See part 1 for disclaimers.
The Invitation, part 3
The Seaburgh House of Worship occupied what had once been the Seaburgh Cinema. It was an old style movie house, with a large marquee that jutted out in a point, ensuring that the featured films could be seen as you walked up the sidewalk from either direction. Keira looked up at the black plastic letters that now announced the church with the message "All denominations welcome."
"But we like fifties and hundreds best." Keira joked to herself as she looked up at the marquee. She disliked organized religion, though she'd never really been exposed to it. She had a brush with Catholicism, courtesy of Fiona and the O'Reilly's, but she just didn't see the appeal.
Still, she needed to be on her best behavior now. She was going to meet the priest or pastor or padre or whatever the hell he called himself. She needed to push all thoughts of Jimmy Swaggart and Jim Bakker out of her mind.
Her invitation to the church had come courtesy of Oliver. The strange boy had visited her on several occasions over the course of the summer. Though she couldn't offer him his Linux classes, he had attended a class on html and had ended up teaching her a bunch of new tricks. She was getting used to his quirkiness and discovered a sharp sense of humor that he let out once in a while. When she laughed at his jokes, he would smile shyly, seeming more his age.
The day before, he'd arrived in her shop soundlessly as usual and seemed to have something on his mind. He avoided whatever it was through some general chitchat, and then finally blurted it out.
"My father would like to meet you and he has a job he'd like you to consider and provide an estimate if you're interested."
Keira had raised an eyebrow. Oliver had never mentioned parents, and she'd assumed he was an orphan being raised by his uncle and grandmother whom he talked about regularly.
"OK," she replied hesitantly. "I assume we're talking about something related to computers?"
"Yes," Oliver nodded. His eyes darted away from her gaze. "He runs the Seaburgh House of Worship. His hardware is hopelessly outdated. He needs new equipment, some specialty software installed, and he's thinking of setting up a small network." He waved his hand in the air, as if dismissing any further details. "He can explain it all to you. He wondered if tomorrow would be convenient. Around three in the afternoon?"
The next day was Sunday. Keira had assumed the habit of the rest of the town, not opening her shop on that day. She had nothing planned.
"Sure, that would be fine. Tell your dad I'll be there."
Oliver still didn't meet her gaze.
"I'll tell him," he said with a nod, and then turned quickly and exited the shop without a backward glance.
So here she was, standing in front of the theater-church.
"And are you going to stand here all day?" she asked herself.
She decided that neither standing there all day nor talking to herself was a very good idea, so she approached a glass door on the far right, next to the ticket booth. It was unlocked, and as she swung it open, the stale smell of dust and old popcorn tickled her nose.
She stood in the lobby and looked around. It was gloomy inside, and she realized the weak light was due to a dark coating that had been placed on the theater's glass front doors, keeping out the bright afternoon sunlight. The lobby still looked like a movie theater lobby the candy booth, though empty of food, stood front and center. The carpet was red with gold fleur de lis, but it was tattered and worn. In a few places, by the stairs and the front of the candy counter, duct tape covered obvious tears. The walls were in bad shape too, the gold wallpaper bubbled in a few places and in others, water and mildew left strange outlines. Chipped and crumbling plaster columns and molding completed the look of a once fine palace crumbling into its final rotting ruin.
"Welcome to my home." The voice echoed through the empty lobby and Keira started, looking around to find no one in the room with her. She heard a squeak to her left and looked quickly in that direction, peering up the staircase that led to the theater's balcony.
Her first glance startled her more than the sudden greeting. It appeared as if disembodied legs were walking down the stairs toward her. Then she realized the illusion was caused by a shaft of feeble light hitting the legs of someone who had descended only halfway down the staircase.
"Mr. Ager?" Keira peered at the man on the stairs, waiting for him to come further into the light, but he stood still. She could see a white hand tightly grasping the banister.
"Yes, Ms. Sterling." Still he didn't move. "Please come up to my office."
She raised an eyebrow, wondering why he couldn't finish walking down a few more stairs to meet her formally. And then she saw him turn and move rapidly out of sight. She quickly followed.
The carpet was even more tattered and frayed here on the staircase, and Keira walked carefully, holding onto the banister. She soon left the light of the lobby, what little there'd been of it, and found herself in almost complete darkness. Oliver's father was a dark shape, outlined by a naked light bulb that emitted a flickering yellow light behind him. She considered making a crack about fire marshals having a field day but decided she should be properly introduced first.
"Please, watch your step," Mr. Ager said. His voice was smooth and cultured, and reminded Keira of English toffee. "I know it's dark, but lighting isn't high on my priorities. There are so many things to complete."
Keira nodded, though she wasn't sure she agreed. Then again, getting rid of the stink would probably be top of her list. The smell of dust and ancient popcorn, which was noticeable but bearable in the lobby, had turned into the smell of mildew and cockroaches the further she went into the theater. She couldn't imagine anyone worshipping in this place, unless the interior of the theater was hermetically sealed.
"Right this way, Ms. Sterling."
As Keira reached the top step, Ager directed her toward a small door. The word "Office" was painted in gold lettering and reminded her of a film noir detective agency. Ager reached to turn the old-fashioned brass handle and then motioned for Keira to precede him into the room.
The office was as gloomy as the lobby. It had no windows, being entirely interior to the building, and was lit by two feeble lights on each side of the room, covered in smoked glass fixtures. This wasn't the only throwback to 1940s décor. A large oak desk dominated the room; an old-fashioned office chair sat behind it. A wooden filing cabinet stood to one side and bookshelf on the other. Tucked away in one corner, a little table held a manual typewriter. Keira hadn't seen one outside of a museum. Even when she learned to type in junior high, it had been on an electric machine.
"Please have a seat," Ager offered, moving to the far side of the desk and sitting in the office chair. Keira sat in the "visitor's chair" a sturdy wooden piece of furniture that was far more functional than comfortable. It reminded her unpleasantly of her grandmother's dining room chairs and eternal Thanksgiving Day dinners.
"Thank you, Mr. Ager," Keira said. She had never been very good at social situations, and already anticipated being back outside, breathing fresh air again.
"Call me William," Ager said.
"William. And please call me Keira." Keira nodded her head and looked across the desk, meeting the man's gaze. This was the first opportunity she had to see him clearly, and she tried not to gasp at what the weak light revealed. He was extremely pale, whiter even than his son, and completely bald. Veins traced a pattern like a road map on his head. Most obvious, however, was the fact that he was blind his eyes a murky white like spoilt milk.
"I uh " She stuttered, and then cleared her throat and tried again. "Oliver said you were interested in purchasing some hardware, as well as something about software and other things."
"Yes," Ager said with a chuckle. "It sounds like the lad was as vague as I expected. I've tried to teach him to be precise in his conversation, but you know how boys can be."
Keira bristled, feeling a sudden protective streak for the boy that she'd come to like. "I've always found Oliver to be extremely precise," she said, irritation barely hidden in her voice. "Perhaps he wasn't supplied with enough information."
She regretted the words once they'd left her lips. She was letting her anger get away from her again. It was becoming a habit that she really needed to break.
Ager showed no reaction to the biting comment, however. He simply smiled pleasantly. Keira noticed that he seemed to hold her gaze, tilting his head and directing his eyes into hers despite his blindness. She had known and worked with several blind people, and it was a skill she'd never seen. It was unnerving.
"So what exactly are we talking about?" Keira asked, breaking the staring contest and examining her wedding ring as if she'd never seen it before.
"As you can probably see, I need a bit of an upgrade." Ager gestured around his office. "In actuality, I need to join the twenty-first century. Somehow I slept through a few decades."
He chuckled. It was a very normal, pleasant sound but it sent a shiver spider-stepping down Keira's spine.
"So a computer?" Keira asked, her voice tight. She took a deep breath, trying to force herself to relax.
"Oh, not just a computer," Ager corrected. "I mean, I certainly want a computer here to do my work, but I'd also like one for my assistant and a third one for our mail-order processing. Oliver mentioned something about a 'network'".
Keira nodded, wondering why a small town preacher would need an assistant, and what the mail order business could possibly be.
"A network connects the computers together," Keira replied, "so you can, for instance, have one printer for all three computers or one CD-ROM drive. And you can communicate with each other."
"Oh, that would be very helpful," Ager said, nodding his head enthusiastically. "We have a small office downstairs and even if we just have a quick question, someone needs to tramp down there to ask."
"Well, a LAN would definitely solve that problem."
"LAN?" Ager asked.
"Local Area Network," Keira said. "It's what I would recommend you set up. One computer would be designated as the server and would control the network, house some or all of the software. Building a network is a good way to go because you don't have to spend as much on the workstations the other computers in the network because the server computer does all the work."
"And how do you connect the computers?" Ager looked excited. His head swayed slightly from side to side.
"I'd use cables. It may be a tricky job but not impossible."
Keira remembered the mildewed walls in the lobby and felt her stomach lurch. It was going to be a dirty job and she wasn't at all sure that she wanted to find out what was rotting behind the gold wallpaper and ancient plaster. Then again, this was one of the areas where her business needed to branch out. Setting up networks would be ideal for several people in town and if Ager started to talk to his friends about her work, she'd probably have a good number of future, lucrative jobs.
"I also wanted to explore something that Oliver has spoken about," Ager continued. "He said I could use a computer by speaking into a microphone and then listen to headphones to hear what was on the screen."
"Yes, that's entirely possible." Keira had forgotten Ager's blindness, despite the evidence literally staring her in the face. No wonder he hadn't upgraded his office. Without specialized software, computers would rank way down on the priority list, right below more lights on the stairs.
"I worked with a computer programmer once who was blind," Keira assured Ager. "There are several options we can pursue. I can price them out for you as a part of my estimate."
"Money is not an object," Ager said with a smile. "I obviously need these computers to work for me, so I certainly don't want to scrimp on the very thing that makes them useful."
"Understood." Keira leaned forward to ask more specific questions, but was interrupted by a soft knock on the office door.
"Come in," Ager called out.
Oliver stuck his head into the room.
"I've brought some tea, Father," he said softly.
"Ah, perfect." Ager clapped his hands together. Keira noticed that his gaze had tracked directly to his son's and then back unerringly to her own. "Will you join me in some liquid refreshment?"
"Um OK." Keira wanted to ask enough questions to give Ager a reasonable estimate for the work he was proposing, but she was also thirsty and a little tea might be nice.
Ager motioned for Oliver to enter the room, and the boy did, pulling in a little cart with a large teapot, cups and saucers, and two plates of various cookies and cakes. The dishes rattled as Oliver pulled the cart over the ragged carpet. Keira could see the concentration in his face as he rolled the cart next to the desk and carefully laid out the tea. He poured two cups, putting two lumps of sugar into his father's cup before placing it carefully within reach of Ager's right hand.
"Here you are, Father," Oliver said softly.
"Oliver!" Ager replied sternly. "Always serve guests first."
"S-sorry." Oliver's eyes held apology as well as a frisson of fear.
"No problem." Keira shot Ager a dirty look, and then smiled at Oliver. She was pleased to see the boy relax immediately. "It's tough to balance respect for a father against respect for a guest."
Ager nodded his acceptance of her point as Oliver poured her tea.
"Cream or sugar, Ms. Sterling?" Oliver asked politely.
"Neither, thank you," Keira replied.
Oliver placed the teacup in front of Keira and then finished setting out the food, plates and silverware. Keira noticed that there was not a cup or place setting for the boy.
"You're not joining us, Oliver?" she asked.
The fear returned to his eyes, and he looked expectantly at his father.
"Oliver needs to run an errand for his grandmother," Ager said. "In fact, you need to hurry or you'll be late."
"Yes, Father." Oliver looked relieved at the dismissal and moved quickly from the room.
"So, Ms. Sterling, how are you finding life in Seaburgh?"
Keira considered reminding him to use her first name, but she actually felt more comfortable being addressed by her last name. She took a sip of tea before answering the question. It tasted of autumn earthy spice and dried flowers.
"I love living here," Keira answered. "My business has had a few snags, but I think that's to be expected."
"Certainly. Running your own business is one of the hardest ways to make a living." He smiled pleasantly. "And what about your partner? Ms. O'Reilly, isn't it?"
Keira nodded and took another sip of tea.
"How is she adapting to life in a small town?"
A little voice, way back in the small recesses of Keira's mind, shouted, "None of your business!" She wanted to listen to her inner voice, but found herself answering honestly instead.
"She's having some problems. She's never lived in a small town and there are a lot of unfamiliar things to get used to. Being pregnant doesn't help. She's so moody and irritable. It really drives me crazy to have her complain all the time."
"I can imagine," Ager said, his voice oozing creamy sympathy. "You must reassure her. By the way, Dr. King is very competent. He delivered Oliver, and there were several complications which he handled brilliantly. You have nothing to worry about in that regard."
"Thank you, I'll be sure to share that with Fiona."
Keira took another sip of tea. There was something about it that tasted strange and Keira remembered a line from a movie she'd seen: If the tea tastes like almonds, it must be the cookies. What was it? She pictured a young Jodie Foster.
"Ah yes, a classic," Ager said. "I remember showing it when this place was still a cinema. Horror films were always our most popular fare. I suppose that says something about the residents of Seaburgh."
Keira was having trouble following the conversation. Had she spoken aloud about the tea? She couldn't remember, but she must have. She was saying things about Fiona and Seaburgh that she shouldn't. She felt strange and open. It made her feel uncomfortable and free at the same time.
"I'd like you to come downstairs, Ms. Sterling, to see our set up down there." Ager finished his tea and placed the cup gently into the saucer.
"Of course." Keira's cup clattered against her saucer as the voice in her head sounded again.
"I'm sure it's best if we both completely understand my needs." Ager stood up and Keira did the same. Her head swam for a moment, and she rested her palms on the desk.
"Are you all right, Ms. Sterling?" A furrow developed in Ager's brow, but his blank eyes were incapable of conveying his concern.
Was she all right? Keira considered the question. She no longer felt dizzy. Her hands tingled, as if drawing some kind of energy from the oak beneath her hands. The tingling spread to her legs and feet. Her heart beat faster than normal. She was warm, but wasn't sweating.
Her inner voice seemed to belong to someone else. Someone who made no sense. Why should she run? She wasn't frightened. She felt alive.
"I'm fine," Keira replied, standing up straight and squaring her shoulders. "Let's go see what you have downstairs."
Ager held his hand out in the direction of the door, indicating that Keira should take the lead. He was interrupted by a violent vibration that shook the desk. Keira looked curiously around the office.
"The phone," Ager explained, looking annoyed at the interruption. "A leftover feature of running the cinema. It vibrates rather than rings so as not to disturb the audience."
"I see," Keira said as Ager opened a drawer and pulled out an old-fashioned black phone. With its rotary dial, it looked to be as old as the typewriter.
"Yes?" Ager barked into the phone. Irritation showed on his face as he listened to the caller for a few moments.
Keira waited politely, glad that the anger wasn't directed at her but wondering if it soon would be.
"Very well," Ager said. He sighed as he hung up the phone, staring at it for a few moments. Then he looked up at Keira. His face was as devoid of emotion as his eyes.
"You need to go to the clinic," he said. "Ms. O'Reilly has been taken there. I'm sure it's nothing, but "
Keira didn't wait for him to finish. She didn't need to hear "miscarriage" or "probably just a false alarm" or "let me have someone drive you." She just ran down the stairs, across the lobby, and out the doors of the cinema. The sudden brilliant light of the afternoon blinded her, but she ignored it, running down a sidewalk that she already knew by heart. If people were in her way, they'd have to move. She didn't take the time to get her car and drive to the little clinic on the far side of town. Instead, she ran the fastest mile she'd ever run, arriving breathless and wheezing, her guts on fire with a cramp, sweat running down the side of her face and the small of her back.
She burst through the clinic's doors, nearly barreling into an elderly woman leaning heavily against a walker.
"Sorry," Keira mumbled as she sped by the woman and came to a skidding halt in front of the receptionist's desk.
"It's going to be OK, Keira." Susan Hill stood from her chair behind the desk and rushed through a side door that brought her out into the reception room. She grabbed onto Keira's arm. "Fiona is going to be fine. The doctor thinks it was a false alarm."
The words seemed odd, as if obscured by static. Keira felt as if she were tuning into a distant radio station.
Was that what Susan had said?
"Why don't you go in and see her for yourself." Susan led Keira gently by the arm she still grasped. "The doctor will explain everything."
Keira allowed herself to be led, knowing that her senses couldn't be trusted. She was right to be wary, for as Susan led her into one of the three rooms of the little clinic, she saw Fiona writhing in agony, her feet in stirrups. Her partner's screams tore at her eardrums as Dr. King turned slowly, his hands holding a bloody bundle.
"No." Keira's voice was an agonized croak.
But then the vision changed. Fiona was before her, propped up with pillows, her red curls vibrant against the starched white. She smiled and rolled her green eyes.
"I just felt a little cramp and had some spotting and it turned into this huge deal," Fiona said. She held her hands out for Keira, who didn't move from the doorway. Keira swayed, Susan's firm grip holding her upright.
Keira struggled to divine which vision was real and which one true.
"Keira?" Fiona looked worried and in need of reassurance that everything was going to be all right. Keira focused on that need and pushed aside everything else, rushing to her partner's side.
"Shit, Fee, I think I just lost ten years."
Keira squeezed Fiona's hands, feeling their soft strength. They anchored her and her head began to clear.
"I told them where you were," Fiona said with a frown. "And I told them not to scare you." She looked accusingly at Susan.
"We tried our best," Susan said. "Mr. Ager said Keira ran out of his office like a bat out of hell. He couldn't tell her it was nothing to worry about."
"And who said it was nothing to worry about?" Dr. King entered the room, making notes in a chart. He looked up and must have seen terror in two pairs of eyes. He quickly added, "OK, there probably is nothing to worry about. But I believe in being overly cautious when it comes to pregnancies and precious little lives."
Keira tried to relax but she was starting to wonder how much more her heart could take.
"I assure you that what Fiona experienced was perfectly normal," Dr. King continued. "But I still want her to stay over night. Just to be sure."
"Of course." "I don't think that's necessary." Keira and Fiona spoke at the same time and Dr. King smiled.
"Listen to the people who care about you the most, Fiona," the doctor said with a wink.
"OK." Fiona sighed. "If it means Keira stops squeezing my hand, I'll consider spending the night. I've grown quite fond of it and cooking would be a real pain without it."
"Ha ha," Keira said, releasing the hand in question. She was pleased she'd won the battle so easily and finally felt the pressure of the blood pounding through her head began to ease.
"Well, that's settled then," Dr. King said. "And I assume you want to stay the night, Keira." He chuckled at the answering smirk. "OK. I think we have a comfy chair around here somewhere. I'll even let you have a pizza delivered if you're good. But I want the patient asleep at a reasonable hour." He glowered at the women from beneath bushy white eyebrows. "I mean it."
"Yes, Dr. King." Fiona sighed like a petulant teenager.
"Good." Dr. King played his part, smiling like a triumphant father. "Susan and I will be out front till around ten, unless we get any new patients. After that if you feel any pain at all and I do mean anything you just need to push the button on the wall. That will ring in my house and I'll be over here in two shakes of a lamb's tail."
Keira smiled at the expression. She liked the doctor, especially since she knew his gentle demeanor accompanied a sharp intellect.
"I'll order the pizza if you want," Susan offered.
"Please." Fiona's head nearly nodded off her shoulders. "I'm starving."
"Jeez, what a surprise," Keira said sarcastically.
Fiona smacked Keira gently on the arm, and Susan and Dr. King chuckled. Keira rolled her eyes, and then kissed her lover's forehead gently.
"It's going to be OK," Keira whispered. She felt dizzy, her brain working overtime to process all of the events that had occurred in such a brief period of time.
Fiona looked just as shell-shocked as she kissed Keira in return.
A thousand whispering voices woke Keira.
She blinked her eyes, trying to clear them, but she saw only a blur of white. It took her a few seconds to realize that she was staring at the edge of a pillow. She then set about trying to understand why her head was resting on the edge of the bed with her face shoved into a pillow. She lifted her head and looked around. A new challenge for her fuzzy mind. Where the hell ? The pain in her neck sharpened her focus, and realization clicked into place.
The hospital, Fiona, the baby.
She looked down at her sleeping partner. Fiona looked peaceful. Her rosebud lips were curved in a smile. Keira wanted to kiss those lips, but she didn't want to wake Fiona. She'd fought hard enough to get her to stay in bed. They'd eaten some pizza and watched a video that Susan had brought over The Philadelphia Story. Keira couldn't remember the ending, so they must have fallen asleep before it finished.
Which explained the noise. Keira smirked at her overactive imagination. It wasn't a thousand whispering voices. The tape had finished, leaving static playing on the TV.
Keira yawned and stretched, then got up to turn off the TV.
"What was that?"
The sudden silence had disturbed Fiona. She rubbed at her eyes and looked around the room, her mind obviously going through the same effort as Keira's had earlier.
"Shhh. You're all right," Keira whispered. "Go back to sleep."
"I hear voices."
Keira was about to ask Fiona what she was talking about just as a man's voice high-pitched and panicky sounded from nearby. There was a rumbling answer, but Keira couldn't make out any words. She heard movement behind the clinic, which she assumed was Dr. King coming over from the house, followed by a louder commotion as someone entered the clinic's reception area.
"I'm going to see what's up," Keira said. "Stay here."
"For god's sake, do as I say," Keira snapped. She saw Fiona's stricken expression and added in a gentler tone, "I'm sure it's some fisherman who got a fishhook stuck in his hand or something. There's bound to be a lot of blood."
"OK." Fiona looked a little green at the mention of blood. Keira hoped Fiona's squeamishness would win out over her curiosity.
Keira tiptoed across the room and looked out the little window in the door. She could see about two square feet of the reception area. There was definitely movement, shadows dancing in and out of the light. Then there was a flash of a uniform followed by Sheriff Gillespie coming into view for a moment. Keira's prediction had been right Gillespie's uniform was stained with blood, the red standing out starkly against the khaki.
"What can you see?" Fiona asked, her loud whisper carrying across the room. She was now sitting on the edge of her bed, her bare feet dangling a few inches from the cold linoleum.
"Get back into bed," Keira whispered. "You'll catch pneumonia."
Keira decided that Fiona's curiosity was pulling ahead in the competition, and decided it would be better if she moved out of the room.
"I'm going out there," Keira said. "I promise I'll come back and give you a full report."
Keira didn't wait for Fiona's protests. She quietly opened the door and squeezed out, moving quickly up the hall so that she would be out of sight of the group in the reception room.
She hadn't thought about trying to be out of sight of anyone else, so had to move quickly when Dr. King came barreling through the back door. Thankfully, he was moving too fast to spare a glance up the other end of the dark hallway where Keira stood flat against the wall.
"What's going on, Ben?" Keira heard Dr. King ask. She couldn't quite make out the reply, so inched closer to the doorway.
"'T is the middle of night by the castle clock and the owls have awakened the crowing cock."
The words were loud and echoed in Keira's ears. The voice was familiar, and the surprise drew her out of her hiding place.
Gillespie and his deputy, Frank Cowper, turned their attention from the man who stood between them. Both officers looked surprised to see her standing in the hallway.
"Just stay back, Ms. Sterling," Gillespie said after recovering his composure. "This is none of your affair."
Keira sniffed at the dismissal and took a step forward.
"The night is chill; the forest bare," Matthew said, gasping as he fought the men who held him. "Is it the wind that moaneth bleak?"
Gillespie didn't look happy when Keira refused to leave, but he turned his attention back to the man he clung to. He and Cowper each held one of Matthew's arms. All three men were covered in blood.
"Just relax, sir," Dr. King said. He moved back and Keira could see for the first time the horrible wound on Matthew's neck. It looked as if it had been ripped open, and although whoever had done it had missed a major artery, copious amounts of blood still streamed from the wound.
"His name is Matthew Bradford," Keira said. She felt her vision tunneling into darkness. She pinched the skin between her thumb and forefinger, willing herself not to faint. The pain cleared her vision and head at least for the moment.
"OK, Matthew, just calm down now so I can take a look at that wound."
Dr. King's voice was soothing, and Keira felt herself relax at the sound. Matthew wasn't as easy to convince. He continued to thrash around, spraying the men with crimson blood that fell like the thick drops of a summer rain shower. Matthew's eyes were wild and they danced around the room like a skittish stallion, finally stopping on Keira. The blood-shot whites gleamed in the fluorescent light of the reception area.
"Why stares she with unsettled eye? Can she the bodiless dead espy?" Matthew's voice was hopeful, as if he desperately wanted Keira to understand.
"Matthew, it's me. Keira."
"'I have no friends,' said Lamia, 'no, not one; my presence in wide Corinth hardly known.'" Matthew was becoming frantic again, and yanked his arm from Cowper's grip. He hit the deputy a glancing blow across the cheek, leaving a smear of blood before the officer got hold again. Dr. King took the opportunity of the distraction to get a bandage on Matthew's wound.
"You do have friends, Matthew." Fiona's voice was soft and gentle. Keira spun around, looking disapprovingly at her partner. She wasn't surprised that Fiona hadn't stayed put, especially if she could hear what was going on.
"Do you remember us?" Fiona asked, speaking to Matthew as if to a frightened child. "Fiona and Keira? We're your friends, Matthew. We won't hurt you."
"Her face, oh, call it fair not pale," Matthew said, his struggle slowing, "and both blue eyes more bright than clear."
"That's right," Keira said though she had no idea what Matthew was saying. "Dr. King just wants to take care of you now."
Matthew finally stopped struggling completely, going limp in the officers' arms.
"Bring him through here," Dr. King said as soon as Matthew calmed down. He opened the door to the back and motioned for the men to take Matthew through.
Matthew took a few steps before his blood loss finally caught up to him. He fell to his knees, Gillespie and Cowper's firm grip keeping him from collapsing completely.
"The lady sank, belike through pain," Matthew said wearily, "and Christabel with might and main lifted her up, a weary weight, over the threshold of the gate."
"You're a weary weight all right," Gillespie said. He grunted with the effort of lifting Matthew.
The officers began to drag Matthew through the doorway just as Susan Hill arrived through the front door.
"I got here as quickly as I could, Dr. King," Susan said. She quickly took stock of the situation as she threw off her coat, and moved to help everyone get Matthew into the back and onto an exam table.
"OK, Susan," Dr. King said as he pulled on purple latex gloves, "let's get his pressure."
Susan pulled on her own set of gloves then grabbed a blood pressure cuff and quickly wrapped it around Matthew's thin, pale arm. She pumped the cuff as Dr. King checked the wound.
"His pressure's low and dropping," Susan said. "One hundred over fifty."
"OK." Dr. King hung a bag onto an IV pole. "I'll get a line in; let's start him on normal saline. And grab some lidocaine for me please."
Dr. King set up the IV as Susan got the medication. Once the IV was started, Dr. King injected the wound site with the lidocaine.
"Just relax now, Matthew," Dr. King said.
The doctor waited a few moments, keeping pressure on the wound, and then asked, "Still doing OK, Matthew? Do you feel anything when I press here?" Dr. King pressed around the edges of the wound.
"It is a wine of virtuous powers," Matthew said, relaxing back into the padded table. "My mother made it of wild flowers."
"I'll take that as a 'no'." Dr. King patted Matthew's arm.
Gillespie and Cowper took that as their cue to retreat. They moved back to the side of the room and took a seat in two chairs that rested between the sink and a portable x-ray machine.
Fiona and Keira stayed nearby, but out of the way of the doctor and nurse as they worked on Matthew. Dr. King began to carefully sew the torn flesh on Matthew's neck.
"Whoever or whatever did this, they came about as close as you can to the carotid without hitting it," Dr. King said as he worked on the wound.
After several moments of work, the horrible wound on Matthew's neck had been stitched with neat, precise sutures.
"OK, let's move him to a bed," Dr. King said, turning to the men sitting on the other side of the room. "Can you gentlemen give us a hand?"
Everyone assisted in moving Matthew into one of the little rooms, lifting him into the larger, more comfortable bed. Matthew had been fitfully dozing, but woke up when he was settled into the hospital bed.
"It's OK, Matthew, you're going to be fine," Fiona said, taking her friend's hand. Keira saw that the blood on Matthew's hand was now drying, his skin covered in rusty flakes.
"I met a lady in the meads full beautiful, a faery's child," Matthew said, his voice hoarse. "Her hair was long, her foot was light, and her eyes were wild."
"Have you been here all summer?" Keira asked, moving behind Fiona. She placed her hands on Fiona's shoulders and felt her lover's trembling. She knew she needed to get Fiona back into bed soon.
"And thence I vowed this self-same day," Matthew said, closing his eyes in pain and weariness, "with music strong and saintly song to wander through the forest bare, lest aught unholy loiter there."
"Where's Carole, Matthew?" Fiona asked the question that had been uppermost in Keira's mind. "Is she home in Cincinnati?"
"A fool there was and he made his prayer, even as you or I, to a rag and a bone and a hank of hair." A tear rolled out of Matthew's eye and dripped down the side of his face. "We called her the woman who did not care."
"Carole cares," Keira said. "She loves you Matthew. You're just confused right now."
"She seem'd, at once, some penanced lady elf, some demon's mistress, or the demon's self," Matthew said, gripping Fiona's hand.
"What happened to her?" Fiona asked. Keira knew that Fiona understood far more of what Matthew was saying, but the words were incomprehensible to Keira.
"Thou knowest to-night, and wilt know to-morrow, this mark of my shame, this seal of my sorrow," Matthew said, the tears falling steadily now.
"Who's Carole?" Gillespie asked. He seemed to be struggling as much as Keira to make sense of Matthew's words, but his attention had been drawn to the words "shame" and "sorrow" and he pulled a pen and small notebook from his shirt pocket.
"Carole is his wife," Keira replied. Fiona was murmuring soothingly to Matthew, and Keira moved back, trying to give Fiona and Matthew some privacy. She didn't like the look in Gillespie's eye and felt an overwhelming need to protect Matthew. "We met the Bradfords in late spring, the first day we came through Seaburgh. They were touring California in an RV they'd rented. They were from Ohio. Just a normal retired couple."
"There's a cruel attraction in the place. You can't leave it," Matthew muttered to Fiona. "Draw people in, my dear. Draw peace out of them. Sense out of them."
"You've been here all summer then, eh Matthew?" Gillespie asked.
"And more she could not say," Matthew said. He shook his head, causing the tears to sprinkle from his face. "For what she knew she could not tell."
"OK, sheriff," Dr. King said, "I can see this is turning into an interrogation, and I need you to stop. Whatever information Mr. Bradford can provide will have to wait until he's stable."
Gillespie stared at the doctor, his eyes narrowing before his chin barely lowered in a short nod.
"Right you are, Doc," Gillespie said. "If you think you can control him, we'll take off. I'll be back tomorrow." He looked at his watch. "Or rather today later this afternoon."
"He won't be any trouble now," Dr. King said. "We'll be fine. Call first before coming. I'll decide when he can answer your questions."
Gillespie held the doctor's eyes, and Keira watched as an unspoken communication passed between the two men. Then Gillespie nodded again and turned on his heel, Cowper following his boss out of the room.
"Try to get some sleep now, Matthew," Fiona said. "When you're feeling better, we'll help you sort everything out."
"And when the livid morning comes," Matthew said, his voice barely audible, "there'll be nothing in my place but crumbs, and it will be cold until the night."
He closed his eyes, his breathing becoming slower. Then he sat up slightly, grasping Fiona's hand and staring intently into her eyes. "I waited for her all summer. And she came to me. I invited her in. I had to, don't you see? I loved her."
"I know, Matthew," Fiona said, brushing the lock of hair off his face, mimicking his habitual motion. "I know you loved her."
Matthew nodded, as if his message had finally been delivered, and then sighed once, deeply. His eyes rolled backward in his head and he moved his hand toward his chest. The hand made the journey halfway, then fell heavily across his abdomen.
Dr. King, who had been quietly giving directions to Susan, heard the panic in Fiona's voice and turned toward his patient. He moved to Matthew's side. "Susan! He's coding. Get the crash unit."
Susan moved from the room and returned within seconds with the crash cart. Dr. King lowered Matthew's bed flat as Keira pulled Fiona back.
"No." Fiona struggled against Keira's hold.
"Let them do their job," Keira said softly but firmly.
Fiona nodded once. Keira wanted to pull her lover out of the room, but she knew Fiona would never go. And a part of her knew that they needed to witness this, though she didn't know why.
It wasn't like television not the medical dramas with their carefully timed ad breaks or even the reality shows on cable. The words were the same ones she'd always heard: ventricular fibrillation, asystole, epinephrine, defibrillate, but it took longer than she expected for Matthew to die. Dr. King and Susan tried different treatments, different drugs. Long after Matthew was a bluish grey, they still worked on him, pumping his chest. Once, he seemed to move, but it was just his limp body flopping up and down from the chest compressions.
Finally, Dr. King pronounced Matthew dead and asked for Susan's confirmation, receiving a resigned agreement. Keira sighed with relief, knowing she couldn't have taken another moment of the horrible, futile efforts they were taking to save Matthew's life.
"Can you call the coroner?" Dr. King asked Susan, his voice hoarse with fatigue. "I'll start to clean up in here."
Susan nodded and moved toward the door. She stopped in front of Keira and Fiona, giving them both a hug.
"We did our best," she said, before moving out to the reception desk.
"I'm sorry," Dr. King said. "The injury and blood loss were just too much for his heart to take. I thought he was stable, but he was an old man."
"We understand," Keira said. She smiled faintly, letting him know that she appreciated his efforts.
"And you, my dear," Dr. King said to Fiona, "need to get back into bed. I left some pills on the sink in your room. I want you to take them."
Fiona nodded, but first she walked to Matthew's side, taking his hand and lightly kissing the cold flesh of his knuckles.
"Jesu, Maria, shield him well," she said softly, then gently placed his hands over his chest.
"In the time you were with them, did you ever see the Bradfords fight?"
Sheriff Gillespie leant forward with his pen poised over his notebook. Keira had to give him credit; he left them alone for two full days before knocking at a respectable hour of the early evening. Keira ordered Fiona upstairs, hoping to shield her partner from the interrogation.
"No," Keira replied bluntly. She folded her arms across her chest. She'd directed Gillespie to the most uncomfortable chair in her living room and had perched on the armchair across from him. Now she just needed to figure out a way to get him to stop his stupid questions and get out of her house.
"Not even an argument?" Gillespie was persistent. "A minor disagreement, cross words, bickering?"
"No," Keira replied. She could tell Gillespie wasn't satisfied with her one-word answers, so she decided to try elaborating. Maybe she could convince him that whatever he was thinking, he was way off track.
"They really were a great couple," Keira continued. "They loved each other tremendously. It was clear in the way they spoke to each other, looked at each other."
Gillespie jotted down something in his little notebook. Keira began to shed the few drops of patience she had left.
"Look, something terrible must have happened," she said with an unhappy sigh. "Maybe Carole was killed fell off a cliff or something and Matthew just snapped."
"Did they ever mention any children?" Gillespie asked, blatantly ignoring her theory.
"Are you even trying to find Carole?" Keira asked irritably.
"Yes, Ms. Sterling." Gillespie looked up from his writing and finally looked directly at Keira. She noticed for the first time how large his brown eyes were, framed by long, soft lashes. They should have been caring and reassuring, but there was no emotion behind them. It was like staring into a doll's eyes. She had the unnerving feeling that if she turned him upside down, they would click closed, and open again when she tilted him up.
"We're exploring all the possibilities," Gillespie continued. "Now, can you please tell me whether they ever mentioned children?"
"I'm pretty sure they said at one point that they didn't have kids," Keira replied, turning her gaze away from those unsettling eyes. "Something about not needing to save for an inheritance, so they were thinking about buying an RV." Keira sat up as a thought struck her. "The RV. When we met them they had a rented RV. We should find out if it was returned."
"Already did that," Gillespie said. He paused at Keira's expectant expression. "I can't really give you any details of our investigation."
"Look, Sheriff, Matthew and Carole were my friends, though I didn't know them long. They were good people." Keira's hands trembled with her frustration.
"OK." Gillespie paused, obviously considering what he could share. "We checked into the records at the Seaburgh Lodge and found the license plate number of their RV. We called the company and the RV was returned on time, several months ago. Unfortunately, there's no way to confirm who returned it, and the person who was working at the rental agency can't remember any details. It was too long ago."
Keira wanted to ask more questions: whether it was damaged, had bloodstains on the floor, if the body of a small dog was found in a cupboard. She knew Gillespie would give her no details, and she tried to shake the horrible images from her mind.
"Did anything that Matthew say last Sunday make sense to you, Ms. Sterling?" Gillespie had his pen poised again.
"He liked to quote poetry," Keira replied, avoiding a direct answer. "He did it all the time. But it was usually over my head. I wasn't much of a student, especially not English."
"Usually went over your head?" Gillespie asked, picking up on the significant word. "How about last Sunday night? Was that over your head?"
"Yes." Keira knew she'd lost her focus. She decided to return to one-word answers.
"What about Ms. O'Reilly? Was it over her head? She seemed to be responding to Mr. Bradford."
Keira paused. Gillespie had a notebook of information that he wasn't sharing with her. It was time to turn the tables. Keira wouldn't tell him that when Fiona returned home from the clinic, she'd pulled out her books of poetry and poured over them for hours.
"No, Sheriff, I'm afraid neither Fiona nor I understood Matthew. My partner was just trying to comfort him."
"I see." Gillespie nodded, and Keira knew he didn't believe a word of what she'd said. He put his pen and notebook into the pocket of his uniform shirt, snapping the flap in place over them.
"Well," Gillespie said as he stood in one fluid motion, "if either you or your partner remember anything or find that something suddenly makes sense, please don't hesitate to call me."
"We will." Keira stood quickly, glad for the reprieve though she knew it was only temporary.
She showed the sheriff out and he nodded his farewell, hitching his gun belt on his hip as he strolled down her path to the sidewalk.
"I heard what you told him." Fiona walked up behind Keira, standing in the shadows until the door was safely closed.
"Was it a lie?" Keira asked softly. She turned around to look at Fiona, reaching out to take her shoulder in a gentle hold.
"Yes." The answer was hardly more than a whisper.
"I thought so."
Keira kept her hand on Fiona's shoulder, waiting. But Fiona silently stared at the carpet.
"Talk to me, Fee," Keira begged gently. "What's going on?"
"I can't," Fiona said, her voice only slightly stronger.
Keira knew her lover was grieving. Seeing a friend die before her eyes had been devastating. But when Fiona raised her head to look into Keira's eyes, Keira saw something she didn't expect. Fear.
"Give me time," Fiona said. "I need to figure this out. Put the pieces together and understand it. I'll tell you then."
"OK." Keira pulled Fiona into a hug, kissing her on the top of the head. "OK."
Despite her reassurances, Keira knew it wasn't OK. And she wasn't sure she wanted to hear the conclusions that Fiona promised.
"Sweetheart, please. Come back to bed." Keira stood in the hallway, her flannel pajama bottoms brushing against the tops of her bare feet. Fiona looked up from a thick book, her finger resting on its brittle, yellow pages.
Keira had been waiting for Fiona's answers for two weeks, and still they hadn't come. Whenever she raised the subject of Matthew's death, Fiona awkwardly changed the subject. Nightmares woke Fiona nearly every night, and although Keira tried to comfort her, rocking her back to sleep, Fiona would push out of Keira's arms and leave their bed, stumbling down the stairs to her desk in the little alcove beneath the stairs.
Fiona spent those late night hours, and most of her waking ones, reading piles of books that she checked out from the Seaburgh Public Library. She claimed that she was continuing her study of local history. Keira accepted that explanation, not invading her partner's little office beneath the stairs to read the book's titles or the notebooks full of notes written in Fiona's small, precise handwriting.
"I'll be up in a minute," Fiona said, returning her eyes to the page. "I just want to check something."
"Fee, honey, you need your sleep. Think of the baby."
Fiona's head snapped up, her green eyes filled with a mixture of pain and confusion. She was silent for a long moment and then said gently, "It'll be all right, Keir. You go on to bed and I'll be up soon."
"In a minute," Fiona said. "I promise."
Keira nodded reluctantly, then turned and walked down the hall and up the stairs, her bare feet patting softly on the hardwood steps. The bed was cold and she drew the blankets up to her shoulders, burying her face in the soft flannel. She turned away from the empty side of the bed and closed her eyes, falling asleep as she waited for her lover's return.
When Keira woke the next morning and wandered downstairs, she discovered Fiona in the kitchen, making tea and fresh baked scones. Keira didn't ask Fiona whether she had ever come to bed the night before. The dark smudges under Fiona's eyes and the lines on her face revealed the truth.
"You didn't need to go to so much trouble," Keira said. "I"
Her words were interrupted by the sight of Fiona sinking slowly to the kitchen floor. The pan of scones that had been in Fiona's hands clattered against the linoleum, the triangular cakes scattering. Keira didn't move for a moment as her brain tried to process the sight. Then she moved so quickly she thought she might faint herself. She gathered Fiona in her arms and half dragged, half carried her to the living room sofa. Then she ran up the stairs two at a time, grabbing the blanket from the bed and running down again to bundle it around Fiona.
She fumbled for the phone, knocking the receiver to the ground before managing to hold on and dial Dr. King's number. When he answered, she told him what had happened in panicked bursts of words. She had no idea what she'd said or the reply other than the fact that the doctor was on his way. She sank to her knees beside the sofa, where Fiona was conscious but groggy.
"I'm sorry. I'm sorry."
"It's all right. It's all right."
It took only a few moments before the front doorbell rang. Keira sprang from her place on the floor beside the sofa, once again causing her vision to darken momentarily from the sudden change in elevation. She ran for the door and let the doctor in, pointing toward the living room.
"She just fainted," Keira said. "I've been trying to get her to sleep more, take it easy. She isn't eating well. Has nightmares. I make sure she takes her medicine. Vitamins."
"I know, Keira," the doctor said, putting his hand on her arm and giving it a comforting squeeze before turning to the patient. "Well, young lady, let's just check your blood pressure and a few other things."
"I'm fine now," Fiona said, waving a pale, trembling hand.
"We doctor's have a standard line in these situations," Dr. King said with a smile, before he pulled up the hard-backed chair and opened up his bag.
"Let me be the judge of that?" Keira guessed.
"No," Dr. King said as he placed the blood pressure cuff around Fiona's arm. "We actually say, 'OK, then, I'll be going. But that'll be a hundred bucks for the house call.'"
"That's a good one," Fiona said with a faint chuckle.
"Oh yeah, very funny." Keira scowled and then hovered behind the doctor, peering anxiously at everything he did.
"Honey, why don't you go clean up the kitchen?" Fiona suggested. "You're not helping by lurking in the living room. Let the doctor get on with his work."
"I'll call you when I've finished my examination," Dr. King promised.
Keira paused, considering her argument and deciding that she really didn't have one. She mumbled her agreement and left the room, glancing back a few times before heading up the hallway.
Keira finished cleaning the kitchen and baked another batch of scones before Dr. King called out to her. She finished taking the scones out of the oven, not wanting a repeat performance of the flying scones, before hurrying back to the living room. She went to the sofa and kneeled down again by Fiona's side.
"There's nothing to be alarmed about," Dr. King said, quickly establishing the most important outcome of his examination. "But she needs more rest. And needs to eat more. Everything that you said earlier."
Keira was too worried to gloat about being right.
"And when I say rest," the doctor continued. "I mean rest. As in staying in bed."
"You're confining her to bed?" Keira asked, her heart rate increasing as her brain processed the implications.
"For the most part." Dr. King held up his hand and cut off Fiona's protest before a syllable was uttered. "I know, my dear, but unless you want to get to the point of being hospitalized, you will have to deal with the restrictions. You can get up to go to the bathroom, maybe grab a quick snack from the kitchen, but then it's right back to bed which should be down here on the sofa so you don't have to deal with those stairs."
"For how long?" Fiona asked.
"For as long as I say so," Dr. King replied. "The better you behave, the shorter the time will be."
"Dr. King," Keira said, already rearranging her schedule for the next few months in her head, "I was planning a trip to the Bay Area in a week. Should I cancel?"
"I shouldn't think so," the doctor replied. "Though it might be a good idea if a friend could come by regularly to check on her. We don't want any more headers in the kitchen."
"You can't cancel," Fiona said. "Don't worry about me."
"I'll never stop worrying about you," Keira said, taking Fiona's hand. It was ice cold, and she chafed it between her own hands. "I love you and the worrying thing is a nasty side effect of that. You're more important than the conference."
"It's not just the conference," Fiona said. "You need to buy all the hardware and stuff for the church's network. You said you had to handle that in person so you got the best equipment at the best price."
Keira thought about the estimate that Ager had accepted. She'd provided two, one low-cost, just the essential implementation, and one with all the bells and whistles. Ager had accepted the more expensive project, and she wanted to come in as low as possible under the estimate to ensure positive word of mouth to other potential customers.
"I can rearrange my schedule slightly," Keira said, thinking through the project plan in her head. "I can put off the buying trip for maybe a week or two."
"I really wouldn't be too concerned." Dr. King interrupted Keira's mental rescheduling. "The whole town will watch out for Fiona. I'm sure there'll be folks with casseroles and desserts and hand-crocheted afghans by the end of the day."
"We'll see how it goes," Keira conceded. "If you're doing better by the time I'm scheduled to leave, I'll go. If not, I stay."
"Sounds like a good deal," Dr. King said with a wink at Fiona. "I'd accept those terms if I were you."
"All right, it's a deal." Fiona nodded wearily.
Keira pulled the blanket up and tucked it around Fiona's shoulders, brushing the red curls from Fiona's forehead.
"I'll show myself out," Dr. King said softly as he watched his patient relax into sleep.
Keira put the last bag into the back of her Toyota, and slammed the trunk. She'd tried to keep her luggage to a minimum, leaving enough room for a large portion of the equipment she intended to bring back.
She looked up and saw Fiona watching her from the front window. Keira was pleased to see that Fiona's rosy cheeks had reappeared and her green eyes twinkled again. Fiona was still not eating enough; her round belly contrasted sharply with her thin arms and legs. But she was definitely improving, and Keira felt far more comfortable leaving her for a few days. Keira was still scheduled to be gone for a week, but she planned to cut the trip as short as possible, setting a goal of five days to attend the conference and buy her equipment.
"I think I remembered everything," Keira announced as she walked back into the house. "I'm just going to grab a bottle of water."
She didn't hear a reply and poked her head into the living room. "Fee?"
"Take me with you."
It was a simple request, asked as if Fiona was reminding Keira to drive safely or take an umbrella.
"I can't," Keira replied. "You know what the doctor said. You have to stay in bed."
"I don't care." Fiona looked around the room, as if waiting for an unseen occupant to object.
"I care," Keira said softly. "It's too much of a risk."
Fiona looked at her silently for a moment. Her green eyes were wide, the irises luminous. Keira looked for something in those eyes: fear, desperation, anger, blame. But they were clear and sparkling, like a mountain spring.
"It's too late, isn't it?" Fiona asked quietly. "I can't go with you."
"Tell ya what," Keira replied. "Next spring we'll go on a trip somewhere. Maybe Mexico? Or how about a cruise?"
"I think I'd rather go somewhere in the mountains. Away from the sea."
"OK. A cabin in the woods. It's a date." Keira smiled at her partner. "Don't worry. I'll be home before you even realize I'm gone."
"I doubt that," Fiona said as she returned the smile.
Keira headed toward the kitchen and called over her shoulder, "I called Mary last night. She said she'll be by on Sunday and she'll bring that giant jigsaw puzzle she told you about. The one of that Bavarian castle."
Keira considered her route to the Bay Area as she grabbed her water from the refrigerator, sure that her lover would be safe in the friendly embrace of the residents of Seaburgh.
Keira fell backward on the bed, bouncing once on the firm mattress. She kicked off her shoes and heard them thump onto the carpet, then curled her toes, making them pop like tiny firecrackers.
It had been an exciting four days. The conference had been wonderful and had inspired several ideas including a plan for an Internet café that she would propose to Mrs. Simpson, who ran the ice cream parlor. Her buying had gone well too, garnering her good deals in half the time she expected, thanks to a fortuitous meeting at the conference. She was planning on surprising Fiona by arriving home a day early.
Keira smiled when she thought about her homecoming. Fiona would be happy to see her and even more happy when Keira brought in the bags of goodies from all of her favorite shops bread, pastries, exotic fruit, coffee, chocolate. Keira picked up the phone and dialed her home number as she thought about her partner stuffing her face.
"Hello?" Fiona's voice was a sexy purr and it caused a pleasant tingle to travel deep inside Keira.
"Hey baby. Were you asleep?"
Keira giggled at Fiona's confusion. "You're not sure whether you were asleep?"
"I guess I must have nodded off after Mary left."
"Did you guys finish that jigsaw?" Keira asked.
Keira heard a yawn and chuckled again. "You're not awake yet, are you?"
"Getting there." There was a pause and Keira could picture Fiona rubbing her face. "It's dark. What time is it?"
"Almost nine. You should just go to bed."
"Naw." Fiona yawned again. "Then I'd wake up at three in the morning and won't be able to get back to sleep. I'll watch TV or something for a while."
"That sounds like a good idea." Keira heard a rustling on the other end of the phone. "What are you doing?"
"Going to the kitchen," Fiona replied. "To get something to drink. I feel like I drank a bottle of wine. Cotton mouth."
"You and Mary get into the cooking sherry again?"
"No, Ioh, that's funny."
Keira frowned, trying to follow the sudden twist of the conversation. "What?"
"Oh, that's what it is."
"What?" Keira asked again.
"Monty came over this afternoon to borrow some tool we had in the shed. He left the light on. I'll go turn it off when I'm done talking to you."
Keira heard water running and the clink of a glass against the tap.
"Just leave it till tomorrow morning," Keira suggested. "It won't hurt anything."
"It shines right into the Morrison's bedroom window. It would be rude to leave it on all night."
There was another pause. Keira could hear Fiona drink her glass of water, gulping noisily.
"Better?" Keira asked when she heard the tap of the empty glass on the counter.
"Um yeah. A bit."
Keira could still hear the muzziness in Fiona's voice. "Would you go to sleep you silly woman? If you haven't woken up yet, you're not going to."
"OK. I think maybe you're right."
"I know I'm right," Keira said. "And I know I love you."
"I love you too, Keir." Fiona's voice was suddenly clear. "I'll always love you."
"Even if I don't bring you home any pastries from Neldham's Bakery?"
"I'm serious. No matter what, I'll always love you. You believe me, don't you?"
"Yes," Keira replied, "I believe you."
"Good." Fiona's voice was playful again. "Glad we got that cleared up."
"Listen, you go to bed. I'll call you in the morning."
"OK," Fiona said. "Love you."
"Love you too. And forget about that light."
"It'll only take me a minute." Keira could hear Fiona unlock the back door. "I'll be careful. Bye. Love you."
There was nothing special about the phone call. After she hung up, there was no disquiet settling in her gut, no voice calling for her attention. Keira didn't go to bed wondering what was happening to Fiona whether she was hurt or afraid. Instead, she undressed, brushed her teeth, and got into bed. She reached over to set the alarm and then pulled the crisp sheet over her shoulder. She fell asleep thinking about going home, seeing Fiona, sitting in her favorite armchair and looking out to sea.
Later, Keira wondered if she'd missed something if Fiona had said something that she had ignored, if there'd been a connection that she should have made. But the knowledge that eluded her during her last conversation with Fiona the certainty that was heavier than the densest metal didn't lodge in Keira's chest until she arrived home.
She entered the house, calling Fiona's name. And heard nothing. Knowing by that stillness that Fiona was gone. Gone from her life. Gone from the world.
Keira wandered through each room of the house. In the kitchen she found the back door still open, a cool breeze dancing through the room. A glass sat in a ring of water on the sink. She looked in Fiona's little study under the stairs. The light was still on, a pen rested in the center of the desk. Upstairs, the bed was made, the sheets tucked in tight. Fiona always made it that way like a hotel room housekeeper or a soldier then she kicked her feet at bedtime until the sheet and blanket were loose.
On her way back down the stairs, having checked every room, Keira spotted the phone on the little table in the hall. She picked it up and hit the speed dial number before really thinking about what she was doing. Perhaps it was one final glimmer of hope or a last attempt to connect with the world outside of Seaburgh, outside of her nightmare.
"Hello?" Even in one word, the Irish brogue was apparent. Fiona's mother's voice was as rich and smooth as Irish cream. Keira nearly cried as she thought about Fiona's own accent, which only surfaced when she was angry or deep in the netherworld of passion.
"Hey, Mrs. O. It's Keira."
"Oh, Keira my dear, how are you?"
Keira heard a note of compassion in Mrs. O'Reilly's voice and a sick realization began to boil in her gut.
"I was just wondering if you've spoken to Fiona?" Keira asked carefully.
"Yes, she called us. Keira, we're so sorry."
"Sorry?" Keira watched her hand tremble. She felt as if it belonged to someone else.
"She called us and told us she lost the baby. I know how much you both wanted that baby, Keira. We're all so sorry."
Keira struggled to speak.
"Maybe you should think about adopting?" Mrs. O'Reilly suggested.
"Adopting." Keira could feel her mind shutting down.
"Fiona sounded all right, but how is she really?"
"She's fine," Keira replied. She wondered if saying the words would make them true.
"Just give her a little time, Keira. I know how she gets; she retreats within herself. Just be patient with her. And let us know if we can do anything to help."
"OK. Thank you."
Keira hung up the phone and sat in her favorite chair. She pictured Fiona's sparkling emerald eyes, full of love for her. She thought about her child. For a moment, she could feel its small warmth in her arms, a tiny fist clutching her finger. That was real. Not the bloody bundle in Dr. King's hands. Not Fiona's agonized screams.
She had fought so hard to hold on to the truth, but it had been as elusive as grasping a wave or a wisp of fog. Her body began to awaken as she thought of the struggle. Keira felt her nails digging into the palms of her hands. Her pulse quickened, muscles in her legs and abdomen twitching. Fight or flight. Her body was preparing itself for either one.
But whom could she fight? Images of her neighbors flashed through her mind. She could hear the words that Monty and Mary, Dr. King and Sheriff Gillespie would say.
"Just went for a walk."
"She'll come around."
Keira couldn't bear to see them, listen to them. She refused to participate in a play whose outcome was already known. How many others had fallen into the trap? How many had been seduced by Seaburgh and its residents? She would be different. She controlled her own destiny and she would play her role on her own terms.
So, for now, she chose flight. Her body responded at once and Keira rose, moving quickly to the kitchen. She checked the calendar that hung from a tack next to the refrigerator, finding the date of the next full moon. She wrote it down on a note pad where Fiona had already written "milk, bread, tea bags, o.j."
Keira's next stop was Fiona's office. She grabbed all of Fiona's notebooks and shoved them into the backpack that hung off a peg on the door.
She picked up the suitcase that still sat in the entryway, slinging the backpack onto her shoulder. She slammed the door loudly and walked to the car, her feet crunching in the leaves that covered the walkway. She threw the bags into the trunk and got into the car just as the sound of approaching footsteps echoed up the street. She started the engine, heard it hesitate once before turning over. She popped the ignition into reverse and sped backward down the driveway, refusing to look left or right as her tires squealed on the pavement.
Keira left Seaburgh, driving south down Highway One, already planning her return.
Keira stayed in the Bay Area for thirteen days, checking into a hotel in Walnut Creek where no one she knew lived or worked. She never left her sparsely furnished room, surviving on pizza delivered by teenaged boys who smiled cheerfully especially when she tipped them well.
She had no need for money. Not where she was going. How ironic that she had fought so hard for it, spending time and energy on her business when she should have devoted every moment to Fiona.
Mistakes. Keira spent thirteen days plagued by her mistakes, mulling over the if-onlys and what-ifs, cursing her fate, and carefully studying Fiona's notes where the truth was laid out in tidy purple writing in green steno notepads.
Fiona's notes were carefully dated. Keira opened the first book and read about pregnancy: what to expect during each month, tips on diet and exercise, things to watch out for. Motivational quotes were sprinkled throughout, illustrated with stars and exclamation points. The innocent simplicity of it stunned Keira, forcing a choking sob from her throat when she first began to read. She wanted to throw the pad away, but was afraid she would miss a vital clue, so she read on. It took her an entire day to get through the first notebook. She read until tears robbed her of her vision and her chest hurt too much to breathe. When things got too bad, she rested until she could read some more. Finally, she fell into an exhausted sleep, clutching the notepad. Her tears had made the ink run, obscuring most of the pages.
The next day she began Fiona's historical survey. Beginning with the legends of the Pomo and ending with the events of the current year, Fiona had noted each mystery, each horror, each tragedy.
A History of the Pomo, by Thomas McMillan:
Despite sanitized versions of history, it is clear that the Russians at Fort Ross forced the male Pomo population into labor. There is one significant mention in a first-hand account of a visitor seeing the Pomo men's hands bound when they arrived to work. There is also evidence that the women and children were forced to work as domestics and in the fields, and that the women were raped as a matter of course. At least one account describes a torture and murder of a child designed to encourage a father to work for the Russians, and the argument can easily be made that this was a regular occurrence.
Plague on the Coast, by Jennifer D'Angelo:
In 1832 an epidemic swept Fort Ross, killing two-thirds of the population of both Russians and Pomo and incapacitating nearly everyone else. No records exist of the symptoms of this illness, and the actual disease that caused such wholesale death remains a mystery.
The Great Quake, by Johan Berg:
Within a week after the earthquake, the Governor of California, fearing that the coastal towns to the north had suffered tremendous damage, ordered a team of trained fire and rescue workers to travel the coast by ship. They visited each town between Point Reyes and Fort Bragg, finding devastation of varying degrees. The only town that appeared to be spared any damage was Seaburgh. In fact, Thomas Clift, son of one of the most prominent San Francisco bankers, recalls that 'the townsfolk of Seaburgh met us as we docked in the harbor north of town and told us immediately to be on our way. They had no need of us. They were strange folk and it didn't take much convincing for us to turn around and head somewhere we were needed.'"
Mendocino Beacon, November 2, 1925:
Seaburgh Family Murdered. All of the members of the Barker family, longtime residents of Seaburgh, were found murdered yesterday morning before dawn. Dead are Mr. John Barker, Mrs. Catherine Barker, and John Jr., age seventeen, James, age fifteen, Edna, age thirteen, and Molly, aged four. Emmet Hill, resident of Stewart's Point, discovered the bodies in the smokehouse and immediately alerted the sheriff. Mr. Hill was employed as a part time laborer by the Barker family. "They were all dead, even the little girl Molly. It was the most horrible thing I've ever seen, and I was a doughboy in the war. I'll take that sight with me to the grave."
Press-Democrat, October 15, 1962:
Autumn Dance Tragedy. Four Seaburgh teenagers, driving home from a high school dance, were killed tragically when their car drove off a cliff, crashing to the rocks below. Duane Ager, Paula James, Hannah Gillespie, and Virginia Solomon, all seventeen, had attended the dance, held at the Seaburgh Shriner's hall, earlier in the evening. It is believed that Ager was driving the car, although details are sketchy. The accident had no witnesses and was not discovered until the early yesterday morning, after family members alerted the local sheriff. No one in Seaburgh can be reached for comments or further details.
The notebook was full of dozens of such entries. Fiona never drew conclusions, never commented on the evidence that she carefully laid out. There was no need. Keira read the information and felt the walls that she had built in her futile desire not to see the truth crumble like sandstone.
Only dust remained as Keira pulled out the last notebook and read the entries Matthew's final, rambling words. They were transcribed in shaky letters the hand that put pen to paper obviously trembling. Fiona had carefully cited each quotation. Only Matthew's last words had been original. These Fiona had written in the center of a blank sheet.
I waited for her all summer. And she came to me. I invited her in. I had to, don't you see? I loved her.
Keira knew that the words were a message to her. Matthew had seen the truth and had made a decision. And now it was Keira's turn.
Keira drove the twists and turns of Highway One with only a part of her mind on the road. Her emotions were a roller coaster, dropping and falling, twisting and turning. Grief, horror, fear, acceptance, resolution.
She stopped only once, to gaze out at the Pacific in the same spot that she and Fiona had stopped before. What had Matthew said that day about the ocean? It made you realize how insignificant you really were. Staring at the immensity of the ocean, Keira wondered if that were true. There were forces stronger than she, mysteries that she had no hope of ever understanding. But she was damned if she would be insignificant. She picked up a stone and threw it savagely over the cliff, watching it fall downward toward the roiling waves below her. She thought about the impact of that small rock to the entire ocean. The change was infinitesimal.
"But I still changed you, goddamn it!" Keira shouted to the water.
She turned, satisfied, and got back into her car. She pulled out from the shoulder, carefully watching for traffic, and headed north. Toward her destiny.
It was dusk when she drove into Seaburgh. Fog choked the town, clogging the alleys and spaces between buildings like hair in a drain. As she drove up Main Street, Keira looked for signs of life. She found none. Any tourists brave enough to drive through the fog that hugged the coastline had given up the challenge once darkness threatened to join the fight. The residents of Seaburgh had long ago abandoned their shops and waited in their homes for darkness to fall. It was Saturday, the night of a full moon. At last the nocturnal habits of her neighbors made sense.
Keira pulled into her driveway and parked. She sat for a moment after turning off the ignition and listened to the pops and pings as the engine cooled. She felt exhausted and edgy her body weary but her pulse pounding in her ears. She breathed deeply through her nose, filling her lungs and feeling the buzz of the oxygen rush.
She got out of the car and entered her home, walking through the rooms just as she had the day that Fiona had disappeared. As she went, she opened windows and doors and she thought about everything she knew.
In the five and a half months that Keira had experienced Seaburgh, she had closed her eyes to the truth. She'd watched her lover slowly fade away and had said nothing. She had stood by as horror filled her world. Now it was her turn to take control, to perform a final act that would bring love back into her life and into her soul.
Keira's journey through the house ended at the nursery. She paused for only a moment before opening the door. She didn't turn on the light, couldn't bear to see the Winnie the Pooh lamp, the mobile still dancing above the crib, Eeyore chasing Piglet across the walls. She knew the room by heart and quickly moved to the window, opening it wide and leaning out into the cold air. She breathed deeply, clearing her head of the images and sounds that chased her: a small form sleeping in the crib, a happy gurgle, the smell of baby powder and dried milk.
She wavered, her mind pulling against her body, her body twisting back. The choice before her threatened to tear her apart. She could run, leave Seaburgh and never come back. The past two weeks in the Bay Area had been a tantalizing taste of freedom. It would be so easy to return and melt back into her old life. But it wouldn't be her old life. Fiona wouldn't be in it. It would be a life of bitterness and anguish and haunting memories that would never let her go.
Or she could choose love.
Matthew's words echoed in her mind. She recited them over and over as the last of the light faded from the sky and the fog thinned enough to show the gleam of the full moon high in the night sky. Car lights joined the white orb, beginning their inexorable procession down from the hills.
Keira gripped the window frame, her fingernails sinking into the wood. She paused one last time and pictured her love standing before her, red hair gleaming in the moonlight, her skin milky smooth, her lips full. Fiona smiled and her green eyes twinkled. They were full of passion and love and life.
Keira leaned into the night and called out, her words echoing through the streets of Seaburgh.
"Come back to our home, Fiona. Accept my invitation. Come to claim me."
Keira looked out over Seaburgh. She could see the lights downtown brightening, could hear music tinkling from the juke boxes in the bars. Car horns honked and people began to arrive, their voices rushing like the waves crashing against the cliffs a few hundred yards away. Closer to home, the pine tree in the front yard bent in the wind, the movement causing the needles to whisper. The sound was joined by laughter, bubbling like a mountain spring. The familiarity of that laugh gripped Keira's heart. She leaned further out of the window and peered into the shadows, willing her eyes to see the source of that laughter. And then, there it was: a gliding movement, a flash of red, a sudden sound roaring in her ears.
And Keira waited, with arms outstretched, to join her lover in eternity.
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