed the door behind me.
“She looked better today,” Jennifer said encouragingly as we drove down the narrow pathway to the main road.
“Yeah,” I acknowledged, not sharing her enthusiasm. While I should be glad my sister was happy for the moment, I knew the bad days still outnumbered the good.
“At least she didn’t seem to notice how messed up you looked.”
“Small victories.” I nodded. The last thing she needed was to have to worry about me. “Hey, thanks for coming.”
“Anytime,” she said cheerfully.
The edges of the city appeared over the horizon as we rounded a wide corner. “We’ll be home soon, want to stop for a bite? My treat.”
“I could go for some chowder,” Jennifer answered, beaming.
I chuckled. “Like you’re ever not in the mood for chowder.”