By Skotti Kawasan
Her mood was sombre, she reflected.
Sombre was the word she was looking for. And it was always best to choose the right word.
She had a mind like a dictionary, as her father used to say. God rest his soul.
She supposed, she’d best…not that there was any more puss to feed, that was no longer a priority, sadly. She’d best put the kettle on and start seeing about feeding herself, which was ever a chore.
She did miss that wretched cat.
But then she’d heard that the latest episode of Parkington Manor was out, and she could always watch that, while she had supper.
She smiled; glancing at a new crossword puzzle book, that she hadn’t even opened yet. She had saved it all for just such a comfy night.
Truly, she thought; her life wasn’t really that bad at all.
“Not too shabby,” she said aloud and laughed.
But then she looked to where the cat wasn’t; a habit of old, as though sharing the joke. And her mood dissipated.
“Right, I’ll need potatoes, I suppose,” she said absently.
Nutritional needs taken care of, she carried her dirty dishes out to the kitchenette just as the final credits rolled over Lord Parkington’s inert form. It had truly been an episode to remember.
She washed the dishes quickly; in a small frothy sink, while the kettle began to sing next to her. And made a cup of tea; setting it on the TV tray, with the wonky leg. She crossed to the fire escape window, and screeched it open, to let the air circulate a little.
Finally, she relaxed in the vinyl comfy chair, and lit a cigarette. Her one guilty pleasure.
I mean it’s not as though there’s anything to live for anyway, she thought with a laugh, while another part of her – “What a dreadful thing to say, Matilda.”
She smiled, in spite of herself.
Truly, though, she was feeling a little bit depressed. A little under the weather, so to speak.
Perhaps it was something to do with those awful dreams she’d been having. But it was just as likely to do with work. And Roger.
Oh, Roger wasn’t that bad, all things considered.
His greying hair; collar length, and slicked back, the quizmaster looks; might make him attractive to some. But not Matilda, sadly.
Just today, he’d sidled over to her cubicle.
A tight space, but not one requiring that he lean in; and over her, placing his hand on the back of her chair. His loud, silver and pink stripes, competing with a strong cologne, for her attention.
“Hi there, my lovely. And how’s Matilda this warm, sultry afternoon?”
Before she’d had a chance to respond, he’d chuckled, “Ah, the good old GM Forecast doc. But see here…”
And at that point he’d placed his hand over hers, on top of the mouse.
“Let’s just check what formula you have,…embedded…here. Because I’m not sure of those figures for week 1.”
He must be pushing sixty, she thought. She knew he was only after one thing from her. As if she had time, for any of that nonsense.
He’s a creep, she decided
Why couldn’t he be like Mikey, sweet Mikey in Billing? Always cheerful, always friendly and polite. Truly gave you the time of day. A big, strapping, teddy bear of a boy.
If only she were thirty years younger. But then she’d met Mikey’s ‘friend’, Paula; sullen little thing, all dressed in black, heaven knows how they’d become an item.
All she’d ever really wanted was simply a companion. Someone to talk to. Someone to puzzle over crosswords with, in bed, with tea, on a Sunday morning. Someone to share experiences with. Like that gold of heaven instant, when the sun hit the face of the ancient treasury in Petra, last summer.
The good and the sublime things in life needed to be shared, she always thought, otherwise they could become a kind of burden eventually.
Why had she never met anyone?
Jay, of course tried her best to help, poor girl. Always asking her about how she felt, and did she fear intimacy? And that whole range of psychobabble. Poor thing; horrible what had happened to her little brother.
It really was the reason she kept going to see her at the end of the day, she supposed; she felt sorry for the poor girl. The therapy didn’t seem to do anything. How could it, when all they did was talk? Perhaps it was time she visited that psychic again.
She could ask her about the dreams.
They frightened her.
The worst so far, had happened only two nights ago.
In the dream, she awoke in an antique, hotel room.
The way the sunlight illuminated the generous curves of the turned, brown bed post. The drapery hanging vividly about her; all gauzy and frills; from the canopy above. All had alerted her to the difference.
This was no ordinary dream. She could even feel the hug of the blankets on her body.
She’d never dreamt so real before.
She thought for a moment, she was awake.
She dropped the bedclothes and arose, finding herself crossing the dry, wooden boards, to an open window. The view gave onto desert sands, covering the entire landscape. It had buried everything; save what remained, protruding, wood, stone, and brick; of other buildings, as well as the hotel itself. She could have stretched down and touched the fine white powder, which had started to fan out, and away in a warm, caressing breeze.
She was stunned by the reality of it, the feeling of genuine languor, in the heat from the window, and a feeling sensuousness from the breeze, to which she was wholly unaccustomed. Looking down, she noticed that she was naked and had turned to see a chair with a pile of clothes folded neatly upon it.
But then, the more she paid attention to the task of unfolding the underwear, (actually hers, she had noted) and putting it on, the more the dream had started to take on a totally absorbing clarity. She had begun to feel as though she were actually there. As though the hotel room, half buried in blowing white sands, was a real place.
The details of the room itself were so perfectly fixed and observable. The wainscoting and pink and green floral wallpaper; they were roses, she could see clearly.
The brass fixtures for the gaslights and the fussy curtains. All had given it the appearance of a film set, for a Western, made in a bygone age.
Her mind was present enough to be stunned.
She was awake within a dream! It had the feel of a forbidden secret, and the opening of a new world.
But then, when she had thought about who she could tell, a dread blush of anxiety had risen up her spine.
As she fished around in a mental blank for anyone she knew.
Or where she was from, or anything about her life, the blank became a void and she realised that she could no longer remember any of it.
And she knew with sinking certainty, that if she couldn’t remember, she could never go back.
She could get stuck here.
In a dream.
It terrified her.
Looking at the antique, four-poster bed, she struggled to recall her real bed back at home, but what was it like? She could almost feel it, the mattress beneath, the cocoon-like comfort of it all.
But it was just out of reach. She tried to think of herself, her body back at home. But she couldn’t quite sense it.
It was as though trying to penetrate a thick curtain of drunkenness.
But the momentary thought of home, conjured a flash of small cactus, on a windowsill; which she had forgotten to water. She suddenly knew of her kitchen and, with it, the softer memory of a small black cat
Her life flooded back to mind, and she woke gasping and thrashing as though breaking the surface of a drowning sea.
She had started to become very nervous about going to sleep at night.
Ian’s lips were moving, but Anna had stopped paying attention to anything but the bare animal sounds they were making.
Something about revenue projections in the short term. Advertising, probably. Claire’s name was mentioned several times. Also the phrase – unexpected project. Imperative was a word.
She hated him.
She’d woken that morning to news that her story had broken all PostFeed records. Reacts and shares were off the charts. The disappearance of eight year old Becky Landers in upstate NY was enough to sadden most people. But “The Trail Camera Pic”, as it had become known, had seen the story go viral. Everyone was talking about it. Memes were made.
Ian, in tan suit, had swaggered over to her desk, a look of tremendous self satisfaction on his sandy features; at around 10 am that morning. A mortified Claire in tow.
“But you see, Anna; it’s as I explained it to Claire, earlier,” Ian began.
She couldn’t look at Claire. Couldn’t look.
“You’ve created a phenomenon.” And here, he spread his hands. “The amazing Anna Ng. And people won’t able to just leave it like this.” He leant in closer.
“I happen to know, personally; that the police are actively following up on the matter.”
“Yes, we’ve already been to see Pete Fulton, in Crime.” Piped in Claire.
“Well, people will want the truth.” He avowed. “And it’s out there somewhere.”
He glanced slightly skyward.
“Well, I’ve manage to find out a few things:
The scene wasn’t the site of an ancient, First Nation, burial ground.” Anna said.
Ian looked intrigued, and slightly confused at the same time.
Anna looked at Claire, “somehow, a natural conclusion from the white community.” She shrugged. “It was a tobacco plantation once…”
Ian grew bored.
“But, a drowning occurred there in the late 1950s.”
Ian looked at her again.
“Now see, that’s the type of journalism I’m talking about.”
“Okay, so I want us to run this story as a feed. With updates, video, police photos; the whole box and dice.”
“So I’m to abandon everything in pursuit of this one story?”
“One Hundred percent.” He grinned. “Like an old school journalist, a gumshoe.”
Claire jumped in before Anna could respond.
“The way you write, Anna. People will love it. You can talk to Pete Fulton over in Crime, yourself. I’m sure he can help you with the law enforcement side of things.” Trying to occupy Anna’s attention right now. “Pete’s a really good guy.”
She’d looked away in any case.
“Your part in the humour project, can be simply placed on hold for now.” Ian said, cheerily.
It was then he turned to Claire to explain the revenue side of things.
Anna stopped listening, but he was only addressing Claire anyway, such topics were clearly beyond Anna’s remit.
Everything was going wrong.
And she fucking hated him.
Five hours later, and she sips again from coffee so awful, she purses her lips each time, and loathes herself a little more. Her butt is hard on a bench, on East 22nd; a land of old brick, and beige.
She can’t quite sit properly, in what are her most expensive, tasteful clothes. A suit she’d had to buy for a wealthy relative’s funeral once.
Across from her looms a sandstone edifice; its windows, lead lit. It is laced with actual ivy, and has an antique, oppressive feeling.
Moseley Elementary, Becky’s school.
At around 2.50pm, Anna stands, and joins a cluster of nannies, and young mothers, who begin congregating at the school’s grand entrance. She feels some obscure sense, of incipient punishment.
There’s the peal of an old fashioned bell, and the first of the mothers ascends the steps, and opens the doors.
Anna storms the corridor with the rest of the women.
It was Pete Fulton who’d been the only highlight of the day so far. She hadn’t known what to expect; an embittered, aging cliche? A jock?
Certainly not a delightfully flamboyant man in his late 40s; who’d insisted on making her a cup of earl grey tea.
“I can run you through what the police know so far.” He said. “But, TBH, there’s not much.”
He pulled up a doc.
“Okay. So, the parents are still persons of interest, but are no longer considered suspects. No registered sex offenders are known to reside in the area.
“Forensics on the trail camera picture have been inconclusive. And little in the way of physical evidence has been turned up at all,…Ah yes, the parents, according to my contact, apparently lied in some way, to cover up their negligence. They were asleep when she wandered off. But that’s all I know.”
Closing the doc, he removed his glasses and rubbed the bridge of his nose.
He looked over at her, sipping tea , “Sorry, hun.”
She was ready to brush it off, when he lowered his voice dramatically, leaning forward.
“But,” he began, a small smile forming. “This isn’t an isolated incident.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, according to my sources, the two detectives investigating the case, are following up on a number of similar disappearances.”
“How many, do we know?” She asked, while he searched through a folder, for the file he was after.
“Ok, here. So, in the last 20 months there have been 14 children and 9 adults resident in NYC, out of the 30,000 or so Missing Persons, who have disappeared under circumstances described as extremely odd or unusual. You know, the ones that even the police say are freaking weird.”
Becky Landers was just the latest.
She spots a group of mothers nearby chatting and overhears the comment, “…such a strange kid.” The others murmur awkwardly. She casually sidles towards, but the cluster is breaking up. One or two of the women glare at her, in passing.
She does her best to ignore them.
This wasn’t going to be easy at all.
She wanders awhile, taking in the grand old architecture; wood paneling and stone archways, when she spots a child reading from a noticeboard. He is pausing to write in a small notepad.
Anna isn’t great with kids’ ages but she figures this one to be about right. She meanders over and pretends to be checking the noticeboard for something as well. The small boy ignores her.
He is concentrating through thick glasses, staring at different class photos, and periodically scratching his head.
Occasionally, he scratches a furious note as well.
Recalling, from her own childhood, a hate for the question, “What are you doing?” She opts for a different approach.
“You know there’s a couple of cool apps for that.”
She cringes at herself immediately, feeling elderly.
At the same time, she glances down, and sees that the boy is writing in some form of code or symbol.
“Oh right” she says, his impatient look meeting hers. “Sorry.”
“That’s alright,” he says, closing, and pocketing his notepad. “You’d never understand it anyway.”
He turns to move off.
“Hey, let me ask you something,” she says with as little urgency as possible. Her voice becomes unfortunately cheerful with it. “Did you hear what happened to Becky Landers?”
He stops abruptly; half-smiling at her, before answering breezily,
“Oh, I wouldn’t worry about Becky. None of us are. Not anymore.” He shrugs.
Then his small mouth twists into a smirk.
“However, your cute little article only highlights your lack of understanding. Of what’s really going on. Of what’s actually coming.”
His too large eyes fix upon hers.
“But, when people start to see all those others, and just how much of this shit’s headed their way…”
He expands his cupped hands slowly.
“Gotta go.” And he turns, and runs away.
What the fuck? Anna thinks.
But he’s gone.
She starts making her way back, deciding that this is most probably a pointless exercise, when the open door to a classroom stops her. A child’s painting is stuck to the blackboard, just within. Among a dozen others, or so.
A fuzzy shape in its centre.
Looking around, the place is totally deserted in that moment, and she enters.
A blurry, smeared figure dominates the painting.
A child-like form, all arms and legs.
Nearby are drawn two large trees, among others.
A trickle of sweat, not just the heat; as she pulls out her phone, and brings up the photograph.
Her other hand going to her mouth.
At the bottom right, in adult’s sure marker, says “by Monica F.”
It is dated from three months ago.
Anna has reached out to touch the painting, and it comes away from the wall; only held there by sellotape. She quickly turns and stalks away, clutching it to her side.
She makes her way back out through the once more crowded corridors, people ignore her anyway; many probably assuming she is a nanny.
She keeps her head down, in any case; unaware of a scampering presence.
Following her, and watching her; the whole way out.
Through thick glasses.
The Step People
It’s different this time, she’s in a room now; and it’s much darker. Though it’s not a place she recognises.
Lying hard, on her back on the wooden floor and staring at the ceiling; it’s also much clearer. She feels more to be present, even to touch. But all is in shadow and gloom.
The light results from an open doorway
Outside is a hall; running left and right.
Next to her an old, rusted bed frame, is shoved, hard up against the wall. Above it, is a window to pitch darkness. The sash has been nailed shut dozens of times. With as many different types of nail, time and again. It doesn’t feel comforting to look at.
She rises and heads for the door.
In the hallway outside, light comes from a single bare bulb. A staircase behind leads down into darkness; while ahead is a flight going up. She heads over.
The walls are soft pink, their lower half of woodwork; all scuffed and disintegrating.
She winds around a landing, and up into semi-light. Hurrying softly, to where it begins to get bright again.
The stairs become wider here; and then darker, by turns, until a light on the far wall can be seen up ahead. It appears to be dancing. There comes a light tang of wood smoke in the air.
She peers around the corner, keeping low.
A small fire is set, burning on the wide concrete steps, casting crazy shadows on walls and ceiling. A man is feeding it with wood. While, alongside is a woman, grappling to fix a long pole.
Both dressed in rough clothes, put together from scraps, they are lean and tight with muscle.
Jay steps around slowly with her hands raised in front. “Hello?”
The woman raises, what is actually a spear, pointing it. The man has picked up a club as well. It looks to be made from a heavy, old stair banister.
“Who??!” demands the woman.
“A stranger,” she approaches very slowly, holding her arms higher. “I don’t know this place.”
“Stop there!” barks the man. “You look like a person, but your clothes are strange. What are you?”
“A person,” she answers, and smiles in a friendly way. ”I’m unarmed.”
“Approach,” says the woman tautly.
“She came out of the dark, Riser.” warns the man.
She walks slowly to the fire and squats down to present less of a threat, and after a moment they lower their weapons slightly.
“I’m afraid I’m lost,” she says frankly. “Is there a way out of here?”
They both look at her uncomprehending, which answers her question.
“And it’s all steps.” she asks mildly. “In this place. Is it?”
“Of course,” says the man. “Mostly. I am Newell and this is Riser. We are stalking.”
Their gaze at her is unwavering.
“Stalking?” she asks.
“We are Stalkers. We stalk the dark.” Riser answers, with a look of pride. “We keep the people safe, and we find new ways. We search for light.” She has tawny-coloured hair and pale skin.
“Why were you in the dark?” Newell asks; he is dark skinned, bald headed, with long moustaches. His club is still within reach. “Were you scrounging?”
“Scrounging? No.” she brightens her smile a tiny bit. “There was an area below, where there was light. I came from there, but I had to pass through a dark part.
“Are there more people like you?” she asks them.
They exchange a look before Newell responds, “You have not told us your name.”
She struggles for a moment to try and remember. Her mind a sudden blank; before answering, “Jay.” She says. “My name is Jay.”
They both frown.
“It’s lucky we found you,” says Riser. “You could have been swallowed up by the dark.”
Her use of the phrase is not a comfortable one.
“And the Scroungers sometimes kill first, and ask questions later. So lucky it was us.” says Newell.
“That’s right,” Riser says earnestly, looking at her. “You should stay with us.”
“How long are you staying around here?” she asks them.
“This room you were in,” interrupts Newell. “What was in it?”
“Nothing,” she answers. “Just a rusted old bed frame.”
“Were there any windows or doors?”
“Yes. A window. It was nailed shut.”
“People have been through there. There may have been Skulkers,” Riser is saying.
“There was another set of stairs which went down into where it was pitch dark. I didn’t go down there.”
They are looking at her intently now.
“This way is no good,” Newell looks at Riser. “We should pull back and try the other way.”
Riser nods her agreement. “There is nothing but dark this way.”
Newell bends to gather the firewood; which he then ties together in a bundle with some once brightly coloured cord. Riser retrieves a shoulder sack from nearby.
“Let’s go,” she says simply.
Jay feels it best she follow.
Together, the three of them ascend the stone steps, passing doorways and other stairs. After several turnings and flights, the light gets brighter again and they emerge into a spacious circular room.
It is well lit with fluorescent strip lights. The walls are plastered and painted green to the porous ceiling and there are sets of plastic doors. It has the look of a hospital space.
“This place,” grunts Newell. “The light is good, who knows?”
But this room is familiar to Jay.
It’s that hospital.
The one, where she had to go see him.
After they’d found him.
Her parents couldn’t do it.
It’s the hospital that haunted her nightmares all those nights before she learned to lucid dream. Every time, wrenching her, and gutting her afresh. When she would see the worst thing in the world. Over and over again.
“No,” she says. “I can’t.”
The other two look at her, confused.
“I can’t. I can’t, I’m sorry guys, I’m gonna have to wake up at this point.”
They continue to stare quizzically.
And then she thought about what to do.
How do I wake up, again?
It was blank.
“Shit. I need to wake up now!”
As though, by just saying it.
But she’d forgotten.
Nothing was happening.
She’d forgotten how to wake up.
He can never know how long this whole thing will last, and so he has to keep moving.
But it isn’t good.
It’s just started to get dark, and still no let up to the thickly forested wilderness all around him. But the ground is generally descending now; if rocky, which is a good sign. He is thankful, once more, for the sturdy boots, though no longer certain where they came from.
He rounds an outcrop, then onto a cliff path, winding around and down; precipitous but wide enough to be safe. Not truly perilous at all really, but there it is anyway, that looming feeling of vacuum at the edge, where it drops away.
As ever, he can also sense that deeper dread; not the fear of falling, but jumping. Not that he ever would of course. Ever. But just that something so big, could be so easy. And then none of this would ever happen again.
He is feeling a little rough at the moment, but it’s always like that at the beginning, when everything has changed. At least the clothes he is wearing should allow him to blend in this time, being fairly neutral. He can’t afford another disaster, like last time.
He rounds a rock distracted, and could’ve sworn for a second, there was the blink of a person squatting just there, on that rock over there.
But now he’s grinning, pleased at the sight of a small town beyond a band of green slopes. Just as he might have expected.
And there’s nobody on that rock, he checked.
He heads as best he can in the right direction, winding around boulders, and gripping slimmer trunks, and branches, for balance.
It is a tangled terrain of roots and litter, but slowly becoming a little more manageable; safer and easier.
At last the ground begins to level out and through a break in the trees, he can see a road. He heads towards it.
He steps out to the blast of an air horn as a semi rounds the bend, way too fast. He hurdles the guard rail in a dust storm of leaves and the shuddering of air-brakes.
He stops and pauses for breath.
Then a car passes him on the road; a pickup. The driver is wearing sunglasses despite the twilight.
The town, he can see below, comprises a small grid of shops and houses straddling a rail line. A railway means he can leave if he has to.
If he can get there before dark, it will give him the chance to get a sense of the people, and gauge his chances of finding help.
Once past the outlying houses, he reaches a rail crossing, and he crosses the highway there. Headed in the direction of a general store.
There are people around, and most of them older. Not many, but enough to see that they are well dressed. Conservative looking folk. That could be a problem.
He turns to see a man and a woman, leaning against a car, coolly regarding him from a distance. They are wearing sunglasses, but he is certain he can sense the slight turn of their head when he continues up the street.
Being a big guy, he attracted attention, but they have the look of local law enforcement.
And that would be the very last type of trouble he needs.
The street, running slightly uphill is well paved and easy to walk on. He quickens his step a little.
The houses here, are mostly two-storey, or above shops, and quite prosperous looking. Yet here and there, at random, like a rotten tooth gap are buildings completely ruined, gutted and rubbled. Some charred.
People moving around him, all seem to be concluding their business for the day and heading away, mostly hurrying. They scarcely pay him any attention.
The owner of the general store comes out and locks up quickly, even as he passes its entrance. The man disappears around the opposite corner and is gone.
The sky is lowering with livid cloud, it is late, and it has gotten gloomish-dark.
A whining moan slowly begins, a wailing siren sound which winds itself up to pitch. There is a tannoy mounted at the top of a nearby telegraph pole.
The street is completely empty as the twilight takes hold.
There comes a soft sound of humming, which he can’t quite identify. A buzzing drone. Coming from the sky somewhere in the distance up ahead. It gets slowly nearer, but he still can’t see anything.
A flash tears open the sky and the air is cracked open by the Clap of a massive explosion; followed by the rolling, bouncing, banging which trails after.
His ears are numbed by it.
There are more ominous rumblings, and two or three silent flashes from within the cloud, directly overhead, when he decides he has to move quickly.
A paling-fenced lane looks to lead where houses are, and he runs for it.
The first house on the left is occupied. He hurries to the front door and begins knocking, just as another blast of thunder tears at his ears.
He knows there are people in this house, there is music coming from one of the front rooms and cars in the driveway. But he has to give up and find another house.
The next house is empty, and the next one is gone completely. And then there’s one that lies set back in a broad leafy yard; something warm about it, a feeling of care and kindness. He dashes across, under the trees.
At a blinding flash behind him, he turns to see a lightning spark striking, in the middle of the road, crackling and buzzing loudly. He gapes at it.
It has touched down to earth and stayed there. Not moving, except to lick over the ground as though exploring it; with tentacle probe flashes arcing out.
Flashbulb bright, it buzzes its way along the tarmac and across to a house, humming loud with crispy static, the whole is engulfed in an instant. The smell of burning wood fills the air.
Then comes the concussion.
He runs for the house.
This is not a good place at all.
The door is opened by a youngish woman with dark hair, wearing the plain smock of a domestic worker. She stares at him questioningly.
“Please, the storm!” he says. “It’s very dangerous. Please, can I come in?”
She doesn’t seem to understand, but she opens the screen door anyway, just as another thunderous crash shakes the sky.
Safe now, he is in a spacious, tastefully appointed living room. A heavy, wooden staircase leads to the upper floors.
In front of him, an elderly woman is slumped, on a couch, before a burbling TV.
A thin line of drool is snaking its way, down her chin and neck.
The young woman goes over, and begins to shake her gently.
“Bobe!” she says, loudly. “Obudz sie!”
Then she begins to shake her more roughly. “nie jest człowiekiem, obudz sie!”
She is gripping her by the shoulders now and shaking her with a rattling jar.
He begins to reassure her that it’s OK, and not to trouble herself when he turns and sees a bed in the far corner of the room, where it is darkened.
It’s a hospital bed.
There are two machines wired up and entubing a small figure lying amongst the covers there. Something draws him over and, as he approaches, he also notices that the storm has stopped completely. The only sound now is the soft beep of the cardiac monitor.
It is a very young girl with long, dark hair, maybe seven years old.
A strange feeling dawns in him. It seeps into his mind.
He knows her.
How could that be possible?
He is a stranger here.
He is always a stranger here.
But he knows her; with a mounting certainty, the closer he approaches the bed. He’d know that small face anywhere.
But he doesn’t know how. He’s never seen her before. Ever.
He has no idea who she is.
But he knows her.
He steps up to the rail of the bed, looking down.
The young woman stands near with a concerned, but loving smile at the child.
He absently picks up small picture on top of a cardiac monitor. A picture of the little girl.
A tremendous sensation begins filling his chest and spilling over. More than just a vast longing, but something like it. A sense of belonging.
He has never felt this way before.
It doesn’t make any sense. Yet there it is.
“Eve,” he says from some unknown place of certainty.
The old woman jolts upright with a lurch. Her eyes snap open. They are staring straight at him. And though her mouth doesn’t move, he hears her voice sear itself into his mind.
“Find her. Bring her back to us.”
And then everything changes again.
The Good Doctor
Her best friend has such an engaging smile, thinks Anna. Everybody comments on it.
It offsets the stronger angles of her face, softening it completely; with a crooked, child-like cheek. As though daring you not to laugh at everything.
A single teardrop obscures her friend’s face almost entirely; curving it utterly out of shape.
Wiping it away, Anna sighs, and replaces the photo on the nightstand.
So stupid. She thinks. Crying won’t help anyone.
The picture, from a shared vacation to Miami, is one in which Anna can no longer recall what they were laughing at. But the sharp contrast, to the Jay of last night, hurts right through her; like a guillotine.
Jay was barely breathing, it was so soft. The stark cardiac beep, stumbled on like water torture.
Wires and tubes.
Machines expressing her life force, and raw numbers, its viability.
It made her friend seem more simply corporeal, than fragile. That this was all she could be reduced to.
And it could be so easily switched off.
Jay’s parents had been there as well; their faces both, an agony in pale, with dark circled eyes.
Mrs Rosenthal mostly sat in fearful anguish, while her husband tried his best to engage Anna in small talk.
“You’re a journalist, aren’t you, Anna? That must be interesting.”
Their conversation was interrupted by a youngish man in chinos and polo, apologising his way in.
“Well look who’s here!” Mr Rosenthal beamed.
Even Mrs Rosenthal looked up.
“Steven,” she said, her eyes filling. “Oh, Steven.”
In a moment, he was beside her, folding her in an embrace that made Anna literally take a step back.
Mr Rosenthal looked on, a pleasant smile ill fitting his face.
Once they’d parted, Anna was introduced to Steven Arbetz. Tall, neatly dressed, and clean to the cut of his short blond hair. His eyes were a pale and icy blue.
The Rosenthals are dating a Nazi. thought Anna.
A loud, jarring tone.
Her phone is vibrating its lemming way across the nightstand. She picks up.
“Hi sweetie. How you holding up? I really wish I could be there for you, poor thing. You OK?”
She smiles, his voice is a hug.
“Hi Pete.” She says, her eyes warming again. “I’m ok, I guess. I’m just, you know, worried is all.”
“I completely understand, hun. You do whatever you need to to take care of yourself first, OK? So you’re strong enough to help your friend.”
“Remember to rest as well, hun.”
“Listen. I know it’s not the time, but I have some news that might otherwise cheer you up.”
“Ok?” Her mind is on alert.
“So, one of my contacts has managed to find out the following for you: The F stands for Fung.” she can hear him grinning.
“Monica Fung,” she says.
“Yes, and now, apparently,…” His voice lowers to that low, and silky tone, he reserves for secrets.
“Monica is a known associate of Ms Becky Landers. In fact, she appears to be her only friend.”
“But here’s where you’ll adore me…” She can hear him beginning to munch on a cookie now.
“I already adore you, sweetie.”
“I know, I know; especially since I’m about to give you her home address. Do you have a pen?”
She can hear him laughing at her.
“There’s just one minor, wee caveat,” he goes on.
“The dear child is apparently suffering from glandular fever at present. She’s in quarantine, I guess. The detectives haven’t been able to interview her, in any case.”
Glandular fever, she thinks; recalling a long spell away from senior high.
That means that I’m immune now, doesn’t it?
“Pete, you are truly a godsend, my darling. I owe you big time.”
“Dinner, dear heart. Let’s do dinner and a club some night”
She loves Pete.
The Fungs live in a tastefully modern apartment in West Village. She stands before an orchestration of angular glass, and brushed steel.
Hanging around out front, seems all she can do right now, and she is looking at the names on the buzzer when a man is skipping up the steps.
She pretends to keep looking; the door buzzes, and she hears a voice.
He is holding the door for her.
She stands and nods her head, shuffling in after, trying her best to look distracted.
But the man has stopped suddenly, and is staring straight at her.
Older, and Asian, in an open neck shirt, a smile is forming on his face now. And he raises his hand to point.
“I know you,” he says, grinning in some kind of delight.
Anna’s brain searches desperately for a context, while her face flushes.
“Anna Ng!” He says, snapping his fingers, very pleased with himself.
“Wha…?” She begins; whereupon he bursts out laughing. “The fuck? Oh pardon me.”
“I’m sorry,” he says, smiling at her confusion. “I saw your face, next to one of your articles.
About Becky. I remember thinking, ‘why does this girl have a Malaysian Chinese surname, when she is not Asian? She is, she is…What are you, exactly?”
Infected by his sense of childish delight, she can’t help but laugh.
“My father was from Singapore, and my mom was from Irish people, hence the green eyes and freckles. But yeh, the eyes are almond, and the skin, olive, from my dad.”
“I’m Stanley Fung, Anna. Doctor Stanley Fung, Paediatrician, at your service. It’s really nice to meet you.” He held out his hand, which Anna shook.
“Would you like to come upstairs and talk to Monica?” He asks.
She is too stunned to question the luck right now.
“That’s why you’re here, right?”
“Ummm, isn’t she unwell at the moment?” she figures voicing a concern, of such nobleness, can only further cement this deal. She is, of course, immune. She’d Googled it.
“The Epstein Barr thing? Nahhh. I just don’t want the police traumatising my little girl until she’s ready to talk to them.”
“Besides, I don’t think what she has to say will help the police, in any case.”
“No? Because she’s just a child?”
“No,” and it is the first serious look Stanley Fung has given her.
“No. It’s because I don’t think they’d believe her.”
He indicates the lift. “I think you’d better come upstairs, Ms Ng.”