Just Before Midnight

Some conspiracy theories are a red herring for the bigger picture…

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Prologue

It happened all at once. It happened gradually. When the rains came with the winds of unease, they stood tall, freeing themselves from the burden of want or care. When they stormed her shores charging full-speed ahead, they waved stolen feathers from a peace dove. When they sang a mantra of liberty and good will, they quietly punctured the core of her foundation. Little by little and in one giant swoop, they, the advocates for hope and change, stripped her bare, cut off her hair and polluted her air. When she refused to beg for mercy, they brought death, silencing her despair.

Nothing was the same since The Council took over. Most people went along to get along until the change happened. The change affected everyone. They conquered in increments, a loss of freedom here, a silenced voice there, until the layers of rules and restrictions sparked an explosion of anger and discontent, but by then it was too late. One crisis led to the next and the need for food and water and gas took precedent over things like individual rights and free will. The Council came to the rescue. They shared their wealth for the good of humanity and accepted the reigns of control with reluctance and humility. They knew what to do. They knew how to fix things and ensured a prosperous future. The Council knew how to save the world, but when the oceans turned red and the honeybees faced extinction, they blamed the people. Something else had to be done to save the dying earth and The Council had a plan, but so did Time. Time had a way of dealing with these kinds of things, and with the birth pangs of the twenty-first century laid to rest, the future was anyone’s guess.

Chapter One

The holidays left Paige stir-crazy and craving stimulation, something besides the mindless chatter spewing from the living-room television. Stepping outside, she inhaled the winter air, the sensation foreign to her lungs as she coughed and sat down on the old wooden porch swing. Pine needles swept across her feet and she shivered, rubbed her hands together and embraced the change of scenery. A tall forest surrounded her parent’s modest two-story house, but she looked beyond the tree line and searched in vain for an absent moon. Coyotes wailed in the distance, their high-pitched howls chasing a passing train while neighborhood dogs rounded out the late-night chorus. She smiled and shivered again, continuing her hunt for the moon until a strange sight distracted her.

Against the backdrop of the starless night, a faint glow materialized over Houston’s southern sky. Paige held her breath as the curtain of pale green lights grew brighter, swaying in the sky, slow and languid like an underwater dance. She stood from the swing and walked out into the yard, but the dancing lights dimmed and faded, forming a translucent veil before disappearing out of sight. The night fell still. Engulfed by silence, Paige wracked her brain for some sort of logic to decipher the bizarre event. She lived too far south to enjoy the Northern Lights, but a better explanation eluded her. Her cell phone struck midnight and an explosion of fireworks sabotaged her thought process—who has money for fireworks these days? It occurred to her that fireworks were exactly what she’d witnessed, and though instinct disagreed, Paige shrugged it off as best she could and retreated from the cold, closing the door behind her on another tiresome year.

Paige and her parents were still recovering from a late September hurricane that spiraled through South Texas and ripped apart their one-acre plot of land. Forecasters dubbed the expired hurricane season the worst on record, a declaration they made every year. Galveston resembled a ghost town due to rising tides and strong storms, but after this last one it seemed unlikely the island could ever bounce back. Devastation lessened further inland, but the Holland’s battled roof damage some three months later; thankful though, they had a home. It wasn’t their first storm to weather and it wouldn’t be their last. People who braved the Gulf Coast were old pros when it came to hunkering down during a storm, but if the floodwaters rose, heed the sirens, abandon ship and git the hell outta dodge.

Eighteen and college-bound, Paige lived at home with her parents to cut down on costs and help out around the house, specifically taking care of her father. Mr. Holland fell ill about six months ago with flu-like symptoms that rendered him weak, feverish and nauseous most of the time, but his strong aversion to doctors ruled out a proper diagnosis. A daddy’s girl since birth, Paige refused to accept the notion of her father’s own mortality. She suppressed those thoughts, pushing them out of her head along with the recurring nightmares that stripped her of sound sleep lately.

Successfully avoiding the snooze button, Paige scurried around the house leaving behind a trail of toothpaste and hair gel in her wake. The bathroom took the hardest hit, a minor casualty in her attempt to arrive on time at her first class of the semester. Chronically late back in high school, she spent most mornings looking for a missing shoe or misplaced keys, but with a new year underway and a more efficient routine, she hoped for a less chaotic experience. Time to get it together, she thought, before I become one of those twenty-something drifters—yeah right. She knew better, her post-graduation plans were still pending. She tackled most of her chores the night before in an effort to fulfill just one of her New Year’s resolutions—Monday morning ran like clockwork. Ten minutes ahead of schedule, she nearly took out the family dog as she stumbled downstairs in her race against time. Strutter may be a well-suited name for a younger dog, but Paige thought perhaps Sputter would be more appropriate as of late. He mimicked an old car, sputtering around and making a lot of noise but never actually getting anywhere. Strutter was a mutt, a genetic disaster her mother might say. An original mix between Collie and Terrier, he’d been with the family for thirteen years and developed a recent skin allergy that left him flaky, smelly and difficult to endure. Mrs. Holland condemned the poor thing to the backyard years ago, snapping, he’s an outside dog now! Mr. Holland fought her on this ever since, letting Strutter inside whenever she turned her back, as it was, she turned her back a lot.

Paige jumped from the last step and managed to clear the sleeping mongrel. Sputter flicked an ear, yawned and then rested his head between his two front paws. Paige hit hard, feet first, on the ceramic-floor landing. Her father’s voice echoed from the kitchen, catching her off guard as she turned the corner to find him engaged in his old morning routine—scanning news headlines on his laptop, sipping coffee and eating breakfast.

“Fireworks?” he asked. “People really buy that load of crap?”

“Probably,” Mrs. Holland answered, biting into a biscuit.

“Paige,” he yelled, “you just come in for a landing or did the rest of the roof collapse?”

Paige kissed her father on his forehead, hugged her mother around the waist and bustled over to the freshly brewed pot of coffee. “You’re out of bed,” she commented. “How’re you feeling?” Mr. Holland shifted positions in his chair keeping most of his attention on the news story he currently picked apart.

“Better,” he nodded. “Don’t know why and don’t know how, but let’s not jinx it.” Mr. Holland wasn’t what one might call a superstitious man, but he had his quirks, and believing in jinxes was one of them. He was also a self-proclaimed conspiracy theorist.

“More dead birds,” he said, adjusting his glasses. “Denver this time. Hell Allie, I thought fireworks were banned.” His wife Allison stood in her bathrobe and slippers, sipped coffee out of an oversized mug and thumbed through a stack of unruly bills on the kitchen bar.

“Don’t get yourself all worked up, dear,” she yawned. “Let’s save conspiracy theories for dinner tonight. I haven’t even finished my first cup of coffee yet.”

“It’s not a conspiracy,” Justin answered. “You know exactly what’s going on. It’s that crap they keep spraying, but The Council, hey, just tell the press it’s fireworks. Idiots. Check out these pictures.”

Allison walked around the bar and stood behind her husband, “There you go,” she said, “getting all worked up.” Resting her hands on his shoulders, she leaned in to view the latest carnage. “Alright, alright, let me see. My goodness, look at them all,” she whispered, placing her hand over her mouth.

Paige doctored her coffee with cream and sugar and wondered if she’d ever enjoy drinking it black the way her parents liked it. She tried it once but found it entirely too bitter. She wondered if taste buds changed with age. Her parents discussed the latest news stories while cloaked in their robes and clutching their coffee cups. She smiled. Despite all the talking heads on the television discussing death, destruction and disaster, all was right in the world at that moment. Speaking of news!

“Oh, Dad, I forgot to tell you about these strange lights I saw in the sky the other night.”

“What kind of strange lights?” Justin asked, his eyes glued to the computer again.

“Well, on New Year’s Eve when I was out on the porch, I saw these pale green lights in the sky that looked exactly like an aurora borealis, but that couldn’t be—”

“Paige, sweetie,” Allison said, “Did you get all the books you need?”

“Not yet,” she shrugged. “Anyway, Dad, I figured it was fireworks, but I’ve never seen fireworks like this before. I mean, it really looked like the Northern Lights. What do you think it was?”

“Don’t know,” he answered. “Could have been The Council, or maybe the aliens have come back for us,” he said in a low voice, his eyes darting from left to right.

“Dad, be serious!”

“You’ll be late if you keep egging on your father’s imagination,” Allison said, returning to her stack of hate mail. Ripping into another tightly sealed envelope, she concluded, “We’ll talk aliens later tonight.”

“Yeah okay, I’ll see ya’ll this evening.” Paige grabbed her sack lunch from the bar, swung open the front door and paused long enough to catch her father’s last minute remark,

“Hey! Watch out for those aliens, they’ve been known to look human!”

Chapter Two

Humidity strangled the air as Paige stepped out into the damp morning. Shades of gray coated the sky and she observed the tall skinny pines, their tired limbs droopy and weighed down by gathering crows. Guess the sun called in sick, she thought, tossing her sack lunch onto the backseat. Letting the engine warm before pulling out of the drive, she sipped her coffee and checked the time, impressed by her early bird status.

The windshield wipers screeched across the glass as Paige relaxed into her morning commute. Enjoying another hot sip of coffee, she reached over and inserted a CD featuring her all-time favorite band. CD’s were obsolete, forgotten relics worthy of a museum, much like her car, as well as her favorite band Limbo Diver. She imagined herself an old soul belonging to that same museum, but Paige wasn’t alone in her taste for the outdated. From music to television to fashion, pop culture fell into a slump with the younger generation going retro more often than not. Most people were forced to old school it when the money train derailed and consumerism tanked, and if anything new was produced, no one bought it. The entertainment industry suffered the pain of a world in turmoil, due in part to The Big One that inevitably hit California. The City of Angels sat in ruins two years after the mega-quake struck, but Hollywood didn’t die, it relocated. Low budget films rarely saw the light of day, and the five or so big productions released each year weren’t worth the waste of money. Cable, satellite and local channels fed viewers reruns and reality shows, while news stations told them what they already knew or what they didn’t really need to know.

Paige turned up the stereo and sped toward the freeway entrance ramp heading southbound to the Museum District. Fellow Houstonians transformed into high-speed weapons as she disappeared into the chaotic free-for-all of morning traffic. Texas claimed to be The Drive Friendly State but Paige thought that perhaps the slogan the drive deadly state would be more appropriate; however, the widely known slogan, Don’t Mess with Texas, summed it up in a pinch. Newer models of electric cars zoomed past as her forgotten relic neared 50mph. I think I can, I think I can, played on a loop in her head until she settled into a safe niche in the middle lane. Still in the green, she thought, and tried to ignore the broken scenery she passed along the way.

The current generation owned the privilege of living after oil’s heyday drew to a close, a predictable catastrophe causing prices to double overnight. Gas wasn’t a sure bet these days and most pumps sat abandoned and covered with yellow plastic bags, and if they weren’t, a person was lucky to fill their tanks with whatever fumes remained. Deliveries came once a month and lines of cars stretched for miles on days when fuel trucks, like the Calvary, arrived, but the squeaky wheel kept turning despite overcrowding, rolling blackouts, food rationing and mandatory water restrictions.

Paige wished she’d been born decades earlier before Old Glory traded her homemade apple pie for processed food in a tin can. She envied previous generations who enjoyed a more independent society, one where people weren’t ruled by appointed babysitters. Twenty years ago during the height of the oil-crisis, America experienced a time of major transition when the North American Region (NAR) formed. The NAR combined The United States with Mexico and Canada, selecting a Council of Six to govern the entire area; the fifty states divided into six regions. It was the consolidation of power and the end of our freedom, her father once said, and Paige believed him. States were considered wholly ceremonial, leftover remnants of the Old Republic. The real power rested with the controllers of population centers, which were the main hub for any kind of traffic be it air, land, water or cyber. Officials appointed by the Council of Six oversaw the centers and replaced the need for local government, keeping tabs on the distribution of food, water and gas—the only things that mattered. Houston, the anointed population center for the Gulf Coast Region, was in good shape compared to most major cities. Rural communities; however, where farmers and country folk took care of their own with wells and gardens, faced ongoing attacks by The Environmental Redistribution Agency (ERA), lovingly referred to by citizens as The Green Police. One of the many arms formed by The Council of Six, the ERA’s sole purpose was ordering widespread road closures, seizing private land and code enforcement. Permanently cut off from the general population, small country towns watched gas stations, grocery stores and local businesses shut down as people migrated en masse to population centers where resources were available.

Paige arrived at the West Lot checkpoint where Civilian Military Counterpart (CMC) Officers systematically covered every inch of her car, a process that took about five minutes. She pulled into a parking space and began her mile-long hike towards the central quad with about five minutes left to spare. I’m actually going to make it on time, she thought, power-walking closer to her destination. Dressed in a pair of loose-fitting jeans, black canvas sneakers and a black long-sleeved shirt, Paige opted for comfort over fashion. A camouflaged self portrait of Andy Warhol decorated the front of her shirt with his famous slogan, your fifteen minutes are up, printed underneath. She considered it one of her favorites, purchased from the Museum of Fine Arts where she attended the Warhol exhibit with her dad.

Her clothes dampened by the humid air, Paige joined the drones of over-privileged students milling around the grassy quad. Over-privileged, she thought, because no one could afford college these days unless they came from wealthy families. It was nothing new according to her mother, college had always been expensive, but the majority of young people spent their high school years prepping for a lifetime of manual labor. The current trend promoted finding a green job with The Council. Green jobs sprouted up everywhere after The Council took over, but the cheap labor left workers struggling to earn an income above poverty. With oil reserves dwindling, alternative energy sources slowly became more available and affordable, but the process of converting the old way of life into a clean green consuming machine moved at a snail’s pace. New building codes were in order for every structure (private or business) to install solar paneling, leaving Paige’s university under constant construction. With the Go Green Regime in full swing, Paige remained unclear about green jobs but figured installing solar shingles for a living was a no go. Tragedy funded her college career. A head-on collision took the lives of both her parents when she was a baby, and with no known next of kin, Allison and Justin Holland adopted her soon after the accident. Two months ago on her eighteenth birthday, her long-awaited inheritance paid out.

The constant noise from construction, the drilling, hammering and more hammering, grated on her nerves, but Paige enjoyed the atmosphere nonetheless. Under damp and overcast weather, a mystical ambience enveloped the university. She followed the cobblestone ground as it snaked through high archways and ivy-covered walls, observing that it was, by far, the best bit of architecture Houston had to offer. Neo-Byzantine if I remember correctly, she thought, secretly contemplating whether or not to change her major to art. Instead, Paige chose journalism with a minor in political science, a decision that pleased her father but offered few options for a career. No need for journalists these days. She arrived on the south side of campus out of breath and (much like Alice’s white rabbit) with no time left to spare. Shuffling down the long halls of the maze-like building, she trailed behind a man with a thick dirty-blonde ponytail bunched together with a black hair tie. Sporting a yellow wool blazer with faded blue jeans, he totted a worn leather book bag and walked faster than Paige the Power-Walker herself. She also noted his black canvas sneakers as he turned the corner into her classroom.

Chapter Three

Professor Faraday was right on time when he made his way to the front of the class. He always hated the first day of a new semester. It was him aim to skip through all the course overview nonsense and get on with the actual lecture. Get down to the meat and potatoes, his dad might say, but Professor Faraday didn’t eat meat, and potatoes were nothing but starch. He celebrated his seventy-sixth birthday during the holidays but didn’t look a day over twenty-five, thirty if you wanted to push it. A three-time divorcee with no known kids, he doubted he’d ever marry again, especially after his last wife. Billy Faraday (William as his colleagues knew him) was a free spirit, a drifter back-in-the-day. He never imagined he’d wind up back in Texas teaching at his old university. Waiting for the last few students to trickle in, the professor took his spot front and off-centered.

“Good morning and welcome to History of American Politics,” he began. “I’m Professor Faraday and this is the course that’ll give you a new love for our so-called government.” Smiling, he tapped his fingers on the podium and scanned over the class while his head bobbed from side to side, keeping in rhythm with his drumbeat. Locking eyes with Paige, he silenced his fingers and stood with his hand over his mouth, slowly stroking his beard until a high-pitched sneeze exploded from the front row. Paige jumped and mumbled, bless you. The professor ducked behind the podium.

“Incoming!” he yelled. “Duck and cover!”

Paige laughed and looked around the room, surprised to see the majority of the class crippled with apprehension for the professor, their faces crinkled and confused as they waited for his return. Peeking around the podium, Professor Faraday straightened out his jacket, flipped back his long ponytail and began to speak, interrupted again by the flickering of the classroom lights—off, on, off, on, and then, off.

“Son-of-a… Did they change the times on us again?” Reaching down into his book bag, he pulled out a flashlight and held it under his chin. With a wild grin, his beard glowing like a burning bush, the professor resembled a demented hippie who flew too close to the ganja flame.

“Don’t get your hopes up guys, I can teach in the dark.”

His nonchalant confidence intrigued Paige, and with growing adoration for the professor, she fought the urge to stand on top of her desk and declare her loyalty—O’ Captain, my Captain! She supposed he didn’t need a flashlight to brighten up the room. As soon as everyone prepared for darkness, with half the class also producing flashlights, the fluorescent bulbs buzzed back to life. Paige halfway expected them to stay off for good.

“You sure?” the professor asked, staring at the ceiling. Clicking off his flashlight, he cleared his throat, warned the class that notes were a vital necessity and then began his lesson.

“The system of government our Founding Fathers laid out for us vastly contrasts and, more to the point, is in stark contradiction to the current system…”

Paige sat in awe of the professor as he strolled back and forth across the room, gesturing while he spoke. She would have camped out in the parking lot to take his course, and almost had to since his classes sold out like a rock show. For those students in the know, Professor Faraday used to be known as Billy Faraday, the first and best drummer for Limbo Diver, as far as she was concerned. An original member when the band formed fifty-something years ago, he called it quits after the release of their thirteenth album. The band played on with a new drummer, but Professor Faraday dropped out of the scene until he rejoined the band for a reunion tour fifteen years later.

Paige tried focusing on his lecture but found the professor’s celebrity status distracting. Her thoughts ran wild with speculation. She wondered how a person could go from being in a popular rock band surrounded by drugs and groupies and all night parties to a professor of political science. Makes since though, she thought, they were always a political band, but he sure doesn’t look like he’s in his seventies. Wouldn’t he have to be? If he was twenty-something when Limbo Diver formed, he’d have to be at least seventy-something, right? No way, she thought, that’s impossible. What’s the math on that anyway?  He must’ve had some major plastic sur… Oh crap! Notes, I’m supposed to be taking notes... So far, she’d managed to scribble down, TAKE NOTES. Beautiful. Paige abandoned her runaway thoughts and readjusted her focus on the lesson.

“…and that’s probably the most important point I can make, consider yourselves informed and enlightened.” Professor Faraday checked the clock on the wall and approached the podium, “Okay,” he said, rubbing his hands together, “let’s switch gears. Time for a little class discussion. No need for notes, this is just food for thought.”

Paige copied notes from the chalkboard and looked up to meet the professor’s gaze. She wiped her hand across her forehead and glanced around the room envious of her enlightened classmates. She hoped for a sneeze or a blackout or even a bomb threat to disrupt his unyielding stare, but the professor’s pale blue eyes dissected her, picking her apart as he stroked his beard with slow precision before finally nodding and turning away. Paige rolled up her sleeves, pulled back her hair and continued copying notes from the chalkboard.

“What’s the biggest challenge facing us today?” the professor asked. “There’s no wrong answer, I suppose.” Several students responded: The energy crisis! China! The food shortage! Terrorists! Nuclear War!

Paige, in need of redemption, also chimed in shouting, “The water shortage!”

Pivoting on his heels, the professor’s blue eyes cornered her once again. “Care to expand on that, Miss Holland?”

Pushing her sleeves up even further, she answered, “Uh, well, without water, none of those things matter. We’ve been rationing for a while now, with everyone’s water being shut off for most of the day. I mean, come on, we’re recycling sewage waste!” She looked around the room and straightened her posture. “We can convert our energy sources,” she continued, “and we can live without electricity, but we can’t replace water. Without clean water, we can kiss the future goodbye.”

The professor stood with both hands in his pockets and remained silent, appearing distracted before finally acknowledging her answer with a subdued, “thank you, Paige.” Butterflies attacked her stomach.

“Clean water doesn’t matter if we get nuked!” yelled one of the students.

With his eye on Paige, the professor remarked, “Only time will tell.”

At risk of caving under the weight of his bearded stare, Paige ran her clammy hands through her hair and opened her mouth before her brain could interfere. “And what do you think?” she asked. “What would you say our biggest problem is?”

His gaze unfaltering, the professor replied, “Weren’t you paying attention? It’s The Council, of course.” A collective chuckle spread through the room and Professor Faraday dismissed the class with a wave of his hand. Paige didn’t move. She watched the professor pack up his bag and erase the chalkboard clean, but when he turned to find her still seated, she gathered her things and stood to leave. Winding her way out of the classroom, she felt his gaze burn a hole through her back.

Temperatures took a dramatic nosedive as an arctic front paved the way for a mini ice-age. A blanket of clouds imprisoned the sleeping sun and Paige covered her ears, sensitive to the cold wind as she set out to fetch her jacket from the car. With three hours to kill before her next class, she slowed her pace and trudged through the crowd of gathering strangers. She longed for a familiar face.

Paige didn’t have many friends, any really, but the term, social butterfly, wasn’t a bullet point on her resume. An outcast once puberty hit, she morphed into one of those moody gothic rejects of teenage society, but she at least had a small group of friends back in high school. In college, most of the students lived on campus where cliques and circles took shape, but Paige shrugged off her anonymity. Folding her arms tightly against her chest, she avoided eye contact and maneuvered her way through the growing crowd. Students laughed and talked over each other as they gathered in small groups to share the latest gossip, chit-chat with friends or discuss plans for the weekend. A large flock of female students pushed past Paige almost knocking her off the walkway, cackling and violently gesturing with their manicured nails. Never one to stand down, she yelled after them, “share the sidewalk, ladies!” The gaggle of girls laughed and kept walking but when Paige whipped around again, she almost smacked into another student. Stumbling back, she stared at the slender young man who smirked, dropped his head and continued his stroll with his nose grazing an oversized book. The crowds squeezed by around her as she watched the young man head towards a nearby picnic table. She knew him. She didn’t know how or where, but she knew him.

The young man appeared out of place among his peers, a loner, like Paige. He was the epitome of tall, dark and mysterious with high cheekbones, perfectly sculpted lips and a tanned olive complexion. Dark and out-of-control hair framed his crescent moon face, complimenting his mood ring eyes with the air-brushed perfection of a teen dream. He plopped down at the picnic table and continued reading, but as Paige drew closer, determined to put a name with a face, a pale pink light appeared around his frame. Readjusting her focus, she moved in closer. The light intensified, surrounding him with blinding radiance. Abandoning the sidewalk, she quickened her pace and trudged through the wet grass closing the gap to about twenty feet. The young man continued reading, oblivious to the light and oblivious to Paige. She inched closer, but the pale glow dimmed and faded away into natural light as she stood in place debating whether or not to approach him. She almost walked away until the young man threw down his book, sprang from the table and stumbled over the bench. Shaking out his hair, he stamped his feet as if exploding into a full-blown temper tantrum. Paige didn’t know whether to run away or help him fight off the unknown assailant. Cautiously approaching, she saw the reason for the freak out.

“Wow, what happened?”

“The bees are dying,” he answered, his voice soft and airy. Looking down, he extracted a bee stinger from the back of his hand and held it up to his face. “Strange,” he said, tossing it on the ground. He cupped his neck and retrieved another bee stinger, once again, examining the pointy stem. “They’re dying before they hit the ground.” A dozen bees lay dead on the picnic table and even more littered the ground around them, and they kept falling. Every ten seconds or so, a bee dropped dead from the sky.

“You okay?” she asked. “You’re not allergic to bees are you?”

“Don’t know,” he answered, “never been stung before. Doesn’t really hurt, just a mild numbing sensation. Why, is my face swelling up?” Paige reassured him that he didn’t look like a blowfish and almost asked about the dead birds in Denver, but a bee brushed by her shoulder, startling her.

“Come on,” he said, “let’s get out of the line of fire.” Grabbing his backpack from the table, he shook off a few bees and threw it over his shoulder. They left the suicide bombers behind and walked together in the same direction toward the West Lot with Paige still trying to place him.

“I’m Abbey, by the way, and you?”

“Oh, it’s Paige. Paige Holland.”

“Nice to meet you, Paige Holland. I didn’t know we were doing last names. Mine’s Brava, Abbey Jude Brava.”

“Cool name,” she replied, gaining momentum to keep in step with him. “You even threw in your middle name. Abbey Jude, like The Beatles, right?”

“Yeah, that’s what I’m told. I think my Dad picked it out. Speak of the devil,” he said, stopping to check his phone. “Yup, dear old dad,” he confirmed, stuffing the cell back into his bag. “So, Paige, you hungry? I was thinking Greek.”

“I could eat,” she shrugged.

“I know a good place.” He nudged in closer letting a group of undergrads breeze past before continuing. “You’ll love it, once you’ve tried some fried falafel dipped in tahini sauce, you’ll crave it forever.”

“Falafel?” Paige asked. “Sounds like something Dr. Seuss would eat.”

Abbey stopped dead in his tracks, “You owe me an apology, by the way.”

“For what?” Distracted by an uproar behind her, Paige turned around to see a petite female student getting frisked by an armed guard.

“For almost bulldozing me down,” he answered. “And just so you know, black backpacks are banned.”

Paige frowned and shook her head, “What do you mean?” she asked. “Is that code for something?” The hulking round guard dumped the bag’s contents onto the ground and slung it across his shoulder before escorting the girl away.

“You’ve got to be kidding me!” exclaimed Paige. “What’s wrong with black backpacks?”

Abbey grabbed her arm and pulled her along as they resumed their brisk pace. “Haven’t you heard?” he asked under his breath. “Only terrorists carry black backpacks.”

The constant sound of hammering defeated Paige. A sharp pain shot across her forehead and pounded in sync with the ongoing construction. She fell dizzy. Her eyes and ears throbbed as an overwhelming ache spread through her shoulders and crawled down her back. Hoping to find some medicine in her bag, she glanced around campus and noticed armed guards stood at every entrance eyeing students as they walked past. Pulling her dark gray bag closer, she held off searching for the pills.

Paige spent most of her time watching television during the holidays. Her father lorded over the clicker subjecting her to black-and-white sitcoms or movies from the fifties and sixties. He incessantly complained about the state of the world and mourned for the good ole’ days, the days before The Council of Six took over. Paige knew things were bad, but a sheltered life shielded her from what her dad called, a failed civilization. Kicked back in his trusty recliner, he’d grumble that fear ruled the airwaves these days, insisting that safety measures did more harm than good. Out in the real world, stationed on the front line, Paige felt like a character from The Twilight Zone, his all-time favorite show. Rubbing her temples, she lagged behind Abbey and looked down at her shoes, challenged by the act of walking.

“You okay?” he asked, waiting for her to catch up.

“Fine,” she answered. “Just hungry, I guess.” Eager to get to the car, grab her jacket and take some aspirin, she pushed forward. The sickness, however, pushed back.

“Maybe you should sit down,” Abbey said. “You look really pale.”

His voice sounded remote and distorted, and although she’d never fainted before, Paige sensed that fainting was on her near horizon. Her vision blurred as she followed Abbey and collapsed onto a nearby bench. A high-pitched hum filled the air and the pink glow returned, emanating heat and casting a bright spray of light around his body. Hunched over, she shielded her face and covered her ears as the cold wind cut through her clothes worsening her headache. She searched her bag for aspirin, relieved when her fingers clasped a small plastic bottle. Abbey handed her his unopened water, pulled off his coat and wrapped it around her shoulders. The wind settled dirt across the quad and Paige buttoned up, noticing the old green army coat was ripped at the elbow and bore a patch of the American flag on the sleeve. Smiling, she gently ran her fingers across it.

“You okay?” he asked.

Closing her eyes, she inhaled a deep breath and tasted the change in the air. Subtle yet undeniable, she recognized the nagging feeling, the strange sensation that lifted her pores and tickled her scalp, the same uneasy feeling that kept her awake at night during the winter holidays. Her headache eased as she relaxed her body and attempted to quell her troubled mind. Something’s wrong, she thought. Opening her eyes, she looked at Abbey to find the pale pink light diminished, but the sky appeared unnatural, the heavy clouds tinted red as if a forest fire burned in the nearby distance.

“Paige, you okay?”

Nodding, she answered, “Yeah, yeah just hungry, I guess. I could really go for some, uh, fla… flaf…”

“Falafel,” he grinned.

“Bless you,” she replied.

The wind kicked up again and thunder rolled in the distance as the encroaching cold front gained new ground, intensifying with each strong gust. Abbey and Paige resumed their trek and headed for the West lot until Professor Faraday appeared. Marching toward them with his long blonde hair draped over his shoulders, he smiled, raised his hand to his forehead and saluted an armed guard before calling out to Abbey.

“Mr. Brava! A word?”

Abbey rolled his eyes and stumbled to a halt. “Morning, Professor. You’re looking quite the rock star today.”

Stiff postured and tight lipped, the professor glanced at Paige before asking, “Where were you this morning? You missed my class.”

Abbey glared at the professor, his pale blue eyes turning three shades darker. “Sorry,” he shrugged, “forgot.” His bright green backpack vibrated and he identified the caller before looking at the phone. “Guess I should take this,” he said. “What’s the point in hiding? They’ve got eyes and ears everywhere, right Billy?” Abbey excused himself and wandered off a short distance to answer his call. Professor Faraday sighed and turned to Paige, his scraggly brown beard camouflaging any wrinkles if they existed on his untarnished face.

“Miss Holland,” he nodded. “I hope you enjoyed my class this morning.”

“Yes sir,” she answered, “even registered early. You know what they say, early bird gets the worm.” She wanted to kick herself. Nerves were a cruel enemy.

“Am I the worm?” he asked, his mouth gently lifting.

“No! Of course not,” she answered. “No, I just, it’s just a stupid expression.” Mortified!

The professor’s eyes gleamed as he replied, “Yes, I’m familiar with it.” Glancing at Abbey again, he stroked his beard and studied Paige before asking, “Your parents, their names are Justin and Allison, correct?”

“Yes sir,” she nodded. “Why, do you know them?”

Glancing at Abbey again, he smiled and answered, “Used to, back in the day. Tell them I said hello, will you? And that I hope they’re well.”

“Sure, yeah, I’ll let them know.”

“That’d be great,” he murmured. Looking up and gathering more authority, he said, “You two should take cover soon, looks like a storm’s rolling in.” Glancing at Abbey again, he politely excused himself and marched off toward the nearest building, his long blonde hair a wind-tangled nest under his yellow ski hat. Paige fought the urge to call her dad, impressed that he knew a member from her favorite band but suspicious as to why he never told her. A drop of rain grazed her face, and as the wind blew hard, she tucked her head into the old green army coat. A clap of thunder shook the ground and she looked up, startled to see Abbey standing beside her.

“Come on,” he said, “we should go.” He grabbed her arm as they sprinted across the quad toward the West Lot with Paige holding her dark gray backpack tightly against her chest.

The red-tinted sky gave way to dark blue clouds as Paige and Abbey sought shelter in, what she liked to call, Old Faithful. A hand-me-down from her father when he reluctantly upgraded, it sported a few dents and dings but never failed to start. Slamming the car door shut, she reached behind the seat and pulled out a candy bar from her sack lunch. Abbey watched with shameful eyes, sighing with disappointment as she tore into the wrapper. Distracted, Paige started the already started car and then talked over the inevitable screech that followed.

“What?” she asked. “I’m hungry. You want some?”

“No way,” he said. “You’re eating poison, you know that, right?”

“It’s good,” she said with a mouthful. “Sure you don’t want some? Speak now, your window of opportunity is closing.”

“That’s quite alright,” he replied, “I can wait.”

Paige moaned and took another bite, savoring the poisonous mix of peanut butter and chocolate before swallowing it down. “You’re so dramatic,” she said. “Let me guess, you’re the kind of guy that reads food labels before even buying a pack of gum.”

“I don’t chew gum,” he answered.

“So you’re a health nut.”

“Not really,” he said. “I just try to keep it natural.”

“Chocolate’s natural, so is sugar.” Paige tossed the candy wrapper in the backseat, wiped her hands on her jeans and inquired about their route. Abbey pointed them in the right direction and although temporarily fulfilled, her stomach really hoped it liked falafel.

Paige thought she remembered Abbey from the reoccurring dream she kept having. The revelation came to her when she put on his jacket and noticed the patch on the sleeve. She knew something bad happened in the dream, something about the jacket, but beyond that, she couldn’t remember the details. It was Abbey though, she thought, no doubt about it. Still fighting off a mild headache, she shied away from thinking too deeply about the strange dream, opting instead for casual conversation.

“So, why do you think the bees are dying?” she asked, stopping at a red light.

“Disease, probably,” he answered. “Scientists call it Colony Collapse Disorder, could also be pesticides or even GMO crops. See Paige?” he smirked. “The honeybees, they like to keep things natural too.”

“What’s a GMO crop?”

“Fake food,” he replied.

Paige decided to bring up the recent bird deaths her father mentioned earlier that morning. She expected Abbey to shed some sort of light on the topic, an explanation as to why birds were also falling to their deaths, but his answer threw her for a loop.

“I did hear about that,” he said, crinkling his brow. “Scientists call it a Flock Freak-Out. See, the blackbirds have been severely depressed lately. They’re committing mass suicide left and right.”

“Smarty-pants,” she laughed.

They hit another red light and Paige noticed a homeless man staggering toward them on the sidewalk. Talking to himself with a blistered mouth jerking and twitching beneath a matted gray beard, the stranger aggressively gestured into the air to no one in particular. His tattered clothing draped off his boney limbs and she observed that his mismatched shoes looked to be on the wrong feet. They sat idle, waiting for the light to turn as he limped closer. She could almost smell the alcohol leaking from his pores and cursed the traffic light for mocking them, but the light went unchanged, a god-awful red. Turn green, she panicked. He inched closer. Checking again to make sure the doors were locked, she glanced at Abbey who calmly sat with his hands in his lap watching the stranger approach. He stumbled by without incident until reaching the back windshield where he then spun around and charged them, his palms held up as if delivering two high fives. He body-slammed the car and began licking the passenger-side window with his tongue dragging up the glass exposing patches of dried puke in his matted beard. Paige was in the green before the traffic light gave her the go.

“What the hell!” she yelled. The homeless man disappeared in her rear-view mirror as they fled the scene, but she struggled to keep her foot on the gas with her body trembling from head to toe. Pale and straight-backed, Abbey only nodded when she asked if he was okay. They continued driving in silence, the passenger-side window cloudy and stained.

Fast food bags, weightless and abundant, swirled through the air as a steady wind blew debris across downtown Houston’s one-way streets. Paige felt the car rock from side to side as another strong gust tore through the high-rise buildings. Rain had yet to arrive, save for a slight drizzle, but the dark clouds maintained their ominous presence. A strange vibe coated the air as Paige thought again about her dream. She remembered being among painted faces in a dark club. Abbey had fallen ill and needed help, but she couldn’t get to him in time, he was out of reach, he was lost. Stretching out her arms on the steering wheel, she tried to pinpoint a nagging detail she couldn’t quite decipher. She remembered him from somewhere else, somewhere besides the dream, somewhere lost in time, and then it hit her.

“Hey, you know who you look like?” she asked. “I mean, it’s a striking resemblance, you could be his twin brother or something.”

Abbey sighed, “I’ve got a pretty good idea. Gabriel Cross, right?”

Paige nodded, “Yes! Exactly like him!”

“Surprise, surprise,” he scoffed, “like I haven’t heard that before.”

“Hey,” she said flashing a nervous smile, “take it as a compliment.”

“A compliment?” he asked. “I hate Hollywood. Bunch of mindless celebrities with inflated egos.”

“Yeah, I know,” she said, “but Gabriel was different.” Gabriel Cross, she thought, the beautiful Gabriel Cross.

While Limbo Diver satisfied the need for a favorite band, Gabriel Cross won the title for Paige’s all-time favorite celebrity. A child star loved by millions, Gabriel’s presence on the silver screen captivated fans across the globe. Although labeled and sold as a teen dream, he proved to be anything but a typical Hollywood actor. By the time he hit sixteen (with numerous awards and recognitions to his credit), he turned his back on the big wigs of Tinsel Town, calling it a soul stealing industry and vowing to only appear in small low budget movies. He became the prince of indie films and also developed quite a loud voice of opposition to, what he called, the puppet masters behind the scenes. He increasingly spoke out against a satanic secret society that he said controlled the entertainment industry as well as every other industry. He alleged to know about hidden agendas and evil plots, unknown truths that affected each and every person on the planet, but few people took his message to heart. Gabriel suffered ridicule from all angles but held firm to his beliefs, even making a documentary that exposed secrets he claimed to have uncovered. He died before the film was released, and although red tape almost silenced the documentary, his family released it to the public a year later. Barely causing a ripple, critics shrugged it off as the result of a drug induced state of extreme paranoia from a disturbed and delusional young man. The Hollywood machine that once embraced the young star disgraced his legacy after his premature death at age eighteen, but Gabriel’s cult following tripled in size. Thirty-three years later, his cult following continued to gain new members.

Paige felt a connection to the troubled actor and saw him as something more than just a pretty face. His eyes revealed passion, sadness, and kindness unmatched nearly half a century later. Put simply, in Paige’s view, Gabriel had been the perfect man. She marveled again at Abbey’s resemblance to the deceased star, but his eyes were different. Not in a bad way, she thought, but not Gabriel’s.

In tune with Abbey’s discomfort, she decided to drop the subject and reached over to turn up the stereo. Another celebrity came to mind after hearing the rhythmic tribal drums of the first song’s intro.

“Limbo Diver?” he asked. “Should’ve figured.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” she asked, readjusting positions in her seat. “They’re pioneers of an entirely new genre of music. Gothic blues didn’t even exist until they hit the scene.”

“Calm down,” Abbey said, “it’s not an insult, but I must tell you, your little crush on Professor Rock Star is weird on so many levels.”

“What?” Paige exclaimed. “I barely even know him. Besides, he’s like, seventy-something, so you’re right, that would be weird.”

Abbey smiled and shook his head, “You’re a bad liar, Paige Holland. By the way, he’s seventy-six, but don’t worry, I won’t tell anyone you’re attracted to old dudes with beards.”

Paige ran her fingers through her hair. “I’m not attracted to him,” she said. “I just enjoy his music.”

Smirking, Abbey replied, “Okay, whatever you say, but just so you know, he stays pretty active for a geezer…Oh, turn here!”

Paige spun the wheel sharply to the left. “There’s absolutely no way he’s seventy-six,” she said. “Besides, how would you know about him?”

Abbey peered through the stained window and murmured something under his breath. Paige asked him to repeat himself, and speaking more directly, he confessed that the professor was actually his uncle. Paige fought to contain herself. She inquired about the rest of the band, losing her grip on self-control when Abbey admitted to knowing the lead singer, Michael Doucet. Unable to bite her tongue, she asked about the rumors, the tall-tales that accused the band members of drinking blood in order to stay young. Abbey laughed and gave her his full attention.

“You think they’re vampires?” he asked. “Well, I guess that’s logical. Tell you what, they’re playing a show tonight down on Montrose. Meet me there and I’ll get you in for free, introduce you to everyone.”

Paige broke the sound barrier. Her headache pierced her eye sockets and Abbey jabbed his fingers in his ears when she accepted the offer. At the expense of both their health, she attempted to curb her excitement and asked again how Limbo Diver maintained their youthful appearance.

“Don’t know,” Abbey shrugged, “awesome genes, I guess. They can also read minds and move things by thought alone, but that actually is from drinking blood.”

Paige narrowed her eyes, “Mock me all you wish,” she said, “but Professor Faraday’s appearance is definitely not natural.”

“You got me there,” he replied. “Oh, and just to be clear, It’s not a date, but just in case you do get lonely, Professor Rock Star will keep you company.”

Paige held up her arm and pretended to backhand the celebrity look-alike. “Way to make things awkward,” she said. She thought about mentioning her dream, but a man standing on the sidewalk holding up a sign derailed her train of thought. She slowed the car to read the cardboard warning suspended high above his head: THE END IS NEAR! FIND TRUTH! FIND GOD! He didn’t scream or rant and rave. He didn’t act crazy or look crazy, but he did appear displaced, like a stranger out of time. Dressed in a black concert tee-shirt with a long-sleeved flannel shirt, ripped up jeans and black army boots, the middle-aged man wore a blank expression and refrained from speech—his homemade sign did all the talking. Dead bees, falling birds, black backpacks, maybe he’s on to something, Paige thought. She looked through her rear-view mirror to steal one last glimpse of the doomsayer, his weathered trumpet bent by the wind, and a soft blue light surrounding him.

Trash scattered into the air and littered the streets as they pulled into a parking garage and found a spot on the third floor level. Paige had expected a restaurant, but Abbey insisted that the best Greek kitchen (this side of the hemisphere) was none other than his friend’s condominium home, or as he proudly called, Matthew’s Caribbean Cuisine. After explaining they were good friends of the family, tattoo artists for the band, Paige agreed to get out of the car. They located the elevators and waited in silence until Abbey shook his head and chuckled to himself. Paige grasped for the invisible punch line.

“Hope that guy doesn’t run into our homeless friend,” he remarked, brushing the dark hair from his eyes.

“Huh?”

“The Doomsayer,” he laughed, “hope he doesn’t run into the Glass Licker. He might think he’s some sort of demon, just start wailing on drunk homeless guys left and right.”

Paige frowned and shook her head, “You’re kind of morbid for a Naturalist. You know that, right?” Boarding the elevator, Abbey pushed the tenth floor button and they ascended towards lunch.

A tall muscular man with salt and pepper hair answered the door and greeted Abbey with a warm bear hug. Covered in tattoos, he looked to be in his early fifties. After inviting them inside, he unleashed another warm bear hug onto Paige and patted her on the back as if they were old friends. The inside of the loft was impressive. Hardwood floors spread throughout the vast living area, which offered an open-space floor plan with a spiral staircase leading up to the second level. A brick wall led into the stainless steel kitchen where Paige and Abbey seated themselves at the bar. The interior walls were painted dark red with long windows in the back revealing a sprawling Downtown Houston. Paige admired the view and thanked Matthew as he served them their plates, the already prepared Greek cuisine looking and smelling scrumptious. She picked up her pita sandwich and noticed, amongst all the vegetables, some sort of fried golf ball-sized patties that appeared green on the inside. Must be falafel, she thought, and sank her teeth down.

“What do you think?” Abbey asked after swallowing his first bite.

“It’s actually really good,” Paige mumbled with her hand over her mouth. She ate her entire sandwich and was forced to admit her new fondness for falafel when Abbey accused her of scarping it down. She followed him around the corner and down a dark hallway until she came to the last door on the left. Bigger than her bedroom at home, the bathroom featured a ceramic claw-foot bathtub positioned by the back wall where she thought she heard a voice call out to her. Come, relax, stay awhile, the bathtub persuaded, but Paige resisted the enticing draw. She walked across the black-and-white checkered floor, washed her hands in the sink and noticed that the beauty products lining the vanity were the same brand her mother used, Valley of Beauty. She wondered how old you had to be before wrinkles became an issue. Glancing in the mirror, she cringed at the appearance of her bleach-blonde hair and searched her pockets for a hair tie. She cursed the relentless wind for turning her head into the tail of a champion show poodle. No wonder it’s not a date.

After returning to the bar, Paige noticed that everyone had migrated to the sitting area by the wall of windows in the den. Abbey and Matthew sat on stools behind a tall round table, and a dark-haired woman sat on a black leather loveseat across from them. Stepping down into the sunken living room, Paige took Abbey’s seat after he sprang up and plopped down beside the woman. She looked to be in her mid-twenties and scooted in closer, draping her long slender arm around his slumped shoulders. He hesitated before calling her mom and then introduced her to Paige.

“Just call me Regan,” the woman said. “I hate Ms. Doucet, it makes me sound so,” she stopped and sized up Paige for a spell, “so old,” she finished. Regan possessed an exotic beauty, stunning with her long thick curls and dazzling green eyes, she moved and breathed confidence. Abbey fell silent, his eyes studying the floor and his discomfort obvious to Paige. A surrealist painting hung on the sidewall to the right of the loveseat. It depicted a chaotic, apocalyptic scene with hundreds of look-alike-men dressed in blue jumpsuits charging down an empty street. Abandoned cars with wide-open doors lined both sides of the street while splashes of pink, orange and red colored the sky. The working-class drones disappeared into the horizon leaving observers of the painting with one pressing question, and Paige was no different—I wonder what they’re running from.

“It was a dream he had,” Regan said, glaring at Paige. “They’re running from the truth.”

“Huh?”

“The painting,” Regan said, “you know, the one you’re staring at? Ashley Brava created that dreadful thing. Speaking of,” she said, turning to her son, “I like to avoid Mr. Artsty Fartsy whenever possible. Tell Robin she can come out of hiding.” Smiling, she kissed Abbey on the forehead and glanced at Paige before standing to excuse herself. “I’ll see you later tonight,” she said, walking briskly to the door. Her red stiletto heels hit hard against the wooden floor, a penetrating sound that echoed throughout the spacious flat. Matthew bid her a polite goodbye but his grim facial expression contradicted his pleasant tone. Although he resembled the kind of guy who might hang out in the parking lot of a rundown strip joint, underneath the tattooed tough-guy facade, Matthew was a teddy bear.

“So, what’s next on the agenda?” he asked. “Dessert?”

Abbey glared at the front door. “See what I mean?” he asked. “She’s taking things a bit too far.”

Matthew nodded, looked around the room and covered his mouth with his hand. Paige pulled out her cell phone, checked the time and then stood to leave until a female’s voice echoed from another room, interrupting her polite good bye.

“Finally! How long is she in town for anyway, and why in the world is Abbey calling her Mo–”

“Honey,” Matthew said, smiling at Paige, “we still have company.”

“Oh…well, no one told me the pla–”

“Honey!” Matthew exclaimed.

The voice trailed off and a hip older woman appeared from the hallway and into the living room. Petite with bleach-blonde hair cut short and spiky, she wore long beaded earrings and a low-backed shirt that revealed a colorful butterfly tattoo spanning her shoulders. Paige choked on her overwhelming perfume. The older woman kissed Abbey on the top of his head and whispered something in his ear while hugging his neck, but Abbey remained unmoved. Matthew’s wife and longtime sweetheart, Robin, introduced herself to Paige and without inhaling a breath, carried on about her marriage, renewing her vows, and how much she loved her husband. Was Paige dating anyone? Did Paige want kids? Did Paige enjoy being single? Paige, at risk of being late to her next class, offered polite but short answers to the barrage of questions. She wondered if Robin rehashed the Q&A session with every new face she met. Thanking them for their hospitality, she asked a long-faced Abbey if he needed a ride back to campus, he didn’t, but insisted on walking her to the car.

“What’s wrong?” she asked.

“Don’t worry about it,” he answered. “You’ll find out soon enough.”

“Find what out?”

“Don’t worry about it,” he said again. “Listen, the show starts at nine, it’s at the Blue Star. You’ll need this to get in.” Reaching into his pocket, he handed her what looked to be a press pass that read, ADMITTED ACCESS: LIMBO DIVER. “Meet me in the far back room,” he said. “You’ll go through three doors, look for a note.”

She stuffed the plastic card into her purse and decided to ask about his mother. Regan’s last name didn’t go unnoticed and Paige attempted to decode the family tree, deducing that his mother must be the sister of famous rock god, Michael Doucet. Abbey sighed and rolled his eyes, confirming her suspicions. He also explained that his father and Professor Faraday were brothers.

“We’re technically Faraday’s,” he said. “My dad changed his last name to Brava years ago, before I was born.”

“Why?”

“I don’t know, it was before I was born.” He turned to leave but Paige grabbed his arm and thanked him for the jacket before handing it over. Shivers wracked her body as she embraced herself and watched him from behind, his hands in his pockets and a dim light outlining his frame. She thought she heard him speak, but he stood silent by the elevator, the dim pink light becoming a dull mustard-brown.

“Hey,” she called out, “you were in my dream last night. You and your jacket.”

Letting the elevator door close, Abbey turned and took a few steps forward. “How do you know it was me?” he asked. “How do you know it wasn’t Gabriel, your night and shining armor?”

“Why would I dream about him?” she asked.

“Why would you dream about me?”

Tires screeched from around the corner and a black sports car with dark tinted windows pulled in beside them. Taking up two parking spaces, the driver killed the engine and popped open the door revealing a gorgeous specimen of a well-dressed man. With short dark hair and a black silk tie draped around his neck, he wore a designer pinstriped suit and appeared no older than twenty-five, although his air of authority aged him. Chiseled around the edges by maturity, he looked like the grown-up version of Abbey, debonair with an aggressive edge. The sharp dressed man slammed the car door shut and brought his wrath upon his son.

“Where the hell have you been?” he yelled. Mr. Brava’s eyes gleamed a pale blue and a thick vein protruded down his forehead.

“Ash…Dad, I told you I was coming over to Matthew and Rob–”

“You told me you’d be with Billy! What are you wearing? Where did you get that? Take it off, now!” Mr. Brava grabbed Abbey by the arm and yanked the jacket off his shoulders. Holding it to his nose, he gently placed the army coat on the seat of the car, slammed the door shut and turned to Paige.

“And what do we have here?” he asked.

“Paige Holland,” Abbey said. “She was just telling me about the dream she had.”

Laughing, Paige glared at Abbey and slowly backed away. Mr. Brava glared at Paige and stepped closer.

“Care to share?” he asked.

Gripping her keys, she shook her head no, tossed her purse in the car and jammed the key into the ignition. The light drizzle turned into a downpour as she peeled out of the parking garage and sped away from the scene, checking the rearview mirror every few seconds for a black sports car and a well-dressed man waving a shotgun.

Chapter Four

By the time Paige arrived home that evening, her brain buzzed with speculation. Allison worked in the kitchen preparing dinner while Justin read a book on the back porch sipping coffee in his robe and slippers. Paige wondered if he ever dressed for the day. Opening the sliding glass door, she sat down beside him and unleashed premeditated small talk, chattering about the crazy weather, the possibility of snow and marveling at south Texas’ unstable climate. Tropical one minute and arctic the next, she asked if the birds and the bees were sensitive to such changes. Lending half his ear, her father passively listened but kept most of his attention on the book, which appeared to be some sort of outdoor survival guide. Frustrated, Paige got to the point.

“How do you know the drummer for Limbo Diver?” she asked.

Justin readjusted positions in his chair and gazed at the overgrown lawn. “What’s that, honey?” he asked, removing his glasses.

“Billy Faraday,” she said, “how do you know him?”

Her father sipped his coffee, yawned and shook his head, “Can’t say that I do.”

Paige picked her nails and glared at him as he plunged back into his book. She wanted to call him out. She wanted to throw it in his face and reveal what the professor had said, but something stopped her, something tugged at her ear and advised against it. She wanted to give her dad the benefit of the doubt but his leg wouldn’t stop tapping the ground.

“I’m going to their show tonight,” she said. “They’re playing at the Blue Star on Montrose. I’m meeting up with this guy I met at school today. He gave me a backstage pass.”

She had his full attention. Her father closed his book and listened as she relayed the events of her day, excluding her sick spell and the strange lights she kept seeing. She described the professor’s youthful appearance and her run-in with Abbey’s parents, particularly his irate father, but she refrained from telling him about the dream. She regretted telling Abbey about it, but something about his reaction didn’t seem natural, then again, nothing about her day seemed natural. Her father remained silent after she finished unloading on him. She waited for a reply, studying his face while his foot continued tapping the ground. The wind burned through her clothes as she tucked her face into her shirt and wrapped her arms around her chest.

“You shouldn’t go to that show tonight,” he finally said. “I’ve got a bad feeling about it, real bad feeling.”

“I’m going.”

“Paige, listen to me,” he said, “I don’t want you to go. Just stay home. We’ll build a fire, drink some coffee, roast marshmallows and watch our favorite episodes of the Twilight Zone.”

“I’m going,” she said again. “There’s no way I’m missing this, Dad. Besides, I’m sick of being at home. I have cabin fever. All we do is watch TV and roast marshmallows.”

Her father sighed and rubbed his eyes. “You’re right,” he said. “You’re absolutely right. I’m sick of being at home too. Hey, why don’t I come with you?”

She laughed and shook her head, “I don’t think so.”

“Oh come on,” he said, “It’ll be fun. You know, I enjoy a good rock show from time to time too, honey.”

“Dad, I’ll be fine. Besides, who would mom roast marshmallows with?”

Panic drenched her father’s face. She felt guilty for putting un-needed stress on him, but growing up with over-bearing parents meant becoming a willful child. The tall pines swayed in the wind and she wondered how something so tall and skinny could survive the wrath of a hurricane. Most of the trees bared bald spots where the storm stripped away their bark leaving them vulnerable and naked, but the spindly pines stood tall, somehow they survived.

“I want you to listen to me,” her father said. “I’ve always kept your best interest in mind, but after all these years, we’ve waited, your mother and I–” sighing, he sipped his coffee and stroked his graying hair, “your mother and I, we just love you so much.”

Paige looked down and rubbed her arms, “Yeah, I know,” she said, avoiding eye contact. Unprepared for confrontation and thrown off by his urgency, she wanted nothing more than to jump in her car and drive to the edge of the map. Looking over his shoulder, her father lowered his voice and leaned in closer.

“Some things, we can’t speak aloud,” he said, “but your professor, he knows about you.” Grabbing her hands, he leaned over and whispered in her ear, “Stay close to him tonight. He loves you like his own.” Relaxing back into the porch swing, he popped on his glasses and opened his book. “We won’t to tell your mother about this until you’re gone,” he said. “She’s liable to lock you up and throw away the key.”

Paige turned away from her father and gazed at the starless sky. She yearned for the absent moon.

Chapter Five

Fresh puddles covered the ground as Paige stepped out into the cold and into the yellow glow from the streetlights. Snow loomed heavy in the clouds as she admired the raindrops glistening in the night on the sharp green pine needles. Inhaling the crisp air, she filled her car with the last supply of gas they kept on reserve until deliveries came next week. She enjoyed the smell with slight guilt and found it comforting, like the yellowed pages of an old book or a dying campfire. Revving up Old Faithful, she let the engine warm and checked herself in the mirror, her thick curls tamed and weighed down with hair gel. She reapplied her favorite shade of red lipstick and powdered-up her face, wondering as she often did, if she resembled one parent over the other. Clueless about her biological parents, Paige’s subconscious mind played with notions she would rather ignore. Something was up, but what it had to do with her parents, or Abbey, or Professor Faraday, she didn’t know. With a sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach, she pulled out of the drive and headed for The Blue Star down on Montrose. She could all but see the energy in the air as she drove southbound on the interstate. The Houston skyline appeared in the distance, hidden behind clouds and cloaked in a white fog as lights from the high-rise buildings illuminated the city. Fearful of passing up her exit, she stayed in the slow-moving right lane and marveled as white flakes melted onto her windshield. She sipped her coffee, turned up the radio and anticipated the night’s main attraction.

Limbo Diver began as an underground art band fronted by the eccentric and elusive, Michael Doucet (Do-say). With crooning vocals, a strong bass line and a prominent baritone sax, the band delivered a slow jazz kind of sound with undertones of bluesy rock-and-roll. She fashioned it the best mood setting music and grew giddy at the thought of hearing it live, the rhythmic groove soon to fill the walls of the dark club, an entrancing collage of instruments serenading patrons into a dreamscape. Most bands quit touring once the energy crisis really took hold, but if a person lived in or near a population center they could still catch a good show now and then.

A perfect treadmill of rumors shrouded Limbo Diver’s legacy but Michael Doucet carried the brunt of that attention. With numerous overdoses under his belt, the singer’s ongoing heroin addiction landed him in The Rock-n-Roll Hall of Cliché. He repelled rehab, possessed a healthy sexual appetite and once famously quoted, if I weren’t so sane, I’d commit myself. The son of Satan belongs in a loony bin. Known for his outlandish gimmicks when under scrutiny from the public eye, Michael left fans and media circuits questioning whether or not they were getting the real deal. He and his family hailed from New Orleans and descended from the prevalent Haitian Creole culture that defined the fishbowl city. The three Doucet siblings who played in Limbo Diver conjured up controversy whenever targeted by a spotlight, where embellished stories about satanic animal sacrifices, black magic and voodoo death rituals came to artificial light. Recent accusations painted them as devil worshipers who drank the blood of babies in order to maintain their youthful appearance. All in the name of rock-n-roll, but one such accusation placed Michael at the scene of a crime. Ten years ago his family’s plantation house burst into flames in the middle of the night, and though details remained sketchy, a dozen or so people died. Michael was investigated for arson but never charged. Limbo Diver, through it all, enjoyed decades of success gaining legions of loyal fans along the way.

Paige watched the flakes of snow increase in size as they fell faster from the sky. She sighed and sipped her coffee as traffic from the left and middle lanes merged into the far right due to a seatbelt checkpoint about a mile down the road. With the show starting in about twenty minutes, the extra time she kept on reserve for getting lost was running out. The in-sight but out-of-reach exit came before the roadblock and Paige checked her directions again, hoping the club was right around the corner where the map showed it to be. Anxious to find Abbey and nervous about seeing Professor Faraday, she thought she understood what her father had tried to tell her. She assumed her adoption played a vital role in his cryptic message, but her sixth sense hinted at something more. Clearing her mind, she skipped to her favorite song and charged the exit ramp, falling in line with the roadblock refuges as they emptied off into a congested carnival of chaos.

Montrose vibrated with people as she took a right onto the crowded strip. The hip place to be in Houston, Montrose offered the finest and most popular clubs and bars. The best novelty shops, tattoo shops, sex shops and pawn shops thrived on the famous street. Nightlife came alive where scantily dressed woman pranced around in a drunken stupor, and guys and girls alike resembled human voodoo dolls with piercings adorning their faces. Club-goers with multi-colored hair, excessive cheap jewelry and skintight clothing tripped down the sidewalk high on whatever drugs they might have ingested. A fashion revival of sorts, the infamous boulevard represented every known trend from past decades.

In a world ruled by turmoil, Paige was amazed that nightlife could go on, unconcerned and oblivious it seemed, the crowds talking and laughing and dancing as if food and water were abundant and the American Dream lived. Her pulse pounded when she reached the front door and entered the dark club alone, All Access pass firmly in hand, the Blue Star set ablaze with energy. The atmosphere consumed her, the air, electric, as she ventured inside and pushed through the eager throng of intoxicated fans. Black walls covered in art décor surrounded her as she sidestepped her way to the stage area. A large bald man stood blocking the stairway leading to the VIP lounge and special access area. Paige cautiously approached the body builder and held up the piece of paper confirming her right to passage. He eyed Paige’s golden ticket, looked her over from head to toe and gestured for her to go on up. She reached the second-floor landing, surprised at the overwhelming number of people admitted, and trudged forward. Barstools and bistro tables decorated the outer lobby as the VIP crowd sipped cocktails and peered over the balcony at the ground-floor masses. Unsure of where to go next, she remembered Abbey said she’d pass through three sets of doors. Looking over to her far left and spotting a set of double red doors protected by another bouncer, she assumed her position. The second bouncer looked identical to the first, and after repeating the same process, Paige entered the barricades.

Dim table lamps lit the way as she scanned over the small pockets of people searching for Abbey. A circular bar sat in the center of the room while black sofas and red chaise lounges offered more private sitting areas. Large canvases decorated the walls where surrealist paintings transformed familiar and mundane items into a twisted new world. Wondering toward the back of the room, Paige walked across the red cement floor and filed passed a pool table where two men stood at opposite ends. Leaning on their pool sticks, beers in hand and pensively silent, their poker faces suggested an intense showdown. Two doors came into view and Paige made a beeline for the one that read WOMEN, but a man suddenly approached her from around the corner and asked if she knew the time. Wearing a yellow fedora hat and a gray wool suit with a gold watch stuffed into his pocket, the stranger’s trimmed goat-tee and deep inset eyes complimented his prominent features. Paige told him she thought it was about nine o’clock. Blocking her path with a gold-handled walking cane, he smiled a tooth-filled grin, pulled out his watch and began winding back the arms. Paige strained to breathe upon hearing the stranger speak.

“Who’s afraid of duh Big Bad Wolf?” he asked.

“I’m sorry?”

“You lost in duh woods, little girl, an I come tuh cast light.” He stepped closer and Paige noticed a deep scar running down his left cheek. “Let me tell yuh somethin’” he said, holding up a bony finger, “dizzy spell gonna keep comin’ back, an I tell yuh somethin’ else, I’m muddy red, an he’s pink, but you little girl, you all over duh map, if yuh read me. You readin’ me girl?”

Paige hesitated and looked around the bar before answering, “Sure, yeah, loud and clear. Excuse me.” She cringed as she hurried past the tall stranger. He reeked of burnt chemicals and his metallic breath lodged in her nose as she scurried over to an undiscovered door, unguarded and unmarked. She heard the stranger laugh and a whisper invaded her ears, but when she whipped around, the man had vanished, retreated back into the looming shadows of the VIP lounge.

The door closed behind her and she stood in a long hallway. Iron sconces highlighted the graffiti-covered walls and she almost admitted defeat, confronted by a seven door corridor. She spotted a hand-written note taped to the last door on the left with the words, Limbo Diver, scrawled out in red ink. Turning the unlocked knob, she opened the door and stepped inside.

A fog of smoke welcomed Paige as she stood in place letting her eyes adjust to the dark room. The sound of people talking and laughing echoed from somewhere off to her left, and among the thick cigarette smoke, she caught the pungent smell of marijuana. As her eyes switched into night mode, Paige followed the voices with a pounding heart and unsteady hands. The tall stranger she’d encountered haunted her. Every bone she possessed begged for retreat as her father’s speech played through her head, but she ignored instinct and ventured forward. Curiosity killed the cat, she thought, inching her way along. She recognized a female’s southern drawl and braced herself when the voice spotted her.

“Well, well, well, if it isn’t…wait, what was your name?” A bright spotlight targeted Paige, blinding her as she followed the voice into the opening.

“It’s Paige. I’m supposed to meet Abbey here?” she answered, blocking the light with her hand.

“Come on over here, honey, sit down next to me,” Regan said, motioning with a flashlight. Wearing a black skin-tight dress with a red tailored trench coat and black high-heeled boots, she sat cross-legged on a red chaise lounge. Her curls were ironed away and replaced by thick strands of straight hair, and a marijuana joint rested between her long red nails. Paige flashed a weak smile and sat down across from her.

“Welcome to the other side,” Regan remarked, blowing a cloud of smoke into Paige’s face. She offered her the joint and then passed it to her son when Paige declined. Wearing a red velvet jacket, Abbey held Paige’s gaze and took a long toke off the half-smoked joint.

“I’m glad you made it,” he said, exhaling a white cloud. “Want to hit this?”

“Nope,” she answered, “I’m good.”

Shrugging, he took another hit and suffered a violent cough attack before passing it back to his mother. His hair fell into his eyes as he choked and reached for a tall glass of wine on the coffee table.

“Is it snowing yet?” he asked in a weak voice.

“Starting to,” Paige answered. She glanced around the room and attempted to suppress her growing discomfort, and though she impressed herself by showing up alone (an altogether bad idea), she fought the sudden urge to flee. Awkward social situations are normal battlegrounds for nerves and insecurities, but something else bothered her; something she couldn’t pin down but knew its origin nonetheless. With intuition on high alert, Paige wanted nothing more than to leave the special access area and join the drunk-masses downstairs, but she remained seated despite her unease, the cane-wielding stranger still fresh on her mind.

Popping up from his chair, Abbey held out his hand, “Follow me, I’d like to show you something.”

She hesitated, glanced at Regan, and then accepted his offer. Sliding off the couch and stumbling over the coffee table, she lunged for her purse as Abbey dragged her away. They retreated deeper into the room where a wooden ladder led to an open attic space. Pulling herself up and over the top landing, Paige noticed the club’s color scheme persevered even in the smallest of spaces. An old red trunk and a black futon sat before a single-paned window that overlooked the cityscape. Amidst the abstract shadows, Paige thought she saw a dark figure clutching a gold-handled walking cane. She choked on her breath and flinched back, humiliated when Abbey approached the figure and turned it on. The antique floor lamp could pose a threat however, as the vintage wiring might very well incinerate the Blue Star. They plopped down on the futon and looked out the window, impressed by the animated crowds packing the streets below.

“It’s a madhouse down there,” she remarked. “Can’t wait to drive home. This is what you wanted to show me, the view?”

“Well yeah, isn’t it nice?” he asked, stretching out his arms as if to present the scene.

“Sure, there’s Houston in all its glory,” she answered. “Makes me want to fend for myself with the country folk, you know? Run for the hills and get out while I still can.”

“Yeah,” he said, “I know what you mean. No, it’s not the view. I wanted to get you out of there. You seemed tense.”

Paige refrained from mentioning the man packing a gold pocket watch, as well as her unwarranted disdain for his pot-smoking mother, but Abbey’s perception was right on target. She admitted to feeling out of her element, and while Regan inspired tension and discontent, Abbey felt like home. She smiled as he sipped his tall glass of wine and accused her of being a home-body.

“But this is good for you,” he said. “Just relax and try to enjoy yourself.”

“I know,” she answered, “this is good for me. I should get out more.” Leaning back and crossing her legs, she asked, “You know what else would be good for me? A sip of that wine you’ve smuggled up here.”

Abbey smiled and held out his drink before yanking it away. “You’re not of age yet,” he said. “I’m sorry, you want some grape juice instead?”

“Oh, get off it,” she laughed. “you’re not twenty-one yet either.”

“I’m old enough,” he said, enjoying another sip. His thick dark hair grazed the rim of the wine glass and Paige figured she was either dealing with Dr. Jeckel or Mr. Hyde. When she called him out on his hypocrisy, scorning her for a candy bar while he drank alcohol and smoked weed, Abbey smiled and held his hand against his chest.

“Who, me?” he asked. “Listen, I only smoke when I drink. Addiction will rob you of yourself. Partake in moderation, that’s my rule,” he said, gulping down the rest of his wine.

“Ah, so you’re his doppelganger,” she replied.

Abbey set his empty glass down, crossed his arms and glanced at the trunk positioned against the wall. “I’m not an evil twin,” he said.

“And what about your dad?” she asked. “If green army coats piss him off, I can only imagine what he would–”

“He knows I drink and smoke,” he answered. “We have an understanding. I am sorry though, I know he can be pretty scary. He’s not the most pleasant person to be around.”

“Thanks for the warning.”

“Anyway, let’s change the subject. Let’s talk about you.”

“Let’s not,” she replied. “It’s a rather boring topic.”

“Tell me more about your dream,” he said. “I’m intrigued.”

Paige explained her strange dream with as much detail as she could remember. The dark club, the painted strangers, the loud music and crowds of people donning outrageous costumes, she described her sense of doom and urgent need to find him. She remembered spotting him by the backdoor exit of the club, she’d followed him outside just in time to see him collapse onto the sidewalk and then, she woke up.

Abbey stood from the futon, almost hitting his head on the low slanted ceiling, and turned his back to Paige as he gazed through the small window.

“Your dream was about Gabriel,” he said. “Surely you know that. He died outside of a club from a drug overdose. Everyone knows that.” Turning around, Abbey held her stare as she processed the information and considered his blanket statement, everyone knows that.

“Guess I forgot,” she said, blinking her eyes into focus.

Smirking, Abbey tilted his head and replied, “It’s okay, but you might try laying off the weed. Damn wino.”

“I’ll see what I can do,” she countered.

The dream haunted her. Abbey haunted her, like a ghost from a long ago past, he reminded her of a happier time in history, one that never belonged to her but that she embraced nonetheless. His presence reminded her of a forgotten movie where each frame joggled the memory, scene by scene, reel by reel, until the overlooked ending unfolded once again. Abbey leaned against the wall in a Marlon Brando kind of way, sulky yet cool, brooding yet kind—his resemblance to Gabriel disturbed her. Unless they were long-lost brothers, no two strangers looked that identical, but Paige fooled herself into believing that the man on the moon existed and the cow really did jump over him. Pushing himself off the wall with his shoulder, Abbey strolled over to the antique lamp lurking in the corner. Sticking his hand into the red beaded shade, he adjusted the light bulb until its dim glow brightened and reached full capacity.

“You sure that’s a good idea?” she asked.

Shaking his head no, Abbey placed his hands in his pockets and strolled back to the futon. “What else?” he asked. “Tell me what’s on your mind.”

“Your family,” she said, folding her arms. “I want to know about Professor Faraday.”

Abbey slapped his knee, “Doggone, the truth comes out!” he exclaimed. “I knew it! You’re hot for Professor Rock Star!”

“Am not,” she said, “but I’d like to know why he hasn’t aged, and don’t tell me it’s his genes cause that’s plain nonsense.”

“Well that’s the only answer I have,” he laughed.

“Okay then, riddle me this, did he know my birthparents?”

Abbey’s eyes turned a glow-in-the-dark green. “What do you mean?” he asked.

“I mean, I was adopted, and there’s something I’m not being told, and I think Professor Faraday knows something about it.”

“Why would you think that?” His penetrating gaze suggested he held a broader understanding of her troubles. His eyes demanded consideration. Paige shivered before responding.

“Just something my dad said,” she answered. “But even before I talked to him, I don’t know, it just feels like something’s happening, you know, like something’s in the air.”

“Like what?”

“I don’t know…something.” The lamp flickered and steadied as Paige turned away from Abbey and his probing green eyes. She felt dizzy again and involuntarily recalled the stranger’s curse, dizzy spell gonna keep comin’ back. Her stomach churned out a somersault when she thought about her father’s last minute speech, his restless leg tapping the ground urging her to stay home–the last place she wanted to be.

The winter holidays transformed home into a prison. After television lost its charm, Paige retreated to her room where Limbo Diver played on repeat. She passed the time sketching out mundane images from her head, but the abandoned cities and lonely barns were destined to go unfinished. She counted down the days until the start of her first college semester, but her mother had been against the idea from the start. Her mother didn’t see the need for college, regarding it as a huge waste of time and money. Paige disagreed, and after meeting Professor Faraday, she saw it as money well spent. He awoke something in her, as did Abbey. Stay close to him tonight, her father had said, he loves you like his own. She needed to see the professor.

Mulling it over, Paige took the plunge and brought up the pink and blue lights that had surrounded Abbey and the doomsayer. She expected laughter and a shrewd remark, but Abbey watched her with careful eyes and merely listened, nodding his head and patiently waiting until she finished.

“It sounds like you saw our auras,” he said. The old lamp flickered off and then on again as Paige searched his non-expressive face for signs of deceit.

“Auras?” she asked. “I’ve never seen auras before.”

“Been a lot of energy in the air lately,” he replied, “maybe that’s why you can see them now. I see them too. Each color has a different meaning. They change depending on a person’s mood.”

“Kind of like your eyes,” she remarked. “I’ve seen them go from bright blue to bright green to gray. Anything else changing colors I should be aware of?”

Laughing, he replied, “I’m not sure what you mean by that, but no, I believe that’s all.”

The city approached full throttle as a Friday night frenzy coursed through the streets and penetrated the small single-paned window. Paige looked away from the busy street and reached for the red trunk positioned against the wall. Attempting to move it closer, she slid the old wooden box across the floor and disregarded Abbey’s sudden protest.

“Hey, what are you doing?” he exclaimed.

“Calm down,” she said. “I’m just moving this so we can prop our feet up. What’s in here anyway?”

“Don’t know,” he shrugged. “Junk, probably.”

Paige smiled and rubbed her hands together, “Let’s open it and find out.”

“It’s probably locked.”

“Nope, it’s not.”

Unhooking the latch and lifting up the lid, Paige reached in and pulled out a faded American flag wrapped around a leather-bound Bible. Blue jeans, tee shirts, hats, books and a stuffed toy frog made up the rest of the trunk’s contents, but underneath the toy frog rested a green spiral notebook. Opening the worn-out and half-filled spiral, Paige suspended her breath as she held the treasured jewel closer. Hand-written words immortalized in black ink captured her eyes as she began reading aloud, “I can feel it in the air again…”

“Feel what?” Abbey asked.

“It’s Gabriel Cross!” she exclaimed. “You know, my knight in shining armor. This is his notebook!” Paige’s excitement continued climbing to new heights the more she recognized her find. “I can’t believe this! This is his stuff!”

“How do you know?”

“It says his name right here on the inside cover,” she said, and then finished reading aloud the first entry. “I can feel it in the air again. Desperation hangs low with the night fog. I am in my weakest hour in the arms of freedom. FREEDOM IS FEAR…I can’t believe this,” she said again.

“What’s the big deal?” Abbey shrugged. “He was just another pampered celebrity.”

“No he wasn’t,” she snapped. “It wasn’t about being a celebrity to him. It was about truth. Like he always said, I’m an advocate for truth.”

“You talk like you knew him.”

“I’m a huge fan.”

“You’re pretty good at being a fan, aren’t you?”

“I guess,” she said and continued reading aloud from the notebook. “They’re coming for me. They’re coming for us all. Mankind will meet its demise in the coming decades, but they’re closing in on me, and I’m, once again, stuck in that viscous cycle of plastic clouds and synthetic sleep. God help me …This must’ve been one of his journals.”

“It sounds like paranoid fear-mongering to me,” Abbey said. “You know, most people thought he was completely off his rocker.”

“Maybe,” she replied, “but I think he was on to something. Have you ever seen his documentary? At the time, I’m sure people did think he was crazy, but nowadays, I don’t know, it’s like he’s been vindicated.” She continued reading aloud, “Twenty years from now, if I’m still around to watch colonies collapse and bees disappear, I’ll head for the hills and stoop to my knees, cuz I’ll know judgment is near.” Paige shivered as she closed the notebook and placed it on her lap.

“Whatever that means,” Abbey scoffed.

“It means we need to start heading for the hills,” she said. “Everything he warned about is coming true or has come true. That doesn’t peak your interest?”

“Science peaks my interest,” he answered, “not overly-hyped hypocrites and conspiracy theorists who thrive off people’s ignorance. He knew what was going to happen because he was on the inside.”

“Well yeah,” she said, “that’s where he claimed to have gotten his info, from the inside.

Abbey swept hair from his eyes and shifted positions in his seat. “Look, just because we resemble each other doesn’t mean I have to like him.”

“Alright, I’ll let it go,” she said. “It’s sad the way he died though, and in my dream, it’s just so real, like I’m actually watching it happen. I guess it’s weird that I’m dreaming about dead celebrities.”

“Yeah, it is.”

“I just admire him so much,” she said, looking down at the notebook, “and it’s just so tragic to me.”

Stone-faced, Abbey replied, “It’s easy to admire someone when they’re dead, they can do no wrong.”

“You got a point there,” she said, ripping out the first page of the notebook and stuffing it in her purse.

An explosion of light flooded the room with a spray of colors. With Abbey’s help, Paige threw open the window and craned her head out to see a spectacular view of red and green lights electrifying the cityscape as if the heavens celebrated Christmas a month late. In awe of the brilliant colors dancing over the skyline, they watched the streams of light expand and swell, like an unstable sunset on some rogue planet. Crowds of speechless on-lookers gazed at the sky in wonderment until loud popping sounds filled the air, prompting screams of panic. Bright flashes of blue and white light spread throughout the city as transformers, one by one, blew out—a familiar sight to Paige. During the last hurricane when she ventured outside before the rain arrived, transformers popped out all throughout her neighborhood due to high winds. She’d never seen anything like it before in her life, nor had she ever seen the Northern Lights, until now. The two attic refuges remained spellbound until the lightshow faded from view and darkness rolled in like a storm surge—threatening and unstoppable.

Chapter Six

Covered in a black veil, Houston mirrored an invisible city after an aurora borealis invaded the unsuspecting skyline. Battery-powered solar lights took over where the power grid left off, but inside The Blue Star visibility remained limited. The building itself used to be a residential home. Built back in the early 1900’s, it was converted into an art-house bar some twenty years ago and grew in popularity featuring some of the most sought after artists and musicians famous for keeping low profiles. From performance artists, to poets, to musicians, The Blue Star boasted a well-known stage for the most lucrative of acts, receiving the stamp of approval from the dark artist’s society.

Professor Faraday and Limbo Diver bassist, Kendal Doucet, arrived at the Blue Star as the once-in-a-lifetime event came to a close. They crept in through the backdoor entrance and navigated through the darkness until the hallway of candle sconces illuminated their path. Observing a note taped to the last door, the professor ripped it off, stuffed it in his pocket and swung open the door.

“There’s my little sister,” Regan said, targeting Kendal with a bright light. Kendal rolled her eyes and took her spot in front of a piano against the wall.

“I hope you two were having fun while I sat here with my thoughts, alone in the dark,” Regan said, pouring herself another glass of wine.

“You have a flashlight,” the professor remarked. He called out Abbey’s name and used his own flashlight to navigate his way to the back room. His initial relief upon hearing a reply quickly dissolved into irritation.

“Get your ass down here! Is Paige with you?”

“Yes, hi Professor,” she answered, comforted by the sound of his voice.

“You okay?” he asked.

“We’re fine,” Abbey replied, “except for this lamp that keeps giving Paige the stink eye.”

Candles warmed and lit up the front room where Kendal played a jazzy tune on the piano. Regan, stretched out in the red chaise lounge, swayed to the music with her long slender legs dangling off the edge, her wine glass in arm’s reach on the floor. Abbey and Paige plopped down on a black leather sectional while the professor claimed a red sofa loveseat. After scanning the room, he clicked off his flashlight and set it down by his feet.

“Looks like the solar flare took out the electrical grid,” he said, “satellites too. I don’t even have a cell phone signal. No telling how long this will last, but if we saw it this bright this far south, could be a global catastrophe.”

Regan stretched out her arms and gulped down some wine. “Oh, I’m sure those lights will kick back on within the hour,” she said. “I say, we might as well enjoy the ambience. So, Paige, tell me, are you enjoying Billy’s course? I hear he’s all the buzz in the college dorms.”

Paige glanced at Professor Faraday who held her look, produced a long face and then rolled his eyes. Suppressing a grin, she answered, “Actually, I stay at home with my parents, it’s just cheaper that way, so I don’t know what they say in the dorms, but yes, I do enjoy his course.”

“Thank you,” the professor replied. “I’ll bet it’s quieter too, at home, that is.” Disdain oozed from Regan’s eyes. A door slammed and two male voices conversed down the hall interrupting her cold war stare. One of them sounded all too familiar to Paige.

“No, I won’t calm down! My phone won’t work, I can’t get a hold of anyone, your psycho family is in town and now all the lights are out!”

“I know, but I’m telling you, everything’s fine. Stop worrying, I’m sure they’re all in the back. See look, it’s all lit up….”

“What up, fools?” Illuminated by candles, Michael Doucet entered the room with the dashing and distraught, Ashley Brava, by his side.

Michael’s beauty transcended gender. His long thick lashes and amber green eyes gleamed against his light mocha skin. Dreadlocks draped over his shoulders and his tight black clothing revealed a toned and slender build all the way down to his green army boots. Ashley dressed in the same designer suit he sported earlier and together stood a mixed-matched pair. The room transformed the instant they arrived as if pure energy spilled through the air and ignited it. Their auras combined into a single pulsating light casting a red glow onto their surroundings, the candles’ flames revived, steadied and doubled in size. Unable to look away from the two men, Paige zeroed in on Michael, drawn to him and excited by his presence. The dizziness returned and her head buzzed with static, deafening her ears until an abrupt silence took over. A male voice penetrated her thoughts, clear and decipherable as if spoken aloud—you’re being deceived, Paige. She stiffened and scanned the room but no one else existed, only she and Michael and the red blaze that shrouded him. The voice spoke to her and her alone, trespassing on private thoughts and hijacking her sanity. She gazed into his amber green eyes and felt them browsing through her mind like fingers flipping through a Rolodex. Michael grinned and stepped forward as Paige heard him speak again without moving his lips, you’re right on time. Folding his arms on the back of his sister’s chaise, he rested his chin on his knuckles and winked. A clock on the back wall crashed to the floor and Paige jumped out of her chair, as did Professor Faraday, but Regan rummaged around in her purse, Ashley conversed with his son, and Kendal continued playing a soft tune on the piano. Watching Paige with keen focus, Michael tapped his wrist and flashed a quick smile before turning to speak.

“I can’t be sure,” he said, “but I think the sun just exploded. That was outstanding…where’s Alain?” he asked, looking around the room.

Regan, sounding bored, answered, “He’s not coming.”

“What do you mean he’s not coming? He’s in the band!”

Gesturing with her wine glass, she replied, “Michael, baby, look around, there won’t be a show tonight, all the lights went kaput.”

Wine sloshed onto the floor and onto Michael’s green army boots. Peering down at the mishap, he looked up and grinned before asking, “How much have you had to drink tonight? You’re actually somewhat pleasant to be around.”

Regan yawned and presented her middle finger.

Positioned on the edge of her seat, Paige tried convincing herself she was the victim of an impressive magic trick, some clever parlor act perhaps, but she knew otherwise. Michael had invaded her thoughts, but the clock, coincidence? Maybe, she thought, but how am I being deceived? She glanced at Professor Faraday who, along with Ashley, grinned with amusement at the sibling rivalry between Regan and Michael. No one acknowledged the falling clock, but Ashley’s smile didn’t go unnoticed, nor did Paige.

“Laugh it up, Mr. Artsy Fartsy,” Regan said. “You know, our son here made a new friend, little Miss Holland over there. That’s a real nice outfit too, Hun. Those your going out clothes?” Abbey jumped to Paige’s defense and Ashley muted his smile after seeing the painful embarrassment sweep across his son’s face.

“Leave her alone, Mom, you’re making everyone uncomfortable,” he said, adding fuel to the intoxicated fire.

Regan held her hand to her chest and batted her long black lashes. “Oh? Am I? For now on, Precious,” she said, pointing her long red fingernail, “you can just call me Regan, mom makes me sound so old,” she slurred.

Abbey tilted his head and scowled at his mother, his dark eyes revealing the controlled anger hidden in his voice. “You are old,” he replied. “You just fail to show it.” Calm and tight-lipped, he stood to excuse himself and retreated to a small balcony outside.

“You’re quite possibly the worst mother ever,” Ashley remarked. Regan belched under her breath and leaned in closer, her long dark hair dipping into her wine glass.

“What’s that, Picasso?” she asked. “You’re judging me? Here’s an idea, why don’t you go cut off your ear, stuff it in an envelope and send it to your beloved Michael over there.” Laughing, she attempted to stand but lost her balance and fell back onto the chaise lounge. Michael laughed at the expense of his wine-friendly sister.

“Van Gogh cut off his ear Sis, not Picasso,” he said, correcting Regan’s debauchery of art history. He watched with amusement as she tried to steady her relentless wobble, but Paige kept her head down, fearful of Regan’s personal vendetta against her.

“He can cut off his own joystick for all I care!” Regan exclaimed. “Go on then, Artsy Fartsy, go cater to that pathetic brat of yours. Should have taken him back to father years ago, let him be with his own kind, never compared to the original anyway.” Regan choked down the last of her wine and fumbled around in her purse until she located her keys. Ashley met his boiling point. Stepping forward, he pounced like a rabid cat, grabbing Regan by the throat and slamming her against the wall. He spoke in a low rumble.

“You listen to me you little whore, the only reason you’re still alive is because of Michael. If I had my way, I would have disposed of waste like you years ago.” Ashley tightened his grip and moved in closer, his lips almost touching her face, “I suggest you hitch a ride back to Louisiana tonight, and if you ever talk like that again in my presence, I swear to you, I will have my way.” Ashley released Regan from his clutch, shot Michael a look of damnation and stormed off to the balcony. Regan stood silent, too stunned to speak as she recovered from her attack. No one moved. Paige held her breath waiting for Regan to retaliate and turn the room and its remaining occupants into collateral damage, but Michael took the reins and addressed the volatile situation. Lighting a cigarette, he told his sister to sober up before getting behind the wheel, but suggested she vacate the building before Ashley returned.

“You brought this on yourself,” he said. “Shouldn’t have pushed his buttons like that. I’d say you got off pretty easy.” Glancing at the professor, Michael raised his eyebrows as if signaling him to do something. The professor threw up his hands and returned the facial gesture. No longer wobbling, Regan regained her composure and looked fierce with burning green eyes, untamed hair and a fat vein protruding down her forehead.

Her voice a low rasp, she answered, “Well, we all know whose side you’re on, Michael, and his buttons don’t need pushing for him to be a raging lunatic. You wait till father finds out about this. It’ll be all out war when he hears my life’s been threatened. He’ll be coming after all of you, especially Little Miss Holland over there.” Regan slipped on her gloves and made for the exit. “Oh, and one more thing,” she said, turning around at the door, “whose gonna clean up this little mess I’ve made?” Raising the empty wine bottle, she chunked it against the wall. Michael laughed and jumped out of the way, letting out a surprised, “Whoa!” as the bottle shattered a few feet behind him. Regan cackled and lost her balance again before steadying herself on the chair and demanding a ride back to the hotel. Kendal came through for her inebriated sister and Professor Faraday insisted on walking them to the car. Standing by the exit, he waited for Regan who managed to get in one last quip before slamming the door behind them.

“I’ll see you real soon Little Miss Fashion Queen!”

Paige had never been so happy to see another person leave. Ding-Dong the witch is, well, gone anyway, she thought, and noticed only one person remained. Michael shook his head, brushed away some chards of glass and claimed his sister’s red chaise lounge. Resting his elbow on the arm of the chair, he fidgeted with his dreadlocks and twirled them around his finger, appearing contemplative before breaking the silence.

“My family’s hard to deal with sometimes,” he said. “Kendal’s cool, I guess, and you haven’t met my brother, Alain, but I assure you, he’s no cup-a-tea. On behalf of my sister, I apologize for her rudeness. She’s my evil twin,” he smiled.

Paige clutched the arms of the sofa. “Regan’s your twin sister?” she asked.

“Of course,” he answered, “but I’m the good one. Alain and Kendal are also twins. Ken’s the good twin out of those two, if there is one.”

Paige giggled and broke eye contact as she peered down at her black canvas shoes, double-knotted and ready for retreat. Michael seemed charming and rather personable, but he radiated an intense vibe that suggested otherwise. She observed an enduring quirkiness in him. One that mixed well with the undertones of dark mysticism that defined his character, non-threatening yet intimidating at the same time; a blurred line separated friend from foe. The Pied Piper of musicians, Michael lured his unsuspecting victims astray with a groovy little tune, but his subliminal lyrics often packed a double meaning. Fearful of being led astray, Paige resisted mentioning their unspoken exchange. Fearful that he might deny the entire episode and fearful of being deceived, she crossed her fingers and relied on her playful wit.

“How do you know it’s not the other way around?” she asked. “How do you know you’re not the evil twin?”

Michael’s languid eyes softened his sardonic smile. “Feisty aren’t we?” he asked.

Dancing shadows gave life to the white textured walls as a large array of burning candles warmed the room. Michael rolled up the sleeves of his thick black sweater exposing deep scars encircling both his wrists. Without thinking, Paige leaned in for a better view as he crushed out his cigarette in a guitar-shaped ashtray on the table. His languid eyes caught her gaze; sweat leaked from her pores. Burdened with the need to say something but drawing a blank, she broke eye contact and leaned back into the seat. With a well-mastered poker face, Michael held her in his sight as he rolled his sleeves back down exposing only his fingertips.

“You look thirsty,” he said.

She nodded enthusiastically.

He fetched two bottles of water from a nearby cooler and Paige clung to the bottle like a child in need of nourishment, chugging it down in large continuous gulps. Her perspiration not entirely under control, she blushed and set her water down when Michael complimented her attire. Insulting his sister’s eye for fashion, he praised Paige for her daring attempt at exhibiting a less is more approach. She waited for him to finish picking.

“Ith fabulouth darling,” he gestured. “It thays cathual but thcreams Warhol!” Impressed by his flair for the dramatics, Paige laughed and rolled up her own sleeves, her temperature rising the longer she remained in Michael’s presence.

“Hopefully Ashley doesn’t notice your shirt though,” he said. “Mr. Artsy Fartsy isn’t a huge fan of Andy Warhol.”

“You got something I can change into then?” she asked. “I don’t need another strike out with Mr. Brava.”

Michael’s spirited laughter captivated her. “Another?” he asked.

Paige relayed her story about Abbey and the army coat while scrutinizing his face for signs of aging. A patch of gray hair gleamed in one of his dreadlocks but Michael, like the others, retained his youthful appearance. None of them look older than twenty-five, she thought. Rolling up his sleeves a second time, he listened to her brief account with an attentive stare that intimidated her, as if daring her wondering eyes to look upon his scarred wrists again, but Paige resisted. Holding his gaze and finishing her story, she feared that Ashley and Abbey would soon return. She needed a transfer of topics. With a weak smile, Michael informed her that more to the story existed.

“The army coat belonged to someone Ashley loved very much,” he said, “and so did I. He doesn’t like anyone even breathing on it. I don’t know what Abbey was thinking.” He assured Paige that Ashley didn’t have it out for her, and as if reading her mind, put her other fear to rest as well. “They could stay out there for hours if they wanted to. Cold weather doesn’t affect them. I prefer warmer climates myself.” Sliding closer to the edge of the chaise, Michael stretched out his arms and cracked his knuckles above his head producing a popcorn effect. “By the way,” he said, pausing for a quick drink of water, “you should really quit bleaching your hair. You’re a beautiful girl, but like my dad always says, how could you not be with genes as privileged as yours?”

Her father’s tapping foot flashed through her mind along with the stranger’s curse, “dizzy spell gonna keep comin back.” She also recalled Regan’s last minute remark, he’ll be coming after all of you, especially Little Miss Holland over there. Glancing down at her double-knotted shoes, Paige resisted the urge to flee.

“What do you mean?” she asked.

Michael twirled his dreadlocks and glanced at the ceiling before his eyes locked onto her. The candles temporarily blinked out of existence and the room fell black, cloaking them in darkness before the flames returned with renewed vigor. His energy switched gears and his vibrant eyes dimmed. He spoke in a hushed voice.

“Vincent Doucet, my father, is an absolute mad scientist,” he said. “He perfected Frankenstein’s Monster. No need to tell you how that story ended.”

Paige dug her fingers into the sofa. “I’m sorry,” she said, “I don’t understand. Who’s your father again? And what’s he got to do with me?”

Michael lit another cigarette and asked if she’d ever heard of Valley of Beauty, the skincare line he claimed his father created. Paige knew the commercials, the orgy of women in long flowing gowns frolicking in a green paradise, the sexed-up actress taunting the camera, beckoning viewers to, come, join us in The Valley of Beauty. She’d seen the commercials, but questioned what they had to do with her.

Smiling, Michael answered, “Where do you think your inheritance came from?”

Her voice fell victim to the thick air as a strong wave of déjà vu consumed her. Paige felt a deep connection to the famous singer but choked on his flagrant innuendo. His devious smile undermined his sincerity but she needed to hear him out, she needed to know why her dreams seemed more real than reality. The world around her fell out of sync and if she stopped long enough to smell the flowers, she feared they might wither before her eyes. Her déjà vu lingered as she twirled her hair around her finger and observed Michael; she felt certain they’d met before. Michael stayed in perfect tune with her train of thought and leaned in closer.

“It’s no accident you’re here tonight,” he said. “We instructed Abbey to bring you here, but Billy’s supposed to break the news, some of it anyway, we need to be careful of how much we unload. It’s a delicate situation you understand.”

Paige grasped for her voice and found it suspended in limbo somewhere between fear and enlightenment. She asked if the delicate situation included the truth about her birthparents.

“In a way,” he said, “but it’s also a test, and so far, you’ve met all the criteria.”

“A test?”

“Of course,” he said, “life’s a test. Billy’s our elected spokesdude, so we’ll have to wait for him, but you should know that truth can be dangerous.” He glanced at the sliding glass door and bit down on the side of his lip. “Billy will tell you about your birthparents,” he said, “but there’s always a bigger picture, and once you’re in the know, dat can a worms gonna come flyin’ open fasta dan a fizzerman on fire. You see, my father might be a southern fried swamp dweller, but he sho nuff knows about you, little girl.”

Paige scanned the shadows on the walls and suppressed her goose bump tears. She couldn’t move. Cemented in and vulnerable to the elements, she looked to the weatherman, the Pied Piper of musicians, the self-proclaimed son of Satan for answers.

“Why can’t you tell me?” she asked.

“It’s all about timing, right?” he said, his eyebrows lifting with his voice. “If our timing’s off, we could spend our entire lives chasing after that wascally white wabbit.”

Paige glanced at the broken clock on the floor and stopped herself from chewing her scabbed cuticles. “You and I,” she said, “we’re related?”

A small dimple appeared on his left cheek. “Yes, Paige, we’re related.”

Ripping off a small flap of skin from her finger, Paige kept her hand against her mouth as Michael described his family. Manipulative, power hungry and masters of deceit, he accused them of having a god complex, but admitted they had good reason—the Doucet bloodline enjoyed privileged genes. He added a tone of urgency to his voice as he explained that seeing a person’s true aura helped distinguish truth from trickery.

Paige kept an eye on the shadows. “I’ve seen yours,” she said. “It’s red, you and Ashley both, blood red.”

A figure on the wall collapsed into darkness as Michael held his hand above a candle. “Red is the color of our energy,” he said, slowly moving his hand up and down over the flame. “It’s a default color. It’s what we project to keep each other out, but it’s not necessarily our true aura. If you look close enough, which I know you can do, well, in the words of Cindy Lauper, you’ll see our true colors shining through.” Smiling, he reached across the table with his scarred wrists and gripped her clammy hands. Speaking without moving his lips, Michael’s voice hijacked her thoughts for a second time. Your body knows before the mind. You’re one of us, Paige.

His magnetic touch unveiled a soft yellow light that surrounded his frame, a soothing outer glow previously unnoticed by Paige, it grew in size and enveloped her, catapulting her into his mind. Flooded with visions of a life she didn’t recognize, Paige heard him speak again, you wanted to know about my wrists? Abstract images flashed through her head. A starved and beaten child lay motionless on a dirty mattress, held captive in a dark room—bruised, bloodied and bound at the wrists and ankles. A man in a white lab coat played the fiddle under an old oak tree, the twisted limbs decorated with limp bodies. A young man in a green army coat collapsed onto a sidewalk where a blonde-haired girl knelt down and stroked his dark hair.

Her eyes shot open. She jerked away from Michael and ripped her hands out of his telepathic grip. Her preview into his world or soul or mind abruptly stopped and she gazed into his eyes—the wind changed directions. Michael lit a cigarette and leaned back in the chaise. His languid eyes observed a quivering flame.

“You’re one of us,” he said, placing the cigarette in his mouth. Rubbing his arms, he rolled his sleeves down and held the ends in place with the tips of his fingers. “I’ve just let you in on a little part of me, and a little part of our family history.” A door opened and closed and Professor Faraday entered the room, appearing through the warm glow of the candles like the sun on a bitter cold morning.

“The hell happened to you?” Michael asked. “You get lost or something? You were gone for nearly an hour.”

“How near?” The professor asked. Nodding and smiling at Paige, he took a drink from the dark bottle he held in his hand. “It’s a madhouse down there, city’s gone nuts,” he said. “Boots are out in full force. Crisis Management at its best, you can be sure.”

Staring at the professor with crossed arms, Michael asked, “Where’s mine?”

The professor enjoyed another drink. “I’m afraid I don’t know what you mean.”

“You didn’t get me one?”

“Sorry, didn’t think about it. Ashley and Abbey still on the balcony?”

“Yeah.”

“What are they doing, building a snowplow?”

“Don’t know,” Michael said, “they’re talking. Why, is it actually sticking?”

“Yeah, it’s really piling up,” the professor replied. “That makes, what, third time this season?”

“Another record for H-Town,” Michael nodded.

Bouncing on his heels, the professor sang, “It’s the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine.” Michael laughed as the professor set his drink down and rubbed his hands together over a candle. He frowned and slumped his shoulders after glancing at Paige. Wiping her eyes, she glared at the professor and shot up from the couch, stricken with a head rush but intent on standing her ground. To hell with time, she thought.

“Who were my birthparents?”

Professor Faraday bulged his eyes and his mouth fell slightly agape. Michael smiled, looked at the professor and curtsied with his hand, his fingertips holding his sleeves in place. Paige waited for an answer. The sliding glass door opened and closed, and Ashley and Abbey, with windblown hair, stood in the grips of a progressively awkward moment.

“What did I miss?” Ashley asked, looking from Michael to the professor to Paige. Running his hand through his short dark hair, he shrugged and said, “She had it coming you know. I mean, come on guys, its Regan.”

Professor Faraday stroked his beard and reached for his drink, but Michael suffered a sudden laugh-attack and held his hand over his mouth to quell his amusement. Ashley zeroed in on his famous friend.

“What’d you do?” he asked.

“Hey now, Mr. Artsy Fartsy, what makes you think I did something?”

Ashley smiled and pointed his finger, “Don’t call me that.”

“I’ll tell you what happened,” the professor said, glaring at them, “we left poor Paige here alone with him.” Looking drab and all too aware of his unwanted attention, Michael peeled himself off the chaise, shrugged and commented that someone had to break the ice. He grabbed his backpack from against the wall, brushed off some chards of glass and slung it over his shoulder before excusing himself. Ashley followed his banished friend. Shrouded in a soft blue glow, he inspected Paige, looking her over from head to toe before stuffing his hands in his pockets and ducking off into the hallway. Paige stood motionless and exposed. Her face drained of animation and her mouth set in stone, she pulled away when Abbey reached for her shoulder.

“Have a seat, Paige,” the professor said, “and I’ll explain as much as I can. I don’t know what Michael told you, or showed you, but I can answer your question.” The room spun off kilter as she fought to keep her balance. She massaged her temples and glared at the professor, reluctant to obey his command but fearful of collapsing at his feet, she accepted Abbey’s hand and sat down next to him. Closing her eyes and inhaling a deep breath, she waited for the room to recover from its spasm.

“Michael didn’t do anything wrong,” she finally said, “but I get the feeling there’s a pink elephant in the room, and I’m the only one who can’t see it.” She studied the professor’s face and twirled her hair around her fingers. Her foot pounded the ground. Professor Faraday took another drink and sank into the sofa chair. Choosing his words carefully, he provided a disclaimer before answering the question and defended her parents for their dishonesty. He repeated the same sermon Michael had preached, truth is dangerous, timing is everything and some things can’t be spoken aloud. Paige repeated the question.

“Who were my birthparents?”

The professor tapped his finger against his mouth. “I’ll tell you where you came from,” he said, “but I can’t tell you the rest.”

“Why not?” she asked. “I hear you’re the elected spokesdude.”

The professor sighed and brushed his long hair behind his shoulders. “Your so-called birthparents never died in a car accident,” he said, straightening his posture. “They’re very much alive. Justin and Allison know them quite well.”

Paige gnawed her bottom lip. Her olive complexion turned three shades lighter.

“You’re part Faraday and part Doucet, Paige, part of the privileged and cursed bloodline we all enjoy.” Professor Faraday took another drink and waited for a reaction, but she remained silent, her body statuesque and her gaze fixated on his pale blue eyes.

“Don’t you remember?” he asked. “We’ve been down this road, we’ve–” he broke eye contact and lowered his head. Rubbing his neck, he looked up again and met her unyielding stare. “They have eyes and ears everywhere,” he said, “and I’ve been instructed to stretch the truth out as far as possible. I wish I could sit here with you all night. I wish I could tell you about, well, everything, but we don’t have that luxury.” Placing his hand over his mouth, the professor glanced around the room and scowled at the shadows on the walls. “This new world isn’t so brave after all, is it?” he asked, looking at the ceiling. “The lights may be out, but not everyone’s in the dark.”

“Professor?”

Flinching at the sound of her voice, Professor Faraday peeled his eyes off the ceiling and cleared his throat. “I’m sorry, Paige, I get sidetracked from time to time, old age, I suspect. Here’s what I can tell you, Regan donated one of her eggs, and that’s where you come from.”

Paige exploded. “Regan? But I don’t look anything like Regan! I’m nothing like her!”

“I know,” he said, his eyes darting to Abbey, “and I’m sorry, but that’s the truth. Regan’s a beautiful woman despite her character flaws.”

“Then who’s my father? It’s not you is it?”

The professor smiled and shook his head, “No Paige, it’s not me, but he is a Faraday, a donor, like Regan.”

The room darkened as, one by one, the candles burned out, their flames flickering and shrinking away until only half remained. Paige shivered and rubbed her hands together, vulnerable for the first time to the cold.

“So who is it?” she asked. “Who’s my father?”

“You have more than one,” he answered, “and that’s all I can tell you.”

A black figure appeared above the professor’s head and swooped down between the couches. Paige and Abbey flew out of their seats as it crash-landed into the coffee table, spilling wax onto the floor and knocking over the professor’s drink. Slowly standing from the chair, Professor Faraday leaned in for a better view. A small bat lay motionless on the wooden table, belly up, wet and covered in wax.

“Is it dead?” Paige asked.

“It was never alive,” the professor replied.

Chapter Seven

Houston resembled a winter wonderland as snow blanketed the dark city. CMC squads ramped up forces and attempted to maintain control over the throngs of club-goers congesting the sidewalks and streets. The atmosphere took a turn for the worse after the city went black. Low levels of panic surfaced when word spread like a schoolhouse sneeze that no one’s cell phone worked. The remaining patrons of The Blue Star, clinging to high hopes that the show would somehow go on, were forced to leave and escorted out of the club. With Crisis Management in full effect, a mandatory curfew issued for both minors and adults prohibited civilians from leaving their houses, day or night, without a permission permit. Disappointed Limbo Diver fans found themselves in sudden violation of the curfew, but CMC officers followed protocol, their instructions simple–round up, force out, and maintain order by any means possible. Decked out in riot gear and packing an arsenal of tear gas, automatic weapons, tasers and batons, the Civilian Military Officers raided every public building and establishment. Parading around the streets invoking fear in an already fearful people, CMC’s enjoyed a privileged existence, exempt from most laws, including food and water restrictions. An ever-growing outfit created by the Council of Six, the CMC provided a lucrative job opportunity for anyone caught in the unemployment line with officers in abundance throughout the six regions.

In north Houston at the Holland’s residence, Allison and Justin huddled by the fireplace and tried to find perspective into the ordeal. They broke out their survival supplies and switched on the short wave radio, but every frequency they tried (AM and FM) produced nothing but static. Justin, of course, was a prepared man, and after brewing up some cowboy coffee on the fire, he and Allison prepped the house for an emergency situation. They filled the bathtub with water, started up the solar generator, loaded their shotgun and took careful stock of their canned and non-perishable goods. Although hoarding food, water and ammunition could cost thousands in fines and even prison time, Justin never grew accustomed to the new law of the land.

“We need to bring the rest of the wood up to the porch,” he said, adding a new log to the fire. “It’s getting wet out there in the snow. Man, that was one hell of a lightshow! You remember what Paige said this morning about the strange lights she saw? Guess it was an aurora borealis. You know, honey, a major solar flare like this could knock out satellites, power grid too, looks like. Back in the 1800s, a solar flare produced auroras as far south as Hawaii. Damn thing set telegraphs on fire.” Allison pretended to listen to her husband’s chatter, but she was frantic to talk to her daughter and furious at him for letting Paige leave. Justin put his full faith in his old friend, Professor Faraday, believing 100% that Paige would arrive home safely.


Backstage at The Blue Star, the professor cleaned off the coffee table and tossed the kamikaze bat into a trashcan by the wall. Abbey and Paige stood in place watching him bustle around the room blowing out candles, picking up glass and ridding ashtrays of marijuana butts. He opened the sliding glass door to fetch an abandoned flashlight, and a blare of emergency sirens filtered through the room. A collective murmur buzzed from the streets below as a symphony of broken words, honking horns and random screams invaded the air. Confusion settled in like sea fog and Paige couldn’t tell whether the shrieks and screams were inspired by panic and fear or if alcohol motivated the outbursts. She felt like screaming herself.

“Professor Faraday, won’t the bat start to smell after a while, I mean, what did you mean by, it was never alive?”

“It’s spy technology,” the professor replied. “It won’t decompose, it’ll only rust.”

“Who’s spying on us?”

“Council of Six, they spy on everyone.” The professor pulled the blinds closed and explained that the mechanical minions of mayhem were everywhere, but suffered a short lifespan. “A small victory in a greater war,” he commented. Paige reached into the trash can and poked the robotic bat, disturbed by its rubbery texture, she quickly yanked her finger away.

“Professor, what did you mean by, we’ve been down this road before?”

Turning his back, the professor held up his hand and advised Paige to put her questions on hold. He scanned the room and glanced at the ceiling, mumbling to himself about what they were going to do. Blowing out the last candle, he clicked on his flashlight and handed the one from the balcony to Abbey.

“We should go ahead and move camp into the other room,” he said, “before we get dive-bombed again.”

Paige stood beside Abbey and smiled as he fumbled with the flashlight, flipping it upside down and hitting it with the palm of his hand before swearing under his breath and chunking it onto the couch. Attempting to tame his out of control hair, he turned to Paige and told her he’d slipped a green ski hat into her purse while they were in the attic. She fished it out and handed it to him, recognizing the old faded hat from the trunk. Fearful that the page she’d torn from the spiral had fallen out, she dug through her purse until her fingers brushed against the frayed ends of the paper putting her fear to rest. Abbey pulled the hat over his head, and as Paige watched him, she realized that the young man she’d found so attractive was actually her brother. She wondered if Ashley was her father, or at least one of them.

“Professor Faraday,” she said, “I know you said no more questions, but do you think I could have a beer?”

Abbey cheered and clapped his hands. “Yes! Beer would be awesome!”

Professor Faraday turned and looked them over while stroking his beard. Picking up his empty bottle, he tossed it into the trash and shuffled them out of the room.

They crept down the long candlelit hallway that led to the room with the red barricaded doors—the place where Paige met the cane-wielding stranger. Her stomach convulsed when she thought about the incident, and although she’d refrained from telling Michael about her encounter, she suspected he was well-acquainted with the southern-fried stranger. She suspected she was related to the devil with the gold pocket watch. The professor scanned the area and Paige followed the flashlight’s beam searching for shadow dwellers, but without even a bartender left to mix a drink, they ventured deeper into the bar. An antique oil-lamp illuminated two figures seated in the back. One sat sideways with their feet stretched out across the other one’s lap, and as Paige drew closer, she noticed the one sitting sideways fashioned a pair of green army boots. She and Abbey plopped down on a red leather loveseat and Professor Faraday made a beeline for the bar, returning with three beers in hand. She thanked him for the beverage and knocked bottles together with Abbey before chugging it down. The professor pulled up a barstool, shook his head smiling and chugged his own drink.

“Thirsty?” Michael asked.

“We are,” the professor answered, setting his drink down. “Who knew Pandora’s Box could leave you so parched. Thank you, Michael.”

“Lay off him,” Ashley said. “He did what none of us wanted to do.”

Michael looked to Ashley with a warm smile and then turned to the professor, pouting his lips and folding his arms, he embodied the final words of a child’s argument—so there. The two friends enjoyed a toast while Professor Faraday frowned and stroked his beard.

“The only thing you did was scare her,” he said.

Michael dropped his jaw and widened his eyes before relaxing his face again to speak. “Look, this is stupid, let’s all be friends again, okay?”

The professor rolled his eyes, flashed a reluctant grin and drank his beer.

“You did scare me,” Paige remarked. Abbey laughed and knocked drinks with her again but Ashley glared at his son and slammed his glass down on the table.

“Where’d you get that hat?” he asked.

Abbey muted his smile. “What do you mean?”

“You know exactly what I mean. I told you to stay out of that trunk!”

Paige dropped her head while Michael stepped in and attempted to calm his friend’s sudden rage. Abbey nudged her shoulder and she heard his voice speak inside her head, don’t feel bad, I broke the lock off that trunk two months ago. He hasn’t been the same since. She gawked at him and slowly shook her head, horrified when he tore off the hat and chunked it at his dad. Bad idea, she thought. I know, he answered.

Yanking the hat off the floor, Ashley squeezed it in his hand and held it up to Abbey’s face, “If you refuse to show respect, you don’t get to wear his clothes. Understand?”

Abbey nodded.

“Good.” Sitting back down, Ashley clenched his hands under his chin and stared at his half empty drink on the table. Michael sighed and glared at Abbey through scornful eyes.

“It’s just a damn hat,” Abbey said under his breath.

Ashley winced at the sound of his son’s voice, and again, after downing his drink. Wiping his mouth, he slid the glass onto the table and pulled out a cigarette. “When are we leaving?” he asked.

“I’m ready whenever you are,” Michael answered.

“You guys can’t be serious,” the professor said, “with the snow and the blackout, we’ll have to postpone.”

“No way,” Michael said, “I can’t wait any longer.”

Paige relaxed into the couch and used her sleeves to grip the cold bottle she held in her lap. She listened while they argued back and forth, twirling her hair around her finger and sipping her beer, she observed the familiar strangers—their mannerisms, their reactions, their expressions, she soaked them up and penciled in her lines. The dots appeared like clusters of stars through patches of clouds, but Paige struggled to make the connections. She thought about running, but didn’t. She thought about demanding answers, but couldn’t. I’m being deceived, she thought, just like Michael said, but it was like the thief telling the victim they’re being robbed, she didn’t understand, or maybe she didn’t want to. She feared the truth. She feared the deceivers and the thieves, and who they’d turn out to be.

“Billy, they’re bleeding,” Michael said, holding up his wrists. “I’m out of time, man. I’m going with or without you.”

Paige stared at Michael’s newly bandaged wrists and considered the story of Frankenstein, a reanimated corpse sewn up, covered in scars and angry with his maker, she thought she understood what Michael had tried to tell her. She needed to know for sure.

“Where are we going?” she asked.

“No way,” the professor said, “there’s absolutely no reason for you to–”

“We’re going to New Orleans,” Michael said. “Would you like to come along?”

“I would,” she said, “but I don’t know if I trust you. You really did scare me.”

“I apologize for that,” he said. “It wasn’t my intention to scare you, more of a side-effect really.”

“A side-effect of what?” she asked. “Telepathy? The fact that none of you age? The pink elephant that I still can’t see?”

Michael flinched back into the couch and scanned the room. “Where?” he asked.

Paige brushed hair out of her face and leaned in closer. “I want to know what’s going on, Michael. How am I being deceived?” Professor Faraday finished off his beer and held up his hand to say something, but Michael answered first.

“It’s okay, Billy, I’ve got this. I hereby elect myself spokesdude, you obviously suck at it. Look here, Paige,” he said, placing a cigarette in his mouth. He searched the coffee table, patted down his pants and finally nudged Ashley while pointing at his mouth. “Look here, Paige,” he said again as Ashley lit his cigarette, “you’re related to everyone in this room, and that’s all you need to know. Forget about birthparents, it doesn’t matter, you know who your parents are, they raised you, and it just so happens, they’re also the one’s deceiving you.”

Paige shivered and set her drink down. “How are they deceiving me?” she asked, her breath dissolving into the air.

“Besides lying about your adoption?” he asked. “They’re holding you hostage. You’re a prisoner and you don’t even know it.” His words rang like confirmation bells. Michael was wrong, she did know it.

Paige had been sick during the holidays. The end of October left her bed-ridden for the next four weeks, but even after she recovered, the great outdoors remained off limits, her parents fearing she might relapse. Attending her first day of college had been a small miracle. She resented them for being the typically overbearing and controlling parents, but they sent mixed signals, for if they weren’t forcing her to stay, they were forcing her to leave. Home-schooled until she turned thirteen, Paige was then sent off to an out-of-state, all-girl boarding school. After graduation, she returned home to care for her ailing father. She loved and resented them, they wanted her to stay, they wanted her to go, but they lied, and that’s the nagging feeling she couldn’t shake, they lied about her adoption.

“I know my parents can be overly protective,” she said, “but how do you know about them?”

Michael laughed and waved smoke out of his eyes. “How do I know about them?” he asked. “I know them quite well, Paige, we all do. In fact, we tried to come see you during the holidays but Allison wouldn’t let us through the door. And no offense, but Justin’s lack of a backbone makes him a walking miracle.”

Paige narrowed her eyes, “Maybe they have good reason for keeping me from you,” she said.

“Oh, they do, but you deserve to know the truth.”

“Is my life in danger?” she asked.

“Everyone’s is,” he answered. “You coming to New Orleans or not?”

She scrutinized Michael’s face through the dim glow of the oil lamp. A faint yellow light illuminated his body and she heard a voice tell her, say no.

“Stay out of this, Abbey,” Michael said.

“What happens in New Orleans,” she asked, “because it sounds like you want me to go.”

“I want you to do what feels right,” he answered. “We’re going to Nawlins to settle unfinished business. A family reunion of sorts. You’re invited.”

“Is this a test?” she asked. “You said earlier I was being tested, what am I being tested for?”

“You already passed the test,” he said, glancing at the professor, “and I was testing to see if you really are who you appear to be.”

“Who do I appear to be?” she asked, glancing at the professor.

“Well you appear to be Paige, but we had to make sure,” he answered.

The professor stood from his stool and warned them to be mindful of what they said, specifically targeting Michael with his disapproving glare.

“I still don’t understand,” she said. “I just, I don’t understand.”

Professor Faraday returned from the bar and patted her on the back, assuring her not to worry, that everything would be okay but she didn’t need to go to New Orleans. Paige smiled and nodded. She watched him take a long drink from his fresh beer, his blonde hair falling across his shoulders before he brushed it behind his ears. Professor Faraday, much like her parents, seemed to shield her from dangerous unknowns that Michael was willing to expose. The Pied-Piper had his bait, if that’s what she was, and though part of her feared for her life, it wasn’t enough to send her running. She decided to bring up the man with the gold pocket watch, describing his appearance as a dark-skinned man dressed like a fifties gangster. The black goatee, the walking cane, the gold watch, she eyed Michael after likening his dialect to that of a southern-fried swap dweller.

“He knew about my dizzy spells,” she said, “told me I was lost in the woods. He also talked about auras, I think, said I was all over the map.”

Michael confirmed her suspicions. “Sounds like you met dear ole daddy. You let me worry about him, Paige, unlike me, he really is trying to scare you. If you do come to New Orleans, I give you my word I’ll keep you safe.”

The professor scoffed and shook his head, “No way. Not going to happen.”

“Why don’t we let Paige decide?” Michael said and then smiled, “There’s something you need to see to believe.”

Paige nodded and clutched her purse. She saw them as a tight-knit circle of family and friends, her family, but she stood outside of that bond. Although naturalized by birthrights, she knew she wasn’t one of them, and what they were, she didn’t know. Not normal, that much she gathered. They were beautiful and ageless and outside of her realm of understanding. They were the beautiful people scheming to do something dangerous in New Orleans, something that Michael wanted her to see, but beyond that, she lacked insight, unable to connect all the dots. Her father always told her to follow the money when trying to solve a mystery, and that money trail led straight to Michael’s father, Vincent. She’d rather listen to her dad rattle on about trilobites than face him again, but then, her dream about Gabriel, the dying celebrity, and the disturbing images Michael showcased spoke louder than the cane-wielding devil.

“I’ll go,” she said.

The professor pleaded his case, igniting into a full-blown protest and assuring Paige that New Orleans was the last place she wanted to be. He insisted that Vincent had nothing to do with her, and although she suspected otherwise, Paige listened as he laid out the plan. He proposed they wait until morning to head out, at which time Paige could drive home to her parents (who were probably worried sick). He begged her not to drop his course and then held up his hands, bravely inviting feedback.

“What do you think?” he asked.

Michael rolled his eyes, “Fine, we’ll wait, but if Paige wants to come, she’s coming.”

Abbey nudged her shoulder and his voice penetrated her mind, bad idea, don’t come. Growing weary of hearing voices in her head, she nudged him back and answered, I’m going. The professor’s pale blue eyes watched her with the familiar concern her father’s eyes often displayed—a look that inspired defiance on her part.

“I won’t drop your course, Professor,” she said, “but I expect all A’s this semester.” Professor Faraday smiled and slumped his shoulders, successful on one front and a failure on the other. Paige knew she should listen to him. All signs of logic raised the red flag, but like the overly-confident swimmer, she ignored the warning bells and shrugged off the broken surfboards lining the shore. She was going, she no longer had a choice, something about that green army coat, and Michael’s wrists, and that strange fiddle player standing under a tree ornamented with dead bodies. She asked what would happen at the upcoming family reunion.

“Not real sure,” Michael said, stretching out his legs across Ashley’s lap, “but I won’t lie, it won’t be pretty.”

“Will my life be in danger?” she asked, posing the question for a second time.

“Yes.”

Sirens howled through the dark city and faded off into background noise leaving behind unnatural silence in their wake. Paige wasn’t surprised by Michael’s answer but found herself more concerned about her parents. She imagined them sitting in the dark house arguing with each other, worried to death about her safety. She knew her father would risk his life driving through the snow if she wasn’t home soon. With the power grid down and the satellites disabled, she wondered if a telepathic message could put their minds at ease. Michael grinned when she asked the question aloud and reminded her that anything they could do, she could do. Paige had serious doubts.

“I’m the best of course,” Michael said, elbowing Ashley for a lighter, “but we’re all capable of telepathy, yourself included.” Ashley handed over his flame and asked about the one he’d just bought a couple of hours ago. Michael shrugged and said he lost it. Ashley called him flighty. Michael snorted and called him a stick-in-the-mud. Paige waited, observing the two friends as they shuffled back and forth and slipped between realms. They occupied a shared plateau where intruders were likely to be shot on-site. She envied their close relationship.

“I’ll let your parents know you’re staying here tonight,” Michael said, “and as far as your life being in danger, I expect everyone in this room to return home safely, but if we don’t confront the inevitable, we’ll lose the upper-hand.”

“What’s the inevitable?” she asked.

“The devil wants to make a deal, Paige, and we have to deceive the Great Deceiver.”

Chapter Eight

Justin stood outside in his backyard with an extremely unhappy Strutter, who was being forced against his will to brave the cold and use the bathroom. The snow caused the old dog much discouragement. Admiring the falling flakes, he fell into his thoughts about past and present transgressions for which he claimed admitted guilt. He wondered if he’d done the right thing, and if he hadn’t, what then? He worried about his wife’s reaction when she found out, but she had to know, he thought, how could she not know? Judging by her reluctance to speak to him, and her sharp tongue when she did, Justin didn’t need a doctorate in biology (which he had) to know she basked in her fury. Allison waged war on their plastic ware when she learned that Paige went to the show in the first place, but Justin conveniently forgot to tell his wife that Limbo Diver headlined the event. Wait until she finds out the rest.

Justin’s sudden recovery could be considered a medical miracle (if he believed in miracles), but Allison never questioned his overnight revitalization. She continued on about her business as if he’d fought off a bad cold, then again, she knew why he was sick. They both knew what was happening to him and Allison had been there all those years ago, from day one. The past never went away, it may lay dormant for a while but there’s always a trigger causing that well-rested beast to rear its ugly head—Justin’s beast had an empty stomach and a thousand mile memory.

The mistakes of the past plagued them, but for the most part, they made those mistakes together, not this time. He’d made the decision without her knowing, without her approval and his deceit might cost him his marriage, but he prepared to come clean. Strutter accomplished his duties and hopped to the backdoor, sinking in and out of the snow and shaking off his paws. Justin followed his longtime companion up to the porch and into the clutches of his lifelong companion, but stopped before reaching the door. A familiar sensation gripped him and he stood in place, startled when the distinguishable voice took over his crowded thoughts. He whipped around, expecting to see the voice’s owner in the flesh, and then stared at the door. Should have seen this coming, he thought, but aside from hearing Limbo Diver’s signature sound blaring from Paige’s room, he hadn’t heard Michael’s distinct voice in over ten years. Strutter whined at the backdoor as Justin wrapped his hand around the cold knob, inhaled the wet air and let him inside. The well-rested beast followed behind with an empty mug and a crowded mind. The door squeaked shut. Allison stood waiting.

“I’m assuming you received a message,” she said, standing by the fire with crossed arms and a quilt draped around her shoulders. Justin had the random, panic-induced thought that she looked older, as if the past twenty-four hours had aged her by twenty-four years, or perhaps he never noticed she’d grown old.

 “Why?” he asked. “Did you receive a message?”

Allison rolled her eyes and pointed her long skinny finger, “Oh no you don’t, not this time,” she hissed. “You first, and don’t try acting blasé or unconcerned, like you don’t know anything, because I know that you know what the hell I’m talking about!” Justin jumped despite himself. Thrown off by Allison having the home field advantage, he wanted to pitch the perfect game before things got out of hand. Damage control is going into overtime.

“Honey, now calm down, I did receive a message from Michael, really took me by surprise actually, and I was coming–”

“Took you by surprise?” she asked. “Let me ask you something before you catch yourself in another lie. Did you talk to them before the show tonight?” Score! Justin’s back hit the proverbial wall.

“I did,” he answered. Allison glared at her husband. Her eyes reflected the raging fire in the backdrop. The patchwork quilt glowed with paisley, stripes and polka dots.

“Before we get into the why of it,” she said, “let me ask you something. What makes you think that he’s not behind all of this?”

“Clarify, he.

Allison erupted. “You’re a real piece of work you know that? You go on and on about your conspiracies, the cover-ups and lies, yet you can’t even be honest with your own wife!” She adjusted the quilt and moved in closer, “I don’t know why you bother going behind my back when you know full well I’ll find out. You’re a child sometimes, you really are.” Her long skinny finger sliced the air. She moved in closer, “Oh, and I’m glad you’re feeling better, guess you thought that’d go unnoticed too. You want to know what Michael’s message was, I’ll tell you what he said, and I quote, hello Allison, Paige is with us. Justin’s been deceiving you, oh, and Billy says hi.” Pulling her quilt tighter around her shoulders, she waited.

“Say something!”

Justin flinched. “Billy says hi? What’s that supposed to mean?”

Her finger pierced his chest, “I think you’re missing the key ingredient here, honey, but before we discuss how you’ve been deceitful, go ahead and tell me what he said to you. I’m sure it’s quite different from my message.”

Colder than an ice sculpture at a shotgun wedding in Antarctica, he thought. “Okay,” he said, gesturing with his empty mug, “my message said, hey pig, we have Paige, it’s show time.” He commented while he still had a pulse, “I’ve always found Michael to be a bad judge of character, haven’t you?”

Allison looked as though the roof had collapsed, again. Justin stood like a beggar in the rain—exposed, defeated and far from being off the proverbial hook.


It was a quarter past midnight when Kendal Doucet returned to The Blue Star. She managed to evade the CMC officers and arrived at her destination before the streets became impassable. Snowfall continued its record-breaking pile up and wind howled through the cracks and crevices of the early 20th century building where she took shelter. The dark city took on an eerie silence save for distant sirens heard every so often wailing into the black night from some unknown location. Glad to be rid of Regan, she remained guarded in the company of her brother and his faithful childhood friends. Alliances that formed decades ago retained their relevance and Kendal retained her resentment for the Faradays. According to her brother, blood didn’t run as thick as water, and dysfunctional though they were, Michael committed treason when he turned his back and denounced his family. Other than the few times Limbo Diver reunited for a show, Michael kept his distance from the Doucets, and Kendal blamed the Faradays for her brother’s dissent. She sighed, sipped her coffee and passively tuned in to the conversation. Brushing her long dark curls away from her face, she cringed when she looked at Ashley and saw the old green ski hat covering his head. She dropped her eyes and stirred her coffee with a small red straw, her long skinny fingers bored without a musical instrument. Ashley inquired about the blackout, asking if it was citywide, statewide or worldwide. The professor also turned to Kendal for an answer.

“What did the news report say on your way up here?” he asked.

“Nothing but static,” she replied, eyeing Paige who stood and excused herself. It was her third trip in one hour to the bathroom. Paige borrowed the professor’s flashlight again, filed past the pool tables and searched the shadows for Vincent and his gold pocket watch. She swung open the door and scanned the room, kicking open each stall just as she’d done fifteen minutes before. Approaching the last stall on the far end, she stopped. A warm red glow spilled through the cracks of the door. She hesitated, took a few steps back, held her breath and listened for signs of life.

“Hello?” she said.

The light faded and reappeared in the stall beside it, and then the next, and on down the line until a bright flash exploded and bathed the room in white-washed luminosity. Paige shielded her eyes as she stumbled back and tripped over her own feet, the blinding light mimicking the sun, reflecting off the bathroom mirror as it warmed the ice cold air. When the heat subsided, she lowered her arm and opened her eyes to see a slender woman in a red silk dress standing before her. The flashlight shut off by itself and Paige grabbed hold of the sink, her double-knotted shoes welded into the black-and-white checkered floor. Appearing solid with a soft red glow illuminating her figure, the mocha-skinned woman held her finger to her mouth and placed her hand into the pockets of her red dress. With piercing green eyes, she gazed at Paige through the mirror and whispered, “He knows you from another time. He offers fool’s gold. He plays the fiddle where the strange fruit grows.” Holding her finger to her mouth again, she turned, faced Paige directly and screamed without making a sound, her mouth stretching open as her hands clinched the pockets of her red dress. Paige recoiled. Tears streamed down her face as she trembled with weak legs and clung to the sink for a lifeline. Closing her mouth abruptly, the exotic woman gazed at Paige through the mirror again and whispered, “He follows the moon with a hidden eye. Gabriel ain’t supposed to die.” Her image became distorted, appearing through fragmented light and then dispersing into tiny orbs that sparked and blinked out of existence. The flashlight clicked on and the bathroom door swung open.

“Everything okay in here?” Kendal asked, shining her light into Paige’s watery eyes.

Nodding, Paige followed Kendal out of the bathroom and returned to her seat next to Abbey. Her body shuddered as she picked at her bottom lip and peered through the darkness. White letters, suspended in midair, gleamed in the light of the oil lamp, the word, WOMEN, becoming foreign the longer she stared. She halfway listened as Abbey talked about the end of the world, his tone nonchalant and his posture relaxed, he concluded that the end had already begun. Professor Faraday stared at his drink in a trance. Paige stared at the bathroom door.

“The world’s not coming to an end,” Michael said, crunching on an ice cube. “This blig blue ball of crap will go on whether or not we’re along for the ride.”

Paige crinkled her forehead and looked up to see Ashley smiling, his hand resting against the green hat. Michael crossed his eyes and stuck out his tongue.

“Look,” he grinned, “all I’m saying is that the poles will shift a little, we’ll tilt a little closer to the sun, the earth will warm and cool, species die, new life is born, it’s the circle of freakin’ life.”

“The world will end when they want it to end,” the professor said. “When they pull the plug, mankind will be depopulated by one means or another, and Mother Nature will be destroyed in the process.”

Under different circumstances, Paige would be a mighty contender in the current debate, but the woman in the bathroom preyed upon her sanity. Her stark green eyes and thick French accent tormented her body with cold un-abating chills as the woman’s voice played through her head until Abbey’s voice interrupted. You okay? Glancing over, she thought, I’m seeing ghosts! Abbey widened his eyes, don’t go to New Orleans!

“Words of wisdom,” Michael said, “but in the grand scheme of things, history is repeating itself.”

Professor Faraday nodded in agreement before answering, “But it doesn’t have to, and I’ll say this much, if we are barreling towards Armageddon, most people probably wouldn’t even notice.”

Michael eyed Abbey and Paige as a deep red light enveloped him, not around Kendal guys, keep it light. Kendal eyed all three of them and stirred her black coffee. Yawning, Michael repositioned himself, draped his arm across the back of the futon and rested his head.

“It’s mind control,” he said.

“It absolutely is,” the professor nodded, taking another drink.

Paige struggled to keep from looking at Kendal, the silent member in the band, the female bassist who rounded out their sound with pitch-perfect harmony now felt like a threat. It wasn’t anything she did or said, or even Michael’s warning, it was something else, something about the way she stirred her coffee and glared into the shadows as if she too, searched for the woman in the red dress. Paige focused on Professor Faraday instead, who sat next to Kendal and schooled them on the ways of the world. His speech gained momentum the longer he spoke until the lecture snowballed into a full-blown rant.

“Our reality is ruled by propaganda,” he said. “It’s doled out like chicken feed! A deliberate disinformation campaign, and with everything being censored, from the news to our textbooks to the kitchen table, we don’t know the truth about anything!”

“Couldn’t agree more,” Michael said.

The professor paused for a drink before continuing, “But those useless eaters don’t seem to care, just so long as they get their chicken feed. They’re the happy-go-lucky masses, and anyone who sounds the alarm, like myself, is a crazy conspiracy theorist.”

“Absolutely,” Michael nodded.

“Cognitive dissonance,” the professor said, pausing for another drink.

Michael glanced at Ashley and shrugged. Abbey and Paige turned to each other, smiled, and then looked to the professor. Kendal stirred her black coffee.

“The social need to justify conflicting ideas or actions,” the professor explained. “If something is too far-fetched or too far-removed from our common beliefs, it’s easier to believe lies than it is the truth.”

Ashley pulled the ashtray closer and mumbled something under his breath. Paige couldn’t decipher what he said but the professor appeared pleased with his brother, slapping his leg and pointing his finger.

“Exactly!” he exclaimed. “The bigger the lie, the more they believe. Hitler even wrote about it. The Big Lie, Nazi propaganda.”

Kendal sighed and primped up her hair. “Tell us more, Billy,” she said. “You want to quote something out of Mein Kampf?”

The professor dropped his shoulders and brushed back his hair as he turned and stared at Kendal. Curling her lips, she sipped her coffee and focused on Ashley.

“Why are you wearing that hat?” she asked.

Ashley clenched his jaw and sat up straighter in his seat.

“That hat,” Kendal said, “it clashes with your designer suit. Not at all your style.”

Smiling with only half his face, Ashley replied, “And having couth has never been yours.”

Michael came to the rescue before another fight broke out between his best friend and one of his sisters. With his legs outstretched across Ashley’s lap, he placed his finger over his friend’s mouth and warned Kendal to behave. Holding up his wrists, he reminded his sister that his life depended on her cooperation. His yellow glow turned red as his dark eyes bore into his sister, but she ignored his slow burn and continued stirring her black coffee. Flinching back, she almost fell from the stool when her mug slid across the table and crashed to the floor. Michael grinned and winked at Paige as Professor Faraday bent down to pick up the chunks of glass.

“So much for the truce,” he commented from the floor. Kendal’s high-heeled boot bobbed up and down above the professor’s head while he finished cleaning the mess. Michael closed his eyes and rested his head against his arm, but Ashley pulled him back up and reached for the First Aid kit on the coffee table. Rolling back his sleeves, he whispered for Michael to take it easy while bandaging his scarred wrists. Paige turned away from the two friends and observed the bathroom door, haunted by the green-eyed woman.

Gabriel ain’t supposed to die. She couldn’t get the words out of her head. The woman in the red dress petrified her, but for a split second she looked beyond fear and saw something. The dream, the dark club, the green army coat, the forbidden trunk in the attic—she discovered a crease on the face of reality. While she stood frozen in terror with the woman’s silent scream piercing her ears, Paige thought she understood the message. The overwhelming fear crystallized her thoughts and she saw through the constraints of denial and skepticism and mistrust. She found clarity, but like waking from a dream, she lost it as soon as Kendal opened the bathroom door. She remembered the message and tried to make connections but something was missing, the dots weren’t lining up, blocked by an obstruction, blocked by denial and skepticism and mistrust. All roads lead to New Orleans, she thought, where the devil wants to make a deal, and while Paige never believed in the devil, Gabriel did. The millionaire teen dream who chain-smoked, abused hard drugs and romanced older women, embraced his spirituality. Gabriel once said he’d already made reservations with the man upstairs, that his soul was golden—Paige hoped so. For his sake, she hoped heaven did exist, because whether or not he was supposed to, Gabriel died, she thought, and Ashley’s wearing his hat, and Abbey looks like his identical twin.

“The way I see it,” Ashley said, shoving the First Aid kit into Michael’s backpack, “This little family reunion has been a long time coming, like fire in a forest, and tomorrow, I’ll be the spark.” Finishing off his drink, he stood and requested orders as he slid over the bar and returned with two small glasses and a handful of beer.

Professor Faraday enjoyed a prolonged gulp from his fresh drink, but his face tightened as he set it aside and looked to his brother.

“Hey, Ash,” he said, folding his hands over his knee, “what do you think Gabe would say about the state of the world today?”

Ashley gently pulled the hat off his head and held it in his lap. Rubbing his fingers across the faded cotton fabric, he answered, “Same thing he always said, the world’s been taken over by a bunch of Nazi Satan worshipers.”

The professor chuckled and agreed, “You’re right, that’s exactly what he would say.”

Michael sipped his drink and asked if they remembered the speech Gabriel gave at an awards ceremony. After winning Best Actor, the teen dream took the stage and addressed the audience, holding up the gold-plated award, he stated, I find it quite fitting that this is shaped like a pyramid, and to the winners before me who thanked God, I don’t think He cares if you win Best Supporting Actor. I’d like to thank Lucifer, the real winner here tonight. Gabriel then gave the award away to one of the stage guides.

Ashley laughed and wiped his eyes, “Yeah, I think that was the last award he ever won.”

Paige listened while they reminisced about the fallen idol and almost felt like she knew Gabriel, as if he wasn’t a bigger-than-life celebrity but merely a friend who never came around anymore. She drew in more lines and milked her beer. We’ve been down this road. The professor beamed with fondness as he remembered the young actor, suggesting the world would be in much better shape had he lived. Even Kendal shared a heart-felt narrative, but Abbey remained silent, scoffing to himself before finally storming off to the bathroom. Paige watched him disappear behind the door and hoped the men’s room wasn’t harboring its own ghosts. Ashley loosened his tie and placed the ski hat into Michael’s bag, the two friends exchanging worrisome looks after Abbey’s abrupt departure. Professor Faraday sighed and rotated his beer on the table.

“I think Gabe would be pretty freaked out about the progression of things,” he said. “I know I am.” Michael nodded and agreed, adding that Gabriel saw it coming more than any of them. From the civilian military to the collapse of the dollar to the death of America, he concluded that the young star had known how and when the dominoes would fall—a planned collapse of society. Kendal scrunched up her face and glanced at the ceiling.

“Michael,” she said, leaning in closer, “I loved Gabriel as much as anyone. Sneer all you want, Ashley, I did love him, but he was misled. There are no evil puppet masters running things.”

Nose to nose with his sister, Michael replied, “They exist behind closed doors, Ken. You, more than anyone, should know that. Quit playing games.”

The heel of her shoe mimicked a yo-yo as she replied, “Gabriel was misled, and none of this is The Council’s doing.”

Michael grinned and waved at the ceiling. “No one said anything about The Council, Ken, but since you brought it up–”

“No, not the closet, don’t look in the closet,” The professor said, flailing his arms around. Kendal responded with daggers. “There’s no evil plot,” she said, her arms and legs tightly crossed. “The human population got out of hand, so The Council stepped in. We need them. There are far too many of us and we’ve blundered away our resources. It’s not a global conspiracy, it’s a global problem.”

Lowering his voice, his grin replaced with a frown, Michael suggested suicide might be a worthy answer to her cause. The professor quickly came to her defense.

“Michael, that’s uncalled for!”

“No it’s not,” he replied. “One less human equals one less useless eater.”

Kendal glared at her brother and yanked her jacket tighter around her waist. “I am not a useless eater,” she said, “and you know you’d be a lot happier if there were less of them!”

Paige set her beer aside and tuned out their sibling rivalry. The dizzy spell returned and she struggled to make sense of her surroundings, the shadows jumping and moving closer, tricking her eyes into believing a tall stranger with a hat and cane stood by the bathroom doors. Abbey emerged from the men’s room and privately asked if she was okay. Rubbing her temples, she shook her head and winced as a sharp pain ripped across her forehead. Michael slammed the rest of his drink and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. He spoke with mounting anger.

“When we get to New Orleans,” he said, “father will fall to his knees, and Alain will be called out, so choose your side now, Sister.”

A fiery glow consumed Kendal. Her foot assaulted the air as she glared at her brother, the two siblings absorbed by each other, transfixed, until Kendal broke eye contact and glanced at Paige; she then nudged the professor. Jumping from his stool, Professor Faraday knelt down before Paige and cupped her clammy hands. Dizzy and sick to her stomach, she fought to keep her eyes open as the world around her dimmed, but the professor’s calm voice extinguished her mounting panic. She inhaled a deep breath and fell into the rhythm of his breathing. He tightened his grasp and a warm sensation rushed throughout her body like fire erupting from within. He feeds off fear, she heard the professor say, and when she looked up, a bright green light surrounded him. The room spun off kilter and Paige clung to the professor’s pale blue eyes, his warm grasp sending her into a dreamscape.

Weightless and disconnected from her body, she closed her eyes and let go. The cold, windy night gave way to a pale blue sky as the secure embrace of a heavy blanket enveloped her. Suspended in a languid ocean, her body moved with the rise and fall of the waves as they carried her out to sea. The quiet roar of the ocean’s lullaby swallowed her whole and washed away her pain, but just as she was lifted up and ready to absorb the boundless sky, the cold and windy night returned. Professor Faraday handed her a bottle of water and directed her to drink. She obeyed.

“You shouldn’t have any more dizzy spells,” he said, patting her on the shoulder and returning to his barstool.

Paige couldn’t stop smiling. “But Professor,” she said, “what did you do? I felt like I was in another world, like a dream!”

“Paige please,” he replied, “call me Billy. Professor Faraday makes me sound so…old.” Tossing his long hair away from his face, he smiled and scratched his beard. “Okay,” he gestured, “hmm, let’s see, in order to simplify a complex process, let’s just say I made some minor adjustments to your energy level and your body’s overall ability to adapt.”

Laughing, she replied, “I don’t even know what that means, but it seems to me that you have magical healing hands. That was amazing! I’ve never felt so warm and relaxed in all my life!”

Michael laughed and held out his hand, “Fifty bucks please, cash only. Pay the pimp or pay the price.”

“Two-for-one deal,” Ashley grinned, his fingers displaying the numbers. “Satisfaction guaranteed.”

The professor smiled and apologized for their lewd comments. “I would expect this from Michael,” he said, “but I don’t know what’s gotten into my little brother.”

Holding up his glass, Ashley answered, “Rum! You know I’m not much of a drinker.”

Michael leaned back and rubbed his forehead, “Your nose just poked me again, Ash.”

Paige watched the two friends banter back and forth and longed for the same unbreakable bond, someone to shuffle between worlds with, call her out, pull her in and hold her up. Ashley threw a piece of ice at Michael, and she laughed as the famous rock god picked it off the futon and popped it in his mouth. He waited for Ashley to try again. When she asked the professor if his little trick was some sort of telepathy, like mind over matter, he shook his head and shrugged, claiming it just came naturally. Michael pleaded her case.

“Details, Professor, she needs details,” he said, clapping his hands. “Seriously though, we don’t know what’s wrong with this one.” Pointing at the professor with his thumb, he said, “This one here, he’s one of a kind.” A piece of ice fell to the floor as Michael stood to leave. Smirking, Ashley stood with him and straightened out his suit.

“We head-out early,” he yawned.

“Paige,” Michael bowed, “it’s been a pleasure.” He followed Ashley to the door and turned around at the last minute, “Oh, by the way, your parents received my message, and don’t worry, they know your safe.” With that, he bid them goodnight and disappeared behind the red door leading to the long hallway of mystery rooms. Paige gazed into the darkness. Something was there, not the devil lurking in the shadows or a ghost in a red dress, but something that begged for her attention. It buzzed and fluttered and tapped, like a dragonfly trapped behind a screen door, it longed to be discovered and set free.

“How well do you know my parents?” she asked, still gazing into the darkness. “Justin and Allison I mean, how well do you know them?”

Standing up, the professor stretched out his arms and answered, “Quite well.” He patted her on the back and suggested she turn in for the night, explaining the sleeping arrangements and apologizing for not having enough beds. She and Abbey would have to make do with a couch and a red chaise lounge.

“I think it’s best you go home tomorrow,” he said, “but I guess it’s not up to me. I urge you to reconsider.”

Paige followed him out of the bar and down the long hallway where he and Kendal said goodnight and retired to one of the rooms on the right. Abbey and Paige retreated to the main room where blankets and pillows were already set out. He offered her the couch and then curled up on the chaise, barely visible and cocooned in the thick blankets. Paige also cocooned herself from the cold and shut her eyes, plagued by a thousand questions and haunted by the silence.

Abbey, she thought, you awake?

Fading fast, he replied, what’s up?

Can’t sleep, she thought, I need to know about the deal. What does this Vincent guy want with me?

Don’t know, he answered.

I’m trying not to freak out, she thought, but I’m living someone else’s life. None of this seems real, but at the same time, everything feels familiar. Does that make sense?

Like a déjà vu? he asked.

Exactly! Like talking to you right now, telepathy isn’t possible, yet here we are, and it feels normal, but there’s something I’m missing, and I can’t put my finger on it, but it’s there, stalking me. Abbey? …Abbey?

The silence returned. Paige wished for sirens, or traffic or some sort of noise pollution to shatter the stillness, but it persisted, distracting and heavy and loud. She disturbed the universe when she flipped sides and pulled the covers over her head. The night played on repeat. She flipped sides. She cursed the silence. She flipped sides again, the silence, unapologetic. Her breathing finally slowed and her mind played out as her body relaxed and welcomed the first signs of sleep. Drifting off into an even stranger world, Paige vaguely wondered what time it was, but her cell phone was dead last time she checked, and does anyone wear watches anymore? Before succumbing to sleep, she saw the devil leaning on his cane, resetting his gold pocket watch.

Chapter Nine

Justin stepped out into the bitter cold of the morning for the third time in one hour. Sleep deprived and worn-out, he spent the entire night worrying about Paige and arguing with Allison about his blatant lack of honesty. She screamed and cried until her voice gave out while Justin begged for forgiveness, unpacking her suitcases and scattering clothes across the bedroom floor. Retreated to their corners at the end of another round, speaking terms prohibited altogether, Justin preferred the biting outside air to the choking oxygen inside. Thankful the snow ran its course, he paced across his backyard waiting for another message from Michael, hopefully, informing him that Paige was on her way home. He thought it unlikely but held his breath all the same. He considered driving up to the Blue Star, if that’s where they still were, but found solace knowing that Paige was with Billy, his trustworthy Billy Boy–the safest place for her to be, aside from home.

Tightening his robe and pulling down his ski hat to cover his exposed neck, Justin sat on the porch swing and gently rocked back-and-forth. He watched steam rise from his coffee cup and slowly took a sip, keeping the mug close to his face for warmth. Strutter opted to stay inside by the fire next to Allison, and although tempted to call him out for treason, he let his four-legged friend sleep. A brisk wind swept through the yard and Justin squint his eyes, breaking his hypnotic gaze into a vacuum of inanimate objects. Last night had been a grueling hike down memory lane, a road filled with potholes and nails, spikes, glass and suicide curves. He hated revisiting the past, but one memory led to the next as he followed that old congested lane, sifting through the meat and potatoes of my past, he thought, and continued his reluctant stroll.

Justin and Allison quit receiving their injections about five years ago. Allison pulled through okay, aging naturally with no serious side effects or withdrawal symptoms, but his was a different story. At first, he pulled through as seamlessly as Allison, but six months ago, without warning, the aging process kicked into full throttle leaving him a weak and feeble old man. He endured for as long as his body permitted, but when death seemed more real than life itself, he put in a request. Vincent, once again, had leverage over him. Justin could feel his cold arm around his shoulders, directing him, pushing and pulling him along like the moon commanding the waves. His need for the medicine bound him to Vincent, and loyalty was the only payment his old friend required.

Justin didn’t believe Vincent was all bad. They met during their college years, both biology majors, they shared a dorm and quickly developed a close friendship. Justin had always been the outgoing, well-spoken and well-liked student, and his family name only boosted his prominent social standing. Vincent was none of the above. Loud, disruptive and foulmouthed, his mixed ethnicity didn’t help at an all-white school in the early fifties. His family’s claim to fame consisted of blackmail and corruption, but despite the Doucet’s bad reputation, their sugarcane business generated a fair amount of wealth.

The two friends spent long hours together debating topics like religion and science and politics, but by night’s end, their focus turned to speculative rhetoric. Vincent often talked about hidden knowledge that was kept secret by a small circle of elites, the shadow people–the true government. He became particularly heated when the topic of World War II arose, claiming, duh bankers, dey funded both sides of duh war, an duh Nazis, dey here in America now. Justin usually rolled his eyes, yawned and bid his friend goodnight. Years later, when the sixties arrived with multiple assassinations, political scandals and public dissent, he quit rolling his eyes.

Justin’s college years introduced him to the field of genetic engineering, an unknown science to most students and scholars at the time. His influential family owned a biotech company and he enjoyed the privilege of attending private seminars and lectures. He rubbed elbows with the world’s leading scientists, even peeked at classified documents from a German scientist who supposedly worked for the CIA. Vincent didn’t sleep for days after Justin told him about the encounter, I told yuh Justin! Didn’t I tell yuh? Duh Nazis, dey workin’ for duh CIA. Justin’s last name awarded him numerous perks and privileges, but it was Vincent’s cunning wit and deceitful southern charm that opened doors he didn’t know existed.

Justin remembered the night as a turning point. He’d invited Vincent over for a Christmas party at his family’s estate house. He’d been nervous that night, one reason being that his family disapproved of his date, Allison, the daughter of a working-class family. Vincent was the other reason. He’d shown up wearing a bright red zoot suit with a petite young woman by his side, exotic and beautiful in her red dress, Valley would forever haunt Justin in that red silk gown. He’d warned Vincent to behave himself, and by night’s end, Vincent won over his family’s inner circle. He too attended private seminars and lectures, and on graduation day, Vincent knew more about biotechnology than Justin.

He wasn’t jealous. Vincent often accused him of harboring resentment, but it wasn’t envy, he just didn’t understand. Justin hated his elitist family, and after graduation, he quit his job working side-by-side with his father at the biotech company. He wanted out, he wanted to blind the watchful eye of his father, but Vincent weaseled his way in. The corrupt secret societies and puppet masters who supposedly ruled from behind the scenes, the ones that kept Vincent awake at night, were the very people Justin’s family served. Vincent’s answer was simple, know your enemy, Justin, know your enemy. Vincent knew the enemy quite well after taking a job with Justin’s father in a private laboratory.

He didn’t know where the information came from, or which scientist broke the code, but he knew it wasn’t Vincent. Someone pointed him in the right direction, and according to his old friend, that someone was a Nazi scientist, I told yuh Justin, duh Nazis, dey got duh secret knowledge. Dey gonna create duh perfect race, an I’m helpin’. Justin didn’t know what to believe, but everything changed after Allison’s pregnancy. He should have said no, he should have taken his wife, changed his name and left for Montana years before he finally did, but the idea had been so persuasive. The possibility of altering an organism’s genetic makeup was science fiction back then, but someone discovered the right genes and the desirable patterns—someone solved the equation. Allison’s pregnancy, Justin’s first born son, had been a beta test. Through the process of in-vitro fertilization, Allison became the first mother, off record, to deliver a test-tube baby.

The birth had been a surprising success. His new baby boy was guaranteed superior intellect and superior physical attributes like beauty and stamina. He was to be immune from disease and old age, but when his firstborn son hit puberty, they also noticed he possessed magic hands. His ability to heal minor afflictions such as headaches and stomachaches, nausea, sprains or even broken bones amazed everyone involved, but by that time, newer models already existed. His father insisted the firstborn son be named after him, but William Faraday III would simply go by Billy.

Justin cringed when he thought about it. Vincent being locked away in his father’s laboratory, conducting hundreds of experiments on human embryos—the idea sickened him. He knew he’d made a mistake by agreeing to the first procedure, but they didn’t stop there. He and Allison discussed what other improvements or adjustments they’d like to make on their second child. They were addicted to the idea. They bought in to the theory that predispositions like below-average intelligence, obesity or any form of disability could be prevented through selective breeding. They bought in to eugenics. They wanted to improve the human population by filtering out unwanted traits and undesirable genetic properties beginning with their own children. Justin knew they’d made a mistake, but they were already in too deep.

Vincent, of course, also wanted in on it, but Dr. Faraday refused. Only the Faraday bloodline would enjoy the genetic altercations. They were a pure bloodline, unlike the Doucets, whose ancestry mixed and matched until their ethnicity became difficult to determine, a little bit of French, Spanish and Haitian, even the Faradays contributed to the colorful lineage. The decision outraged Vincent. He refused to keep working for the Faradays and started his own lab at the Shady Oak Sugarcane Plantation. Justin and Allison followed. After all, Vincent no longer needed assistance, he knew how it was done, and when he walked away with a head full of knowledge and a tall stack of notes, he also knew his life was in danger. Vincent knew his enemy, and Dr. Faraday, along with his team of scientists, intended on silencing their ex-colleague.

In those early days at Shady Oak, when Allison and Valley glowed with radiance during their pregnancies together, the four friends lived outside of the real world. They lived outside of traditional morals, common knowledge and mainstream science. Vincent and Valley welcomed their first set of twins while Justin and Allison gave birth to their second son. All three babies had been modified, as well as Vincent and Valley’s second set of twins a year later. Their future together appeared boundless. They hosted decadent parties at least once a week catering to local celebrities, movie stars and musicians, but when he wasn’t entertaining guests (something he adored), Vincent spent his time in the lab. The foursome lived a lavished life but they wanted more, they wanted their own fortune, far removed from the wealth of their families.

While Allison and Valley cared for the children, Justin spent his time making contacts and researching the skincare industry. He crunched numbers and studied the competition until Vincent emerged from the lab with the finished product. The results produced a multi-billion dollar business offering the best and most effective skincare line on the market. It not only masked deep wrinkles and reduced the appearance of aging, but their product raised the bar, Valley of Beauty regenerated dead skin cells. After the unveiling, they immediately enjoyed profits putting them in first place ranking among competitors. With the horse barely out of the starting box, the foursome took to the air flying higher than Superman on steroids, or Mary Poppins on a windy day.

In an industry where vanity reigned supreme, Vincent devoted much of his time perfecting their product and ensuring that Valley of Beauty held its competitive edge. Five years had passed since Vincent walked away from his work with the Faradays, and his paranoia reached new heights by the start of the 1960s. Every passing car or knock on the door had him reaching for his gun or the nearest available weapon. He complained about being followed, insisted that the phone line was tapped and claimed to have seen men in black hiding out in the sugarcane fields. Justin blamed it on the large amount of marijuana they’d both been smoking, but when the lab was broken into and ransacked, he kept an open mind. Dey just bidin’ duh time Justin, but dey comin’, comin’ for duh kids too, I ‘magine. Justin hadn’t spoken with his family since he and Allison left for Shady Oak, but he knew where he stood, he chose a Doucet over his own family, he was a traitor.

The Shady Oak Sugarcane Plantation held a dark history dating back to the pre-Civil War era. The Faradays owned the land back then and earned the reputation of being ruthless slaveholders. Horror stories surfaced about disobedient slaves being thrown into snake pits or killed by the removal of a vital organ. Some accusations painted them as cannibals who slowly cooked their slaves alive before eating them. Justin despised his heritage, but he never believed the heinous rumors. The Doucets descended from those slaves and eventually inherited the land after a lovesick Faraday left it to his mistress, a Haitian woman with whom he’d fathered four children, one being Vincent’s great-great grandfather. The two bloodlines were intertwined but Dr. William Faraday was a purist. He wanted to cleanse the Faraday bloodline and make some improvements along the way. Vincent wanted revenge. He saw Dr. Faraday as a sadist, daz duh only reason he let me in, tuh build me up, use me up, an den kill me. Vincent often accused The Faraday lineage of worshipping the devil.

Justin himself didn’t worship anything, but Vincent embraced his southern Baptist beliefs. He rarely missed church on Sundays and could often be found reading his Bible when taking a break from the lab. He hated his wife’s love for the mystical world. Valley would stay locked away for hours paying tribute to shrines and altars she made for family and loved ones. Vincent pleaded with her to give it up and vowed to keep praying until she did. Valley would recoil, you can pray till your blue in the face, but I’m keepin’ my ways. Vincent either retreated back to his lab, or, once the setting sun cooled the hot southern day, he’d play his fiddle under his favorite oak tree. All that changed after his trips to Egypt.

They continued their communal-type living arrangements enjoying the secluded beauty of the plantation, but Vincent spent much of his time alone. He returned from his trips exhausted and slept through most of the day, and when he wasn’t sleeping, his foul mood kept him isolated. Justin finally confronted his old friend, out of concern, sure, but mostly out of curiosity. He knew Vincent was searching for something, and after a dozen or so attempts at trying to talk to him, Vincent finally confessed, I’m searchin’ for duh knowledge, Justin. Duh spirits in duh tombs, duh pyramids, dey hold answers, dey broke duh code, dey hold duh key tuh immortality. Justin rolled his eyes and told him to lay off the hallucinogens. He knew his friend possessed a brilliant mind, Vincent always reached beyond the looking glass, but his obsession with ancient knowledge and secret cults eventually drove him mad. At least, that’s how Justin used to view it. Back in those days, he never believed in conspiracies.

Locked away in his laboratory, Vincent quit talking about his personal research, and when Justin did approach the subject, fielding a question or two, Vincent would only smile and reply, you’ll see, Justin. Even in those early days, he could see the change in his friend, the hunger for recognition, power and revenge, but it was more than that, something darker drove him into madness until his transformation rendered him a stranger.

Justin took partial blame for Vincent’s descent into lunacy. He’d never been a true friend, only a business partner, a colleague, a customer, but never a real friend. Even when Vincent feared for his life, Justin rolled his eyes and told him to lay off the weed. Years later, after the unforgivable atrocities Vincent unleashed, Justin claimed a small amount of guilt for everything. He knew what his father was up to, using Vincent’s brilliant mind only to shut him out and insult his ancestry. Dr. Faraday hailed from a long line of corrupt, power-hungry men, and when Justin finally did accept the truth about his family’s violent history, he saw what Vincent always knew existed. Of course they wanted him dead, he thought. His old friend once told him, Justin, your family, dey worship duh eye, if yuh start lookin’, yuh see it everywhere. Duh television, duh movies, duh malls, it’s duh devil’s eye, Justin. After Vincent’s last trip to Egypt, he too developed an interest in the eye.

Vincent quit reading his Bible after returning from his last and final visit to the Great Pyramids. He found something on that trip, his leverage over the Faradays and his answer to immortality–he found the secret knowledge. When Vincent told him about the discovery, Justin hurt himself laughing, but after seeing a demonstration in the lab, the color drained from his face and he lost his balance. Vincent injected a clear fluid into a shriveled black apple, and within seconds, it plumped up and turned a shiny red. All bets were off, Vincent won the prize but kept his find a secret, except for a brief meeting with Dr. Faraday. After showing him the demonstration on the apple, Vincent injected the formula into his own arm. Dr. Faraday gasped as a patch of Vincent’s gray hair turned black and the fine lines around his eyes disappeared. The doctor demanded an injection for himself, and Vincent obliged, neglecting to tell the good doctor that it only lasted for twenty-four hours.

Vincent found his leverage and his revenge, but he also lost something in Egypt. Call it his soul, his morale, his humanity, his sanity, Justin didn’t know, but his old friend quit caring about the puppet masters and the powers that be. He shrugged his shoulders at the Kennedy assassinations and rolled his eyes when Nazi technology proved, again, to baffle scientists. Why wouldn’t he shrug, Justin thought, the man discovered the fountain of youth. Vincent claimed to have evolved to a higher level, and while his friendship with Justin waned, his relationship with Valley intensified. He embraced her interest in the ancient mystic religions and together they’d please duh spirits, as Vincent would say. If anyone knew the details about who or what Vincent found during his visits to Egypt, it was Valley, but she shot herself about a year after his discovery. Time supposedly healed all wounds, but Justin wasn’t convinced. He would forever fall silent at the mention of her name.


A green SUV turned off onto the long gravel road. Justin stood from the porch swing and dumped his cold coffee, saved by the Green Police, he thought, and almost welcomed the distraction of the otherwise intrusive visitors–almost. The snow melted under his feet and he glared at the officers as they trampled through his winter garden. He clinched his fists when he imagined the fines they’d receive for the numerous environmental codes (codes that changed every month) his house violated. The big blue tarp that covered a large section of their roof cost thousands in fines already, not to mention the other violations they had yet to correct. One of these days, he thought, I’ll be waiting for them with my shotgun in hand warning them to get off my land. With that in mind, he went inside to confront the Nazi bastards.

Chapter Ten

Downtown Houston glowed under a blanket of snow. Paige stepped outside, covered her eyes and checked her phone for a signal that didn’t exist. The professor warmed up his old white van as the others slowly trickled out of the club, yawning and rubbing their eyes. They drove about a block down Montrose to check on Paige’s car and move it off the curb, but after turning the ignition for the third time, she admitted defeat. Old Faithful was dead. Forced to leave it behind where a dozen other vehicles sat stranded, they drove through the deserted streets taking last minute detours along the way. Checkpoints appeared around every curve. The roads thick with snow, Professor Faraday disregarded street signs (even the ones with arrows pointing ONE WAY) and plowed through the city sludge, tagging a few curbs along the way. Either by luck or mad skill or both, he found the freeway entrance ramp without a run-in with the authorities, without a vehicle search and without a trip to jail.

Kendal rode up front with the professor while Abbey and Michael stretched out in the two long backseats. Paige and Ashley sat together in the rear of the van, which was cluttered with blankets, towels, pillows and a red ice chest. Still uneasy around Ashley, she now found herself alone with him. The professor shouted from behind the wheel as they traveled on the already crowded freeway. It was ten o’clock on a Saturday morning and although the city resembled a ghost town, without even a convenient store open for business, the freeways crawled with traffic. The calm before the storm, Paige thought.

“I’ve heard a solar storm could take out vehicles!” the professor shouted. “Could be the case up north, certainly not here! Paige, you okay back there?”

Smiling, she answered, “Fine! It’s roomy back here!”

“What?” he yelled, hitting the brakes. “We’ll stop later! Got to get through this traffic first!” Professor Faraday left just enough room for motorists to cut him off and slide on in, a driving style familiar to Paige.

“You drive like my dad!” she shouted. Ashley laughed, but Michael’s bandaged wrists shot up from the backseat.

“Can we please quit shouting?” he asked.

“Second that,” Abbey said from the next seat up. Suffering a hangover from last night’s drinking binge, he assured his father it wouldn’t happen again, and much to Paige’s surprise, Ashley calmly recommended he lay down in the van. Michael was the last person out of bed. His health deteriorated overnight and Ashley cracked the whip to get everyone up and going. After bandaging Michael’s wrists for the second time that morning, he helped him to the van, covered him with a blanket and kissed his forehead before crawling into the back with Paige.

They rode in silence listening to the groove of the road collide in tune with passing traffic. Held prisoner by her thoughts, Paige relaxed into the highway lullaby and gazed through the back window letting her eyes cloud over and lose focus. She had the dream again last night, but new details emerged rounding out her memory with subtle clarity. She’d been in a panic as she charged down a rain-soaked sidewalk with the woman in the red dress following behind. People in masks and painted faces gathered in the streets where high-spirits haunted the atmosphere, but Paige aggressively pushed through the growing crowd. She tried to run, but couldn’t, her legs dragging and pulling her down as if boulders adorned her ankles. The woman in the red dress stayed on her heels using a gold-handled walking cane to help her along. She clutched a gold pocket watch and shook it into the air shouting at Paige, but like a silent movie void of subtitles, her words were lost in the dream. The dark club teemed with ax murderers, vampires and clowns as Paige squeezed past the bar toward the back courtyard. The woman in the red dress appeared on stage, yelling into the microphone and holding up the gold watch, and then Paige saw him. Ghostly white and unsteady on his feet, Gabriel stumbled out of the bathroom, disappeared through the backdoor and into the courtyard. Paige followed, her legs dragging and pulling her down as she reached out and screamed in aggravation, waking herself up.

Music played at a moderate level as she gazed through the back window. She held onto the dream, locking in every detail until the silent movie felt more like a solid memory than a sleep-induced hallucination. Ashley peered over the seat to check on Michael and then settled back down, leaning on a pillow against the side of the van. Paige smiled and nodded as he stared at her through bloodshot eyes. His hair disheveled and suit a wrinkled mess, Ashley’s distinguished good looks were only amplified by his unkempt appearance.

“I should apologize for being so rude when we met,” he said. “Guess I get carried away sometimes.”

Paige felt a deep sadness from Ashley, like an overdone clown with painted tears and an exaggerated frown, she read it all over his face, or maybe it was just his eyes. She accepted his apology and asked if Michael would be okay, but Ashley only sighed and shook his head, his pale blue eyes glimmering against his dark hair, his strong jaw line slightly quivering. With quiet reserve resting on a short fuse, he appeared to be on the brink of suffering a breakdown, but to Paige’s amazement, he opened up.

“I hate New Orleans,” he said, “always have, but my son, he loved it. The art, the music, the French Quarters, he’d get lost in it. He’d get lost and I’d go find him.” Ashley reached into Michael’s backpack and pulled out the green ski hat. “Green was his favorite color, and this here, this was his favorite hat. Such a simple piece of fabric, don’t you think?”

Paige nodded.

Ashley leaned forward and lowered his voice, “Let me ask you something, how are we supposed to handle death? Someone like myself, who’s never believed in heaven or hell, what then?”

“I don’t know.”

His blue eyes paralyzed her. She fought an impulsive urge to flee the van and jump to her inevitable death, but he finally broke his stare, looked down at the hat and gently pulled it over his head. “I lost my son in New Orleans thirty-three years ago, and I didn’t find him until it was too late. I hate New Orleans, and the only reason I’m going is to make sure that Michael will be okay.”

Paige reached for her purse and pulled it into her lap. “Gabriel Cross was your son, wasn’t he?” she asked, digging around for the piece of paper.

Ashley studied her, his bloodshot glare warming the cold van.

“Well I, I just assumed,” she said, holding the torn page in her hand. “See, I found this in the trunk in the attic, and I, I’m sorry, I didn’t know.” She held out the piece of paper for him to take, but Ashley motioned for her to put it away.

“You keep it,” he said. “He’d want you to have it.”

“Well, thank you,” she said, stuffing it back into her purse. “I just, I’m a huge fan, that’s all.”

“Are you now?”

“Yeah, I am,” she giggled, fidgeting with her hands.

“Something funny?”

“No, not at all,” she said, “but, I don’t know, I think I’m more than just a fan, I think I might be a bit obsessed.”

“Why’s that?”

Hesitating, she answered, “Because I keep dreaming about him.”

Ashley sighed and looked away. He pulled the avocado green curtain closed on the side window and turned to meet her gaze again. “I’d like to hear about your dream,” he said. “Tell me what you can remember.”

Paige explained her reoccurring dream and Ashley fluttered his eyes when she described Gabriel leaving the bathroom. Covering his face with his hands, he dropped his head and held his fingers over his eyes.

“The woman in the red dress, what did she say?” he asked.

“I don’t remember,” Paige answered, “but I also saw her in the bathroom at the Blue Star. She told me Gabriel wasn’t supposed to die.”

Ashley listened intently as Paige revealed her brush with the paranormal. Pensive and lost in contemplation, he stayed quiet after she finished, and Paige held her tongue, preventing herself from nervous chatter. She waited. Unsure of his mental state and bracing herself for some sort of explosion, be it laughter or a chain of expletives, she waited until Ashley broke his trance and acknowledged her existence.

“Why do you think she would tell you that?” he asked. “You, of all people, who is, after all, only a fan. Why you?”

“I don’t know.”

“Give it a whirl,” he said, adjusting the hat.

Paige dropped her eyes and examined her hands. A familiar song vibrated the speakers and she thought again about her meeting with Vincent. She relived the moment, his black eyes and long skinny fingers, his tooth-filled grin, his gold pocket watch—she cringed at the sound of his grainy voice. Reaching into her purse, she pulled out the page from Gabriel’s journal and read through it again. She read the last sentence on the very bottom, where the pen ran out of ink and the words ran dry, she read the line for the first time and then stuffed it back into her purse. She steadied her shaky hands.

“Because I’m all over the map, that’s why,” she answered.

Ashley nodded. “And why do you feel so compelled to go to New Orleans?”

“To find truth,” she said, “and because there’s something I need to see to believe.”

He nodded again. “The big picture coming into focus?”

Paige searched his tired eyes and saw more than the permanent imprint of sorrow. She saw a weak glimmer of hope, though faint and teetering on desperation, that hope seemed dependent on her understanding.

“I’m trying my best,” she said, “but no, the picture is abstract at best.”

“These things take time,” he sighed, “and who knows if this is the best way to go about it. We’ll find out soon enough.”

Distracted by the music again, Paige listened as the instrumental gave way to a sad song about life and death and the distance between, sweetness follows, the male voice sang—somber, heart-felt and jarring to the troubled mind. These things take time, she repeated in her head, I’m a slave to time.

“The best way to go about doing what?” she asked.

“Waking you up,” he answered. “You’ve gone through the looking glass. You wouldn’t believe the truth if we told you.”

“Try me.”

“No.”

“Listen, I know something’s not right. The CMC’s, the solar flare, the snow,” she gestured, “none of this feels right to me.”

Ashley frowned and grilled Paige with his silence. She caved.

“I’m sorry, but this is just too much. No one will tell me anything, and I’m stuck in the back of some van with a bunch of telepathic–”

“Keep your voice down,” he snapped. “You chose to be here. I know you saw something on that piece of paper. I know that spiral notebook from front to back, and I know what you saw, but–”

“Ashley, how is it possible that Abbey–”

“But,” he said, holding up his hand, “there’s a time and a place, and this is neither.” Leaning back, he stretched out his legs and smirked while admiring his black leather boots. “Gabriel loved The Beatles,” he said. “Lennon was his favorite of course, and I’m sure I don’t have to tell you what his favorite album was.”

“Abbey Road?” she asked.

“Still can’t listen to it,” he answered. His eyes glossed over again and his mood quickly plunged as he removed the hat and held it in his lap. “I felt him die,” he said. “That Halloween morning, I felt it happen. I was in New York when I got the call, and I knew, before Michael even said anything, I knew. He was at the hospital in New Orleans, told me Gabriel overdosed. I just, blacked out.” Ashley stared at the hat and brought it closer to his face. Picking at a snag in the fabric, he tugged on the loose strand of yarn until the thread un-looped and caught the next notch. “See how easily things unravel?” he asked.

Paige nodded.

Laughing, he stuffed the hat into Michael’s backpack. “Let’s test your skills,” he said. “I was thirty-nine when Gabriel passed thirty-three years ago. How old am I now? What’s the math on that?”

She attempted to add up the numbers in her head, counting on her fingers and carefully carrying the one, but Ashley put an end to her misery before she could answer.

“I’m seventy-three.”

“You look my age,” she said quietly.

His bloodshot eyes burned as he moved in closer. “Do you know about the beached whale?” he asked.

Paige leaned back and shook her head.

“Remarkable really,” he said. “Its family will sometimes beach themselves because they can’t leave it behind.”

She nodded and looked to her hands for comfort.

“Gabriel told me that,” he smiled, “big animal lover. We once saw a beached whale when he was a little boy, didn’t see any family members, just the young whale, dead on the beach with onlookers hovering over it, some even took pictures.”

Her throat swelled as she blinked away tears. We go on, she thought out loud to herself. Lifting her head and catching Ashley’s tormented eyes, she said more directly, “I think we go on. You asked me, how do we handle death, I think we meet on the other side, and I think Gabriel will be waiting for you.”

Ashley scoffed and leaned over the seat to check on Michael. “You and I have never been the religious type, Paige.”

She handed him the First Aid kit from the backpack and turned to look through the looking glass. Snow melted away and drained off the back windshield as she watched the world behind her disappear into the past. Dead grass, collapsed buildings, fallen trees, road kill; she left them behind and moved forward with the traveling van, but if we go in reverse, she thought, does the raccoon get a second chance? Can the trees dig in deeper? She looked through the looking glass and saw Gabriel, running beside her and falling behind, she felt him reach out and graze her fingertips. She saw him stumble and fall. Out of step yet graceful and flawed, he fell into her arms as she kissed his forehead and tamed his out-of-control hair. She was exactly where she needed to be, out of step yet right on time–we’ve been down this road.

“Paige?”

“Huh?” She jumped at the sound of her name.

“Did I scare you away?”

“Not yet,” she answered. “I was just thinking about things we leave behind, like the whale, and Gabriel, and if maybe the hand of fate gets it wrong sometimes.”

Ashley wiped blood from his hands and kept the First Aid kit close by his side. He gazed past Paige, the glimmer of hope she’d seen earlier absent as the blood settled into his pores. He spoke without breaking his trance, fixated on the red cooler sitting next to her.

“Those are some deep thoughts for an eighteen-year-old girl.”

Nodding, she replied, “I’d like to know about Gabriel.”

Ashley blinked and diverted his eyes—the red cooler off the hook, and Paige, the idle target. She held his glare and searched for the glimmer of hope, the sparkle that seemed to keep him going, that held him together, and she found it. As soon as Ashley opened his mouth to speak, the spark returned.

“Gabriel had a heart of gold,” he said, “and you’re right, he didn’t deserve his fate. He was a peacemaker, a jokester, and a deeply tormented soul.” He rested his hand over his lips and stared into space as he described the nightmares his son endured as a young child. “Gabriel used to wake up crying, screaming that the devil was coming to get him, something he feared until the night he died.” Paige, unable to stop herself, probed a little deeper.

“Who was his mother?” she asked.

Ashley drew open the avocado green curtain, cracked the window and lit a cigarette. Exhaling smoke through the small opening, he motioned for her to lean in closer, “The man with the green army boots,” he said.

“What?”

“Gabriel came from me and Michael, and since he always called me daddy, naturally, that would make Michael his mommy.” A loud thud came from Michael’s seat. Ashley grinned, his thumb rotating a silver band around his left ring finger.

“Michael and I raised him,” he said. “Gabriel didn’t have a mother, just the two of us. The son I never thought I could have, he stole our hearts and we want him back.” Another loud thud came from Michael’s seat and Paige thought she saw the impression of an elbow poke through.

“But how is that possible?” she asked.

Ashley smoked his cigarette and peered through the side window. Paige figured her question would go unanswered until his voice spoke in her head, he was a test tube baby, genetically engineered. She remembered her conversation with the professor and connected another dot. On the bottom of the page she’d torn from his journal, Gabriel had written, with knowledge comes great sorrow, and below that, a birthdate. She was on the cusp of understanding, but the numbers still didn’t add up. Gnawing on her bottom lip, she spread her arms and jumped off the cliff.

“Is that the case with me?” she asked. “Am I a test tube baby?”

Ashley nodded and held his finger to his lips.

“Why can’t we talk about it?” she asked. “I have the right to know.”

Because they have eyes and ears everywhere, Paige, and certain people don’t want you to know.

“I don’t care,” she said, “I want to know the truth. Do I also come from you and Michael? Is that my connection to Gabriel? Because I know there is one.”

Ashley extinguished his cigarette and held her gaze. He sat with his legs bent and knees up, his sleeves rolled back to his elbows and his dark hair tousled in all the right places. She saw Gabriel’s tormented soul in his father’s eyes. His stubborn and fearless nature lived in Ashley’s brooding mouth and thrived in the dark blue light surrounding him. His spirit grew stronger with each mile marker they passed.

“How’s that picture coming along?” he asked.

You’re the artist, you tell me, Dad.

Ashley grinned and leaned back against the side of the van. “I think I’ve painted a pretty good picture myself.”

Paige winced. “You weren’t supposed to hear that.”

“My apologies.”

The music distracted her again as a sad song gave way to a poppy, upbeat number. The southern sounding vocalist reached a crescendo and his voice cracked with passion as he sang about a man on the moon while backing vocals echoed the familiar lyrics. Paige knew the song well, but the band’s name escaped her. She dug deeper, tormented by the unknown artist and desperate to silence the incessant tapping of her father’s restless foot.

“Did he know what he was?” she asked. “Did Gabriel know what he was?”

“He hated what he was,” Ashley said, hypnotized by the traveling asphalt. “His talent, beauty, intellect, didn’t matter to him. Doesn’t come naturally, he used to say. I don’t blame your parents for keeping that from you. It’s difficult to grasp.” Breaking his trance, he rubbed his face and looked up to meet her gaze, his pale blue eyes begged for understanding. Paige turned away. The traveling asphalt curved its way out of sight and the fallen trees laid waste in the forest. She examined her hands again. The creases on her palms interconnected and branched out like forks in the road with each path leading to the same place.

“What does Vincent want with me?” she asked.

To be at his mercy.  

“Well that’ll never happen,” she said. “Whatever deal he wants to make, whatever he’s got up his sleeve, he doesn’t control me.”

Ashley lit another cigarette, popped his head over the seat and then settled back down. He motioned for her to come closer. “The ghost in the bathroom,” he said, “you actually think that was a real ghost? You saw Vincent in the club last night, which should’ve been your first indication.”

“I don’t under–”

“She was a projection, Paige, a hologram, a product of the wonders of technology.” Looking over his shoulder again, he lowered his voice and continued, “Vincent wants the same thing we want, but for different reasons. He’s playing with you, like a mouse in a trap. We’re trying to set you free.”

Broken white lines blurred and mended into a single stroke as Paige studied the road, weather-torn and in need of restoration. The further they traveled the more cracks appeared—she regretted her decision to come along. “I don’t want to go to New Orleans anymore,” she said. “I’d like to call my Dad at the next stop.”

“Can’t, phones are dead.” Ashley reached over, dipped into the red ice chest and pulled out two bottles of orange juice. “We’re on your side, Paige, and so was Gabe.”

Paige fell back into the corner and sipped her juice as she read over the journal entry again. She thought about the documentary. Gabriel had been on humanity’s side. Meant to enlighten viewers, the film cautioned against political scandals and secret oaths taken by an elite organization. It disclosed their plans to crash global economies and gain control of natural resources, like food, water and gas, under the pretense of saving mankind. According to his findings, the elite organization would someday dictate every corner of the globe and eventually depopulate the earth. Corporatists, fascists, and in Gabriel’s view, Nazi-Satanists.

“Do they really want to kill us?” she asked. “The documentary I mean, do you think Gabriel was right?”

Ashley finished his orange juice and stuffed it into a plastic bag. Tilting his head, he smiled and answered, “They intend on destroying the useless eaters, Paige, not us.”

She pulled her knees up to her chest, put away the piece of paper and examined the floor of the van.

Ashley reached out and touched the bottom of her chin, “You and me, we don’t believe in the devil,” he said, “but if he did exist, he’d be the head of The Council of Six.”

She dropped her knees and scooted in closer.

Ashley chain-smoked as he explained the details surrounding his son’s death. Gabriel had been under pressure not to release his film, warned by Vincent to shelve the project, he refused to back down, a decision that Ashley believed led to his death. Plagued with threatening phone calls, Gabriel also found dead cats on his doorstep and complained he was being stalked, hunted by a group of individuals of a much higher caliber. The others, he called them.

Ashley hung his head down and ran his fingers through his hair. “Gabe knew what was coming, he just didn’t care.”

Paige devoured her thumbnail and attacked the next victim as Ashley talked in a low voice and peered out the side window rarely making eye contact. He questioned the accidental overdose and insisted his son had been sober at the time of his death. Although Gabriel openly struggled with addiction, he’d been clean for the past three months, an undisputable fact according to Ashley, who kept his son under tight surveillance.

“They hot-dosed him,” he said. “We believe somebody slipped something in his drink that night. The amount of drugs in his system, he knew better than to take that much.” Crushing out his half-smoked cigarette, he grabbed the First Aid kit and reached over to check on Michael. Paige rested her chin on her knees and wrapped her arms around her legs.

Leaves scattered across the highway as an eighteen-wheeler plowed through the drifting flock. She observed the speeding traffic, each motorist controlling their own speed, changing lanes and flying past each other in a swarm of useless eaters, accidents waiting to happen—unwitting participants in a game of organized chaos. She felt Gabriel’s presence. Pushing her along and guiding her into danger, she could almost hear him whispering in her ear, simple and to the point, the answers she couldn’t see. Gabriel, the brother I never knew, she thought, and wondered how many more of them existed. She was a science experiment, along with everyone in the van, she figured, and Vincent was the creator, the mad scientist, the illusionist. She thought about her reoccurring dream and wondered if that too was his handy-work. The music played on repeat as Paige heard the first song of the album start over again. The familiar melody stimulated her mind and awakened some sort of spark in her memory as she absorbed the music, its lyrics antagonizing her sixth sense, gnawing at her instinct and revealing holes in her brain.

“This was one of Gabriel’s favorite albums,” Ashley said, settling down next to her. “One of the best from the early nineties. Classic American band.”

Chapter Eleven

The freeway traffic thinned out as jungles of concrete buildings gave way to overgrown forests and muddy rivers. Gazing through the back window, Paige noticed two airplanes flying overhead spraying red smoke into the air in a tic-tac-toe pattern. Confused by what she saw, she turned to ask Ashley, but Michael’s tired voice spoke first, pleading with the professor to switch out the CD.

“I like REM, but give us a break. Automatic depresses the crap outta me.”

Her light bulb popped on. Automatic for the People, she thought, of course! How could I forget that album? A coinsure of pop culture, Paige tried recalling the names of other bands and favorite albums, but aside from Limbo Diver (and The Beatles’ Abbey Road), nothing else came to mind. Professor Faraday turned off the music, slowed the van down and yelled for Michael’s assistance.

“I need you up and alert, pronto! CMC’s!”

Michael’s head popped up just as they reached the checkpoint. Everyone righted themselves and prepared to deal with the all too often, under trained and overly aggressive Civilian Military Counterpart Officers. Although she had nothing to hide, Paige shook with nerves. The professor stopped the van and rolled down his window as the officers approached, but when the CMC’s drew closer, perhaps not liking the looks of the bearded professor, their intentions became to act now and talk later. With their weapons drawn, they circled the van and ordered everyone out. The six passengers obliged. Piling out of the van, they held up their hands as guns directed them onto the shoulder. Handcuffed and patted down, they waited while the CMC’s searched the van. Standing tall with his shoulders back and head held high, the professor wore a look of patriotic indignation. Abbey sat crossed-legged on the ground and gazed up at the sky, the red tic-tac-toe clouds expanding overhead. Kendal, Ashley and Michael stood with slumped shoulders and shifted their weight from side to side, eyeing the CMC’s as they rummaged through their belongings. Paige, angrier than scared, wriggled around and loudly voiced her opinion.

“We haven’t done anything wrong!” she exclaimed. “You’re not stopping anyone else! What about all those people?”

“Shut up, Paige,” Michael hissed.

One of the officers searching the van returned to fetch Professor Faraday. Pulling him aside, he inquired about the items they found. The professor eyed the contents in the officer’s gloved hands: one hypodermic needle, one cellophane bag containing a white powder and about an ounce of marijuana. He cleared his throat and pleaded the fifth, reminding the officer of his right to remain silent. The officer slammed him against the van.

“That option is dull and void,” he said through clinched teeth, “and so are you.”

Smiling, the professor replied, “I believe you mean null and void.”

The officer grabbed the handcuffed professor into a chokehold, threw him to the ground and kicked him in the stomach. Paige yelled out in protest but stopped when a bright red light exploded around Michael, Ashley and Kendal electrifying the air. Snow melted beneath their feet and the officers reacted to the invisible heat source, wiping their foreheads and looking around confused. The officer who bullied Professor Faraday fell to his knees and keeled over unconscious, but strangest of all, right before her eyes, about half a mile away, blackbirds fell from the sky and spiraled to the ground. Everyone fell silent as the mass death unfolded and littered the road ahead until the last unfortunate bird dropped. Stepping forward, Michael seized control of the situation.

“Is all of this really necessary?”

The leader of the five remaining officers yelled for him to get back. Aiming his gun at Michael, he flexed his padded muscle with his bulletproof frame eager to pounce.

“Don’t ruffle up them feathers,” Michael said. “How about we make a deal? You let us go and I’ll keep your dirty little secrets to myself.”

The officer tightened his grip. “Son, ain’t nothin’ stoppin’ me from pullin’ this trigger.”

Michael smiled and stepped closer to the offending officer. “First of all Joe, I’m pretty sure I’m twice your age, so you’ll refer to me as sir, and secondly, you won’t pull that trigger. You’re too busy thinking about what you want to do to me in a more private setting.”

“I wouldn’t laugh so freely Marcus,” he said, turning to a second officer. “I wonder if your colleagues here know about your part-time job selling confiscated drugs, like those there, or better yet, keeping the score for yourself.”

Professor Faraday stood from the ground and inched closer to Ashley. The CMC’s appeared like toy soldiers, frozen in place and fixated on Michael as he raised his voice to the captivated audience.

“Corruption runs deep don’t it boys? Danny over there knows all about corruption, ain’t that right, Danny Boy? Guess he’s still dull and void at the moment. Hell, we ain’t even found the fattest skeleton yet! Reverend Ed’s got a sermon he’d like to preach! Ain’t that right, Ed?” Lunging forward, Officer Ed pressed his gun against Michael’s forehead.

“Now Reverend, shooting me is the wrong answer.” Lowering his voice, he warned, “You’d be wise to let us go. I’ve been real nice up until now, but in all honesty, Ed, I have little tolerance for men like you.” The red glow shrouding Michael darkened. “Do unto others, Reverend, but men like you hide behind the Bible. Men like you exploit the flock, but there’s a place for men like you.” Closing his eyes, Michael threw his head back and swayed from side to side, chanting, “You are with fire, son, please don’t do this. You are with fire, son, please don’t do this. You are with–”

“Enough!”

Laughing, Michael stepped closer and whispered in his ear, “Those were her dying words, weren’t they? Honor thy mother, Reverend, one of the Ten Commandments, but you didn’t do that, did you? She says she forgives you, but Reverend, your soul is damned. Still a religious man?”

The officer stepped back and steadied his aim. Michael’s green eyes stalked him.

“You don’t need another murder under your bloated belt,” he said. “This would be a good time to get right with God, less you drop dead like those birds over there. Last chance, Reverend.”

The officer flinched back and stumbled out of the way, his swollen face drained of color as he bulged his eyes at the famous musician. Blood poured from Michael’s wrists, dripping off his fingertips in a slow and steady stream and forming a small puddle around his green army boots.

“Who are you?” the reverend whispered, staring at the growing puddle.

“Lower your weapon,” Michael replied. “We’d like to cross the bridge.”

The officer stepped around the blood and approached Michael from the other side. His hands trembled as he pressed the gun against his head. His voice mimicked his hands. “My mother, you said she forgives me, how do you… is this true?”

Michael grinned and glanced at the sky.

The officer twitched and blinked his eyes as the corners of his mouth drooped to his chin. He lowered his weapon and mouthed an inaudible order, the gun dangling by his side while he gathered his senses. He repeated the order with more force.

“Let ‘em go!”

The red glow faded as Michael smiled and said, “I knew you wouldn’t let me down. Now take these cuffs off, they’re rubbing me absolutely raw.” The officer approached Michael with gloved hands and cautiously set him free, obeying without protest when the false prophet instructed him to hand over the confiscated goods. Although tempted to stay behind, Paige followed the others and piled into the van, rubbing her wrists as she hurried past the CMC’s.

Professor Faraday peeled away from the scene and gripped the wheel with both hands while he steered into traffic. Passing motorists honked and hit the brakes as he cut them off and fishtailed into their lane, holding up his hand and waving an apology at each angry driver. They approached ground zero for the doomed flock and the professor slowed the van down as he drove through the carnage. Paige couldn’t look. Seated next to Abbey, she felt a growing sense of unease after the situation escalated into a dangerous exploit, but the idea of staying behind frightened her even more. Gabriel needed her. Through the fog of time, the familiar yet unknown realm where he existed, she felt his magnetic connection pulling her closer. She felt the bond of friendship and understanding she’d longed for her entire life. He needed her, and Ashley felt it too, as if his son’s second chance at destiny was in her hands, as if she could change the past and resurrect the fallen man\child with a heart of gold.

The doomed flock faded into the background as the van barreled across the invisible state line into Louisiana. Paige thought again about the journal entry she harbored in her purse. Mathematics had always been her nemesis, but the date on that torn piece of paper, written by Gabriel himself, was as simple as 2+2. Abbey Road, she thought, Gabriel’s favorite album. She turned away from Abbey, the celebrity look-alike who had some explaining to do. They all have some explaining to do.

“We’re drug trafficking?” she asked. “Anything else I should know about? Dead body? Severed head perhaps?”

“I’m so sorry, Paige!” yelled the professor. “It’s not what you think!”

“Save it,” Michael said, “we’ve been exposed. You want your weed back or what?”

“Let’s not get into the what belongs to who here!” the professor answered. “I could really use some damn coffee, not a damn thing open… Nice work, by the way!”

“Thanks,” Michael said, “everyone’s got dirty laundry, just gotta sift through it.”

Paige lost it. Leaning over the seat, she demanded answers from Michael. What they were, what Vincent wanted and what she had to see to believe, she demanded to know what would happen in New Orleans. Abbey privately told her to calm down. She glared at him and publicly told him no.

“I have the right to know!” she exclaimed. “I don’t care about The Council! Tell me what’s going on! Who are you people?”

Blood-stained and pale, Michael calmly replied, “Secrets are always hidden in the same place, Paige. You’re just not looking hard enough.” Seated next to Michael, Ashley glanced up at Paige while he bandaged his friend’s wrists, his face displaying sympathy but his voice remaining silent. She held her position and hovered over the seat, but Michael ignored her angry stare and changed the subject.

“Fat bastard. Can you believe those guys? Assaulting Billy like that? They’re lucky to be alive.”

Paige refused to go unheard. “Why not make all of them pass out?” she asked. “Hell, why not make the guns fly out of their hands, like the clock or the coffee mug?”

Frowning, Michael yanked his wrists away from Ashley. “I don’t know if you’ve noticed, Paige, but I’m not in the best condition right now. Besides, we’re limited when our hands are bound.”

Paige sank down into the seat, her short-lived outburst as pointless as Michael’s bandages. She passively listened as he finished ranting about the CMC’s and revealed the story behind Officer Ed. After reading his mind, Michael realized they were dealing with an ex-reverend who molested children in the church. When his own mother busted him, he shot her.

“Bastard wasn’t even investigated,” he complained.

Yelling from the front of the van, the professor asked, “Did his mom really forgive him?”

Michael scoffed and threw up his hands, “Who the hell knows! It’s not like I talk to the dead, Billy.”

Through the cracks of the seat, Paige saw Kendal peek her head around and examine Michael, her face stern and unreadable. Her presence disturbed Paige, but the professor, he was always right by her side. Sat next to her at the bar, slept in the same room, and now, she rode up front with him in the van. Paige folded her arms and cursed the Doucet siblings. The rumors surrounding Limbo Diver began to hold water, and while she doubted they worshipped the devil, she also doubted they embraced The Ten Commandments, unlike Gabriel, she thought. But it wasn’t about religion, it was about truth and honesty and trust. It was about luring someone into a dangerous situation. It was about being told you’re some sort of science experiment and then forbidden to know the rest. Forcing the tip of her finger out of her mouth, Paige jumped up and leaned over the seat.

“You killed those birds,” she said, glaring at the two friends. “I saw your auras right before they died, blood-red of course.”

Michael laughed and opened his eyes. “You mean our Care Bear Stare? It’s highly effective, but it’s never killed birds before.”

The professor yelled from the front of the van, “I have theories about that! Could be the red dust they’re spraying! Could also be the–”

“Could be!” shouted Michael.

The van lunged forward. Paige’s head whipped back. The two friends turned and smiled at each other as the professor chunked an empty bottle into the backseat. Stretching out his legs across Ashley’s lap, Michael leaned back against the side of the van and closed his eyes.

“No one forced you to come, Paige, and you know exactly who we are,” he said, coughing into his sleeve. “But since you asked nicely, I’ll indulge you.”

Paige hovered over the seat as Michael unraveled the mystery behind his wrists. The scars were a result of childhood trauma, abuse he suffered under the hands of his father. Vincent locked him away in the attic as a young child, bound by fishing twine and left for dead, his wrists had worn down to the bone by the time he was rescued. As a young adult, he relived the experience, but the Calvary arrived a little too late.

“Now I have to take medicine so this doesn’t happen,” he said, holding up his bandaged wrists, already soaked with blood. “Much like Cinderella, if I don’t get my meds, I’ll have to ride home in a pumpkin, or something to that effect,” he gestured. Paige asked what kind of medicine he took but Michael only laughed and said that aspirin usually did the trick.

“Will you die if you don’t get it?” she asked.

His eyes popped open as he lifted his head and coughed into his sleeve again. Reaching into his backpack, he pulled out the syringe and the small cellophane bag. “This white powder isn’t what you think it is,” he said. “This is my medicine, what’s left of it.”

Paige didn’t have to ask. Vincent was the medicine man, the mad scientist who supposedly had a hand in her birth, the same man responsible for Michael’s abuse also possessed the only drug that could save him. She thought again about Frankenstein and reworded her question.

“If the Calvary arrived too late, did the medicine bring you back?”

Michael touched his nose and fished out a spoon from his bag. “I have to prepare the rest of this,” he said, “but don’t freak out on us again. I have to cook and then eject it. Familiar ritual, different drug.”

Paige watched as he poured the white powder onto the spoon. She restrained herself. Abbey repositioned himself and turned the page of his book, his long slender finger following along as he read. She thought about sending a private message and confronting him about Gabriel, but didn’t see the point. If they could all read minds, why not just say it aloud. She held her tongue and winced as Michael injected the mysterious antidote into his vein.

“We have special genes, Paige, evolved,” he said, rolling down his sleeve. “That’s what keeps us young, not this.”

She sighed and looked away, her next question answered before ever leaving her lips. From behind the wheel, she heard the professor yell, “You’re just like us, Paige!” She didn’t know how to feel about that. The two friends glanced at each other and rolled their eyes as Ashley cracked a smile and leaned over in his seat.

“Billy,” he shouted, “we can hear you in the back, quit yelling!”

The van shot forward as Paige fell back. She watched the passing landscape gradually begin to change as the dense forest gave way to open marshland. Swamp trees popped up sporadically, their branches heavy with moss like tinsel heaped onto a Christmas tree. She recalled a forgotten memory.

Paige and her parents vacationed in Louisiana the summer before she left for boarding school. They’d taken a swamp tour guided by a gritty Cajun man who’d sat on the edge of the flat-bottom boat feeding marshmallows to alligators. He told stories about his family and their customs, explaining that Cajuns were resourceful people who utilized the swamp for food, enjoying such delicacies as alligator meat, moss soup, or nutria, which are gargantuan rats. Although her stomach talked louder than the professor, Paige made a mental note to steer clear of the local cuisine. Even if her phone did work, she doubted she’d call her parents. Michael was right, no one forced her to come along and anger gained new ground the longer she thought about the lie. They robbed her of an identity, no matter how difficult to grasp, her parents robbed her of the chance to be with her own kind. She stood up and leaned over the seat.

“Hey, can you teach me how to do what you do?”

A glimpse of color appeared on his otherwise ashen face, but Michael’s condition showed little improvement from the medicine. “I don’t have to teach you,” he said, “you already know how. Just let yourself go, tap into it. Switch gears.”

“Switch gears?” the professor asked. “Michael, you can’t even drive a stick shift.”

“What’s that?” Michael yelled. “Speak up, can’t hear you back here!”

Paige smiled, once again, enamored by the famous singer. Digging through his bag, Michael pulled out a multi-colored hat and plopped it on his head. Pushing his dreadlocks up and under, he admitted that staying young forever had its advantages, but if he failed to get the medicine, he wouldn’t mind too much. Ashley glared at his friend and pushed his legs off his lap.

“Is that so?” he asked. “I’ll force the stuff in you if I have to. You’ll be too sick to fight me off anyway, but if you do die, you’re taking me with you.”

Paige slinked back into her seat as Michael scooted in closer and whispered something in his ear. Ashley shook his head and pulled away.

“Billy,” Michael shouted, “we need food!”

“There’s granola in the back!” the professor offered.

“Groovy. I’ll burn some incense, Ken, you bust out the guitar, and Abb, get us started with some Kumbaya!”

The professor suggested he choke on some Gumbo, a comment that brought a smile to his brother’s anguished face. Despite the criticism, everyone resigned to munching on peanut butter granola while REM’s Man on the Moon neared its end. Paige fell into the groove of the moment, the highway’s vibration in perfect sync with the rhythm of the catchy tune.

“If you believed they put a man on the moon, if you believe there’s nothing up his sleeve, then nothing is cool.”

Chapter Twelve

The Lone Star State gave way to Cajun Country as gray skies followed Justin and Allison across the former state line. They made it through the checkpoint without incident with Justin playing the typical law-abiding citizen, his national ID card in hand for scanning. Few words were spoken except when he asked Allison, with extreme caution, for a refill of coffee from their thermos. The decision to drive to Shady Oak came after Justin received another message from Michael, stating, we’re off to Shady Oak with Paige. It’s show time. Justin knew he’d blown it. Paige would soon be face-to-face with Vincent, exposed to the truth, vulnerable to mind control and surrounded by the Doucet twins, but his two sons were also in on the plan. He trusted his Billy Boy, and Ashley, well, Ashley hasn’t been the same since Gabriel died, he thought. Allison often accused him of playing favorites with their two boys, but Justin argued that he loved them equally, though admitted to feeling a deeper connection with Billy. There’s just something special about the first born, surely he’ll protect Paige. Allison glared at her nails and filed them down as Justin cleared his throat and dared to engage her.

“We’re playing a dangerous game here, Allie. I know your heart, I know where you’re coming from, but don’t you think Paige would want to remember? It’s not fair to her. We were being selfish, so I did what I did.”

Allison held up her hand, “I’m done talking about this.”

“Fine, sit there and listen. Did you really think things would go back to normal? That Paige would finish college, go on about her life? This was inevitable! We’re lucky it lasted as long as it did.”

Allison gazed at the passing scenery. “It could have lasted longer,” she said.

“No, it couldn’t. Her memories will return sooner or later, then what? I did the right thing, Allie. Made some phone calls, contacted our son and set it up. I played your game. If it were up to me, I would’ve already told her the truth.”

“You don’t know the truth!”

“Neither do you,” Justin said, “but we certainly know more than Paige! This isn’t fair to her.”

“I’m done talking about this… You didn’t even believe it was really her!”

“I know, but I do now,” he said, “and the more I think about it, the more I think Michael might be on to something. They have a plan, honey, we just have to trust that everything will be okay.”

“Oh? A plan?” Allison asked, crossing her arms. “So the Doucets are trustworthy now? Unbelievable.”

“Billy and Ashley are with her too,” he answered, “but I think there’s been a slight snag in the plan. Paige wasn’t supposed to go to Shady Oak without us.”

“Unbelievable,” Allison said again, shaking her head.

“We can’t keep playing make-believe as if time stood still,” he continued. “We can’t keep her locked in the house like a prisoner. I’ll say again, this scenario was unavoidable, but everything’ll be fine, Allie, you’ll see.”

Allison turned and looked out the window, “I’m done talking about this.”

A fleet of tan-colored army tanks passed to the left while Justin slowed the car down and fell in line with the traffic. He figured he wasn’t the only person hoarding gas, a code violation according to the Green Police, but with the electricity out and no gas reserves, well, you better wear your walking shoes. Retreated back to their corners, Allison, an unbeaten champion of the silent treatment, embraced her favorite weapon. Sipping his coffee, Justin cracked the window, inhaled the crisp air and re-evaluated his decision to trust the Doucet children. Through all the betrayals and bad blood that existed between the two families, Michael always remained loyal to Billy and Ashley, and Regan, though corrupt and self-serving, did deliver Paige to them. Justin stretched out his arms on the steering wheel and grunted as his wandering mind picked up where it left off.

Shady Oak fell into mourning after Valley’s suicide. Every mirror in the house was covered with a black cloth, the storm shutters stayed closed and Vincent worked and slept in his finest black suit. Whiskey became his new companion. He refused to accept Valley’s suicide and believed he could heal her with his elixir–few modifications, an I’ll have duh cure for death. Justin and Allison fled Shady Oak, but not before the gruesome discovery. A familiar odor lingered around the laboratory for days after Valley’s death, and Justin finally worked up the nerve to confront Vincent. He pounded on the door and then forced his way in when he didn’t get a response. Vincent had been passed out drunk on his cot, but sprawled out on a metal table, covered with a white sheet, rested Valley. Justin knew, he never peeled back the thin layer of fabric, but he knew who it was, the white sheet stained red where it covered her head. The discovery haunted him and the scent of decomposed flesh erased his sense of smell, something not even the elixir could revive. They fled Shady Oak. Packing up their two boys and a few belongings, they left that same night, without even a thought for the safety of Vincent’s four children.

The two boys had difficulty adjusting to the move, Ashley more so than Billy. They’d grown up with the four Doucet kids, homeschooled together and raised like brothers and sisters, they shared a bond no one else understood. The children knew they were different, but Justin remembered the exact moment he realized just how different they were. Aside from beauty, brains and immunity, they also showed signs of paranormal capabilities. When the playroom fell eerily silent one day, he and Allison ran upstairs and nearly fainted after they peeked through the door. Holding hands in a circle, the six children giggled as their stuffed animals hovered above their heads. Vincent beamed with proud enthusiasm but quickly pointed out that Dr. Faraday must never find out about their newfound talents–Justin agreed.

Ashley and Michael grew particularly close during those years, but after Justin moved his family to Montana, Ashley began having nightmares about his friend. Justin recalled being stripped out of sleep more than a dozen times to the sound of his thirteen-year-old son screaming, terrified that Michael’s life was in danger. Grudgingly, Justin called Vincent and left several messages on the answering machine, but no one returned his calls. Sleep deprived and panic-stricken, Ashley’s nightmares persisted. He described the dreams to his father and insisted that Michael was held captive in the attic and close to death. When Ashley threatened to steal the car and drive to New Orleans himself, Justin finally caved. He refused to let his youngest son return to Shady Oak, but Billy Boy, his sixteen-year-old firstborn son, helped him tackle the long journey. Taking turns behind the wheel, they drove straight through in two days’ time.

Justin remembered the moment with reluctant clarity. Tear-stained and underweight, Regan had met them in the courtyard and led them upstairs to the attic. Saturated with urine and decay, the damp air paralyzed him as he stood in the entryway. Ashley had described the scene in perfect detail. Michael lay unresponsive on a dirty mattress in the far back corner, his ankles and wrists bound together with fishing twine and his frail body bruised and covered in bite marks. After checking his pulse, Justin cut through the twine, slung him over his shoulder and carried him downstairs with Billy and Regan following behind. Vincent stood waiting for them as they turned the corner. He remembered the look on his old friend’s face, composed, lucid and unaffected by Michael’s exposed condition. Vincent calmly shrugged off the incident as some big mix-up, stating, he did it to himself, Justin. Duh other children, dey fine, but dat one, dat one tried killin’ me in my sleep. He’s bein’ punished, dat’s all.  

With Vincent’s blessing, they brought Michael back to Montana where Ashley eagerly awaited their return. He never left Michael’s side during his recovery, curling up next to him and watching him sleep until Billy finished mending his wounds. Before leaving Shady Oak, Justin listened with mild interest as Vincent issued a warning about his firstborn son. He described duh happenin’s that had befallen the grounds and insisted that Michael was possessed by demons. Justin knew Vincent had far surpassed that invisible fine line separating genius from insanity, but he felt it too. The atmosphere changed when Michael lived with them, heavier and electrically charged, he felt the change, but he witnessed the happenin’s.

Justin called Vincent about a month after Michael’s arrival. He needed to talk to his old friend, the old Vincent, the one he knew before the trips to Egypt. He needed his scientific input. It had been the worms that sent him running into his office where he locked the door behind him and picked up the phone. Everything else could be explained away as telepathic phenomena, but not the exodus of the worms. He’d gone outside for the paper one morning and noticed a trail of earthworms covering his walkway, hundreds of them crawling away from the yard, evacuating the yard, that’s what Vincent had said, duh worms, dey were evacuatin’. Admittedly alarmed, Justin rolled his eyes and shrugged his shoulders for the last time. He had called Vincent to compare notes and find answers, he received neither. After hearing Justin’s eye-witness account, his old friend laughed and told him to lay off duh wacky tobaccy. Justin deserved the ridicule, but before hanging up the phone, Vincent told him what else he could expect, reminding him that Michael was banned from Shady Oak.

The next happenin’ occurred in the middle of the night. Ripped from his sleep, Justin shot up from the bed and awoke to a sharp pain down his back. He stumbled to the bathroom and looked in the mirror, stunned to discover five deep scratches running from his neck down to his lower back. The burning sensation brought tears to his eyes, just as Vincent had described. Duh pain was so bad, Justin, I awoke with tears in my eyes. Vincent had also warned him about duh sticky rain that fell in his bedroom. It was comin’ from duh ceilin’, an it was sticky, an it just kept fallin’. Justin experienced the same phenomenon when he noticed the upstairs bathroom flooding. He ran upstairs and swung open the door to find water dripping from the ceiling like raindrops. The dry Montana summer ruled out a leaky roof, and Vincent had been right, the heavy liquid felt sticky to the touch. Justin tried masking his discomfort, but Michael knew visiting hours were over.

He left in the middle of the night. Thirteen and naive to mainstream society, Michael boarded a bus in Billings and headed for California with Ashley by his side. Michael truly had nowhere to go, but Ashley chose his fate, Justin thought. He didn’t have to live on the streets. Rolling up his window, he sipped his coffee and tried to skip over that part of his life, the part where his teenage son became a heroin addict, the part where his youngest boy catered to perverted old men. He didn’t know much about that part of his son’s life, but figured he knew enough. He knew that Ashley and Michael did whatever they needed in order to survive.

They eventually met up with Billy in San Francisco. Billy Boy, the valedictorian, the firstborn son, the healer who graduated at the top of his class dropped out of college his second semester. Justin smiled and shook his head when he remembered how disappointed he and Allison had been. Billy was supposed to have changed the world, but instead, became a directionless burnout that drifted up and down the West Coast aimless and lovesick. While his older brother chased after women, Ashley played with Michael in a local band until he opted out of the music scene and followed his true passion, becoming a well-known local street artist. Kendal and Alain eventually made their way to California, and once Billy returned (fleeing another relationship gone sour), Limbo Diver formed.

It would be convenient to say the rest was history, but Justin knew all too well about the spaces between, the gaps that no one talked about, the holes that were avoided like another more deadlier flu strain. The past was a crowded place to dwell, not nearly as empty as one would expect to find, but congested with causalities, mishaps and unfinished business. Justin could feel in the pit of his stomach, the 20th Century colliding with the next and all the spaces in between.

Chapter Thirteen

Although Houston received several inches of snow, the white powder remained absent in the Big Easy. Puddles of rain cleansed the dirty sidewalks as pedestrians maneuvered around the standing water and walked against the brisk wind cutting through the French Quarters. Sweet spices filled the air where spirits soared through clouds of musk and smoke, but the fish bowl city appeared subdued and muted compared to normal standards, the Steamboat Natchez absent from the mighty Mississip. Though the tides were said to be rising, New Orleans avoided being swallowed up by the ocean. Gulf Coast dwellers were old pros when it came to rebuilding, but the certain spark in the air that rejuvenated the soul slowly started to dim. Paige heard the faint sound of a Zydeco band playing somewhere deep in the Quarters, the streets crowded with tourists and locals despite the blackout, but tanks and military boots outnumbered civilians as they patrolled the streets extinguishing the slightest hint of excitement.

The drive to New Orleans took about five hours. Professor Faraday pulled into a narrow cobblestone alleyway where tresses of ivy cascaded down from the balconies of colorful shotgun houses. They piled out of the van and climbed the stoop of a yellow house on the edge of the street, but Paige hesitated before following the others inside. She recognized her surroundings. Standing on the porch and looking out past the quaint residential street, she knew Bourbon was only a few blocks away. The air tasted different as she closed her eyes and recalled her dream. It happened on Bourbon Street, where Gabriel collapsed and onlookers snapped pictures before the ambulance arrived, the fall happened Halloween night on Bourbon Street. She could taste the sorrow still lingering in the air.

“Paige, you coming?”

She opened her eyes and turned to see Gabriel standing before her silhouetted by a pale pink light. He smiled and held out his hand, the light turning a dull yellowish-brown the second her fingers made contact.

“You okay?” Abbey asked.

She nodded and followed him inside. Greeted by the cold darkness of the empty house, she stood in the doorway until Professor Faraday finished lighting candles. The room came into view as the maroon walls caught the shadowed light. A cross carved out of driftwood hung on the far back wall with two large paintings positioned next to it. Perched on a table next to the sofa, an owl sculpted from limestone cornered her with yellow marble eyes. Abbey took his seat on the couch and Ashley finished bandaging Michael’s wrists before sitting down at the kitchen bar. Tapping his fingers, he glared at the wooden cross. Paige stood by the front door, overwhelmed by the smell of sandalwood that christened the air and invited her to step over the threshold. Spellbound, she stood in place and shivered as a small dark figure slowly drifted over Ashley’s head before disappearing into the wall. She jumped at the sound of Michael’s voice.

“Here, take this,” he said, handing her a necklace made out of fishing twine, shell, bone, and teeth. Paige didn’t know whether to politely thank him or rebuke the hideous thing. The bulky homemade jewelry fell between her fingers as she looked it over and questioned its purpose.

“Talisman,” Michael said. “Wear it in case you get lost.” His amber-green eyes watched as she wrapped the primitive jewelry around her neck.

“Well,” she asked, “how does it look?”

Grinning, Michael told her she looked like someone who just fell victim to a tourist trap. “Wasn’t made in China though,” he said. “It’s authentic. My mother made it before she died so don’t lose it.”

“Why would I get lost?” she asked.

Michael shrugged and bent down to tighten up his bootlaces.

“What’s a talisman anyway?” she asked. “Should I rub it three times, click my heels and proclaim there’s no place like home?”

Straightening his hat, Michael replied, “Just don’t get lost, alright?”

“Fine, I’ll get a map.”

He smirked and patted her on the back, “Come on, Dorothy, let’s have a drink.”

Paige followed him to the kitchen where miniature liquor bottles lined the bar. Ashley rubbed his eyes and turned away from the cross as he picked his poison. Professor Faraday appeared from one of the back rooms with Kendal by his side and joined them at the bar. Abbey kept his seat on the couch.

“A toast to Paige!” Kendal exclaimed, raising her bottle of whiskey into the air. “We’ve missed you, well, some of us anyway.” She slammed her drink, as did Michael and Ashley, but Professor Faraday stood with his mouth agape, his tiny bottle suspended in the air. Finally setting his drink down, he grabbed Kendal by the arm and pulled her outside. Paige winced and stumbled away from the bar. Tripping over her feet, she backed into an old record player positioned against the wall. A tall stack of vinyl records shifted and fanned out, but The Beatles’ album Abbey Road slid off the top and fell to the floor. The necklace burned against her chest. She whipped around to see a pale pink light shoot across the room and absolve into a display case where a gold statue glimmered from underneath the glass. Wiping her eyes, she turned to face Abbey and noticed that Michael and Ashley were now absent from the room.

“Abbey, what’s going on?” she asked.

Seated on the couch with his arms and legs crossed, a straight-faced Abbey answered, “What do you mean?”

“Tell me what’s going on! Have I been here before?”

“I don’t know, have you?”

“Abbey!”

“Look,” he said, “just, calm down. I don’t know what all I can tell you.” He patted the spot next to him but Paige didn’t budge. She waited for an explanation, ignoring the shadows as they merged and melted away into obscurity, ignoring the black cloth draped over an oval mirror on the wall.

“Why didn’t you tell me about Gabriel?” she asked. “Why didn’t you tell me about your connection to him?”

Abbey moved the palm of his hand across a candle’s flame. “What connection?” he asked.

Paige reached into her purse and whipped out the torn piece of notebook paper. “This connection,” she said, holding it up and pointing to the date at the bottom.

Abbey slumped his shoulders and stared at the floor. Uncrossing his legs, he stood and walked over to the window, his hands clasped behind his back and his silence intolerable.

“Born October 29, 1995, Abbey Jude Cross.” Paige waited for a reaction but Abbey remained silent with his back turned and his hands clasped. “I guess you are old enough to drink,” she scoffed. “Abbey, look at me!”

“It’s not what you think,” he finally mumbled. “He’s not my dad, he just, well, he just named me.” Turning around, he approached the oval mirror and yanked away the black cloth sending a cloud of dust into the air. The shadows jumped off the walls.

“I’m secondhand compared to Gabriel,” he said more directly. “I’m secondhand and everyone knows it. People expect me to be him just because I look like him. It’s not fair.” Approaching the window again, he pulled back the curtain, peered outside and then took to pacing across the room. “I was made in the likeness of Gabriel,” he said. “Vincent likes to keep backups, but when Gabriel found out about me, he kidnapped me a few days after my birth. He died that same night.”

Paige felt dizzy again. She rubbed her forehead and reached out for the couch, the sculpture of the owl watching her with its yellow marble eyes. “Did Vincent have Gabriel killed?” she asked, sinking into the couch.

Abbey sighed and sat down on the arm of the sofa. “Paige, we’re all Vincent’s experiments. Michael and Ashley took Gabriel, and Gabriel took me, but Vincent always wins in the end.” Looking over his shoulder, he lowered his voice and leaned in closer, “We live and die by his will. Everything that happens is his divine plan. Vincent works in mysterious ways.”

“And what about me?” she asked. “How did I manage to escape? Who took me away?”

Peering over his shoulder again, he answered, “He gave you up willingly. You were a gift to Justin and Allison, his good friends and colleagues.”

Outside light invaded the room as Michael, Ashley and Kendal filed through the front door. The room became crowded and small as Paige watched them gather around the bar. Michael and Ashley pulled out two stools and sat down, but Kendal remained standing, her wind-blown curls accentuating her dark beauty.

Run away, Paige! Leave, now!

Abbey’s voice penetrated her mind and tremors invaded her body. She stood to leave but couldn’t, her feet nailed to the floor and her arms heavy and limp. Kendal strolled over to the couch and stood before them with crossed arms.

“That’s good advice,” she said, “but I’m afraid she not going anywhere.” Her green eyes captivated Paige as a muddy red glow emanated around her. “Your professor is asleep in the van,” she said. “He wasn’t being a team player so I took him out.” She laughed and walked across the hardwood floor, her black knee-high boots producing a dull thud with each footfall. She approached the wooden cross on the wall and yanked it off the support nails.

“Put it back!” yelled Ashley.

Kendal smiled, shrugged her shoulders and replaced it on the wall upside down. “There you go,” she said, “all better.”

Michael coughed and spit up blood as he grasped for the edge of the bar. Losing his grip, he slid off the stool and fell to the floor. Ashley jumped into action. Kneeling down by his side, he gently tapped his cheeks and checked his pulse, panicking when his friend failed to respond. The shadow of the inverted cross danced on the opposite wall as the candles flickered and burned and dripped wax onto the hardwood floor. Paige watched helplessly from the couch while Ashley pounded Michael’s chest, but when she attempted to stand, her legs went limp and she stumbled back onto the couch. She fought the impossible breach, unable to move and unsure if she could speak, the air strangled her lungs as free will slipped away. With her ringlet curls glowing in the candles’ flames, Kendal’s unfaltering gaze paralyzed her.

“Abbey,” she said, “go lay down in the back room and think about what you’ve done. I’ll tell father you’re sorry for failing to hold your tongue.”

Paige attempted to send Abbey a message, but her words scrambled like an anagram and failed to form sentences. Communication, either through mind or voice, was silenced. She watched him disappear down the hallway.

“You don’t have to do this,” Ashley said, cradling Michael in his arms. “She’s willing to meet with Vincent, you don’t have to mess with her like this.”

Kendal threw up her hand and glared at Paige. “We have an agenda,” she said, “and everything must go according to planned. Understand?”

Paige blinked and squint her eyes.

“There’s a good girl,” she said, her voice a low monotone. “My sister Regan did a very naughty thing, and father wants Michael to pay for her sins. We don’t get the medicine until he meets with you. We’re a close-knit family, Paige, no matter how much we hate each other, I won’t let Michael die.” She pulled out a small plastic bag from her pocket and walked it over to Ashley. “Here,” she said, “give him this. It’s enough to last until we get there.”

Ashley yanked the bag from her hand and quickly cooked up the medicine. “Why don’t you tell her the rest?” he asked. “Go on! We all want the same thing!”

“I know,” Kendal said, balling her fists, “but I don’t trust that any of you will actually deliver. Billy already backed out.”

Ashley poured the white powder onto a spoon and reached for his lighter. “You don’t trust that I’ll do whatever it takes to have Gabe–”

“Stop! We’re not allowed to say that!” she cried, stamping her boot.

A dark figure skimmed over Ashley’s head and crashed to the floor behind Kendal. Jumping forward, she jerked around, placed her hands on her hips and kicked the small robotic bird across the floor. Paige laughed. Unable to talk or even think straight, she embraced her uncontrollable laughter until her cheeks ached with madness. Ashley finished injecting Michael with the medicine while Kendal glared at Paige and demanded she quit laughing. Tears drained from her eyes as she shook with silent amusement, but Michael’s private message interrupted her descent into lunacy.

You need to remember who you are, Paige.

She strained her eyes to the side of the room where Ashley helped his friend off the floor and guided him to the couch. He kissed Michael’s forehead and disappeared down the dark hallway to check on Abbey. Michael rested his head on Paige’s shoulder.

“Aw, how sweet,” Kendal said, “reunited at last, the thought criminal and his protégé.” Michael offered his middle finger. Kendal rolled her eyes. “You should be nice to me, Michael. I just saved you from turning into a pumpkin.”

You’re Gabriel’s twin, Paige. You need to remember who you are.     

“Stop it!” yelled Kendal. She leaned in close to Michael, grabbed the nape of his neck and whispered, “If you want him back, you’ll play by the rules.”

Paige focused on the glass display case on the wall in front of her. The candles’ flames animated the gold statue trapped inside and she fell into a trance, tuning out the world around her and concentrating on the prestigious award. The pale pink light reappeared. Drifting across the glass and creeping down the wall, it dimmed after reaching the floor. Her eyes followed the dark mass. Gliding closer to her feet, it gained density and expanded, taking on the form of a human and hovering in open space; it blocked her view of the statue. The necklace burned against her chest as she gazed upon the black shadow, but the smell of sandalwood subdued her fear. Her fingers twitched and her thoughts unscrambled, but Paige quickly blocked herself, like closing and locking the bedroom door, she shielded herself from prying minds. Gabriel’s twin, she thought, I’m Gabriel’s twin.

Ashley entered the room. Michael lifted his head and pulled away from Paige as his friend sat down on the arm of the sofa. She refused to blink, fixated on the tall black figure and intoxicated by the sandalwood. The glass case liquefied and swelled like a mounting wave, bulging with small cracks until the swollen glass shattered. Fragments shot out across the room and Kendal dove out of the way while Michael and Ashley ducked into the couch, but Paige didn’t flinch. Unharmed and shielded by the dark mass, she sat silent, her body set free and her mind clear. Kendal towered before her as blood poured from a deep gash across her cheek; her green eyes burned with fury.

“Sorry about that,” Ashley said, coming up for air. “That was me, I uh, get carried away sometimes.”

Michael laughed and held his hand to his mouth, but Kendal cupped her cheek and stormed off into the kitchen. Paige remained silent, guarding her thoughts like gold in a king’s tomb. The dark shadow slipped back into the recesses of the unknown along with the fragrant smell of sandalwood. The burning necklace cooled. The sound of crunching glass signaled Kendal’s return.

“Okay, Paige Holland,” she said, holding a wet cloth to her face, “whether I like it or not, you and I are family, so I release you from my hold, but I hope you’ve figured out who you can trust by now. Keep in mind that these two have never been loyal to their family.”

Paige stretched out her arms and cracked her knuckles above her head. “What about Professor Faraday?” she asked. “Did you release him?”

Gently touching her wounded cheek, Kendal sucked the blood off her fingertip. “Billy is at the mercy of The Sandman,” she replied, “the spell will have to run its course. Besides, he’s not my family.” Grabbing a handful of the tiny liquor bottles, she turned on her heels, threw open the door and stomped across the wooden porch. Following behind, Michael leaned on Ashley as they turned and waited for Paige.

“Nice job,” Michael said. “Were you trying to make a mess or did it just sneak up on you?”

“I don’t know,” she said. “I saw something.”

“Yeah well, it’s best if you don’t let on that you know what you’re not supposed to know, and that you can’t do what you obviously can,” he replied.

Crinkled lines appeared across Ashley’s forehead as he smiled and turned away from his friend. “Come on,” he said, “let’s get this over with.”

Slowly rising from the couch, Paige approached the two friends and attempted to read their minds. Michael smiled and shook his head.

“I’m afraid I can’t let you do that,” he said.

Paige held his gaze. “If I refuse to go, you’ll force me to, so it looks like I don’t have a choice, I’m guessing I never did.” Stepping closer, she said, “I know I’ve been here before, and I know I’m being taken for a ride, but there are things I don’t remember. I’m guessing that’s where Vincent comes in.”

Michael nodded.

“Can I trust that you’ll have my back?” she asked.

Ashley placed his hand on her shoulder and smiled, his pale blue eyes sad and seemingly sincere. “Remember the beached whale?” he asked. “I won’t leave you behind.”

She followed them to the van and slid in next to Kendal. Professor Faraday, the healer with the bright green aura, lay across the backseat covered with a blanket and a pillow under his head. Paige resisted the urge to grab his shoulders and shake him awake. She needed to see his kind eyes.

“He’ll be fine,” Kendal said, lighting a clove cigarette. “He needs the rest anyway.” Musk and spice clouded the van as she exhaled smoke without cracking a window. Pulling out of the narrow residential street, the CMC’s waved them past as they sped down a deserted highway with Ashley behind the wheel and Michael by his side.

Chapter Fourteen

An airplane flew by overhead as Justin and Allison neared the deep swamplands of Louisiana. A trail of red smoke poured from the wings and Justin muttered a series of expletives before closing the car vents. He never accepted the new world in which they lived. He hated everything about it yet refused to grow old and leave it behind. He feared death. Seizing to exist, nothingness, lights out–the concept terrified him, but Allison didn’t want to live forever. She turned her back on immortality, and Justin, afraid to go on without her, followed suit. But now, he thought, she’s back in the game. Her request surprised him in a way, but he also saw it coming. Misery loved company, and if one addict relapsed, the other would likely follow. Cross-legged and reluctant to speak, Allison surveyed the sudden smoothness of her hands but Justin knew better than to call her out. She admired herself in the passenger-side mirror, running her fingers across her full lips and gently tapping the bottom of her chin. Justin didn’t dare call her out, but he knew the supply would soon need replenishing.

Justin and Allison began taking their injections when they approached their mid-forties. After fleeing Shady Oak, they retained a civil relationship with Vincent, who gave them a six-month supply of the elixir each time they visited. Allison believed his generosity through the years was just a way to keep them under his thumb, maintain his leverage, but Justin disagreed. Vincent isn’t all bad, he thought, just misled. His old friend had always fought against the powers that be, but he lost something in Egypt. When he set out to know his enemy, he lost his way and became his enemy. Allison would disagree, but that’s how Justin saw it.

Dr. Faraday and his team of scientists had made a deal with Vincent–they enjoyed their share of the elixir and Vincent was granted a reprieve. His life was temporarily spared but Dr. Faraday added one more stipulation to the deal, one that Vincent had no problem respecting, both parties agreed the elixir must remain a well-kept secret. They believed that introducing the medicine to the general public would produce disastrous results. Over-population, food shortages, water shortages, carbon footprints, cigarette butts, Styrofoam boxes, baby diapers, fast food trash, sewage waste, human waste–the last thing they wanted was for people to live longer. Back then, Justin had felt the same way, but nowadays he saw through the green lining, he recognized the earth-friendly rhetoric as nothing more than a self-serving agenda. The Faradays considered themselves superior, a pure bloodline, and they intended on expanding their reach.

Before the bottom fell out and The Council of Six took over, Dr. Faraday already began making preparations. He despised the general population, useless eaters he called them, who needed to be reined in and weeded out. Dr. Faraday believed that a population reduction would save the earth and advance the human race, an idea shared by many of his high society dignitaries, but they agreed it must be done incrementally. Justin recalled hearing about the agenda during his college years at one of the private seminars. His father stood at the podium discussing their plans to sterilize the population through the food and water supply, as well as through vaccinations. Justin stormed out of the seminar disgusted by his father, but he never truly believed they’d go through with it, until recently. He watched the airplane dip and circle back around while avoiding its own red vapor trail–he lost his breath at the lateness of the hour. The useless eaters had long been reined in and phase two loomed just around the corner.

Reduce the population and replace them with an advanced race, a superior race–that was the plan, but Dr. Faraday and his team of scientists faced competition. Vincent, the rogue scientist, implemented a counter-movement harnessing his own legacy, his own superior race. Justin wasn’t sure how many designer babies had been created, but he knew there were others, born off the production line and bred by either the Faradays or Vincent; each new generation brought both teams closer to the ultimate goal. As technology advanced, the need for a woman to carry the superior children for nine months gave way to artificial wombs, eliminating the need for a mother. It seemed insane to Justin that Gabriel and Paige survived their births, but Vincent lost numerous specimens before bringing them to full-term. They were his first successful prototypes, the perfect mix between Michael and Ashley, created from one of Regan’s donor eggs and incubated in the same artificial womb.

Justin and Allison prepared in advance for their new baby girl. Vincent’s paranoia reached new heights after creating Gabriel and Paige, his two masterpieces that he claimed would spark vengeful jealousy in the heart of the Faraday camp. He feared for the safety of his newest creations, insisting that Justin and Allison take the female and change their last name to protect her identity. Justin knew his father would eventually find out, but he welcomed the name change, something he’d wanted to do since his college years. When the newly named Mr. and Mrs. Holland arrived to take Paige, Justin remembered seeing tears in Vincent’s eyes. He remembered thinking at the time, that just maybe, his old friend was coming back around, but his father’s newest discovery derailed Vincent’s recovery. Dr. Faraday and his team of scientists had successfully broken another code. They too, discovered the fountain of youth.

The news infuriated Vincent, who, once again, feared for his life. He warned Justin and Allison that the Faradays might be coming for Paige, but they took Gabriel instead. Unannounced and frantic, Vincent arrived in the middle of the night and begged for Justin to intervene, dey gonna kill him, Justin, dey gonna kill my baby boy! He screamed and pounded on their backdoor until Justin let him inside and reluctantly called Dr. Faraday. Ten years had passed since he last spoke to his father and the sound of his smug voice enraged him. That arrogant, stiff-lipped voice, he thought, cringing behind the wheel. The conversation lasted less than five minutes as Dr. Faraday explained the terms and consequences for Justin to relay. Vincent took the news with a silent nod, kissed Paige on the forehead and sauntered out the backdoor, tipping his hat and lighting a cigar before peeling out of the drive. Gabriel, twelve months old at the time, was returned unharmed and Vincent honored his end of the bargain. Forced into retirement, his days of creating the perfect race were temporarily shelved, but he set to work on an unfinished project, one he began working on when Valley died. After handing Gabriel over to Michael and Ashley, he became a recluse, locked away in his laboratory determined to resurrect his legacy. The Faradays might have regained their leverage, but Vincent’s new and improved elixir would re-solidify his glory eighteen years later.

By the time Paige turned three, Justin and Allison relocated to Texas. Billy had recently moved to Austin, which motivated their decision, but it also simplified their bi-annual trips to Shady Oak. Although his old friend never showed face during those visits, Justin suspected he watched from behind the curtains, supervising while one of his servants delivered the medicine and sent them on their way. Fifteen years would pass before he saw Vincent again, when Gabriel died and Paige disappeared, his old friend arrived on their doorstep with quite the story to tell.

Their relationship with Ashley at the time was strained at best, still is, Justin thought, but they remained close to Billy Boy. He spent most weekends with his parents helping out around the house or babysitting Paige, but Allison grew increasingly paranoid as the years passed. By the time Paige celebrated her seventh birthday, Allison thought it best that Paige not know about her unique heritage, and Billy, though hurt and reluctant to let go, stepped out of the picture. Justin had sided with his wife at the time, but time is subject to change, time threw him for a loop and spit him out at the starting line. History is repeating itself, he thought, driving fifteen miles over the speed limit. Instinct told him to expect the same results.

They wanted Paige to enjoy a normal life. By playing the role of typical straight-laced parents, they hoped that Paige might escape the perils that afflicted the Doucet children along with their youngest son. Justin knew it’d been the wrong thing to do, and his relationship with Billy never fully recovered, but back in those days he perfected the craft of turning a blind eye. He knew his daughter struggled with her unique talents, but they discouraged her from using them. They wanted to suppress her talents and sweep the past under the rug, but after a family trip to New Orleans, the inevitable happened–Paige discovered the truth.

She’d been thirteen at the time. Left alone in the hotel room, a teen heartthrob tracked her down, knocked on the door and exposed all those secrets they’d spent years trying to erase. The floodgates were opened, and Paige spilled through the breach kicking and screaming and vowing to disown her parents. Justin couldn’t blame her. She had every reason to resent us, he thought. After they returned home from their vacation, Paige snuck out of the house, boarded a bus to New Orleans and embarked on a search for her estranged family. Michael drove her home the next day but Paige kicked and screamed and vowed to run away again. Boarding school had been Allison’s idea. Justin agreed their options were limited, but he worried about letting Paige out of their sight, then again, she’d grown out of control.

Paige and Gabriel became inseparable. She snuck out of the house almost every night to meet him and her unique talents were no match for her parents. Gabriel taught her how to manipulate thoughts, read minds and move things by thought alone. He latched on to Paige and awakened her true potential, but it was more than that, Justin thought. Gabriel turned her against them and persuaded her to run away. He told her she belonged with him and his family, that he needed her, that he wasn’t complete without her, and Paige became equally obsessed with him. Boarding school had been a gamble. Justin feared the inevitable phone call, the one informing them that Paige went missing, but it never came. She toughed it out until graduation and then returned home and stayed for almost a year. She claimed she hadn’t been in contact with Gabriel but Justin knew she’d been lying, and come mid-October, his suspicions were confirmed. He and Allison awoke one morning to a note by the coffee pot that read, gone to New Orleans to be with my own kind. A week later, Gabriel died and Paige vanished.

Justin drove with a heavy conscience. The Shady Oak Sugarcane Plantation waited about two hours down the road as he accelerated across an endless single-lane bridge. He thanked his wife for the coffee and stretched out his arms on the steering wheel as the swampland closed in around them on all four sides. Covered in red moss, the vast gray landscape possessed immunity from the changing world. He admired the swampland, adaptable and fearless, the swamp devoured environmental nuisances like trash, acid rain or red moss–the swamp thrived off death and decay. Justin hadn’t seen Vincent since Gabriel died thirty-three years ago; it’d been twice as long since he last spoke to his father. Dr. Faraday, along with a handful of scientists, resided on the Council of Six—all but one descended from the Faraday bloodline. The lateness of the hour terrified Justin. The world deteriorated as The Council supplied false solutions that only exacerbated the sick environment. From the oceans, to the lakes, to the birds, to the bees, to all humanity, the earth died a slow death, but the swamps, the swamps adapted and thrived.

Justin wasn’t consumed by hypocrisy but he detested his reflection in the mirror. Guilt could drive a well-adjusted man to the brink of suicide, but the persistence of time offered a slow death, corrosive and all-consuming. Cheating old age was supposed to have been a thing of the past, but he wanted to see things through, watch the saga unfold and come out on the other side–a persistent adversary to his own corrupt lineage. Most of all, he wanted to take his family and run for hills.

The rhythm of the bridge gave way to smooth pavement as he picked up the speed and traveled deeper into the swap. He reminded himself that Billy Boy would never let anything bad happen to Paige, but taking her to Shady Oak desecrated the radar.

Chapter Fifteen

Ashley steered the van down a barely visible, narrow gravel road where the home of an extremely dysfunctional family towered in the distance. A small community of RV’s, trailers and single-room shacks clustered the wooded property, but the inhabitants, if any, failed to make an appearance. No one spoke as they winded their way through the over-hanging oak trees. A watchtower stretched above the canopy of moss and a tall barbed wire fence protected the vast acreage of sugarcane fields. Row after row, the green cane stalks rippled in the wind and shrugged off the winter climate.

Paige surveyed her surroundings and felt as though she’d traveled back in time where southern royalty bathed in decadence and slaves tended the crops. Restless ghosts drifted between realms in search of justice, unaware that time had passed them by and unconcerned with the lateness of the hour, but the trees remembered. The ancient oaks bore witness to the pain of the unknown faces who toiled the troubled land. Paige sensed a ripple in her own life, a kink in the hose that prevented a normal flow. She too felt lost in time, a stranger to herself the longer she gazed out the window. She imagined herself running through the rows of wispy cane stalks, disrupting the soft green fields with a tall and slender young man by her side.

The dark shadow she’d encountered mystified her, but fear never touched her palette of emotions. It used to be Gabriel’s home, the little yellow house on the edge of the street had been his retreat when visiting the city he so loved. She remembered being there, in a dream or a vision or as a troubled ghost drifting through time, Paige recognized the dwelling with great fondness. She wondered if the dark figure, who’d shielded her from the exploding glass, had somehow found his way home after a rough night on Bourbon Street.

She knew she’d been the one. Her intense concentration stirred some sort of forgotten ability, but she recognized the power and the invigorating energy it produced. The display case had been under her control. She’d been the one who manipulated the glass causing it to bend and expand and shatter. The dots were lining up, and her connection to Gabriel felt more like a logical explanation than a shocking revelation. The troubled land with the fields of sugarcane was as familiar as the yellow house, but dread now filled her heart. She tasted it in the air, damp and rotting from the inside out, the sickening smell of mildewed sugar tainted the beauty of sweet southern charm.

Michael and Ashley chain-smoked as two rounded rooftops came into view. Paige twirled her hair, wrapping her bleach-blonde strands around her finger and then pulling it loose–her idle hands found purpose while she thought about her parents. She questioned how well she really knew them. She questioned how much they knew, and what they knew and if they knew. Her stomach rejected the negative light now cast upon her one-dimensional mom and pop, but he allowed me to go to the show, she thought, why didn’t he just tell me the truth? Feeling like a patsy or some sort of sick offering to the God of Eternal Youth, Paige questioned how well her parents knew Vincent.

Immortalized by wealth and power, Vincent, the devil in the yellow hat, the man with the medicine, the man with the gold pocket watch terrorized Paige. His presence felt heavy and suffocating like a shadow looming in the basement stairwell, she lost her breath at the mention of his name. Vincent–the mad scientist who created her, the illusionist, the great deceiver, and according to Abbey, her parents’ good friend and colleague. Vincent–the all-seeing eye in the sky.

Coming to the end of a long hallway of perfectly lined trees, the Shady Oak Plantation house proudly appeared in the secluded clearing, aged, but much like its ancestry, untarnished. Wooden steps curved up to the long white-pillared porch where rocking chairs creaked in the wind. Black storm shutters covered the multiple windows of the white wood-paneled house, closed and tightly sealed as if a hurricane brewed in the Gulf. Two connecting wings towered above both sides of the house, circular and beautifully carved at the base with ivy and flower designs. Paige gazed upon a small room that protruded from the flat roof of the grand house, a lonely position fit for an attic. Forgotten and dwarfed by the rounded towers, the solitary room glowed against the backdrop of the cold gray sky. A red light shone through the window, illuminating the attic and adding color to an otherwise bleak portrait. Paige leaned in closer and peered through the front windshield as the red glow darted across the room and disappeared from sight.

Ashley pulled into the graveled courtyard where a statue of a winged male stood atop a stone fountain. Before averting her eyes, Paige noticed that two small horns protruded from the statue’s head. Dusk settled in and she glanced again at the attic window, dark and overshadowed by the rising of a yellow moon. Kendal slid open the door and a gust of cold air blew through the van as Paige shivered and folded her arms across her chest. She gazed at the dark house while her imagination laid out the floor plan, room by room, providing a virtual tour in her head. A checkered floor spread out before her and books lined the walls of the last room she envisioned. A bright light enveloped her in that familiar room. She remembered something; she forgot something.

“Paige, you ready?” Ashley hid the keys under the driver’s side seat and peered around to check on her. She nodded, slid across the seat and jumped out onto the loose gravel, looking back at the sleeping professor before slamming the door. Michael wrapped his arm around Ashley’s neck as he slumped out of the van, almost falling to his knees before Ashley grabbed his waist and pulled him back up. His complexion appeared gray and his amber-green eyes lost their gleam as he motioned for Paige to join them. She stood by his side and helped carry his weight as they followed Kendal toward the back of the house. Two cylindrical concrete structures stood a few yards away, about fifteen feet high and twenty feet in diameter, they resembled aboveground wells, or primitive cells at a death camp–Paige could almost hear the screams of imprisoned slaves. They stopped before reaching the twin structures and stood beneath an old magnolia tree. The tangled limbs dipped and stretched out their branches, sweeping moss across the ground after a strong gust of wind. Nestled off to the side of the two concrete structures sat a small yellow cottage, quaint and out of place, Paige trembled as the door opened and a tall dark figure emerged. He steadily approached, his arms swinging by his side and his pace brisk and direct. Kendal stepped forward and greeted the tall stranger with a long hug. Michael smiled and held out his hand, his body frail and his wrists dripping blood.

“I thought Regan was meeting us,” he said, shaking his brother’s hand. Alain mirrored the Doucet siblings with his short dark hair and electric green eyes, but he stood about an inch or two taller than Michael.

“Regan flew the coop,” Alain said, wiping his hand on his pants. “You look like death, Michael. Back up a bit, these are new shoes.”

Michael stumbled back and suffered a violent coughing fit while Ashley and Paige supported his weight. After recovering, he removed his hands from his mouth and spit blood onto Alain’s new shoes.

“Give me the medicine,” he coughed.

Alain laughed and shook his finger, “No, no, my brother, we wait for father. He’ll be along shortly. I can take you up to your old room if you’d like.”

Holding tighter to Paige, Michael answered, “Maybe later. You’re out of the band, by the way.”

Laughing, Alain replied, “You kicked me out years ago. I’ve since moved on.”

“So you have,” Michael said. “Enjoying your puppet show?”

Straightening his posture, Alain replied, “Enjoy death, Michael. It’s been a long time coming.”

Michael lost his balance and coughed up more blood. Wiping his mouth, he answered, “Tell me where Regan is.”

Kendal stood beside her twin brother and whispered something in his ear. Grabbing her wrist, Alain dug his hand into her pocket and pulled out another small bag containing the white powder. Glaring at his ailing brother, he licked his thumb, dipped into the bag and rubbed the medicine across Kendal’s wounded cheek. He then dumped the rest onto the wet ground. Her deep cut faded and disappeared while Alain admired a patch of dead grass that instantly turned green. Kendal pulled away from her twin and stomped on the revived grass before turning on her heels.

“I’m getting Billy!” she yelled and sprinted off toward the van.

Michael smiled and shook his head, “He’ll kill you too. Sooner or later, when you’re no longer needed, he’ll replace you too.”

“Maybe,” Alain shrugged, “but I’m done fighting him. I sold my soul the night Gabriel died. Served him the tainted cup myself.”

Ashley let go of Michael and pulled out a gun from the inside of his jacket. A gunshot split the air. Michael fell to the ground as a second shot exploded behind them. Paige whipped around to see the professor standing next to the devil and his gold pocket watch.

“See here,” he shouted, “I’m certainly up for some gun play!”

Professor Faraday stood with his hands cuffed behind his back and a shotgun lodged in his mouth. Kendal appeared from around the corner and screamed when she saw her twin brother. Sprawled out on his back, Alain lay motionless with his new shoes pointed at the yellow moon. Falling to her knees, she wailed as blood spilled from the back of his head.

“Eye for an eye!” yelled Vincent. “That was a warnin’ shot, next one’ll shave the beard off his face!”

Ashley targeted Vincent but lowered his weapon when he glanced back to see Michael lying on the ground. Paige knelt down and checked his pulse shaking her head as tears streamed down her face. Turning around, Ashley held up his hands and inched closer to Vincent.

“Dat’s far enough boy, slide duh gun my way!”

Slowly bending down, Ashley tossed the gun away from his feet. “Please,” he said, holding his arms in the air, “Please, he told me he killed Gabriel, and I, please, help Michael.”

“Alain did my biddin’. It’s alright boy, we gonna make it all better, Paige over der gonna see to it.”

The cold wind burned her wet face as Paige stood from the ground. Motionless and covered in blood, Michael lay only a few feet away from his brother. The yellow moon relaxed and eased its pull, climbing higher into the sky as Paige brushed the hair away from her eyes. Her face smudged with dirt and hands red with blood, she cradled herself and walked over to stand next to Ashley.

“Dere’s a good girl. Paige’ll be just fine if we all do what we oughta.” Vincent pushed the professor along, removing the shotgun from his mouth and aiming for the back of his head. “Tell me where Regan is, an I’ll give Michael what he needs.”

“I don’t know where she is,” Ashley said. “Please, Vincent, I have no idea.”

Kendal covered Alain with her jacket, approached her father and begged him to spare her twin brother, but Vincent only scoffed and pushed the professor onto his knees.

“Alain ain’t comin’ back. Now listen here, lover-boy gonna join him if yuh don’t watch it. Dis duh plan, Ashley comin’ with me, an you gonna put Paige in timeout. Billy Boy gonna wait in duh van, lest we disagree.”

Kendal shook her head, “Daddy, please, not the pi–”

“Daddy?” Vincent asked, jabbing the long-range barrel against the side of the professor’s beard. “Well ain’t dat somethin’? I ain’t been Daddy for over fifty years. I mean it now, let’s get goin’.”

“What about Michael?” Ashley asked. “He did his part, please, the medicine.”

“We discuss that soon as Kendal does what she’s told.”

Surrounded by a muddy red glow, Kendal mouthed an apology as she looked at Paige with swollen eyes. Paige backed away. She averted her eyes and looked down at her shoes, but her mind quickly clouded over and her legs trembled, unable to support her weight. Kendal grabbed her arm and led her away from the scene, pulling her toward the two concrete structures. Paige tripped over her feet and stumbled to the ground as Kendal grabbed her other arm and dragged her along. Overcome by drowsiness, Paige fought to stay awake, but the dizziness crippled her stomach and her mind surrendered, tricked into a sense of security as resistance washed away. Closing her eyes, she succumbed to the peace and tranquility of sleep.

Chapter Sixteen

Through the circular opening of her entrapment, Paige gazed at the full moon perched high above. The bright orb fought to escape its own imprisonment as it peeked through a blanket of clouds sweeping across the sky. Sympathetic to its cause, she rallied for the moon but suffered the loss when a brave beam, which had shone down directly upon her, surrendered to the clouds.

She awoke upon impact when the frigid water disturbed her uninvited sleep. Frozen in place, Paige knew she couldn’t escape the high walls without help. Her body felt bruised and broken, but the dark concrete pit in which she found herself prevented a proper assessment. She waited. Paralyzed, shocked, delusional — she waited for rescue. Her shallow breath sent a cloud of fog into the air as she stared at the opening, out of reach and drifting farther away. She couldn’t move. The cold knee-deep water numbed her feet and rocked against her legs, slight and barely noticeable, the unknown disturbance slid between her ankles. She refused to move. Her shallow breath punctured her chest, but Paige stood lock-kneed with balled fists, watching the moon disappear and reappear as the disturbance splashed in the water behind her. The old magnolia tree swayed in the wind and scraped its twisted branches against her prison cell. Whispers stole the air. Paige held her breath as the low murmur echoed throughout the high walls, stirring the water and growing louder, the whispers climaxed into a chorus of distant voices. Louder than a breath underwater, the ritualistic chant flooded the damp air:

Snakes be with you, have no fear, swallow the moon when evil’s near, snakes be with you, have no fear, swallow the moon when evil’s near…

Panic set in. Paige screamed and pounded the walls, silencing the whispers as her feet scraped against the concrete pit, her fingertips raw from scratching and clawing the tall prison cell. She screamed for help, her voice foreign and weak as the thick walls muted her plea. She cried out again with more force and conviction, and again, louder and more urgent, she kept yelling, finally becoming used to the sound of her own panicked voice. A train rattled by, its piercing horn joined by the cries of a shrieking infant, but the whispers, faster and out of sync, the whispers silenced her outburst. They knew her fear, and they knew what disturbed the murky water. The voices lived and died inside the circular walls of the concrete prison. They too gazed at the moon. Paige held her shallowed breath and calmed herself as thunder rolled in the distance.

Storm clouds swallowed the moon and ushered in nightfall with the threat of a downpour. Paige saw it as a lifeline or a death sentence, but knew it would take a flood to swim her way out. Wind howled through the concrete walls and a light appeared at the end of the black hole. Thrashing from side to side, the tree glowed in the all-consuming darkness. Paige stood on her toes and craned her neck as a pale pink light illuminated the opening of her cell, casting a sunset tint upon the cold gray walls. A voice called out her name.

“Paige? You down there?”

“I’m here!” she cried. “Please! I’m down here!”

“Paige?”

“Please, help me! I’m down here!”

“I wish I could… I’ll see what I can do.”

She waited, and for the first time, Paige took note of her surroundings. A snapping turtle rested on a halfway-submerged tree branch, but she flinched and cupped her mouth upon looking closer. Intertwined and draped across each other, water moccasins shared the turtle’s perch. She laughed, trembling and glossy-eyed, Paige laughed and scanned the perimeter. A small ripple disturbed the murky water and the turtle slowly turned its head as a snake slid off the branch, dipped into the water and disappeared. Forcing her limbs into compliance, Paige refused to breathe until something brushed against her shoulder. She shrieked and whipped around as a thick rope landed against the wall, stopping just above her waist. Grabbing hold of the lifeline, she pulled up her feet and began climbing.

“I felt you,” the male voice said. “You called out to me… I’m sorry, this is all my fault.”

Paige slid down the rope when her foot hit a patch of moss. A clap of thunder vibrated the walls and the pale pink light grew brighter. Her clammy hands tightened their grip.

“I put you in danger, but you and I, we never backed down from fear.”

One hand above the other, she found her rhythm climbing faster to the top, the pale pink light waiting just over the rim.

“Remember what you told me? If I live a thousand lives, I’ll find you in each one. Looks like I found you instead.”

One hand above the other, she climbed, the smell of sandalwood guiding her along. One hand above the other, she pulled herself over the threshold.

“Gabriel!” she shouted.

Standing on a small wooden platform, she yelled his name again but darkness replaced the pale light. The rope dangled from a ladder attached to the side of the platform. The cold wind cut through her wet clothes. If I live a thousand lives, she thought, and crawled down the ladder.

The courtyard lights flickered on when her feet hit the ground. She backed against the wall and peeked around the structure, horrified to see a handful of people peering back at her. Hiding behind trees and crouching around the winged fountain, the Doucet siblings watched her with expressionless faces. Paige counted five, two females and three males, one too many. She watched them as they watched her, motionless, frozen like the winged statue; they held their positions and watched. Paige ducked behind her concrete prison and stared at her double-knotted shoes–wet and painted green with moss.

She charged full speed ahead. Away from the cottage, the main house and the van with the keys under the seat, she raced for the fields. Unsure if the watchers pursued and unwilling to look back, Paige escaped into the tall wispy sugarcane, shielding her face from the leafy whips and tripping over fallen stalks until a sharp pain slowed her pace. She grabbed her side and fell to the ground. Out of breath and sick to her stomach, she crouched between the tall rows and wiped away her tears. Sprays of lightning lit up the sky and a low rumble persisted as the moon disappeared and reappeared through the thick clouds. She silenced her heavy breathing and listened. Deep guttural croaks and high-pitched chirps permeated the air as frogs and crickets welcomed nightfall’s arrival. She dusted off her hands and kept moving. Her feet sank into the soft ground with each step, but Paige crept deeper into the fields and further away from the white plantation house. She couldn’t go back. Michael was dead. She watched him collapse and take his last breath, and Ashley shot Alain, killing him without warning, and her professor, the healer held at gunpoint–she told herself he’d be fine. Miles away from civilization, Paige trudged forward and followed the peek-a-boo moon, resigning herself to walk through the night until she found the highway.

The tall stalks of sugarcane rustled in the wind as lightning flashed through the clouds. She shivered and pulled her arms closer. Weighed down by her wet clothes and weak with exhaustion, Paige stopped, stood in place, and reconsidered her decision to flee. She lifted her head, aroused by the sweet scent of sugar and sandalwood; she tasted the ocean in the air. Thunder shook the wet ground as a pale pink light shot across the field ahead of her. Ducking and weaving between the tall rows, the light moved through the cane stalks and headed for the white plantation house. She followed. Brushing the foliage away from her face and cutting through the overgrown rows, she closed the gap to about fifteen feet until the pale glow stopped. Crouching down, she shielded her eyes as it strengthened and erupted into a blinding flash of white light. The necklace burned against her chest and when she looked up, a human figure walked amongst the tall stalks of cane, solid and moving closer.

“Paige, you need to go back.”

She recognized the soft male voice. A flash of lightning lit up the sky and she caught a quick glimpse of his face. She backed away.

“These fields won’t take you anywhere, nowhere you need to be. You’re far away from where you need to be.”

This isn’t real, she said under her breath. “You’re not real!”

“Sure I am.”

“No, you’re a hologram, an illusion!”

“A hologram?” he asked, stepping closer. “Paige, I went through a lot of trouble to be here, the least you could do is acknowledge me.”

The continuous strobe-light flashes exposed his tender face. His smooth olive complexion, his penetrating eyes and out-of-control hair, she knew his character well. He resembled Abbey except more tarnished and raw, a beautiful mess his friends often described him, a beautiful mess who died thirty-three years ago.

“I don’t believe in ghosts,” she said.

“I’m not a ghost. I’m energy, like you.”

Paige rubbed her eyes and stepped closer, “Why did you leave?” she asked. “I called out your name when I reached the top but you were gone.”

“I come and go when I can.”

Streaks of lightning traced across the sky and she fought to keep her balance. Her twin brother stood before her, speaking and moving and breathing as though his rough night on Bourbon Street had been only a dream–a reoccurring dream that Paige couldn’t shake. She blinked away her tears.

“You haunt me,” she said, “your face, your voice, your death, you.”

“You have to go back, Paige.”

“I’m not going back!” She wiped her face and turned her back to him. She waited for the rain. She waited for the storm to wash him out. “I’m not who you think I am,” she said. “I’m not one of you, I’m just, me.”

“You’ve got it backwards,” he said, “you’re not who you think you are, you’re just like me. Turn around, Paige.”

She held up her hand and slowly ran her fingers across his smooth face. His warm flesh sent tingles through her fingertips and she pulled away, burdened by a sequence of lost memories. If I live a thousand lives, I’ll find you in each one. She collapsed onto the wet ground and absorbed him. Nature’s lightshow cut through the clouds as the wind tousled his dark hair. He closed his eyes and lifted his head to the sky, his smile turning to a scowl as he slumped his shoulders and sat down beside her. Picking up a dead strand of sugarcane, he drew a circle in the dirt.

“I’m supposed to instruct you to go back,” he said. “Truth be known, I think you should keep heading for the highway, you’ll hit it eventually.”

Paige stared in disbelief. The nightmares flashed through her head, the fragmented memories, the long days spent alone in her room, her father’s tapping leg; she felt the nagging persistence of time. She watched him trace the ground and draw twelve question marks around the circle. His eyes met her gaze as he tore the strand in half and placed the two pieces on his sketch.

“What time is it?” he asked. With a smirk he answered, “time to get a new watch.”

Paige smiled and shook her head, “I don’t understand.”

“Yes you do.”

“No, I really don’t. A clock? I’m supposed to understand that?”

“Sho nuff,” he nodded, “but it better be gold. Gold makes duh winds blow and duh tides flow.”

Paige dropped her eyes and stared at the drawing. “The gold pocket watch,” she whispered, “I’m a slave to time.” An infant wailed in the distance and the courtyard light flickered on and off as the wind rustled the overgrown crops. She gazed into his electric green eyes. “Why do I have memories of us together?”

“What’s my name, Paige? I want to hear you say it.”

“But I never knew you,” she said. “You were before my time.”

His eyes bore into her as he leaned in closer. “You were a force to be reckoned with when I knew you,” he said, “but now, you’re tainted with fear and denial.”

Paige frowned and pulled away from him, “You never knew me.”

“You can’t even say it,” he said, shaking his head. “You stood on that platform and screamed it out, but now, you’ve backtracked. You’re right, you’re not who I think you are.”

Paige stood from the ground and folded her arms. “It’s Gabriel,” she said softly. “I haven’t backtracked. I just, I see it, I just can’t grasp it.”

“What year were you born?” he asked, running his fingers through the dirt.

“What difference does it make?”

“Tell me.”

“What difference does it make,” she said again, throwing her arms down.

Gabriel scooped up a handful of dirt and stood next to her, “Here, watch this, hold out your hands.”

“Why?” she asked, holding out her palms.

“Just watch.” Gabriel released the dirt from his cupped hands and Paige gasped as it disappeared in mid-air. Wiping his hands clean, he took her by the wrists and gently coaxed her back down on the ground.

“Understand?” he asked.

Paige glanced at his drawing of the clock and nodded. The thunder rolled away and the wind played out, but lightning continued tracing across the sky like silent fingers on a blackboard. She fell into his green eyes.

“It’s you,” she said. “Michael said there’s something I need to see to believe, and it’s you.”

The sugarcane glimmered against the sky as the moon peeked through the thinning clouds and winked. Paige wiped her eyes and freed the dragonfly thumping against the screen door. She silenced her father’s tapping foot. Gabriel spread out his arms as a peaceful grin fell upon his lips; she almost didn’t recognize him. The boy she remembered was never content. The boy she remembered tested boundaries and carried his heart on his sleeve. She remembered a Gabriel who never sat idle, never backed down and always had a cause. His eyes exposed his anger and depth and sadness when she knew him, but now, in the light of the brilliantly full moon, they’ve lost something, she thought.

“Did Alain poison you?” she asked. “Did he serve you the tainted cup?”

Gabriel lowered his arms and nodded, “I think so,” he mumbled. “I remember him being there, and handing me something to drink, then I got sick, but I don’t know for sure.”

“I need to know what happened,” she said, “because it’s not going to happen again.”

Gabriel shook his head and gently grabbed her chin, “No, Paige, you have to let me die.”

“But you did die,” she said. “You died and no one can accept it. I can’t accept it.” Standing up, she folded her arms and turned her back to him. “There are things that I still don’t understand,” she said, “but you saved me more than once, and I plan on returning the favor.”

Gabriel sighed and placed his hand on her shoulder, “You’re playing into Vincent’s web. This is going exactly how he wants it to go.”

“I don’t care,” she said. “There’s no need for any of this. I mean, if we all want the same thing, I should just head back right now and face him.”

“Paige, you’re not listening to me,” he said, kicking dirt over his drawing. “I don’t want to be saved.”

“But that’s absurd,” she said, turning around, “you weren’t supposed to die, Gabriel, and if I can keep that from happening, than what’s the problem?”

“Think about it!” he exclaimed. “Why would he have me killed only to bring me back?” Lightning exploded overhead and Paige noticed that Gabriel wore a green army coat with a patch of the American flag sewn into the arm. His peaceful eyes filled with despair.

“Please, listen to me,” he said. “Think with your brain, not your heart.”

Paige reached over and ran her fingers down the side of his green army coat. The smell of sandalwood captivated her senses and cured her want for home. She stood on her toes, kissed him on the cheek and began walking toward the white plantation house.

“Paige!” Gabriel followed behind and then appeared in front of her with his arms crossed and a scowl upon his face. Paige kept walking.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “I can’t listen to you anymore.”

Gabriel attempted to walk with her and then appeared further down the path, “You don’t understand!” he exclaimed.

She stopped when she met him face to face, “You got it wrong,” she said. “You don’t understand. You don’t understand that your dad can’t let you go, that Abbey is expected to be you, and that this world is pointless without you!”

Gabriel sighed and shook his head, “I’m happy where I am, Paige. I made it. I didn’t think I would, but I did. If I go back, I might not be so lucky.”

“Made what,” she asked, “the obituaries?”

“My soul,” he answered. “Paige, please, I’m happy where I am.”

“You’re dead,” she replied, walking again. “You were murdered, Gabriel! You don’t deserve this fate!”

“People die!” he protested.

“Not you!”

“You don’t know what happened, Paige, you can’t even tell me what year you were born.”

“I know enough!” She stopped and crouched down as two people walked across the courtyard and entered the yellow cottage. Gabriel stood in place and then darted off to the edge of the field, his pale pink glow outlining his tall slender frame. He returned as quickly as he left.

“They looked for you in the pits,” he said. “I’m sure Vincent already knows you’re out here. My advice is to hide in the van until the others return. You don’t have to face him. It’s over, just leave.”

Paige stood halfway up and peered through the stalks of sugarcane, “I plan on speaking to Vincent directly,” she said.

Gabriel threw up his arms, “You’re impossible! I think you’re forgetting who you’re dealing with, but then, if you can’t even remember your own birthday, my birthday, how could you remember Vincent?”

Straightening her posture, Paige turned around and looked into his troubled green eyes. “Michael’s dead,” she said. “I watched him die, just like I watched you die. Your other daddy shot Alain in the head. I know exactly who and what I’m dealing with.”

Gabriel dropped his shoulders and shook his head, “No, Michael’s not dead. You’re mistaken.”

“No I’m not,” she said. “He didn’t get his medicine and died.”

“What medicine?”

“Well, well,” she said, resuming her trek, “looks like I know more than you.”

Gabriel appeared in her walkway again crossing his arms and wearing his signature scowl. Paige saw the man/child whose soul she couldn’t let rest, the beautiful mess who was tortured by love and hate, rage and sorrow; she cursed fate for striking him down.

“You’re fading,” she said, reaching out to touch his face.

“I know. My time’s almost up. See Paige? It all goes back to time.”

“Your dad still cries about you,” she said, ignoring his last remark. “Wears your favorite green hat, gets teary at the mention of your name…”

“What do you want from me?” he interrupted. “I can’t change any of that so why even tell me?”

“I thought you’d like to know,” she said. “I thought you’d like to know what’s become of your loved ones since your death.”

Gabriel leaned in closer, “You thought wrong.”

Paige bumped his shoulder and began walking again. The white plantation house loomed in the near distance, and as she approached the edge of the field, she turned to see Gabriel standing about twenty feet behind her. Wiping her face dry, she motioned for him to come closer and crouched down until his tall frame appeared, translucent and illuminated by a pale pink light.

“I’m sorry,” she said, “but I have to try. I thought I was supposed to go back and meet with Vincent. Isn’t that why you’re here?”

“Yes but,” he sighed and glanced up at the sky, “me and the man upstairs are in a disagreement. I don’t want to come back, Paige. Just leave the past alone.”

“I can’t.”

“You don’t know what you’re facing,” he said. “You could get yourself killed. What about your parents? They need you.”

“So do yours.”

“I’m not coming back!”

Paige smiled, “There’s that pouty sneer I love so much.”

The moonlight shone through Gabriel’s green army coat and his smooth face slowly faded.

“Please stay,” she said, wiping her eyes. “Please, just keep doing what you’re doing, and we’ll go find the others, and you can see your dad and Prof–”

“Stop it.”

“Why? If I can see you, than why not let Ash–”

“Because I don’t belong here, that’s why.”

“You belong with me and Ashley!” she cried.

Lightning exploded above him and the wet air glistened around his pale pink frame. “I love you,” he said. “Please know that I love and miss everyone.” Gabriel stretched out his arms and faded away into the moonlight. A gentle breeze rustled the stalks of sugarcane as the necklace grew cold against her chest. Gabriel was gone, a fact that Ashley had endured for thirty-three long years. Paige wondered how he lived with such inescapable sadness. She didn’t plan on finding out.

Chapter Seventeen

Paige emerged from the overgrown field and crept to the back of the small yellow cottage. Shadows moved around inside as she crouched down below the window and sprinted across to one of the twin structures. Peeking around the concrete wall, she looked behind trees and scanned the winged fountain before making a brake for the van. The keys are under the seat, she thought, just leave. She crawled around to the driver’s side, opened the door and flinched at a pair of handcuffs dangling from the steering wheel. Hiding behind the door, she slid down the van, pulled up her knees and buried her head. Gabriel haunted her. She twirled the bulky necklace around her finger and wept into her arms. Thirty-three years had passed since that fateful Halloween night, but to Paige it had just happened. She wiped her face, replaced the keys under the seat and closed the door. She refused to mourn him.

Startled by the sound of crunching gravel, Paige peeked around from the front of the van. A faint green light combed the edge of the sugarcane field while a bright red light glowed from inside the cottage. She ducked back behind the van. The crunching intensified. Slouching down, she inched closer to the sound. Muffled cries led her to a nearby oak tree, but behind the girth of the massive oak stood Regan. Tied to a small pine tree with her mouth duct taped shut, she stamped her feet and mumbled something inaudible. Paige stood before the damsel in distress with folded arms and a smirk.

“Well hello there,” she said. “I take it you need Little Miss Fashion Queen’s help?”

Regan mumbled something inaudible as Paige grabbed hold of the tape and attempted to rip it off but her fingers slipped. With a stronger grip, she grabbed hold of the other side and yanked it across until the offending mouthpiece surrendered. Regan gasped. Frizzy haired with a torn dress, her face lined with anger and fear, she somehow managed to retain her beauty.

“Where have you been?” she snapped. “I’ve been searching everywhere for you! Do you have any idea how much trouble we’re in? This is all your fault Little Miss Fashion Queen!”

Paige considered replacing the tape. “I have no problem leaving you here,” she said.

Regan held her tongue while Paige wrestled with the knotted rope binding her arms and wrists around the tree. She wiggled around and barked orders until Paige finally loosened the knot and then stepped aside letting Regan take over. After freeing herself, she brushed off her dress, patted down her hair and regained a semblance of composure.

“Let’s go,” she said, fumbling with her high-heeled shoes and removing them from her feet. “Where were you anyway?”

“Where were you?” Paige asked.

“Locked in the attic. Come on, we need to go.” Regan grabbed for her arm but stumbled back.

“There’s something I need to do,” Paige said, pulling away from her.

“Oh, and what’s that Princess?”

“I have to meet with Vincent.”

Regan laughed and shook her head, “Have you lost your mind? You don’t need to see him. Now come on, let’s go wait in the van.”

“No,” Paige said, pulling back her arm again. “I have to meet with him. That’s why I’m here.”

“Honey, I don’t know who you’ve been talking to, but–”

“I’ve been talking to Gabriel,” she said. “I plan on having a little chat with the devil and his gold pocket watch.”

Extending her long red fingernail, Regan replied, “You listen to me, Paige, there’s no such thing as ghosts, and anything you see, is a trick. If Gabriel said you need to see father, than believe me, you don’t.”

“But it’s just the opposite,” she said. “Gabriel told me to get in the van and leave. He doesn’t want to be saved.”

Regan scanned the property and then fell back against the tree. She stared at the biological remains dangling from Paige’s neck and hung her head down. Her toes played in the dirt.

“He really said that?” she asked. “He said he didn’t want to be saved?”

Paige nodded.

Leaning forward, Regan asked, “So you know what’s going on?”

Paige nodded.

“So, you remember everything, like, everything?”

“Not entirely.”

“Oh, well, you and I, we didn’t get along so well, just in case you don’t remember.”

“It’s coming back to me,” Paige said.

Two shadows appeared down the gravel road. Hunched over and moving fast, the two figures raced closer with their elongated arms dangling by their sides and their necks awkwardly extended. Surrounded by a bright red light, Regan clinched her fists and stood in front of Paige as the two figures approached. Expressionless and vacant-eyed, they held out their long arms, their thin fingers brushing Regan’s curls before they flew off their feet and slammed into the gravel road. Regan brushed away her wild hair and tossed her shoulders back.

Paige exhaled her belated breath. “Are those the guys that tied you up?” she asked.

“I don’t know,” Regan huffed. “I can’t tell them apart.”

“Who are they?” she asked, “Are they like us? Created in a lab?”

Regan shook her head, “No, they’re not like us. They’re brainless creatures without a soul.”

Paige walked over and looked down at the two men. They resembled Alain, exactly like Alain. She shuddered and turned away. Regan joined her and stood over them, nudging one with her toe and then rubbing her shoulders.

“Kendal lost her twin,” she said.

“I know,” Paige answered, “so did I.”

Regan nodded, “I know. I might have lost mine too.”

“What happened, Regan? Where is everyone?”

“Everything went wrong,” she replied. Her high-heeled shoes dangled from her fingers as she raised her hands into the air, “They could all be dead for all I know!”

Paige shook her head, “No, they’re not. I think I saw Billy over by the fields, and there’s at least two people inside the cottage.”

Raising her eyebrows, Regan asked, “Billy? What happened to Professor?” The two men moaned and twitched their arms. Regan stepped back, grabbed the rope by the pine tree and wrapped it around their feet. “Come on,” she said, “we better go. This won’t hold.”

They jogged back to the van and ducked down in the backseat where Regan hastily explained the extent of her knowledge. She had snuck onto the property before they arrived and stole the medicine for Michael, but Alain found her and locked her in the attic. Vincent later threw Ashley in the attic. Kendal eventually came to the rescue and informed them that Michael had been taken to the morgue along with Alain.

“What morgue?” Paige asked. “There’s a morgue on the property?”

“Yeah, it’s downstairs,” Regan answered, “next to the library.”

After Kendal freed them, Ashley went to retrieve Michael in the hopes that the medicine would still work. Regan intended on rescuing Paige after she freed Billy, who was handcuffed to the steering wheel of the van.

“I looked in the pits, but you weren’t there, so I headed back to the van, that’s when the freaks nabbed me. Billy went to check on Ashley and Michael.”

“What about Kendal?” Paige asked. “Where did she go?”

“As far as I know, she’s still at the morgue trying to revive Alain. I told her he’s a lost cause. That medicine can only do so much. I don’t know about Michael.” Regan sighed and shook her head, “I can’t talk to him, but maybe he’s just blocking me. I’m sure that’s all it is. Michael can’t die,” she laughed. Digging through a plastic bag on the floorboard, she fished out a miniature liquor bottle, cracked it open and chugged it down. When Paige asked about Vincent’s whereabouts, Regan shrugged and figured he was in the library.

“This happens all the time,” she said, searching for another bottle. “We come up with a scheme to get the meds for Michael, and father uses it as leverage. In the end, he likes to sit back and watch it all play out. He’s a sadist.”

“I have to see him,” Paige said. “If I’m going to save Gabriel, I have to face Vincent.”

“Well have fun,” Regan said, cracking open another bottle. “I’m staying right here. It was nice knowing you, again.”

Paige peeked through the van’s green curtain and reached for the door handle.

“Don’t be stupid,” Regan said, grabbing her hand. “Let’s just wait for the others.”

“I’m going.”

“Princess, listen, Michael has a plan, let’s just–”

“Michael’s dead!”

Brushing back her long thick hair, Regan sucked down her drink and threw open the door. “After you,” she said.

 

Paige followed behind a barefooted Regan toward a circular section of the house. Creeping in through a side door, they entered a stairwell and ascended the steep wooden steps leading to a metal door at the top. Once inside, Paige stayed close behind as they tiptoed across the room. Moonlight shone through a small window providing relief from complete darkness. Paige scanned the area for dangerous perpetrators. A strong musky smell, combined with mildew and furniture polish, assaulted the air causing her to let loose an unexpected sneeze. Regan turned around, narrowed her eyes and mouthed, shut up! They crept toward an open doorway and Paige, thrown off kilter by the sneeze, ran into a piece of furniture covered with a white sheet. An out-of-tune piano squawked from underneath and Regan whipped around again. Paige mouthed an apology. The open doorway led to a long hallway where an owl themed cuckoo clock hung on the wall. With outstretched wings, its large black eyes darted from side to side keeping in rhythm with the ticking of the second-hand. A balustrade carved out of dark oak curved down to the first floor. Stepping off the stairs, they stood before two large wooden doors. Regan turned to Paige with bulging eyes, inhaled a deep breath, and pushed her way inside.

Wall-to-wall shelves of hardback books decorated the spacious room. Cigar smoke fogged the atmosphere and clouded the high-vaulted ceiling as they crept across the black-and-white checkered floor. Cuckoo clocks clustered the walls along with antique tools and portrait paintings hung in gold frames. An old world globe stood in the back corner along with a Civil War map that stretched out above a dark cherry oak desk. Puffing on his cigar, a man in a yellow fedora hat sat behind the desk and motioned for them to come closer.

“Dere she is,” he grinned.

Regan and Paige glanced at each other and stepped forward.

“I do love dese nights, with duh full moon shinin’ overhead.” Vincent pushed out his chair and shuffled around the desk with his gold-handled walking cane. “Regan, my condolences. I must say, he lasted longer dan I thought he would.”

“What are you talking about, Fath–”

“Michael in duh morgue, he an Alain both. Ashley dere too.”

“You’re lying,” she said.

Vincent stood before his daughter and pointed his cigar in her face, “You out.”

Regan flinched and shook her head, “I’m not out. I can’t be out! Where am I supposed to go?”

“Figure it out, girl.” He sat down on top of his desk and pointed to a cuckoo clock with his cane, “Paige, you right on time.” A muddy red glow, stained and singed, outlined his frame and then quickly dimmed out. His deep obsidian eyes twinkled.

“You an I, we got some catchin’ up tuh do.”

Paige crossed her arms and narrowed her eyes. “You first,” she said.

Vincent smiled and chuckled to himself, “Don’t you worry, I’m always first, little girl.” Paige eyed the gold chain dangling from his vest as a wild grin spread across his face.

“You like nursery rhymes, little girl?”

Paige held her tongue.

Vincent laughed and threw his head back. “Sure yuh do!” he exclaimed. “How ‘bout dis one, dere was a young woman who swallowed a lie, now I don’t know why she swallow duh lie, I guess she’ll die.”

The large wooden doors slammed shut as Paige turned around and noticed she now stood alone. The shadows of the library moved closer.

“Regan done flew duh coop,” he grinned. “Course, she never took a liken tuh my rhymes.”

Waving smoke out of her face, Paige asked, “You plan on killing me too? Stick me in the morgue? Lock me in the attic? I’ll take that over the pits.”

“Time’ll tell.”

“What lie have I swallowed?” she asked.

“You swallow whatever I feed yuh, an tuh be fair, Paige, I ain’t killed nobody.”

“And Gabriel?”

“We get tuh that.” Vincent slid off the desk and strolled over to a long altar positioned against the wall. Black and red candles danced in the stagnant air oozing wax that mixed and cooled forming icicles off the sides of the shrine.

“Yuh gotta please duh spirits, Paige,” he said, placing a lock of hair next a picture of Alain. “Dey like my fiddle playin’, keeps em pacified. Dey like my offerin’s too.” An assortment of jewelries and trinkets lined the altar along with dried flowers, gold coins and unopened whiskey bottles. Photographs and portraits were placed between the candles with hair clippings attached to each frame. Gabriel’s photo sat in the center of the shrine along with a mocha-skinned woman with electric amber-green eyes. Paige leaned in closer.

“Dere she is,” Vincent whispered in her ear. “Duh woman in duh red dress.”

She flinched and backed away.

“You feel it, Paige? Energy’s in duh air, life feeds on death,” he paused to relight his cigar. “Look around, girl, can yuh smell it? We surrounded by death. We surrounded by energy.”

A surge of electricity engulfed the room as the bright halogen bulbs flooded the library with blinding radiance. “Let dere be light!” he exclaimed.

Paige narrowed her eyes and looked around the room. A stone sculpture sat atop one of the bookshelves, an impish creation with clawed fingers and goat-like ears, it clutched a copy of Charles Darwin’s work, The Descent of Man.

“We descendants of light, an I’ve scanned duh great abyss. I know what’s in duh king’s tomb. I know what’s on duh other side.” Vincent’s cane tapped the floor as he shuffled back to his desk. “I know who lurks in duh Great Pyramid, an believe me girl, it ain’t King Tut.” He laughed and propped his feet on the desk.

Paige stood transfixed, absorbed by a gold-framed oil painting on the wall across from the altar. She recognized the symbol, the Egyptian eye with a long tail curling out from the side, the all-seeing eye, she thought. It watched her, as if reading her mind and calling her out, the tapered eye sensed her subversion. It tasted her contempt with its long spiral tail.

“The Eye of Horus,” she said, turning around, “is this the guy lurking in the Great Pyramid?”

Vincent chuckled, “Why yes, yuh might say dat.”

“And this painting?” she asked, “The phoenix rising from the flames?”

Vincent nodded, “Rebirth. Only a select few get dat privilege.”

Underneath the two paintings sat a stone pyramid. Hand-carved and nearly six feet in height, the gold-plated sculpture featured the twelve signs of the zodiac. Carved into all three sides, the symbols were painted vibrant shades of red, gold, green and blue. Sunrays wrapped around the pyramid like jellyfish tentacles beaming from an orange sun. Paige shook her head, walked across the room and stood before his desk.

“Why did you trick me? The woman in the red dress, what was the point?”

“Incentive,” he said, “an for my own personal amusement. Gabriel ain’t supposed tuh die, Paige, he gonna rise from his ashes, just like duh phoenix. You an I, we want duh same thing.”

“For different reasons, I’m sure,” she answered.

“No matter duh reason.”

“You had Alain poison him?”

“I did.”

“Then why bring him back?”

“My business.”

“And if I back out?”

“You won’t.” Vincent adjusted his hat and tapped his cigar on the ashtray. “You think you know about dis an dat, but girl don’t know spits from grits.”

Paige smirked and shook her head, “I can’t believe you’re a scientific genius. You’re more like, what did Michael call you, oh yeah, a southern fried swamp dweller.”

Vincent laughed and leaned back in his seat, “We got a live one here, don’t we? I’ll sure miss Michael’s tasteless wit. You gonna help change dat.”

Paige stepped forward and placed her hands on the desk, “How does this play out, Vincent? Because I’ve seen the other side too, and I don’t think your spirits are all that pleased.”

Vincent dropped his legs and leaned over the desk, “Yuh need tuh take a few steps back, little girl.”

Paige folded her arms and stood her ground, until the ground failed her. Large cracks appeared in the walls as chunks broke off and fell to the floor disappearing through the black and white squares. The ceramic tiles liquefied beneath her feet and she lunged forward, clinging to the desk as the walls crumbled around her. A blinding array of colors engulfed Vincent and swallowed him whole until the room became white-washed and void. Dizzy and disoriented, she fell into a dream flooded with lost memories and familiar voices. She clung to the desk, the only thing solid left in the room where Vincent sat and smoked his cigar.

Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily, life is but a dream.” He smiled and tapped his cane on the ground. Paige looked around to see the walls intact and un-breached. She steadied herself.

“Your professor was wrong, girl, dizzy spell gonna keep comin’ back. Longer yuh here, worse it gets.”

“You’re messing with me again,” she said, glancing at the heavy wooden doors. “Quit playing games, I came here willingly.”

Vincent pulled out his gold pocket watch, “Ain’t playin’ games,” he said. “We got holes round here, an you in one, been swallowed up by one of dem worms.”

Weak at the knees and unable to stand, she pulled out a chair and sat down across from him. The recurring déjà vu rattled her sanity. She looked around the room, at Vincent, the pyramid, the black-and-white checkered floor, the all-seeing eye, the altar–she winced at the picture of Gabriel.

With a tooth-filled grin, Vincent relit his cigar and propped up his feet. “Dere’s a good girl, just have a seat now. I got you in my sights, Paige, duh ghost of your past is duh ghost of your future, if yuh read me. You read me girl?”

She nodded.

“Dis ain’t you’re fishin’ hole.”

“I know.”

“Well give duh dog a bone, yuh do know spits from grits.” Vincent poured a shot of whiskey and slid it across the desk. “I see dose clouds burnin’ off, so let’s get down tuh business.”

Paige picked up the shot glass, swallowed it down and slid it back to Vincent. He smiled and puffed his cigar.

“What year we livin’ in, Paige?”

“I don’t know.”

Pouring another shot, Vincent lifted the glass into the air, sucked it dry and violently shook his head, “Whew! Mighty fine! Here now, let me show yuh something.” He pulled out a newspaper from a side drawer and threw it across the desk. Paige picked it up and read the main headline: Gabriel Cross collapsed outside nightclub, dead at 18. Her hands trembled when she saw the date, November 1, 1995.

Vincent stood from the desk, shuffled across the room with his gold-handled walking cane and picked up the picture of Gabriel. Setting it down before her, he reclaimed his seat, smoked his cigar and removed his yellow fedora hat revealing a smooth baldhead. Paige dug her fingers into the chair.

“Need help with duh math?” he asked, resting his elbows on the table while stroking his black goatee. “2028. Yuh been missin’ for quite some time, but I knew you’d be showin’ up. I told Alain where tuh send yuh.”

“I’ve been missing for thirty-three years?” she asked.

“Vincent grinned and nodded, “Paige gonna catch dat fly.”

“It’s the library,” she softly said.

“Look down, girl.”

Paige gripped the chair and glanced down at the floor. The black-and-white ceramic tiles repeated their chessboard pattern, but next to Paige, a large white square filled the space of four smaller ones.

“I warned yuh girl, shoulda taken a step back. Yuh saw what happens, but we ain’t ready yet. We gonna wait till duh next train rolls by.”

“Alain pushed me in,” she said, staring at the large white square. “He poisoned Gabriel and then forced me to come here with him, and then, I woke up in my bed.”

“Thirty-three years later,” Vincent nodded. “Regan found yuh, went against my wishes an took yuh home tuh Justin an Allie. She ain’t duh brightest star in duh sky.”

“And they just went along with it,” she said, her voice quavering, “my parents, they just, they just pretended like nothing happened and kept me inside.”

Vincent shrugged and poured another shot. “Well now, in their defense, I insisted no one tell yuh, till I determined how tuh handle duh situation. Regan threw a curveball, but it’s workin’ out fine now.”

“But why?” she asked. “Why go through all of this?”

“My business.”

“Do you even care that your two sons died tonight?”

“We gettin’ off subject.”

Paige stared at the picture of Gabriel and rubbed her forehead, “Why me?” she asked. “If you’re able to, if you can trav… if you have access to, this, then why involve me?”

Vincent chuckled and slammed his shot. “I ain’t steppin’ on dat square! No ma’am, an back den, it was a new revelation. We got things sorted out now.” Vincent poured another shot and slid it across the desk. Paige caught the glass tumbler and slid it off the edge, smiling as it shattered to the floor. Slapping his knee, Vincent howled with laughter.

“We gotta live one here!” he exclaimed, wiping a tear from his eye. “Yuh coulda just slid it back!”

“Why did you have Gabriel killed?”

“Ain’t no beatin’ round dat bush!”

“He was a threat to you, wasn’t he, you and your little council.”

“Yuh got it wrong girl, ain’t nobody a threat tuh me!”

Paige stood from the chair and backed away from the desk. She wanted to run for the heavy wooden doors, but Gabriel’s picture stopped her. Reaching for the frame, she gently ran her fingers through the lock of hair clipped to the side.

“Took it duh night he died,” Vincent said, checking his gold pocket watch. “Brought him back here from duh hospital, got duh morgue next door, fixed him up myself for duh viewin’.”

Paige yanked the hair clipping off the frame and stuffed it into her pocket. “He was a sacrifice, wasn’t he? I remember now, you’re all a bunch of lunatic occultists. Satan worshipers.”

Vincent rested his cigar on the ashtray and crossed his arms on the desk, “I please duh spirits, Paige, talk to em’, but I don’t worship nobody.”

“Why did you have Gabriel killed?” she asked again.

“He talked too much. Boy talked louder dan a backwoods preacher. Higher-ups wanted him silenced, I obliged.” Vincent unscrewed the top of the whiskey and held it to his mouth. “Ain’t got no more glasses round here, gotta take it straight from duh bottle,” he murmured.

She watched him take a long swig and then looked down at the picture of Gabriel. The black and white photograph enhanced his beauty, his half scowl/half smile, his windblown hair and magnetic eyes–his knowing eyes. He knew too much, she thought. Paige remembered. She remembered his secrets, his betrayals and his fall that Halloween night. He played both sides, Vincent, the higher-ups, he played the celebrity, the good son, the lost boy–Gabriel had everyone’s number but no one had his, not even Ashley. Know your enemy, he once told her, she now understood what he meant.

Vincent checked his gold pocket watch again and took another swig from the bottle. Straight from the bottle, she thought, just like the night he died. She remembered the phone conversation. She’d been staying at Gabriel’s house in New Orleans. He called from a pay phone to tell her about the newborn clone he’d just stolen, something he’d been planning for months, even had a name picked out. Matthew and Robin took the baby to an undisclosed location, but Gabriel was afraid for Paige to be at his house. He told her to meet him at The Cottonmouth, a club down on Bourbon Street. He told her Vincent was drunk, drinking straight from the bottle, that’s the only reason I got away with it, he’d said. Paige stroked the lock of hair in her pocket and sat down across from Vincent.

“Gabriel was easy to love,” she said.

“Oh my yes, yes he was.”

“You felt betrayed by him.”

“Dat boy betrayed a lot of people,” he said, “duh wrong people.”

“You tried to recreate him with Abbey, thinking he might be loyal, the perfect creation, the perfect son, but that didn’t work out either.”

“Duh hell you gettin’ at?” he asked.

Folding her arms, she replied, “You were mad at him for stealing Abbey so you had him killed.”

Vincent took another drink and shook his head, “Yuh got it wrong, little girl, I never planned on killin’ dat boy. My hands were tied. I loved Gabriel, I made Gabriel. Made you too.”

“And your hands won’t be tied again?”

Placing his hands on the table, Vincent pushed himself up and leaned over the desk, “No one ever gonna tie my hands again. I’m duh medicine man, ain’t nobody got what I got.” He reached into his drawer, pulled out a vile containing a white powder and placed it on the desk along with a piece of notebook paper.

“You gonna give him this.”

Chapter Eighteen

Music echoed from somewhere inside the depths of the Shady Oak Plantation House where a piano played a soft bluesy tune. The phantom melody reached its climax and then pulled back, fading into a remnant before starting over again. As the hands of the clock moved down another notch, Paige grew weak with anxiety. Each breath deeper than the next, she gripped the chair and focused on the picture of Gabriel. The same sad song started over again, played in the same style and key, but the tempo slowed, as if winding down and finally running out of steam, the tempo strained to move. Paige reached across the desk, stuffed the vile into her pocket and read over the notebook paper.

“Dat’s how it’s done,” Vincent said, taking another swig from the bottle. “It was in duh works, but didn’t find what I needed till a year later. You gonna hand dat over tuh me when yuh get back.”

“I don’t understand,” she said, “why can’t I go back before Gabriel drinks the–”

“You go back where I send yuh, exact moment yuh left. Gabriel gonna be dead by den, you meet me in duh morgue, we bring him back. Got a four hour time limit before he’s dead for good.” Vincent rubbed the top of his head and checked his gold watch. “You follow me?”

Paige nodded.

“It’s duh cure for death, Paige, a link to immortality, my leverage. Ain’t nobody gonna tie my hands.”

Paige nodded. She saw the bigger picture. If they bring Gabriel back with the medicine, he’ll forever be dependent upon Vincent, upon getting the next dose, just like Michael. Even if Gabriel refused to keep taking it, he could still be brought back — again, and again, and again. He would become a slave to Vincent, a loyal subject forced into submission. Paige turned away from his picture and swallowed regret.

“When’s the next train?” she asked.

“We send yuh back five minutes before midnight, five minutes before duh start of All Hallow’s Eve. Ain’t dat somethin’? Perfect timin.”

“That’s six hours from now,” she gasped, “I could just step on this square and go back right now.”

Vincent slammed the bottle down and shot up from the desk, “Yuh ain’t in control! I am! I say when yuh go back!” He grabbed the picture of Gabriel and threw it across the room. The metal frame slammed into a long mirror hanging over the altar, cracking it down the middle. The candles flames multiplied. Paige jumped from her chair.

“I control what happens next! I control duh time! I’m duh creator!” Vincent grabbed his yellow fedora hat and popped it on his head. He pointed at Paige with his half-smoked cigar, “Gabriel’s mine,” he said. “You are too.”

Paige looked down, took two steps to the left and stood on the large white square. The lights flickered and a loud pop sent the room into darkness, but an all-consuming brightness took over. The walls crumbled around her and she stumbled forward as the ground grew soft beneath her feet. She fell to her knees and slapped her hands on the floor, crying out as they sank into a bottomless square. She struggled to remain conscious, but the white-washed room swallowed her whole until a strong kick knocked her across the floor. She slid into a bookshelf where the impish sculpture wobbled and steadied, its glassy eyes sizing her up.

“Best watch yourself girl,” Vincent said. “Yuh not careful, gonna end up at duh witch trials. Try dat again, gonna be lost for good.” The halogen bulbs flickered as Vincent turned on his boots and strolled back to his desk, the clicking of his cane catching the down-beat. Paige stood from the floor and backed up against the bookcase.

“Please,” she said, “I’d like to find the others. I’ll be back before it’s time, you have my word.”

Vincent took a drink from the bottle and relit his cigar. “Don’t want your word, little girl. Ain’t got nowhere tuh go, so yuh best sit down, my patience wearin’ thin.”

Paige turned her back to him and scanned over his books as she walked the length of the tall bookshelf. The sculpture with the goat-like ears and clawed fingers watched her, provoking mischief with its beady eyes. “You’ll be passed out drunk by midnight,” she said. “Are you trying to recreate the moment or is this your normal dose?”

“Sit down!”

Paige glared at the sculpture. She despised its dead eyes and perverse smirk. Her hatred evolved the longer she stared. She focused, her emotions compressing into one–love and hate, fear and sorrow, anger. She held her focus. The impish sculpture wobbled closer to the edge. She narrowed her focus. Tunnel vision. Her energy charged the air. The sculpture toppled over and crashed to the floor as Darwin’s hardback book, The Descent of Man, followed behind, crushing its pages and landing spine up. Vincent clapped his hands and howled with laughter.

“Paige in duh zone now! Usin’ what I gave her!”

She walked across the room and stopped to retrieve the photograph of Gabriel from the chards of glass on the floor. Stroking the lock of hair in her pocket, she stepped around the large white square and took her seat across from him.

“I remember you,” she said. “I remember what you’ve done to my friends and loved ones. I remember what kind of man you are and the things you’re into. That evil little statue deserved its fate.”

Vincent nodded and snapped his fingers, “Symbolism, got it. You an me, we don’t need tuh get along little girl, but yuh best step off dat horse. I’m real tolerant till I’m not.” He closed his eyes and inhaled the air as a smile spread across his face. “Hold it tuh your nose, Paige, dat hair clippin’ still smells like duh ocean. You an me, we gonna have our cake an eat it too.”

Paige shuddered and looked down at the photo, his signature scowl pleading with her to let him rest. “He doesn’t want to come back,” she said under her breath. “He’s happy where he is.”

“What’s dat? Speak up girl.”

“We can’t do this,” she said softly, and then spoke louder to Vincent, “you can’t go around playing God.”

“Oh, but I can,” he replied, “an what’s dis ‘bout God? Seems I recall you not believin’ such things.”

“Gabriel did,” she said. “He worried about his soul.”

“Dat boy carried duh weight,” Vincent replied. “Said he don’t want tuh be a creation of mad science, as he put it, said he found religion, found God. Only thing he found was me.” He smiled and took another swig, “After I made Abbey, I quit handin’ out free will.”

“Yeah, I’ve seen your newest creations,” she said. “Zombies. Soulless creatures that should be put out of their misery.”

“If you got a soul, dey got a soul.”

Paige crossed her arms and looked away.

“Gabriel had duh same problem,” Vincent said. “Feared he was soulless, mighta been right, I don’t care tuh know. I believe in heaven, an I believe in hell, but I plan on stayin’ right here.”

“So you do believe in God?” she asked.

“I believe duh Luciferian Doctrine, we can all become like gods, if we’re privy.”

Paige smiled and sat up in her seat, “You’re a devil worshipper. I knew it.”

“Lucifer ain’t no devil!” he exclaimed. “Lucifer is Light.”

The candles on the altar reached for the ceiling as a new batch of wax spilled over and wrapped around the assortment of offerings and picture frames. Paige looked again at the paintings on the wall, the scorched phoenix and the all-seeing-eye; she wanted to destroy those too. She wanted to obliterate her surroundings.

“I can’t do this,” she said. “I can’t do this to him.”

Vincent swallowed the last drop from the whiskey bottle and threw it across the room, laughing as it smashed into a portrait painting of a bearded, middle-aged man. “You do what I tell yuh!” he exclaimed. “If yuh refuse, yuh stuck here! Ain’t nobody savin’ yuh from dat sick spell!”

“I’ll take my chances,” Paige said, standing from the chair.

“Sit down!”

Ignoring the order, Paige bolted for the double wooden doors. Sorrow begged her to reconsider and grief spoke louder than Vincent’s rage, but she suppressed her tears and silenced her heart. The necklace scalded her chest, and she heard it, like the wind blowing through the tall stalks of sugarcane, she heard Gabriel’s breathless sigh of relief. Vincent’s roar transformed into a low growl.

“Paige gonna die, just like dat fly. Ain’t got no soul. Got nowhere tuh go.”

She pushed on the heavy doors but they refused to budge. She rammed her shoulder, but they stood un-rattled.

“Paige gonna die, just like dat fly. Ain’t got no soul. Got nowhere tuh go.”

She body-slammed the doors, kicking and pounding them into submission, but they stood firm and unaffected.

“Paige gonna die, just like dat fly. Ain’t got no soul. Got nowhere tuh go.”

“Stop it!”

Vincent smiled and tapped his gold-handled cane on the floor, “Ain’t always up tuh me. Yuh better catch dat fly. Paige gonna catch dat fly.”

She banged on the doors and yelled for help as the cuckoo clocks chimed out of sync and out of tune, signaling the top of the hour. Five hours till midnight, she thought, I’ll never make it. Vincent mimicked the clocks, laughing and chanting, cuckoo, cuckoo, cuckoo, until the owls retreated back into their holes for the last time. He checked his gold watch and lit a fresh cigar.

“Gonna take yuh down to duh fire, little girl,” he said, flicking his lighter. “Owls tell duh spiders what tuh weave. Ain’t always up tuh me.”

Paige slid down the doors, pulled up her knees and buried her head in her arms. She tried to do the right thing. She tried to give Gabriel his wish, but trapped in the library with a mad scientist and a portal to the past, she lost her battle against sorrow. She admitted defeat and let her mind explore the possibility of his reluctant return.

With slumped shoulders, Vincent settled back down at his desk and removed his hat, gently setting it aside with the top down. “Ain’t always up tuh me,” he muttered. “I’m goin’ underground. Wait till duh smoke clears.”

“What smoke,” she asked, keeping her head buried in her arms.

“Dey pullin’ plugs girl. Can’t fight duh system, comply or die.” He sighed and shook his head, “Feelin’ like grease on a grill, ‘xcuse me.” Reaching into his desk, Vincent pulled out a syringe and a vile of clear liquid. “Already got dis cooked up,” he said, rolling up his sleeve. Paige picked herself up and stood before Vincent while he finished injecting the medicine.

“Who’s pulling plugs?” she asked. “The Council?”

“Dey reducin’ numbers, keepin’ things balanced. It’s all about balance girl, now you know dat.” Vincent rolled his sleeve back down and puffed on his cigar. Paige noticed the difference immediately. His ashen face regained color and brightened as the deep creases disappeared from his eyes and forehead. He straightened his posture and twirled his hat before replacing it on his head.

“Mankind evolvin’,” he said, “gotta weed out duh weak from duh strong, survival of duh fittest, universal rule.”

“Aren’t you on the Council?” she asked.

Vincent pulled out another bottle of whiskey from his desk drawer and unscrewed the top. “Lights ain’t comin’ back on, Paige. Council control duh sun an everythin’ under it. Solar flare was just duh beginnin’.”

“The beginning of what?” she asked.

Vincent smiled and enjoyed a long drink. “Order outta chaos, duh rebirth. Dey settin’ off fault lines. West Coast gonna bleed from duh map. People gonna start gettin’ real sick real soon, ain’t no cure comin’.”

“What do you mean? Who’s getting sick?”

“Region by region, duh sickness gonna spread in less dan a week. Ain’t nobody gettin’ out alive.”

“And this makes you happy?” she asked.

“Makes me bout as happy as a whore on ice. Don’t matter what I think.”

Paige grew sick to her stomach. She shook her head and backed away from his desk. “You’re lying,” she said. “You’re just trying to get me to go along with the plan.”

“Ain’t no palm readin’ prophecy, girl. You know duh real deal when it comes tuh be. Bio-warfare, little girl.”

“You’re lying,” she said again.

Vincent laughed and checked his gold pocket watch, “Better get behind dat mule, Paige, ain’t got nowhere tuh go!”

The same sad song played throughout the house and an infant wailed from the next room over. Paige held her ears and caught her balance as the dizzy spell returned and a migraine pierced her eyes.

Vincent sighed and tapped his finger on the desk, “Kendal need tuh pick a new song.”

Paige gasped and rubbed her forehead, “That baby’s been crying all night!” she moaned.

“What baby? Ain’t no baby.”

Caught off guard by Regan’s voice, Paige whipped around expecting to see her standing in the library. Billy’s coming for you, Paige. Meet us in the courtyard. Oh yeah, and don’t step on the big white square! Paige shook her head and looked down at the big white square muddied with her footprints.

“Who dat?” Vincent grinned. “Get a message? Let me guess, lovely little Regan, my double-crossin’ daughter.”

“No, no message,” she shrugged.

Tracing a long scar down his cheek, Vincent asked, “You playin’ me girl? I know you. I made you. What’s duh scheme dis time?”

The large wooden doors creaked open and Professor Faraday appeared. His arms dangled by his side as he walked across the room at a controlled pace. Vincent stood from his desk and held out his hands.

“Billy Boy, nice tuh see yuh. Go ahead an stop right dere. We not gonna let dis little birdy fly away, yuh hear me now?”

Paige ran to meet him and then stopped, disturbed by his vacant eyes. The lights flicked off and the candles blew out leaving the library shrouded in darkness. Standing motionless, she struggled to adjust her eyes as a pungent smell polluted the air and burned her nostrils. She crept forward with outstretched arms, flinching as the infant’s wail pierced her ears. She inched closer to the double wooden doors, but a warm breath rustled the back of her hair and she lunged forward, falling into the clutches of a tall dark figure. She flailed her legs and screamed as the tall figure tightened his grip and lifted her off the ground. Her body fell limp. The candles on the altar blinked back to life and Vincent stood before her, his muddy red aura pulsating. Channeling her emotions—fear, anger and grief—she forced the clone to loosen his grip and wiggled her way to freedom. Backing against the wall, she glared at the imposture as fever burned from within and rage exploded into action. The professor’s clone shot across the room and fell to the floor, landing on the big white square. Paige shielded her eyes as a geyser of light shot up from the ground and engulfed the clone, overwhelming his body with blinding luminosity. As the stream of light dimmed and withdrew into the ground, the white square sat empty, solid and wiped clean of footprints. The smell of burnt chemicals lingered in the air. Paige stood frozen against the wall. Vincent exploded into laughter.

“Million tuh one shot!” he exclaimed, tipping his hat. “How ‘bout dat!”

Paige stared into his polished eyes and waited for his next move. Animated shadows jerked and trembled on the vaulted ceiling as he turned and strolled to the other side of the library. The double wooden doors rattled and swung open, forced into compliance by a silent wind. Inching closer to the exit, Paige walked backwards keeping her eyes on Vincent.

“I can’t give him the medicine,” she shouted. “Please, just send me back!”

Vincent stood on the far side of the library, illuminated by the moonlight shining through a small circular window. “Gonna need dat recipe, girl!”

She pulled out the piece of notebook paper and held it in the air, “Tell me you’ll send me back first!”

“Give it up, girl!”

She continued walking backwards until Vincent sprinted across the room with the cane held high above his head. “Ain’t got no soul! Got nowhere tuh go! Paige gonna catch dat fly!”

Screaming, she whipped around and darted for the doors as Vincent chased her down, laughing and chanting and banging his cane on the ground. She stepped across the threshold and the doors slammed shut behind her, but sorrow settled in as she retreated for the stairs. Gabriel was gone for good.

Chapter Nineteen

The same sad song played over again as Paige fled the library and climbed the curved stairwell. Her foot landed sideways on the third step and she fell forward, grabbing her ankle and wincing with pain, she yelled for Kendal to shut up! The piano went silent but the screaming infant grew louder as she crawled to safety. She told herself not to look back, but then quickly turned and scanned the dark house for Vincent’s muddy red aura, noticing instead, an emerald green light. Appearing from around the corner, the green glow positioned itself at the base of the stairs and a familiar voice called out her name. She froze on the middle step and waited for the light to arrive. Gently touching her shoulder, Professor Faraday knelt down beside her and asked if she was okay. Paige buried herself in his chest, trembling and sobbing as he held her close and stroked her hair.

“We need to go,” he said, slowly pulling away.

“I can’t,” she answered, lifting her head. “Gabriel’s dead.”

“Sweetie, I know, but we can’t stay here, now come on.”

“Gabriel’s dead!” she yelled. “I have to go back!”

Professor Faraday flinched and then grabbed her by the shoulders, “Paige, listen to me, it’s not safe here, we need to go.”

She didn’t move.

“Now!”

“I sprained my ankle, Billy, I can’t.”

He reached for her injured ankle and clasped it with both hands. “I’m no longer Professor?” he asked. “I see.”  Immense heat spread through her toes as he applied pressure and rotated her ankle, clockwise and counterclockwise, until the heat rolled away with the pain. In less than two minutes, her sprained ankle was healed. She took his hand as they scaled the stairs and raced down the hallway into the dusty side room. Slipping past the covered piano, they fled through the metal door and slid down the steps where the old white van waited a few feet away. She welcomed the cold night air. She could breathe, could taste the sweet sugarcane on her lips. Professor Faraday directed her to hide out in the back of the van. Paige refused.

“Where is everyone?” she asked.

“Get in the van and stay down. I’ll be back in fifteen minutes.”

“And what if I just drive off?” she yelled.

“Fifteen minutes!”

The professor disappeared into the cottage and Paige climbed into the van and huddled down on the floorboard. She descended deeper into mourning. She met Gabriel for the first time while vacationing with her parents in New Orleans. Thirteen and left alone in the hotel room, she thought it was some kind of prank when the teen dream knocked on the door. He’d been the one who sought her out, and explained why she was different, and where she came from and what she was, but when her parents caught wind of their meeting, they sent her away to boarding school. They wanted her to stay, they wanted her to go, but they never told her the truth about anything. She and Gabriel corresponded through letters and through the occasional secret meeting. He’d been her best friend, the person with whom she’d shuffled back and forth between realms and shared jokes that no one else understood. Tears streamed down her cheeks as she crouched on the floorboard and restrained herself from returning to the library. Bright lights flooded the van as she peeked through the back window and then closed the curtain, burdened by her raw emotions. Her parents frantically called out her name as they slammed the car doors and scurried around the courtyard. Paige wiped her face, pulled back her hair and slowly crawled out of the van. Bombarded with hugs and kisses, she quickly pushed them away. Her memories crystallized and anger boiled over. Her father’s red eyes glowed with remorse.

“Paige, sweetie, I’m so sorry, we should have told you,” he said, looking over his shoulder.

“Told me what?” she asked. “That I’ve been missing for thirty-three years? That you’ve been lying to me, again, about who I am?”

“All of the above,” he answered. Allison dabbed her eyes and cradled herself as she looked around the courtyard. Paige shook her head and turned her back on both of them. She looked to the fields of sugarcane hoping to see a pale pink light, and though the full moon illuminated the tall wispy stalks, no other light appeared. The cottage door remained closed and an eerie stillness settled over the grounds. She jumped when her father wrapped his jacket around her shoulders.

“I should have said something on the porch last night. I wanted to, I just didn’t know how,” he said.

She sighed and pulled his jacket tighter, “Did you know they’d bring me here? Did you know that Vincent planned on sending me back?”

“I knew Vincent wanted to see you,” he said, “but I never agreed to that plan.”

“What plan did you agree to?” she asked.

Allison stood before her daughter and reached up to cup her face. Paige flinched back and then grabbed her mother’s hands. “New lotion?” she asked. “You look thirty years younger. Looking pretty good yourself, Dad.”

Her parents stood dejected, their youthful faces broken and their voices silenced until Allison whimpered and let loose an onslaught of tears.

“We didn’t know what to do, Paige, we thought we lost you forever! Then Regan brought you to us, and we just, we didn’t know what to think!”

“You should have thought to tell me the truth!” Paige exclaimed.

“Sweetie, your mother and I–”

Paige groaned and threw up her hands as her father watered down the severity of their deceit. She wanted to understand and see their side of things, the pain, the sorrow, the confusion, the denial, the joy upon her return. She saw the parallels to Gabriel. If he appeared out of the blue thirty-three years later, Ashley wouldn’t let him out of his sight, neither would she. Paige did understand, but not enough to curb her anger.

“Hey, next time you guys need a fix, I’ve got the recipe in my pocket. Maybe if I can figure out how to make it, you’ll be loyal to me too.” She watched her mother crumble as makeup smeared down her face and her shoulders violently quivered. Paige felt sick to her stomach again.

“Mom, let’s just, wait for the others,” she mumbled.

Justin perked up and looked around the courtyard, “Where are they anyway?”

“I don’t know,” she said, “Billy’s in the cottage, said he’d be back in fifteen minutes.”

A door slammed and Paige whipped around to see Vincent standing on the front porch, appearing like a bad omen summoning forth the reigns of calamity. All three froze in place.

“Cordin’ tuh my watch, his fifteen minutes are up! Just like your shirt, Paige! How ‘bout dat?” Vincent stepped off the porch with his gold-handled walking cane and strolled across the gravel, tapping his cane from side to side and whistling a familiar nursery rhyme. He stopped about halfway from the house.

“Ain’t no way tuh treat an old friend, Justin. Put duh gun down, you on my property.”

Justin held the revolver steady, “You’ve got one pointed at me, somewhere. I know how these things work.”

“Bit paranoid, aren’t we?” Vincent laughed and inched closer. Wobbling as he strolled across the courtyard, he stopped about five feet away. “Been enough bloodshed tonight. Lay it down now. Ain’t gonna shoot me, I’m duh medicine man.”

Justin kept a steady aim. “Where are the others?” he asked.

“Good question,” Vincent answered. “Tell yuh dis much, your boy Ashley, he killed Alain, blew a hole right through his head. You Faradays all duh same, trigger-happy traitors.”

Justin stepped closer, “Where is he Vincent, what’d you do with my boys?”

Shaking his head, Vincent answered, “Wasn’t supposed to go down like dis. Now see here, I’m a reasonable man, but I ain’t always in control. Put duh gun down, your boys are fine, ole friend. Dey in duh cottage stealin’ my medicine.”

Paige smelled the whiskey on his breath and shivered as she looked out across the sugarcane field with the two concrete structures towering in the foreground. The winged statue glowed under the light of the moon casting a red tint upon the fountain. She gasped as an owl swooped in and perched on the statue’s horned head. Her father yelled and kicked the dirt, but when the owl refused to take flight, he took aim and pulled the trigger. The bird exploded into metal fragments and rained down into the fountain. Vincent howled with laughter.

“Nice shot, ole friend! Glad it wasn’t my head!”

Justin lowered the gun. “You’re right,” he said, “wasn’t supposed to go down like this. Everything’s broken, Vincent.”

“I know. How’s your daddy?”

“You know more than me,” Justin answered, holding the gun by his side.

“He gone off duh radar,” Vincent answered, removing his hat and holding it to his chest. “Dey pullin’ duh plug, Justin. You an Allison gonna need tuh hunker down somewhere. You welcome tuh stay with me.”

Allison scoffed and attempted to speak, but Justin held up his hand, “Thanks for the offer, but we’ve already made plans.”

Smiling, Vincent replied, “Guess you still in contact with someone den, none of my business,” he shrugged. “I’ll give yuh enough medicine tuh last for duh year, after dat, yuh on your own. Course, may not be any left. Go on over to duh cottage, Justin, go on an check it out. If I recall, you enjoy snoopin’ around.”

Justin glared at the cottage, shook his head and backed away.

Vincent smiled and replaced his hat. “Shouldn’t have left like yuh did. I was still grievin’ my wife, an yuh snuck off like a thief in duh night. Ain’t never been a true friend of mine.”

“You lost your mind, Vincent!” Justin exclaimed. “I’m sorry, I really am, but you went crazy after Valley died, before really. You changed after your trips to Egypt. Who was it, man? Who’d you meet? What did you meet?”

Chuckling, Vincent answered, “All dese years an yuh still don’t get it. Logic holds yuh back.”

Justin huffed and threw up his hand, “Always the same answer. You may as well have met the devil, or maybe it was the Tooth Fairy.”

Vincent shifted his weight and glanced again at the cottage. “Justin don’t believe in duh devil, does he? Justin only believes what he sees.”

The air reeked of whiskey and Paige studied Vincent, his large black eyes and high cheekbones marked with a scar running down from his temple to his chin. She concentrated on his glassy eyes and looked beyond his goateed mask. Through the hum of white noise, his thoughts came into focus. Vincent glared at Paige through his large bloodshot eyes and a muddy red aura shrouded his body, blocking her from his mind. She reached into her pocket and pulled out the recipe.

“It’s Moloch,” she said, “that’s who you met in Egypt. That’s who gave you this.”

Vincent gripped his cane with both hands and leaned in closer, “Watch yourself, girl, remember now, you and me, we want duh same thing.”

Pulling her arms through her father’s jacket, she replied, “Gabriel told me about Moloch, said he’s mentioned in the Bible, the god of sacrifice, sometimes symbolized as an owl.” She glanced at her parents as Justin narrowed his eyes and motioned for her to put the piece of paper away.

Vincent adjusted his hat and dug his cane into the ground. “What does Paige know about spirits?” he asked.

“Not much,” she answered, “but you’re obsessed. Your altar, the cuckoo coo clocks, all the Egyptian crap. Moloch tells the spiders what to weave.”

Vincent grinned and tipped his hat, “Paige done caught dat fly. Ain’t always up tuh me, but I paid my price, see, he likes duh children, an I’ve sacrificed enough through duh years.”

Cries from the screaming infant pierced the night and Vincent jerked his head over his shoulder. Paige also flinched and turned around but Justin and Allison failed to react to the crying child.

“You heard it this time, didn’t you?” she asked. “Have another drink, Vincent, maybe that’ll stop the voices, maybe that’ll please the spirits.”

Keeping the gun by his side, Justin stiffened his arm and lightly rested his finger on the trigger.

“I told yuh, step off dat horse,” Vincent said, holding up his long boney finger. “Lest I need remind yuh of your current disposition.”

Justin stepped forward and pushed Paige aside. “We’re leaving,” he said. “We’ll wait for the others in the car and then be on our way. You’re right, we don’t need any more bloodshed tonight.” He won’t let us leave, probably has an arsenal aimed at us. Paige looked at her father and grabbed him by the arm. Shutting out his thoughts, she again, concentrated on Vincent.

“Ain’t nobody leavin’ till I get what’s mine,” Vincent said, raising his voice. “I spy with my all-seeing eye, somethin’ dat belongs tuh me, now, I wonder what dat item could be?”

Justin ordered her to get in the car, but just as she turned to go, a gunshot rang out and a bullet pegged the ground beside her feet. She screamed and jumped back, quickly steadying her wobble and freezing in place. Her father took aim as Vincent held up his hand and shook his head.

“Don’t let dis get outta hand, Justin. Give me duh recipe an be on your way. Gotta gun on each of yuh, please ole friend, no more bloodshed.”

Paige held up the piece of paper and slowly stepped forward, “What if I still want to go back?” she asked. “Won’t I need this?”

Grinning, Vincent answered, “Girl already made her choice, but if yuh want a second chance, we wait in duh library.”

“No way,” Allison said. “We’re leaving. Paige, give him the recipe.”

Paige didn’t move. Justin held his position. Vincent checked the time on his gold pocket watch.

“Listen tuh mommy, Paige, she always got her head on straight.”

Allison rolled her eyes. “You’re a wolf in sheep’s clothing,” she said, “and one of these days you’ll get what’s coming to you.”

Vincent laughed, “Well now, I do enjoy my wool suits, but if ever I get mine, you gonna be long gone, deader den a lost dog in China Town. Lookin’ good by duh way, I’m guessin’ Justin shared.”

Allison grimaced and looked away.

“Hand it over, girl,” he said, holding Paige’s glare. “Readin’ my mind ain’t gonna do no good. Got nothin’ tuh hide.”

Her eyes darted off to the cottage and then scanned the sugarcane fields. She envisioned her ghostly encounter with Gabriel and grieved the loss of her twin. She wasn’t ready to leave him behind. She contemplated returning to the library, but postponed making a decision until the others returned. Unable to penetrate Vincent’s mind, she again breached her father’s thoughts, disturbed by the images playing through his head. She saw a petite and slender young woman wearing a familiar red dress, followed by a black-and-white still frame, a mental photograph depicting a lifeless body covered by a thin white sheet–a dark stain outlined the head. She turned away from her father and forced herself out of his mind.

“Hand it over, girl!”

Paige flinched and glanced at her mother who motioned for her to relinquish the recipe. She turned and faced Vincent again, fearful of getting shot but unwilling to surrender the piece of paper. She held the cure for death in her hand and a sample stashed in her pocket. She refused to give up hope, there had to be a way, if I could just return before he drinks the poison.

“Count of five, girl!”

The baby’s cry rattled the trees and Paige glanced at the cottage again. The courtyard light flickered off and two figures, glowing red and green, emerged from the cottage and steadily approached.

“Outta time!”

“Wait!” Paige screamed and turned around as Vincent grabbed the rim of his hat and nodded. A loud pop exploded from behind and she turned to see her mother fall back and collapse to the ground. Justin ran to her side as Paige stood motionless watching blood spill from her mother’s shoulder.

“Warnin’ shot!” Vincent yelled. “Next one’s fatal! Ain’t playin’ games! Duh recipe!”

The courtyard light flickered on and Professor Faraday ran to Allison’s side, sliding across the gravel, he cradled her in his arms and covered her wounded shoulder with his hands. Justin kneeled down beside his wife, kissing her forehead and reassuring her that everything would be okay, “your Billy Boy is here, you’ll be just fine.” Three clones emerged from the shadows and surrounded them as Justin set his gun down and slowly crept over to stand next to Paige. Robotic and expressionless, the clones waited for the next signal with their weapons aimed. Smiling a tooth-filled grin, Vincent hummed an old nursery rhyme about the simple-minded woman and the ill-fated fly.

“Spider gonna catch dat fly, but me, I’m leavin’ duh web, an I can’t have my secrets leakin’ out. Hand it over, Paige, or else Billy’s next.”

Professor Faraday stood with Allison in his arms and motioned for Justin to open the car door. “Her body’s still healing,” he said. “I’m putting her in the car.”

Vincent nodded, “I’ll permit it, but you an dat beard gotta know I ain’t bluffin’.”

Smiling, the professor shut the car door and turned to face the executioner. “My beard is quite aware of the situation,” he said.

Vincent chuckled and steadied his wobble, “Tell yuh somethin’, William, you lookin’ like duh Unabomber. Don’t watch yourself, bound for duh same fate too, I’m afraid.”

The professor crossed his arms and replied, “If I knew how to make a bomb, please know that I would send it to you.”

“I’ll keep dat in mind,” Vincent laughed. “Still waitin’ on dat recipe. I’ll take yuh all out, one by one, if need be.”

Paige stepped forward and then stopped, slowly putting her foot down, she backed up and stared at the ground. A trail of earthworms curved across the gravel in a long undulating line that disappeared into the sugarcane fields. Vincent tripped over his cane as he jumped out of the way.

Peering into the woods, he shouted, “Show yourself!”

No response.

“Show yourself, boy! I’ll take em’ all out, one by one, if need be!”

Silence.

“Ain’t playin’ games!” Vincent grabbed the rim of his hat and nodded at the clone standing to the right of the professor, but the male clone dropped the gun and fell backwards, hitting the gravel with a loud thud. Vincent turned to a female clone, touched his hat and nodded, but she too, fell to the ground. The third clone, a tall male standing to the left of Paige, turned and ran away. Using his cane, Vincent dragged one of the guns closer to his feet and Justin sprang into action. Reclaiming his firearm, both men stood with raised weapons. Professor Faraday crept closer to Paige, wrapped his arm around her shoulders and intercepted her panicked mind, if you can hear me, don’t give him the recipe. Paige winced and jammed the piece of paper into his hand. Even better, he thought, stuffing it into his pocket. Paige smirked and kept her eyes on Vincent.

“We at a standstill here, Justin. What say we lay down our arms before duh worms take us both out?” The great migration disappeared into the horizon and Justin cringed when he heard a familiar voice speak out from behind a nearby tree.

“Apparently the worms are smarter than both of you. Tell me, Dad, what time is it?”

Chapter Twenty

Michael’s voice enraged Vincent. With his gun aimed at Justin, he crept backwards toward the house but stopped when he reached the car. Allison ducked down in the seat and Justin yelled for him to back away, but Vincent roared as he lifted up his cane and smashed the front headlight.

“Show yourself!”

The female clone remained unconscious, but the gun resting at her fingertips slid across the ground and into the shadows of a nearby magnolia tree. Vincent swung around and fired two shots at the tree before turning his gun on the female clone and pulling the trigger. Paige screamed and buried her head in the professor’s chest. Justin held his aim.

“That’s enough bloodshed!” he shouted. “Come on, man, he’ll disarm us any minute! It’s over! We’ll lay them down on the count of three.”

“Duh hell we will! Show yourself!”

Vincent’s gun flew out of his hand and landed in the fountain as Michael stepped out from the shadows of the tree.

“You can keep your cane,” he said, “and if Justin behaves, I’ll let him keep his gun.” Michael smiled and stood before his father with a revolver pointed at his head. Drops of blood covered his boots but his once ashen face beamed with color. He appeared taller and his bright green eyes gleamed in the night as he glanced at Paige and winked. Professor Faraday smiled and shook his head. Vincent stumbled over his cane.

“See yuh took my medicine,” he said, regaining his balance.

Michael laughed and dropped the gun to his side, “That all-seeing-eye has 20/20 vision.”

“Regan give it to yuh?” Vincent asked. “Course she did. Go on boy, yuh gonna shoot me or not?”

“Probably not,” Michael said, “unless you give me reason. I planned on killing you, but Regan talked me out of it. I should kill you and bury you next to Alain.” He sighed and took his place next to the professor and Paige. Justin held his aim, targeting his old friend.

“Dat’s what I thought,” Vincent said. “Michael ain’t gonna shoot me. If I fall, you fall too. We all fall down, don’t we boy?”

“Not anymore,” Michael said, fishing out the piece of paper from the professor’s pocket. “You gave us the recipe, remember?”

“Yuh gonna cook it up?” Vincent asked. “Ain’t heroin, boy, none of you gonna figure out how tuh make it. Recipe won’t do yuh no good.”

Michael shrugged and nodded, “I thought about that. I’m hoping Justin can figure it out.”

Vincent snorted and shifted his weight, “Good luck.”

Rapid gunfire sounded in the near distance. Paige and the professor ducked down behind the van while Justin crouched on the ground, but Michael and Vincent didn’t budge. They faced each other, silent and suspended in the moment, they absorbed each other until the male clone lifted his head and slowly stood from the ground. Michael held him at gunpoint.

“Here’s what you’re going to do,” he said, “run off and tell the others to disobey orders. You’re no match for us. We don’t want to kill you, but we will if we have to.” The clone stood in place, motionless and vacant-eyed.

“Ain’t no use, boy, dey only listen tuh me. Remember now, I quit handin’ out free will. Might as well go ahead and shoot.”

Michael scrutinized the clone, studying his face and looking him over from head to toe, he dropped the gun to his side. “He has my bone structure,” he said. “My lips, my eyes…make him go away.” Vincent smiled and ordered the clone to go inside. Michael watched him leave observing his robotic movement as he climbed the pillared porch.

“What’s wrong, boy?” Vincent asked. “Didn’t have a problem takin’ em’ out with dat fire ten years ago. Dey duh same type, ‘xcept dumbed down a bit.”

“Is this your idea of the perfect race?” Michael asked, glancing down at the dead female clone.

“Nope, dis my idea of duh perfect slave,” Vincent replied. “I quit tryin’ tuh create duh perfect race, daz Dr. Faraday’s dream, not mine.”

“Well congrats,” Michael said, “you’ve discovered the answer to Frankenstein’s monster, remove free will. Way to go, Dad.”

“Thanks, shoulda removed yours. Now den, where we goin’ from here? Where’s Regan an Ashley?”

“By the sound of it,” Michael said, “Ashley’s taking out your sniper slaves. Regan’s in the morgue consoling Kendal. As for where we go from here, I’d like to engage your diseased mind.”

Another owl swooped in and landed on the horned statue. Vincent squint his eyes, stretched out his neck and looked past Michael trying to steal a better view. Paige and the professor remained crouched behind the van while Justin stood by the car holding Allison’s hand through the window. The owl watched them with its yellow eyes, ducking and spinning its head at the slightest sound.

Pointing at the owl with his cane, Vincent commented, “Daz duh real deal right dere. Great horned owl, looks like. Dey almost extinct now.”

Michael glanced at the owl and then at Vincent again, “If you’re done bird watching,” he said, “I’d like to ask a few questions.”

“Fire away, boy, what’s on your mind?” Vincent asked.

A small dimple appeared on Michael’s cheek, “Interesting choice of words,” he said. “I want to know about mom.”

Vincent removed his hat and bowed his head. Justin released Allison’s hand and stepped closer. Paige and the professor stood against the van, huddled together, on edge and prepared to take shelter. The owl observed them with its yellow eyes.

“Your mother was a heroin addict,” Vincent said. “Just like you, just like Ashley, just like Gabriel. She struggled with depression, threatened suicide more dan once, finally succeeded. Now, daz duh truth, ain’t no conspiracy, ain’t no foul play, just a tragic end to a tragic woman.”

Justin rubbed his eyes and turned his back to Vincent. Walking back to the car, he lifted up the door handle and commented, “You might as well have pulled the trigger. You drove her to suicide.”

Vincent popped on his hat and replied, “I know, Justin, it’s all my fault. Ain’t nobody here done nothin’ wrong but me.”

“You probably purchased the bullets,” Michael said, glaring at his father.

“Go on an blame me, boy, you’ll be back in her arms before yuh know it.”

Michael averted his eyes and looked to the owl, the gun at ease by his side and the moon overshadowed by his crimson glow. “I could never quite figure you out,” he said, holding the owl in his sight, “but playing God has certainly taken its toll.”

Vincent crossed one leg over the other, “God ain’t got nothin’ tuh do with it.”

“You’re right,” Michael said, turning away from the owl, “you’re absolutely right. Pay the devil his due, Dad, lay that fiddle down.”

Vincent laughed until he coughed, his yellow wool suit wrinkled by the humid air. “Devil in duh house of duh risin’ sun!” he exclaimed. “Sides, even if duh devil seeks it otherwise, I do what I gotta.”

Justin pulled open the door and gestured for the professor and Paige to get in the car, but Professor Faraday stood his ground, and Paige remained glued to his arm. Justin shut the door.

“Get on outta here, Justin!” Vincent yelled. “Ain’t needed! Paige gonna stay. Gonna help bring Gabriel back.”

The infant’s phantom cry pierced the night and Paige felt the professor flinch against her arm. He stroked his beard and turned to the side, gently moving his lips and nodding accordingly. Fixated on his father, Michael cleared his throat and asked, “Why bring him back?”

Vincent hesitated.

“The truth now,” he said, waving the gun.

“I loved Gabriel,” Vincent answered, his boney hand covering his chest, “but dey tied my hands, woulda killed him regardless. I told Alain tuh make it an overdose, didn’t mean for him tuh collapse like dat in public, told him tuh do it while duh boy was sleepin.”

The crimson glow surrounding his son darkened.

“I can help him. I’ll have duh newest version of my medicine, if Paige takes duh recipe, that’ll give me leverage, an den I can help him.”

“With?” Michael asked.

Vincent pulled out a flask from the inside pocket of his jacket, unscrewed the top and took a quick swig. “I can save him from himself,” he said, wincing and shaking his head.

Paige pushed the professor aside and stepped forward. “You want to control him,” she said, pointing her finger. “I know your plan. You want him dependent on the medicine like Michael. You didn’t love him, you just loved showing him off. He never wanted to be an idol.” The owl ruffled its feathers and spun its head at the sound of rustling leaves. Vincent enjoyed another swallow and placed the flask inside his jacket.

“Dose are some harsh words,” he said, “but yuh got it all wrong. Gabriel enjoyed his status. He enjoyed hangin’ with duh big boys, just like me. See, I can help cuz I know duh game he played. I played duh same game.”

“Know your enemy,” Justin commented, standing beside the car.

Vincent nodded, “Daz right, ole friend. Gotta know duh enemy tuh win duh fight. He showed his hand too soon. Yuh gotta know when tuh hold em, an know when tuh–”

“Enough,” Michael said. “You are the enemy, and Gabriel planned on taking you down along with the Faradays, that’s why you had him killed. Paige is right, you loved him like a work of art.”

Vincent smiled and stepped closer to his son, “Dat boy was a link tuh absolute perfection, just like his sister over dere. I love dem both, love you too,” he said, steadying his wobble, “but yuh gotta have ramification when yuh done wrong. You know dat, he knew dat, everyone know duh law. Can’t go round tellin’ secrets. I did what I had tuh.”

The owl swooped down and circled the courtyard, casting an immense shadow on the ground with its long wingspan. Paige gasped as it climbed higher into the air and disappeared behind the rooftop of the house. Panic churned the pit of her stomach. She feared being stuck in a world she didn’t know but in the same breath, if she did return, she feared reliving Gabriel’s death. Anger scorched her face as she rolled up her sleeves, defiant to the cold air until the sugarcane shivered in the wind and sorrow burdened her heart. Michael’s voice brought her back, don’t mourn him yet. Brace yourself, things are about to explode. His mouth curved and then straightened as he pointed to the cottage with his eyes. Professor Faraday stood with his long hair stuffed under his ski hat and both hands balled into fists. His emerald light soothed Paige’s troubled mind. She turned to see a figure standing on the outskirts of a small cluster of trees. Michael winked and turned to his father.

“Have another drink, Dad, you’ll need it.”

Professor Faraday motioned for Justin to get in the car before grabbing Paige and pulling her back. An explosion shook the trees and Paige screamed out, shielding her eyes as fire engulfed the cottage. Orange flames shot out through the windows and warmed the winter air as debris showered down around them. Paige wrapped herself around the professor’s waist, and Regan and Kendal appeared on the long pillared porch before ducking back inside. Vincent fell to his knees.

“What have yuh done!” he cried. “What have yuh done tuh my laboratory?”

Ashley stepped forth from the shadows, his jacket and tie missing from his suit and his ripped shirt stained with blood. He stood next to Michael with a semi-automatic rifle strapped to his back and a revolver in his hand; vengeance poured from his eyes. The fire crackled and a whirlwind of sparks spiraled through the updraft before disappearing into the night sky. Using his cane, Vincent pulled himself up from his knees, adjusted his hat and dusted off his wool suit.

“Ain’t dis somethin,” he said. “I knew you were lurkin’ about somewhere. You wearin’ Michael’s blood or Alain’s?”

“It’s about to be yours,” Ashley replied.

Vincent scoffed and took another swig from the flask.

“If we had the time,” Ashley said, “I’d lock you in that attic just like you did to Michael. I’d torture you to death, give you the medicine and then do it again. I’d have you endure eternal pain.”

Vincent coughed and shook his head, “Yuh gonna shoot me, Ash? Won’t bring Gabriel back. Yuh take me out, he gone for good.”

Ashley kicked the cane out of Vincent’s hand and pressed the gun against his forehead, “You’ve got five minutes before I pull this trigger.”

Paige clung to the professor’s waist as the orange glow from the fire emblazoned the sugarcane field. Smoke clouded the courtyard as Regan and Kendal, loaded down with three heavy backpacks, appeared on the porch again. Vincent turned pale as he watched them slowly descend the stairs, toss the bags into the van and stand next to Michael and Ashley. He backed away and took another drink.

“Nothin’ but thieves,” he said, wincing after he swallowed. “Go on an take my medicine, yuh all dead tuh me now anyhow, standin’ dere actin’ so smug. Beauty, talent, youth, I gave yuh dat, fare well keepin’ it in mind.”

“Two minutes,” Ashley said.

Michael clasped Regan and Kendal’s hands and pleaded with his father to say his peace. He urged his father to show a semblance of humanity, an ounce of compassion, but Vincent only scoffed and exploded into a tyrannical rage of indignity.

“Don’t talk tuh me bout humanity, boy!” he yelled, stumbling over to fetch his cane. “I’m duh victim here! I’m duh one keepin’ us alive! I gave yuh eternal youth! Immortality! I’m duh reason we exist! An now I’m supposed tuh suffer for it?”

Michael gently pushed Ashley’s arm down and stepped closer to his father. Speaking in a low voice, he answered, “You abused and tortured me. You killed me. Yes, you’re supposed to suffer for it.”

“I been nothin’ but loyal,” Vincent replied, stuffing his hand into his coat pocket. “Sides, yuh had demons, been keepin’ yuh company since you was eight. Now, dat’s my fault, but I tried tuh–”

“He’s got one minute, Michael,” Ashley said, raising his arm again.

“I tried tuh rid em,” Vincent continued, “had tuh kill yuh first. Couldn’t kill my boy, had tuh wait, kill duh man. Ash, he remember duh change when we brought yuh back. He knows. Justin knows too.” Michael and Ashley glanced at each other before Ashley stepped back and stood down. Michael’s amber-green eyes danced with the fire.

“You kept me locked in the attic for five years as a child,” he said. “As a man, you didn’t just kill me, you tortured me for a week before I finally died. You had Alain poison Gabriel. As far as I’m concerned, a bullet to the head would be a mercy kill.”

Set ablaze by the light of the fire, Vincent’s frame expanded and grew taller as his shadow extended across the ground. His black eyes twinkled. “I protected my flock,” he said. “You were a junkie before duh rebirth. I saved yuh. Plan on doin’ duh same for Gabriel. He was on duh same course, but duh others? Dey wanted him dead. You an me, we don’t need tuh be fightin’ each other, got bigger fish tuh fry. What’s say, Justin? You agree?”

Standing beside the car, his hand clutching the top of the open door, Justin sighed and looked away. The ache in his lower back had disappeared, his reading glasses were made obsolete and the constant need for a nap was replaced by boundless energy. Nodding, he replied, “You’re right, old friend. My father wants to erase us from existence. This in-fighting will destroy us.”

Ashley glared at his father. “Surprise, surprise!” he exclaimed. “Step right up, Dad! Come stand next to Vincent. Two birds with one—”

“Stop it!” Paige yelled. “I don’t care about any of this! I just want to go home!” Justin ordered her to get in the car but Paige refused. “Not with you!” she shouted. “I want to go back to… to where I belong.” A cloud of white mist materialized and drifted across the courtyard. Paige felt the necklace burn against her chest and turned to see the translucent haze take on a purple tint. Vincent checked the time on his gold pocket watch.

“I’m duh only one who can help, girl. Come with me, we gonna save Gabriel. We gonna change duh future.”

On the verge of collapsing, Paige clung to the professor while he reassured her they had a plan to send her home. Her mind absorbed his silent words and she tried to calm herself, anchored into her cold wet shoes. The stench of burning chemicals invaded the sweetness of the southern air, contaminating the smell of fresh pine and chimney smoke. Embers retreated from the fire and disappeared into the night as Paige turned to see the purple mist transform into a solid mass. Squeezing the professor’s arm, she trembled as a beautiful young woman of Haitian descent appeared before her wearing a red dress.

Do you see her? she thought.

See who? the professor asked.

Paige wiped the fear from her eyes and stood transfixed. Although not as solid as Gabriel had been, the woman’s bright green eyes and smooth mocha skin were as well-defined and prevalent as her son’s. Incandescent and magnificent in her red silk dress, Michael’s mother lingered behind Vincent and gazed upon Paige with a devious grin.

“What’s it gonna be, girl?” Vincent asked. “Yuh comin’ or not?”

Paige shook her head.

“Den yuh best hand over dat recipe an be on your way.”

Ashley stepped forward with his revolver and pushed Michael and his sisters out of the way. “Time’s up,” he said. Before Vincent could respond with even a tip of his hat, Ashley pulled the trigger. The gun clicked, but the shot never came. He checked the chamber for bullets and took aim again, pulling the trigger a second time. The gun clicked but no shot. Vincent shifted his weight and enjoyed a long drink from the flask before pointing at Ashley with the empty container.

“Got a lot of nerve, boy. Dis my property, my family, but you Faradays all duh same. You killed my son tonight, an he killed yours, score’s settled.”

Ashley lunged forward and pressed the gun against Vincent’s forehead, repeatedly pulling the trigger and screaming out in aggravation as a series of clicks followed.

“Just let him go,” Michael urged, “we don’t need to kill him.” Ashley tossed the revolver on the ground and reached for the sniper rifle strapped to his back. Kendal pleaded with him to spare her father’s life, and Justin supported her effort as he attempted to reason with his son. Paige remained distracted, petrified as the woman in the red dress spoke in a stern French accent.

“Let him see me, Paige, I want my husband to see.” Gripping the bulky jewelry around her neck, Paige took off the necklace and held it out for Vincent to take. Ashley yelled for her to get out of the way, but Vincent tilted his head, reached out and grabbed the homemade offering.

Paige stared into his black eyes. “Turn around,” she said.

Slowly turning his head, Vincent flinched and backed away, mumbling incoherently under his breath and stumbling over his cane. He pinned himself to the front of the van and clutched the necklace as his wife moved closer, visible only to him.

“I know you from another time,” she whispered. “You offer fool’s gold. You play the fiddle where the strange fruit grows.”

Vincent rubbed his eyes and shook his head, “Ain’t real,” he said, “a hologram, daz all, one of my holograms.”

She moved in closer. “You follow the moon with a hidden eye. Gabriel ain’t supposed to die.”

Vincent fell to his knees and removed his yellow fedora hat. His glossy cheeks glistened from the light of the fire. “My sweet angel,” he whispered, “my sweet angel, please, forgive me. I am a tainted man. Please, I, I tried tuh save yuh, but yuh left me. Yuh hear me now? You left me!”

Valley threw back her head and screamed as she tugged on her red silk dress and kicked at the gravel. Wide-eyed with his mouth agape, Michael glanced at Paige before reaching out and feeling the open air. His mother ducked away and pointed at her husband.

“You make this right. You give ‘em that gold hiding in your pocket.” She whipped around and lingered beside her children, her slender hand caressing Michael’s face as a vivid shade of violet light illuminated her transparent frame. She turned to Vincent one last time and blew him a kiss before thrusting across the courtyard and vanishing into the dying flames. Vincent remained on his knees kissing the ground.

“I am tainted man!” he shouted at the scorched cottage. He held his hat to his chest and cowered on the ground. “I see yuh, all of yuh, comin’ up from duh pits, hangin’ from duh trees, but dat ain’t my fault!” he cried. “You’re my blood! My kin!” He trembled as he wept, apologizing to the restless spirits who toiled the land in a gruesome past. “I’ll leave yuh alone!” he cried. “I’m sorry! I’ll leave yuh be! I’ll leave yuh be!”

Paige wiped tears from her face as she clung to the professor and felt unwanted sympathy for Vincent. No one spoke as he pleaded with the open air and begged for forgiveness. Justin and Allison embraced each other by the car while Michael wrapped his arms around his two sisters and pulled them close. Ashley stood alone, his sniper rifle aimed at a weeping man.

“Eye for eye, Vincent.”

Catching his breath, Vincent wiped his cheeks and replaced the hat on his head as he used the cane to help him off the ground. He braved the eyes of his executioner. “Somethin’ yuh need tuh see, Ash,” he said, holding out the necklace. Ashley glanced at Michael and then yanked the jewelry from Vincent’s hand. His eyes darted from left to right as he clutched the necklace and scanned the vicinity, hesitating before turning around. A whimper escaped his lips and he dropped the gun to his side as he crept closer to the fountain.

“It can’t be,” he whispered. “It just…it can’t be.” He stepped closer. “Gabe? Is that you? Gabe?… Wait…come back!” The necklace dangled from his hand as his fingers grazed the open air. He stumbled back and jerked his head around, frantically searching the grounds, the trees, the house, the pits; he shouted at the heavens, sobbing for the return of his deceased son. The crackling sound of the dying fire filled the void as he covered his mouth and silenced his anguish. The semi-automatic took aim as he held down the trigger. Stone fragments sprayed through the air as the fountain’s statue fell victim to his rapid-fire rage and Michael raced to his side. Ashley screamed into the night before dropping his gun and collapsing into his friend’s arms. Vincent dabbed his eyes and pulled out the gold pocket watch.

Clearing his throat, he shouted, “An angel stood before me tonight, showed me duh error of my ways! She gonna hold my hand across duh threshold of death, though I don’t deserve such grace!”

Ashley broke away from Michael and charged at Vincent, but stopped when he met him face to face. He laughed. Hysterical laughter, awkward and irrational, he held up his arms and shouted at the sky. “Well hallelujah! An angel you say? Tell us more, Vincent!”

A brief smile passed across Vincent’s lips. “Take your shot, boy.”

Lowering his voice, Ashley answered, “Truth be known, I’m more likely to put this gun to my own head.”

Vincent nodded, “You an me, we got dat in common.”

Ashley jabbed him with the long-barreled rifle, “You and me, we’ve got nothing in common.”

“Go on an bask in dat anger,” Vincent said, “I been dere. I know how yuh feel, but tonight, I found my peace. Tonight, I return my soul tuh God. Tonight, I am a changed man.”

“You’re an evil man,” Michael scoffed.

Vincent closed his eyes and began reciting a prayer, “Yea, though I walk through duh valley of duh shadow of death–

“Shut up,” Michael hissed.

“I will fear no evil for thou art with me–”

“Shut up!” Michael yelled again before lowering his voice. “You’re no man of God. You worship lesser gods. You worship yourself. You already sold your soul, remember?”

Vincent ignored his son and continued praying.

Paige looked out at the green field where a layer of smoke coated the tall stalks of sugarcane. She imagined the spirits of the grounds, Gabriel and Valley and all those tortured souls, careless and forever at play running and hiding between the rows. The shadow of death surrounded her, it enveloped Shady Oak with the crushing arms of sorrow, regret and revenge, but she saw the beauty hidden underneath its ugly face. Vincent cheated death, he beat it down and ran from it, as did Michael and her parents, but the hands of time always catch up. Sorrow, regret and revenge take their toll until eternal sleep is the last and final saving grace. Paige looked down at the female clone, her dark hair tangled and soaked with blood, and said a prayer to whomever was in control. She hoped they did have souls. She prayed their vacant eyes would come to life after the shadow of death released them.

Michael and Ashley glared at Vincent as he dipped into his yellow wool suit, pulled out a cigar and held a lighter to the tip. “We got some pressin’ business tuh tend,” he said. “Paige, got another gift for yuh.” He held up the gold pocket watch and motioned for her to come closer. “Hold out your hand, girl. Palm up.”

Paige obeyed. The gold watch dropped into her hand as Vincent placed the cigar in his mouth, stretched out his arms and reached for the full moon, closing his eyes as puffs of smoke clouded his face. Paige and Michael held each other’s stare until Vincent slowly brought his arms down and clutched the cane resting against his leg. Removing the cigar from his mouth, he smiled and whispered, “Free at last.”

Michael grabbed Paige’s hand and observed the gold watch. “Is this a joke?” he asked.

“Ain’t no joke,” Vincent replied. “Gotta wind it back every hour. Once yuh step on dat big white square, gotta push dat top button. It’s all set up.”

Paige examined the watch and looked for abnormalities or some kind of inscription or detail that made it special, but to her naked eye, it was nothing more than a gold pocket watch. “I don’t understand,” she said. “You’re just going to give it to me? What’s the catch?”

“Ain’t no catch.”

“And the recipe?” she asked.

“Got everythin’ yuh need, Paige. Even set duh clock back half an hour, give yuh more time, but don’t shake your own hand. I’m guessin’ it’s against duh rules.”

Justin and Allison gathered around Paige as Vincent removed his jacket and covered up the female clone. Picking up the jammed revolver, he checked the chamber and aimed for his cottage. A lone shot rang out.

“It’s okay,” he said, turning around, “Ain’t gonna shoot nobody, but I’ll tell yuh somethin, dose spirits, dey still helpin me out.”

Michael scoffed and rolled his eyes while motioning for Ashley to stand down. “You think the spirits jammed the gun?” he asked. “Get a grip. It’s an old gun that needs a good cleaning, when Ashley chunked it, it un-jammed.”

“Perhaps,” Vincent replied. “Talked tuh Alain, by duh way, he’s also tryin tuh make things right, but duh others, dey wise tuh duh plan. Alain gonna do what he can.”

“Alain’s dead,” Michael said, “and no one’s bringing him back.”

Vincent shrugged and puffed his cigar. “Dat’s true,” he said, “but duh spirits, dey move between realms, an duh others, dey mimic duh spirits. Ain’t dat right, Justin?”

Rubbing the back of his neck, Justin sighed and nodded, “Yeah, so I’ve been told.”

Paige bugged her eyes and glared at her father as he offered his hand to Vincent. “Welcome back, old friend,” he said.

Vincent exhaled a cloud of smoke and stared at Justin. Popping the cigar in his mouth, he wiped his hand on his jacket and finally honored his old friend’s grip. “You an Allison gonna need tuh take shelter soon,” he said. “Never mind duh useless eaters, duh others, dey comin for all of us.”

Justin nodded, “Thanks for the warning. I’m sure we’ll be fine.”

Vincent grinned and drew back his hand. “Dat’s Justin for yuh,” he said, tipping his hat. “Listen here, my clones, what’s left of em, dey gonna feed duh fire, dispose duh dead. Gotta clean up duh grounds. As for me, I reckon I’m done here.”

Apprehension drenched Michael’s face as he studied his father. Dropping his eyes, he wrapped his arms around his sisters and guided them to the van. Regan and Kendal peered back at their father and laughed as he removed his hat and tossed it into the air. Kendal blew him a kiss; Regan waved goodbye. Michael stood beside the van and sent Paige a private message before climbing into the driver’s seat. Gripping the gold pocket watch, she nodded and headed for her parent’s car. Before climbing into the backseat, she hesitated, turned around and attempted to read Vincent’s mind. His thoughts came through crystal clear and his muddy red shield diminished into a pale white glow. Tears clouded her eyes. With the gun dangling by his side, Vincent shuffled off, his gold-handled walking cane leading him into the flames.

“Meet us at Gabriel’s place,” the professor yelled before jumping into the back with Kendal and Regan. They peeled out of the courtyard with Michael at the wheel and Justin following behind, the long gravel road leading them away from the tall fields of sugarcane. Paige peered through the back window at the dying fire. A single shot rang out. The full moon trembled and closed his eyes.

Chapter Twenty-one

Justin followed behind the old white van as it bumped along the winding gravel road. Paige gripped the gold pocket watch and silently observed the dashboard from the backseat. Blue and green lights lit up the console with a dizzying array of buttons and knobs and small computer screens that looked as complicated as the cockpit of an airplane. She felt homesick, truly homesick for the first time. She accepted the truth of her situation as it revealed itself more keenly and the thick fog of denial lifted–she knew she didn’t belong. Like the passing of a storm, she shook herself off, stepped outside and re-examined the color of the sky, overwhelmed by the many shades of blue she never knew existed.

In her world, the lights stayed on, the water ran freely, and gas was cheap and available at any gas station on every corner. Black backpacks didn’t pose a threat and armed guards were only needed at banks or government buildings. Vehicle checkpoints were a minor nuisance at a handful of state lines or when crossing into Mexico and Canada, but random checkpoints were unlawful, civil violations practiced overseas in a far off country with a dictatorial regime — not America. Fear ruled the airwaves in the future, and her country, where freedom used to ring and liberty prevailed, no longer existed. Thirty-three years didn’t seem like a long time in the grand scheme of things but the change happened gradually, presented in slow increments until the public signed on to the agenda, hook, line and sinker. Fear is the path to total control, Gabriel used to say, and Paige had understood the concept back then, but to see the plans implemented with apparent ease, chilled her road-weary bones. In the last decade of the twentieth century, the Council of Six, the Green Police and the CMC’s already existed behind closed doors on carefully drawn out blueprints, but resistance still had a fighting chance. Vincent, despite all his misgivings, must have thought so too. She gripped the gold watch, looked back at the yellow glow of the fire, and then slouched down in the seat and quietly broke down.

Smoke from the cottage lingered in the air and clouded the narrow pathway leading through the dense forest. The sanctity of the open highway appeared around the last bend, but the van slid to an abrupt stop. The car skidded across the gravel as Justin slammed on the breaks and pulled off to the side to avoid hitting them. Barricaded by the van and a cluster of trees, Paige and her parents crowded the windshield for an explanation. Through the bright beam of the headlights, a figure came into view. Statuesque and expressionless, he stood about ten feet away and seemed to watch Paige as intently as she watched him. She jumped when the doors clicked and locked, and flinched again when the clone tilted his head and grinned. She attempted to read his thoughts but static flooded her mind and a bright red light engulfed him as he tilted his head to the other side. Like a slow motion ambush, more figures trickled out of the woods and surrounded him; each one possessing eyes like storefront mannequins, but the original held his grin, his eyes glowing like a wild predator. They linked arms and formed a blockade standing fifteen strong against the two vehicles.

“What do we do?” Justin asked. “How many of these things are there?”

“I don’t know,” Paige answered, still watching the original clone, “but they were supposed to self-destruct. They’re disobeying orders.”

“What do you mean?” Allison asked. “What orders?”

“That was Vincent’s last order,” Paige said, “clean up the dead and then throw themselves into the fire.”

“What do you mean his last order?” Justin asked. “How do you–”

“I read his mind, Dad, before he shot himself.”

“Shot himself?” he exclaimed. “Honey, no, Vincent wouldn’t–”

“He would, and did. Don’t you know what this means?” she asked. “They’re disobeying orders! They have free will!” Paige rolled down the window, stuck out her head and yelled for them to disband and let them pass, but the clones ignored her plea and stood strong, linked together and united in silence. She ducked back inside and rolled up the window.

“They see us as the enemy,” she said, “just like the others, just like Dr. Faraday’s creations.”

Michael honked the horn and revved the engine, but the clones held their position. Expressionless and holding hands, they stood behind the leader and defended their roadblock. The van shot forward. Fishtailing to the left before straightening out, it plowed through the human chain as they scattered into the air and collapsed under the tires. Paige screamed out in protest but fell back into the seat when Justin’s foot hit the accelerator. The car jolted forward. Bump after bump, her head hit the roof until the car found traction and picked up speed. A loud thud hit the windshield and her parents let loose a series of expletives as two clones fell from the roof and clung to the hood of the car. Justin honked the horn and sharply turned the wheel, weaving from side to side as the two clones dangled off the edge and then pulled themselves back up. Bloodied and disheveled, they peered through the windshield, vacant-eyed and stone-faced. The van slowed down and Ashley popped out of the passenger-side window with his rifle in hand. Paige turned away and cupped her ears. Two loud shots rang out. The windshield wipers screeched across the glass. She bowed her head until the gravel road gave way to smooth pavement.

Broken white lines appeared like a mirage through the darkness of the night. Glowing from the surface of the highway, they stretched across the horizon before disappearing into blurred oblivion – the effect hypnotized Paige. Sleep threatened to cloud her awareness and erase her much-needed perception, but she resisted. The gold pocket watch rested securely in her palm and offered hope to a bizarre and altogether dismal situation. She refused to close her eyes and let clarity slip away. She feared closing her eyes. She feared waking up in another world where she didn’t belong, but most of all, she feared losing her window of opportunity. In less than three hours, she thought, if all goes well, I’ll be back home with Gabriel. Vincent said he’d given her more time on the clock, but if she failed to catch him before the fall, she knew what had to be done. Back in her world, Vincent was alive and well, eager to gain control and far from having a change of heart. If she failed to save Gabriel before the fall, she knew the right thing to do, but the medicine remained safe in her pocket.

The French Quarters waited with open arms about fifteen miles down the road. They followed behind the professor’s van as Paige admired the weather-torn bumper stickers, permanent fixtures as detrimental as the engine itself. The black sticker on the left simply stated, with white block-lettering, The Government Lies. To the right, Uncle Sam stared back at her with the words, MISSING PERSON, spelled out underneath, and in smaller type, have you seen me? She smiled, amazed that the gas-guzzler still ran. Fond memories raced through her head as she longed for an unfinished past, one where the Doucet siblings, along with herself, Gabriel, Ashley and Billy, embarked on numerous road trips in the trusty white van. She remembered them as friends, loved-ones with whom she’d discovered herself, and family that she came to depend on. She remembered everything, but questioned why she ever forgot.

“Does time-travel cause amnesia?” she asked, bothered by the absurdity of her own words.

“What?” her father asked.

“Why couldn’t I remember anything at first?”

Justin glanced at Paige through his rear-view mirror and then quickly looked away. “Is that what you think happened?” he asked. “You think you time-traveled?”

“I know that’s what happened,” she said. “Why, what do you think happened? You think I’ve just been asleep or something? That I ran away for thirty-three years and just decided to return one day?”

Allison shook her head, “No, but we, we didn’t know. I mean, we were told, but, we didn’t believe it.”

“Your mother’s right,” Justin said. “We looked for you everywhere, but Vincent, that crazy bastard, well he swore up and down that you time-traveled, but who would believe that? He even showed me the, well the…square, but I still didn’t believe him.”

“And what do you believe now?” Paige asked.

Her parents sighed in unison and she waited with folded arms until her father finally braved the question. “We believe we have you back,” he answered, “and that’s all that matters.”

Paige scoffed and rolled her eyes. She wanted to jump out of the car and run back to the plantation house, but she had to be patient, three more hours, she thought. Michael’s private message was the only reason she left with her parents. He’d explained that Abbey wanted to see her off, and after they picked him up, they’d return to Shady Oak before midnight to send her back. Vincent was no longer an obstacle, and soon she’d be riding passenger in that familiar van, heading down the same highway, destined for that fateful Halloween night in another century’s time.

“You okay back there, honey?”

She flinched at the sound of her father’s voice. “No,” she answered. “I want to know what plan you agreed to. What exactly did you know?”

Justin hesitated before answering, “We knew more than what we told you.”

Paige sighed with laughter, “No kidding.”

“Paige, honey–”

“Mom, I really can’t handle another, Paige, honey. I need the truth.”

“When Regan brought you to us,” her father began, “we didn’t know what to think. At first, we thought it was some kind of trick, we were positive you were a clone, but, then you woke up.”

Paige waited for him to continue, but after a few minutes of dead air, she leaned over the seat and demanded answers. Her mother put her head down and rubbed her temples, but her father filled in the blanks and connected the rest of the dots.

“You remembered everything, Paige,” he said. “You were distraught, screaming and crying about Gabriel. You were inconsolable, and rightly so. To you, it had just happened. You had no idea how much time had passed. The last thing you remembered, besides Gabriel’s death, was being kidnapped by Alain and taken to Shady Oak.” Justin paused and looked at Allison before he continued. Rubbing her healed shoulder, she shook her head and turned away. Paige waited as patiently as she knew how for the explanation, and when it came, she understood their reluctance. Vincent and Alain had arrived at the house the next day, and after forcing their way in, explained to Paige what had happened, but she refused to believe it.

“We didn’t believe it either,” Justin said. “I mean, time travel? Come on. Should have, though. We were told thirty-three years ago this would happen.”

“Why did I forget everything?”

Sighing, her father replied, “Vincent ordered Alain to, well, alter your memories.”

Paige quietly listened as her father explained the telepathic process. Alain erased selected memories from her mind but kept the ones that didn’t involve The Doucets, or Ashley and Billy, or Gabriel, especially. Paige awoke from the procedure unaware that anything had taken place.

“And you let them do it?” she asked. “Is that what you and mom wanted?”

“Of course not,” Justin said, “but we didn’t have a choice. They forced their way in, did what they did, and ordered us to keep you inside until further notice.”

Paige chewed her bottom lip and tried to wrap her mind around the deceit. She understood her parent’s forced position, but she didn’t understand why. What did Vincent have to gain, and why now? Why thirty-three years?

“Is that everything?” she asked. “Is that all you know?”

“Not exactly,” her mother said, fidgeting with her nails. “Shall I tell her, dear, or would you like the honor?” Justin whipped his head around and glared at his wife, but Allison blocked his daggers and demanded he watch the road.

“We were given an out,” she said. “You didn’t have to go through all of this.” Digging in her purse for a nail file, Allison manicured her tips while explaining the extent of Justin’s deceit. Before leaving, Vincent had told them that, in the end, the decision to return would be up to Paige. Her memories would slowly return, if properly stimulated, and Vincent had complete faith that she would want to go back. The ball was in their court, and while Allison held onto it as long as she could, Justin chunked it to the opposing side.

“Two months,” her mother said. “It lasted two months before your father here, decided to act without my knowing. He contacted the others, pulled some strings at the college to get Billy in, and then allowed you go to the show. It snowballed after that.”

“Snowballed?” Paige asked.

Switching hands, her mother replied, “Of course. That’s what happens when you make a deal with the devil, things tend to snowball out of con–”

“Allie, dear, let’s not overdramatize things,” Justin said, glancing at Paige through the rearview mirror.

“Did you or did you not make a deal with Michael?” Allison asked.

“Yes, but, I was told everything would be okay, and I thought they would wait for us.”

“What did you expect to happen?” Allison asked. “Why are we even following them? Let’s just go home! Michael got what he wanted, Vincent’s dead, it’s over!”

Slamming his hand on the steering wheel, Justin answered, “Because Paige doesn’t belong here! She has to go back, honey!”

“Of course she belongs here!” Allison shrieked.

Paige tuned out her parents. She knew the rest and filled in the blanks herself. Her mother wanted her to stay, her father wanted her to go, same old song and dance, she thought. Michael needed the medicine but Vincent refused to give it up until he met with her, and my father, she thought, well, he’s just trying to do the right thing. As for her mother, she simply rejected the truth. Paige felt used, but in the same breath, she wanted to go back. Vincent had been right, as soon as her memories returned, she ached to go back, and after all was said and done, everything was okay.

“Michael’s not the devil,” she said, interrupting their argument. “He’s the only one who’s been remotely honest with me.”

Allison gasped. “Honey, Michael put your life in danger, he forced you to go–”

“Michael didn’t force me to do anything,” she said. “Besides, what would you have me do? Stay inside and watch TV for the rest of my life?”

“No!” Allison exclaimed, dropping her hands in her lap. “I just, I didn’t want to lose you again.”

“Your mother’s right,” Justin said. “We knew it wouldn’t last, but we wanted to pretend for as long as possible. We wanted to pick up where we left off, except, maybe, without all the anger and drama.”

Paige laughed, “Yeah that worked out well.”

“Paige, hon…sweetie, you have no idea what it was like for us,” her father said. “We thought we lost you forever.”

“I know,” she answered, “but how can I trust either of you?” How can I trust anyone, she thought. The muffled sound of someone talking caught them off guard. After a few seconds, Allison leaned forward and turned up the radio. A man’s voice gave orders in a calm, robotic voice used for basic protocol during an emergency situation. The message played on a recorded loop.

“Attention, attention, attention: Please remain calm. We are here to help you. We will not tolerate civil disobedience. Attention, attention, attention: Please remain calm. We are here to help you. We will not tolerate civil disobedience. Attention, attention, attention…”

Justin quickly switched the AM broadcast where another fragmented voice spoke through the static.

“It’s an absolute…out here. We don’t even…or how many are still…rubble. It could be weeks…final count.”   

Justin changed the channel.

“Emergency crews are spread thin throughout the West Coast Region after a 9.0 earthquake struck earlier this evening. No tsunamis were reported. In other news, residents in counties all across the North American Region remain in the dark after a massive x-class solar flare knocked out the power grid Friday night. Officials haven’t released a time frame for the restoration of power, but warned, however; that rural communities would suffer the longest wait. Along the Gulf Coast Region, residents are being quarantined after a string of smallpox cases were reported. Scientists say the unknown strain is highly contagious and appears to have a ninety percent fatality rate in those infected with the virus. The origin of the outbreak is still unknown at this time.    

Justin clicked off the broadcast. “Well honey,” he said, turning to his wife, “At least the radio’s working now.”

Allison cupped her hands to her mouth and stared at the dashboard. Justin reached over and patted her shoulder before shutting off the vents and closing the sun roof. Besides the old white van, theirs was the only car on the highway. Paige checked the gold watch and wound back the arms at the start of the ten o’clock hour. Her shaky hands fumbled with the small knob on the side of the watch until the secondhand arm clicked into submission and restarted its familiar rounds. She swallowed the dry lump in her throat and rubbed the moister from her eyes.

“Will ya’ll be immune if you take the medicine?” she asked.

“According to Vincent, yes,” her father replied. “We knew this was coming, we just didn’t know exactly when. Sometime this year is all I was told.”

“Who told you, Vincent?”

“No sweetie, my father,” Justin said. “He’s the head of The Council. For whatever reason, he felt the need to warn me.”

“He’s the one who wanted Gabriel killed?” she asked.

“I’m afraid so.”

Paige remembered Dr. William Faraday. She’d never actually met him but his invisible presence haunted her throughout her life. Although her parents never came out and admitted it, she got the feeling he wanted her erased from the planet, along with the rest of humanity. Gabriel once told her he’d met Dr. Faraday while attending a party somewhere in Hollywood. He’d approached Gabriel and greeted him with a series of deceitful niceties before making his true intentions known. He wanted me to switch sides, Gabriel had told her, but I told him…

“Paige, did Vincent say how that thing’s supposed to work?” her father asked.

“No, not really,” she answered, lost in her thoughts. “Just that I’m supposed to press the top button.”

She remembered Gabriel gave them hell. He claimed to have met Dr. Faraday’s most prized creations at that same Hollywood party and described them as being blonde bombshells as cold and lifeless as Barbie and Ken. He said they could shape shift and pretend to be someone else. He said they could kill by thought alone. Paige glared into the glowing lights on the dashboard, intimidated by the buttons and knobs and blank screens that left her stupefied. She questioned her father’s random probe.

“Why do you ask?”

“Just curious,” he answered.

Shutting off her own rampant thoughts, Paige tapped into her father’s.

Time travel? Bastard was telling the truth, with his damn coo-coo clocks and pocket watch. Can’t believe he shot himself. Should have paid closer attention when he showed me those maps. Something about wormholes or dark energy…traversable wormholes! That was it! Shortcuts from A to Z. Don’t know how that pocket watch works. The hell did he get that thing anyway?

“Egypt,” Paige answered.

Justin straightened his posture, “We’ve talked about this, Paige. Don’t read my thoughts.”

“What maps did he show you?”

Sighing, Justin replied, “We’ll discuss it later. I need to concentrate on my surroundings right now.”

Military tanks commanded the narrow streets of the French Quarters but the two-vehicle caravan ventured through without resistance. Justin stayed close behind the old white van as they rolled past stop signs and cut tight corners without tapping the breaks.

“Michael must be working his magic,” he commented. “There’s no way they’d let us get away with this.” The CMCs, he thought, just another finger extending the hand of authority.

Paige wanted to agree with him, but thought it best not to reveal her intrusion. Before Gabriel died, he’d been teaching her how to control her telepathic gifts. Sometimes she could shut it off, sometimes she couldn’t. As the familiar fragrances of the French Quarters excited her senses, Paige looked out the window to see Bourbon Street only one block away, dark and eerily quiet. The few people strolling down the sidewalks wore surgical masks and either didn’t know or didn’t care that they were violating curfew. The bar where Gabriel met his demise, the infamous Cottonmouth Club, lurked just around the corner on Bourbon and Royal, but they took a sharp left, avoiding the bad memory. In two short hours, she thought, these streets will be packed with people and I’ll be one of them. Her heart exploded with anxiety.

Chapter Twenty-two

Time tormented Paige. Seconds felt like minutes and minutes felt like hours as she sat in the backseat overcome with fear. Her father parked on the curb next to the yellow row house and pulled in behind the van. For a brief moment, she forgot herself and expected to see Gabriel step out onto the porch to greet them, his unkempt hair shielding his face as his long slender frame descended the stairs. She blinked away her grief and looked down at the watch to make sure it still existed, secure in her grasp. Her father killed the engine and opened the door but Paige lingered in the backseat and waited for the professor to step down from the van. Tears streamed down her cheeks as she ran into his arms and wrapped herself around his waist. She surrendered to the moment, overcome by a train-wreck of emotions as shock gave way to dread. The professor held her close and ran his fingers through her hair, assuring her that everything would be okay.

“I remember everything,” she whispered. “I’m so scared, Billy.”

“I know,” he replied, rubbing her back. “Come on, let’s see this thing through.”

The others piled out of the van and gathered on the wooden porch while Michael fished for the keys to unlock the door. Justin and Allison held hands as they stood before their oldest son and relayed the dismal news from the radio broadcast. The professor stroked his beard and quietly listened.

“You two ready for Montana?” he asked.

Justin rubbed the back of his neck and shook his head, “Son, you can’t hide from smallpox.”

“We’re not hiding,” the professor replied. “Dad, we’ve talked about this. We have a bulk supply of the medicine along with the recipe. You’re the only one who can make sense of it. Please, tell me you’re not backing out.”

Justin sighed and looked to his wife before answering, “I just don’t know.”

Professor Faraday threw up his hands and turned his back to them. Avoiding eye contact, Paige observed her father while his thoughts streamed through her mind.

I need more time…time to think, time to plan and prepare. I can’t decode that recipe, it’s beyond me! What’ll we do when the medicine runs out? …Breathe, Justin, keep your family safe, that’s the best you can do.

Placing his hand on his son’s shoulder, Justin finally said, “We have to go home and pick up Strutter, after that, we’ll meet you in Montana.”

Nodding, Professor Faraday patted his father on the arm and reassured his mother it was the right decision to make. A bright spotlight flooded the dark street and Paige shielded her eyes, blinded by the sudden invasion as the CMC’s barked orders through a loudspeaker. The fully armed tank rolled closer and squeezed through the narrow path while a robotic voice warned them to clear the sidewalk. Flushed with anger, Paige stepped out into the street. Her mother yelled for her to move, but she refused. She infiltrated the four men, planting her seeds and intent on a peaceful resolution, she stood her ground until the approaching tank stopped and reversed its course, backing up and pulling out of the narrow path. She scanned the area for more threats, and although a group of people in hazmat suits walked briskly across the street, they disappeared around the corner before she had to act. Her father smiled and winked. Her mother’s frown deepened.

“Bet you won’t miss those guys,” Professor Faraday remarked.

Paige grinned and shook her head. “Nope,” she replied.

“We’re crashing here tonight,” he said, turning to his father, “and tomorrow we’ll head for Montana. If we drive straight through, we can make it in two days, max.”     

“And what about Paige?” Justin asked. “What if the…well, the wormhole thing doesn’t pan out?”

“Then she’ll come with us,” the professor answered.

Allison cupped her hand to her forehead and then quickly yanked it away. “This is absurd!” she exclaimed. “Wormholes? Time travel? There’s got to be another explanation! I mean, how do we know they didn’t just mess with her mind and then keep her from us this whole time? We don’t! We don’t know the truth!”

“I do,” Paige said. “I know what happened. I know the truth.”

“You think you do,” her mother said, “but no one knows for sure.”

Paige shivered as the cold air blew through her damp clothes. She welcomed the professor’s warm embrace.

“If anyone knows what happened,” he said, “it’s Paige. I understand your reservations, Mom, but I don’t think anyone can stop her from going back to Shady Oak tonight.”

Allison’s eyes filled with tears, but when Justin attempted to comfort her, she pushed him away and stuck her finger in the professor’s face. “This is on you,” she said. “You helped her leave the first time, and now, you’re helping her again. If anything bad happens, it’s on you.”

Professor Faraday held his mother’s glare as she removed her finger from his chest and turned her back to him. Catching eyes with his father, he held up his free hand while keeping the other draped around Paige’s shoulders. Justin narrowed his eyes and looked away.

“You can follow us back to Shady Oak if you’d like,” he said to his parents, “if not, I’ll see you in Montana.”

Justin nodded, “Sounds good, son. You take care of your little brother now. He needs you.”

The professor groaned and told Paige to meet him inside. I’m done here, he said privately. Think you can handle them? Paige managed a grim smile before motioning for him to go on up. She understood how her mother felt, and she’d been right, the professor was the one who took her to see Gabriel the last and final time she ran away. They’d celebrated their eighteenth birthdays together, two weeks before his death and her disappearance.

“It’s not his fault, Mom,” she said. “I would have left anyway, without his help.”

Allison whipped around and grabbed Paige by the shoulders. Her newly restored youthful appearance did nothing to hide the years of grief that tarnished her spirit. The imprint of old age temporarily disappeared from her face, but Paige saw it emanating around her body, a dull luster painted dark blue.

“I haven’t seen you for thirty-three years,” her mother said. “I can’t stand by and watch this happen again. Please, honey, come home with us and we’ll sort it out there.”

Wrapping her arms around her mother, Paige kissed her cheek and then gently pulled away. “I have to go back and save him, Mom. Billy’s right, no one can stop me.”

Allison dabbed her eyes with a mascara-streaked tissue and straightened out her blood-soaked blouse. “I don’t believe in time travel,” she said, “but I can’t stop you from chasing ghosts.” Briefly looking away at the yellow shotgun house, she turned to her daughter and smiled, “I’ll see you in Montana in a couple of days.”

Paige shook her head, “No, you won’t. I’m not going to Montana.”

“We’ll see you in a couple of days, sweetie,” Justin said, cradling his wife. “Your mother and I, we’ll be counting the seconds.” He walked Allison to the car and opened the door as she collapsed into the passenger’s seat. Closing her in, he approached Paige, pulled her against his chest and kissed the top of her head. Paige struggled to breathe.

“You’re not going back to Shady Oak with me?” she asked.

“No sweetie.” Kissing her forehead, he rubbed her shoulders and released her from his grip. “After you save Gabriel,” he said, turning on the car with a click of his keychain, “promise you’ll come back to us?”

“I promise,” she said, wiping her face on her sleeve.

Justin smiled and nodded, his bloodshot eyes catching the moisture of his reluctant retreat. Paige watched the car’s taillights disappear around the corner and embraced herself while the empty street toyed with her emotions. She wanted them to stay, she wanted them to go. Looking out towards Bourbon Street, she smiled and turned around as music played from inside the yellow house. Recognizing the first track off Gabriel’s favorite classic rock album, she climbed the stairs and followed the sound of John Lennon’s voice.

The old record player sat against the wall next to a small lamp and a full pot of coffee. A solar generator quietly buzzed in the corner of the room. Michael and Ashley sat alone at the bar while Abbey and Regan crowded together on the couch with the professor, who sang along and tapped his foot to the music. Paige poured herself a cup of black coffee and pulled up a stool.

“No cream and sugar?” she asked.

“Nope,” Michael replied.

She grimaced after taking a sip and noticed Abbey’s familiar smirk as she set her cup down on the bar. It haunted her. He haunted her, as did the smell of sandalwood that lingered in the air. Thirty-three years later, Gabriel’s scent still permeated the walls. Through the pops and scratches of the vinyl record, ethereal harmony veiled the atmosphere with psychedelic wonderment. She took another sip and glanced down the hallway, tempted to visit the guest room she once called her own.

“Where’s Kendal?” she asked. “She okay?”

“Not really,” Michael answered. “She’s passed out in the back. I gave her some sleeping pills.” Glancing at the door, he asked, “Sonny and Cher leave?”

“Yeah, they did,” she answered, crossing her arms and legs. “Mom doesn’t believe that I time-traveled, so, I don’t know, they just left.”

Refilling his coffee, Professor Faraday commented, “No one did. We thought you were a clone.”

“Well I’m not.”

Setting his mug aside, the professor thumbed through a stack of records. Smiling, he tossed one of the albums into her lap. “I know,” he answered.

She looked down and gripped the prized item. Holding it closer, she ran her fingers across the rare Butcher Cover of The Beatle’s album Yesterday and Today presented to Gabriel on his eighteenth birthday. Her vision blurred as she pulled the record out of the sleeve and a hand-written card fell into her lap. She didn’t need to read it. She knew what it said:

To my sweet brother, I told you it was big. Don’t ask what I went through to get this. You’re worth it. Love Paige.

Wiping her eyes, she looked up at the professor, “You really shouldn’t be throwing this around,” she said.

Grinning, he replied, “The moment I saw you in class, I knew you weren’t a clone.”

Paige nodded and forced out a smile. The strong chicory coffee grew more appealing as she enjoyed another sip and glanced around the room. Every painting, trinket and decoration weighed on her heart. She wanted to relax and reminisce with the others, laugh and delight in their camaraderie, but her other half was still missing. Lost in the past and left behind as the world progressed into a new century, she too, was out of touch and out of time, but the hangman waited in the wings. Plotting destruction and taking cues from a time-tested playbook, the hangman moved between realms. The future could learn from the past, she thought, observing the gold pocket watch. Kendal would never fully recover from the death of her twin brother, but the sleeping pills temporarily curbed the pain. Paige had cradled her twin brother after he took his last breath and collapsed on the ground, but her sleeping pills finally wore off.    

“Why did they erase my memories?” she asked. “What was the point?”

“Buy themselves more time, I guess,” Michael shrugged. “You weren’t supposed to leave the library in the first place, but somebody complicated matters.”

Regan scoffed and rolled her eyes, “Hey, I thought I was doing right by Paige. Besides, Justin asked me to.”

Paige sighed and rubbed her forehead, “I’m sorry, I guess I’m still confused as to how all this played out.”

Picking out one of David Bowie’s earliest albums, Hunky Dory, Professor Faraday gently placed the needle on the record and pulled up a small wooden chair.

“Allow me to explain,” he said. “Regan actually did try to do the right thing.”

Michael made a snide comment under his breath while the professor recapped the events that lead to the night of Paige’s return. They’d been expecting her, thirty-three years to the day, Vincent held firm that on October 31, 2028, Paige would reappear. Her parents had serious doubts, as did everyone, but Justin retained a sliver of hope. He contacted his son a week before the due date and inquired about the possibility of her return.

“I told him Regan would be in the library on lookout that night,” the professor said, “and he begged me to do whatever I could to bring you to him if you did actually show up.”

Regan snickered, “Yeah, he also asked us to bring him some medicine.”

The professor frowned and then nodded, “yes, he did, but he kept it from mom. He knew she wouldn’t be too pleased about it.”

Certain that Paige wouldn’t show, Allison opted to stay at home, but on Halloween morning, Justin hopped in his car and made the five hour drive to New Orleans. Holed up in his hotel room, he was stunned when Regan called about a quarter-past midnight and informed him that she had the medicine, along with Paige.

“We were all stunned,” the professor said. “You slept a good twelve hours before coming to, and by that time, Vincent and Alain were on their way to Houston.”

Paige nodded, “Yeah, my parents told me about that. They said I remembered everything until Alain worked his magic.”

“I don’t think anyone knew how to handle the situation,” the professor replied, “but in the end, I think we were all in the wrong to some extent.”

Michael slammed his cup down. “Best speak for your own, William! Sittin’ dere with dat beard flappin’ in duh wind.” Ashley choked on his coffee and shook his head but Regan glared at her brother and scorned him for his lack of respect.

“Oh, come on,” Michael said, “just because he shot himself doesn’t mean I have to play nice. Ain’t dat right, William?”

The professor stared at Michael and then turned away before his thick beard revealed a hidden smile. “Anyway,” he said, looking at Paige, “I hope you’re not too mad at us. We never meant to put you in harm’s way, but as always, things got a little out of hand.”

“I’m not mad,” she said, “I’m just, in awe, I guess. For two months I didn’t leave the house, and when I did, well, here we are.”

“I know,” the professor said, “believe me, when I saw you in class, I silently panicked. I knew the plan but, well, nothing ever goes according to planned.”

“What was the plan anyway?” she asked.

Holding out his arms, Michael exclaimed, “Ta dah!”

The professor sipped his coffee before offering a brief explanation. “Everything was planned, Paige. Taking my course, Abbey giving you the backstage pass, you going to New Orleans, Vincent had it all planned out, and he was watching. From the moment you pulled out of the drive, you were being tracked. He wanted to make sure you remained in the dark about your unique situation until he saw you himself.”

“But why?” she asked. “Why not just tell me the truth?”

“Don’t know,” he answered. “He liked to control things. Everything had to be on his terms, and our hands were tied. We needed the medicine for loud mouth over here.”

Michael huffed and narrowed his eyes, “Watch yourself, William. Anyway, Paige, there’s no way you would have believed the truth. We had to wait for Alain’s magic to wear off. Oh, turn it up, I love this song.”

David Bowie’s, Andy Warhol, strummed away in the corner as Paige silently recounted her first day out of the house. After two months of isolation, two long months of watching television and passing the time alone in her room, her first day of college should have been a wake-up call, but her father had prepared her for the inevitable. He knew they couldn’t keep her locked up forever, and when the time finally came, she’d been told just enough about the state of the world to get her by without too much of a culture shock.

“So, this is the future,” she commented. “Funny, I thought we’d be a lot more advanced.”

“We are,” the professor said.

Paige nodded and sipped her coffee. She knew better than to make a comment like that. Her very existence proved that advancements in technology were kept well-hidden from the general public. While the rest of the world seemed to regress into poverty, broken politics and failed innovations, the privileged select enjoyed progress and enlightenment. She knew the drill, and in her own right, she was part of the privileged select, but she’d been destined to follow Gabriel’s route. He hated what he was and seldom used his gifts unless to defend himself against his own kind. Paige felt the same way, she didn’t want to be special; she wanted to evolve with the rest of humanity, not leave them behind.

“They don’t get to win,” she said. “Dr. Faraday and his council, the others, they don’t get to win.”

Professor Faraday adjusted positions in his chair and stroked the ends of his beard. Inhaling a deep breath as if to respond, he slowly exhaled and observed the walls instead. Michael slinked off the stool and crept down the hallway to check in on his sister while Ashley gazed into his coffee mug. Abbey and Regan kept silent on the couch.

“What?” Paige asked. “You think they’ve already won? You think there’s no hope?”

“There’s always hope,” the professor replied, “but we’re going into hiding tomorrow, if that tells you anything. Sometimes, it’s best to retreat.”

Paige stood to refill her coffee and turned her back to all of them. She despised the future. Mankind was supposed to be riding around in hover cars and living in above-ground cities with robots for maids. They were supposed to be saving the earth, colonizing other planets, solving world hunger and curing disease, but it was just the opposite. Nothing worked, resources ran dry and the earth struggled to breathe.

Turning around, she asked, “What was that red stuff being sprayed from the planes?”

“Manmade pollen,” the professor answered. “It’s used to pollinate our manmade crops. The bees won’t touch it. If they do, they tend to drop dead.”

“Why is it red?” she asked.

“I don’t know,” he answered. “Don’t think I want to know.”

Paige remembered what her father had told her the last time the Green Police paid them a visit. In late November, a couple of months after the hurricane, they’d shown up unannounced, decked out in kaki-pants and green collared shirts. Friendly and non-threatening, they recited a series of codes and federal mandates in a textbook fashion, writing out tickets for each one with satisfied smiles. After they left, her father tore up the slips of paper and threw them in the fireplace, which was, by no coincidence, a code violation. He went into a rampage complaining that the green movement was a joke and that real environmental issues, like manmade pollen and fake food, were touted as life-saving and earth-friendly remedies. They’re the ones destroying the planet, he’d complained, not us.

Paige walked across the room and examined a framed photograph hanging on the wall that Gabriel had taken in Galveston. A blue heron skimmed across the Gulf Coast waters as a setting sun colored the backdrop–he always loved the beach, she thought, I wonder what he’d think about the future. She figured she already knew the answer.

“The earth is dying,” she commented, turning away from the photograph, “and I think that’s what they want. I’d bet this gold pocket watch the red pollen they’re spraying is toxic to real plants and animals.”

“And I would absolutely agree,” the professor nodded. “They want to be the creators, the destroyers and the saviors.”

Slumping down on her stool, she replied, “I understand why Gabriel hated what he was, now more than ever, I get it. We’re just as fake and as toxic as that pollen.”

Ashley’s blue eyes bore into Paige and a faint smile animated his face, softening his calloused features before straightening out again. “You sound just like Gabe,” he said. “It’s a destructive way to think. I’ll tell you exactly what Michael told him, even though you and I don’t buy into religion, you’ll get the point. Angels can be as bad as Lucifer, or as good as, say, the arc angel Gabriel,” he smiled, “but they’re the same kind of entity.”

Paige smiled and glanced at the sculpture of the owl, big and unfaltering, his yellow eyes glared at the broken glass case. Alain presented it to Gabriel on his eighteenth birthday, and Paige had pleaded with him to get rid of it, reminded of Vincent and his love for the occult, she found the sculpture creepy and unsettling. Gabriel refused. Owls aren’t evil, he’d said, just because they’re worshipped by crazy occultists, doesn’t make them evil. It was during that same conversation that he told her about the others, Dr. Faraday’s race, and their philosophy. They worship spirits, he’d said, they practice really strange rituals, and have really weird sex orgies, and that’s just the beginning. Paige laughed when he told her, uncomfortable with the subject matter and suspicious of his sincerity, she’d suspected he’d stretched out the truth a bit. It took a detour into the future for her to believe otherwise.

“Maybe the devil does exist,” she said, picking a cigarette butt out of the ashtray and flicking it at the owl. “Gabriel sure thought so.”

“Oh, he’s real,” Regan said. “Daddy said he met him once, said he was the most beautiful creature he’d ever seen.”

Ashley snickered and flicked his own cigarette butt at the owl, “Yeah, and I’ve got a date with the tooth fairy this weekend.”

Paige embraced the familiar laughter as she looked around the room and recalled her relationship with each of them. The professor had been like a second father, critical of her when she stepped out of line but always loving and kind. Michael and Ashley had played the role of older brothers, protective antagonists who always made her laugh and shielded her from the darker aspects of their world. As for Regan, Paige had been at odds with her because of Gabriel, who was often found at her house high on heroin. Back in those days, Regan had also been an addict, but Paige suspected that in the future, she’d traded the needle for the bottle. Kendal seemed to have changed the most. A grunged-out hippie girl in the nineties, Kendal had been like an older sister to Paige, taking her to rock concerts and sneaking her into the hippest clubs, she adored wasting the day away with Kendal. I wonder what happened, she thought.

“How’s she doing?” Paige asked. “How’s Kendal holding up?”

“Too soon to tell,” Michael replied. “She knows Alain deserved his fate, doesn’t make it easier.”

“It should,” Ashley scoffed.

“I know,” Michael said, “he had it coming.” Stretching out his arms, he yawned and glanced around the room, “We should get going soon. It’s about time for Gabriel to come home.”

Ashley twitched his mouth and reached for his cigarettes. Sliding off the stool, he glanced around the room and inhaled the fragrant air before stepping outside. Michael smiled at Paige and then looked at the professor who stared at the floor gnawing on his fingernail. Abbey leaned forward on the couch and straightened his posture.

“He’s not coming back,” he said. “Even if Paige saves him, it’s not like he’ll just appear out of thin air. Gabriel’s dead, game over.”

Michael glared at Abbey, “You don’t know what’s going to happen. No one does.”

“Oh yeah?” Abbey asked. “Well, Dad certainly doesn’t think it’ll change anything. He told me so.”

Slamming his hands on the bar, Michael exclaimed, “I know how Ashley feels! He’s never had much faith in anything, that’s always been my job.”

Abbey rolled his eyes and relaxed back into the couch, crossing his arms and mumbling under his breath, “Faith is just disappointment in hiding.”

Michael pushed himself off the bar and turned on his heels. Towering over the couch, he peered down at Abbey and asked, “Been reading fortune cookies again?”

Regan grunted and laughed, but Abbey glared at Michael and opened his mouth to speak before deciding against it. Michael bent down nose to nose with him and quietly said, “Faith is all we have, so you’ll bite your tongue. You’ve never known grief.” He approached Paige and gestured for her to hand him the pocket watch. Looking it over, he held it up to his face and clicked it open. Paige gasped and followed him to the lamp.

“Hieroglyphs,” he said, “don’t ask me what they mean.”

“What do they mean?” she asked.

“Rebirth,” he answered, handing it back to her. “Do you have a plan of action when you get back?”

“Save Gabriel,” she replied, “that’s it.” Paige thought for a moment and then asked, “What happens if things go wrong and I get sent to back to the wrong time?”

“Cold feet?” Michael asked.

“Do any of you know how this thing actually works?” she asked, ignoring Michael.

Silence.

“So I’m the guinea pig, wonderful.” Paige examined the watch again, clicking it open and running her fingers across the engraved symbols as shivers crawled down her spine. She recalled its supposed origin. Moloch, she thought, the god of sacrifice, sometimes symbolized as an owl. Holding the watch closer, she saw the unmistakable owl-like figure surrounded by an eye, a pyramid, a beetle, a snake and a few other squiggly lines and shapes that she couldn’t make out. Her hands shook as she snapped it closed. The professor clicked off the record player and filled his mug with the last of the coffee while Michael stepped outside to check on Ashley. Paige turned and stared at the wooden cross on the wall, still hung upside down from Kendal’s short-lived uprising. She walked over and flipped it around. Gabriel’s breathless voice played through her head as she turned and glared at the owl, they practice really strange rituals. Alarmed by her trancelike stare, Abbey and Regan abandoned the couch and joined the professor at the bar. Paige narrowed her focus, tunnel-vision, until tiny fragments of limestone slowly broke away from the sculpture: first the pointy ears, then the orange beak, then large chunks of the wings until the owl crumbled into a pile of dust. Two yellow marbles fell off the table and rolled across the hardwood floor. Grinning, Paige inhaled a deep breath and blew the dust off the table, polluting the air with a thick cloud of limestone.

“After I return,” she said, holding up the watch, “I’m getting rid of this.”

Clutching his green coffee mug, the professor coughed and replied, “Good idea.”

“They don’t get to win,” she said, “but if Vincent was telling the truth about the others, that they move between realms, then I guess they have the upper-hand because if this thing came from Moloch, I don’t want it.”

“He was telling the truth,” Regan said, “and the others are far more advanced than us. Unfortunately, Princess, they do get to win.”

Abbey scoffed and shook his head. A well-polished version of her beloved twin brother, without the long tangled hair, dirty fingernails and blemished face, he stood with crossed arms and stared at Paige with his mood-ring eyes, appearing more blue than green. She held his gaze, amazed that he looked almost identical to Gabriel, yet somehow, resembled a stranger.

You’re just like everyone else now,” he said privately. “You cringe when you look at me. I don’t know true grief, but I inspire it.”

“I didn’t cringe,” she said aloud.

Abbey clinched his jaw, “Gabriel’s not coming back,” he said, “and Moloch was a figment of Vincent’s psychotic imagination.”

Stepping closer, Paige replied, “Gabriel’s not going to die, and I don’t know if Moloch is real or not. Doesn’t matter what we believe.”

Abbey sighed and dropped his arms, “He’s already dead, Paige, and what we believe is all that matters. Just stay here with us and leave the past alone,” he said. “If Gabriel returns, I can’t compete with the real thing.”

The professor gently squeezed his shoulder, “you’re two different people, Abbey, you know that, there’s room for both of you. Gabriel went through a lot of trouble to give you a good home with Matthew and Robin. I’m sure he’d love to meet you.”

Abbey scoffed and pulled away.

Paige had known Matthew and Robin, not extremely well, but enough to know that they were good people. Matthew had been one of Gabriel’s closest confidants, and when he was at his worst, strung out, paranoid and severely depressed, Matthew’s door was always open. Paige remembered many nights spent at Matthew and Robin’s place taking turns as they watched over Gabriel to make sure he didn’t overdose or do something stupid. No wonder Robin seemed so nervous around me, she thought, she didn’t know how to act.  Paige wondered if they also took the injections, but she already knew the answer. Of course they do, she thought, they’re both in their seventies now.

“Matthew and Robin raised you?” she asked.

Abbey nodded, “Matthew’s more like a father to me than Ashley. I mean, Ashley’s not really my dad, Paige.”

“So everyone was just putting on a show for my benefit?” she asked.

Regan held up her hand and leaned across the bar. “That was my doing,” she said. “I thought it’d be easier if we played the role of mommy and daddy. Cause, you know, it’s easier to hide the truth when you’re lying.”

Abbey and Paige locked eyes while the professor stroked his beard and nodded in agreement. “She’s right, Paige, besides, you and Abbey were both spawned from one of her eggs.”

Paige frowned. Abbey crinkled his face and crossed his eyes. Regan laughed and sauntered back over to the couch. “I’m everyone’s mother,” she proclaimed.

“Nice job blowing up the cottage,” Paige said. “Operation: Destroy Regan’s eggs.”

Smiling, the professor replied, “That was Michael’s idea. He said he wanted to free the spirits. I don’t know, you’d have to ask him about that.”

“I think I understand,” she said.

The sound of the crying infant stopped after the cottage burst into flames, and Vincent fell to his knees and pleaded with the open air, terrified it had seemed, of a restless past that only he could see. Paige understood, and although her own ghostly encounter pleaded his case for freedom and eternal rest, she refused to listen. The necklace wasn’t a talisman at all, it was a gateway to the spirits. Michael has some explaining to do, she thought. Speak of the devil

“Hey guys, it’s time,” he said, popping his head through the door. Paige grew weak at the knees and her heart pounded against her chest. She forced herself to move towards the exit.

“I’m staying here,” Regan said. “Kendal needs me.”

Michael eyed his sister. “Right,” he said.

Pushing herself off the couch, weary-eyed and sluggish, she approached Paige with extended arms and gave her a forced hug. “When you get back,” she said, “go to that upstairs room with the piano, I’ll be in there watching Back to the Future.”

Michael laughed and shook his head, “Regan, that’s not what you were watching.”

“Yeah it was,” she shot back. “It was the only thing on besides Halloween. Anyway, come get me and I’ll give you a ride to the Quarters. You might have to get nasty, but I’ll deal with it.”

Paige nodded, “Will do.”

They piled into the van with the professor behind the wheel and Paige riding shotgun. The professor reached over and clicked on the radio as REM’s, Automatic for the People, played at a low level. The album came out in the early nineties when grunge music was king, flannels were fashionable and compact discs were all the rage. She would move mountains to return. Gabriel’s crusade to take down Vincent and the others proved to be a death sentence, but as Paige contemplated the demise of millions of people, ninety percent of the population wiped out from a premeditated smallpox outbreak, she knew they still had to try. He warned people through his documentary, and no one believed it, she thought, but Paige understood denial. Waking up to an unpleasant reality is easy to put off, especially when it broke all the rules of understanding and challenged the status quo. Professor Faraday yelled for someone to fetch him a bottle of water from the cooler; Michael’s reply broke the sound barrier.

“Here we go!” he shouted. “Time for the bellowing bearded boy-scout!”

Flinching, the professor yelled, “Lay off the beard!”

Propping up her feet on the dashboard, Paige took a swallow from the professor’s water before quietly asking, “When I get back, do you really think it’ll alter the course of things? You think Gabriel will just appear, show up like he never left?”

“I don’t know,” the professor replied. “I hope so.”

“Me too,” she said. “Honestly, I wish I could just go home, crawl under my bed and wait for things to somehow work themselves out.”

Smiling, the professor replied, “I have the same urge from time to time.”

Paige couldn’t see the forest for the trees, but the future would soon become a memory, and the past would become present—pliable and hers to manipulate.

Chapter Twenty-three

The old white van traveled alone on the dark highway until red and blue lights appeared from behind, blinding Paige as they zoomed past in a bright colorful blur. Astounded by the number of stars shining overhead, she craned her neck out the window. The Milky Way covered the sky in a cloudy smear of speckled light, stalking them as they hugged the curves of the familiar road. This must be how the world looked before electricity stole the show, she thought. Before birds and bees fell from the sky and red dust pollinated synthetic crops, she wondered how ancient civilizations would react if shown a glimpse into the future. Not well, she figured.

Paige rejected her glimpse. Forced to step through a hidden door, she fell into a hole and woke up on the other side to a dying world, and although her distant past spanned less than fifty years, she struggled to grasp the future. Defeated by the cold wind, she bid farewell to the stars and rolled up the window. Leaning back, she closed her eyes and let reality slip away, pretending she was home, beach-bound on a simple road trip and bonded with her closest friends. Gabriel lay asleep in the back, America stood for freedom and liberty, and the natural earth bathed in the miracle of the bees. She imagined herself in the only world she knew where body, mind and soul remained intact at home with the heart.

The gravel road brought her back. Opening her eyes, she sat up in the seat and peered through the window, instantly guarded and on the lookout for wayward clones. Storm clouds plagued the Shady Oak Plantation as a loud clap of thunder shook the van, stirring the backseat riders. Lightning streaked across the sky and the tall stalks of sugarcane whistled in the wind as a white rooftop appeared around the bend, vacant and exposed. The black storm shutters rattled and banged against the side of the house, thrown open as if to welcome the bad weather with bold vulnerability. Paige admired the old house, made more appealing in its state of exposure, abandoned by its master and set free by the spirits; the long pillared porch yearned for bare feet, sleeping hounds and rocking chair elders with long stories to tell. Raindrops cleansed the blood-stained ground and the charred remains of the cottage sat in darkness, barely visible save for a faint reflection of metallic debris buried under the rumble.

Paige slid down from the van as the professor, Michael, Ashley and Abbey followed behind. They walked across the graveled courtyard where the pock-marked statue guarded the mossy fountain, tainted with the robotic remnants of a meddlesome owl. Michael took the lead as they approached the front porch. Climbing halfway up the stairs, he held out his hand and gestured for them to stop. A dull thud sounded from the far end of the porch and grew louder as the slow, repetitive knock drew closer, hitting the wood in a familiar offbeat rhythm. Thump after thump, footsteps followed behind a gold-handled walking cane. Paige gasped and stumbled back into the professor as a tall dark figure appeared on the stairs with glowing green eyes and a yellow fedora hat. His cheeks smeared with blood and dirt, the tall figure gestured for them to come on up.

“Been waitin’ for yuh,” he said, stepping back to let them pass.

Michael crept up the stairs with Ashley by his side, while Paige and the professor followed close behind. Abbey remained on the middle step.

“Seems I’m duh last one standin,” the tall figure said.  “My brothers an sisters all dead, murdered yuh might say, course, your kind don’t see it dat way.”

Standing at the same height with the clone, Michael leaned in closer and scrutinized his face, his eyes, his lips, his bone structure, the arch of his eyebrows–he ran his finger down the outline of his cheek. The clone stood proud, unaffected as Michael reached up, yanked the hat off his head and threw it onto the porch.

“You’re not Vincent’s clone,” he said, “you’re mine. Act like it.”

The clone tossed the walking cane next to the hat, reached up and ran his finger down Michael’s cheek. “And how shall I act?” he asked. Holding his arms out straight, he jumped backwards onto the porch railing and landed flatfooted with only a hint of a wobble. Taking a bow, he stood erect and peered down at them with his glowing green eyes. Michael and Ashley glanced at each other and stepped back.

“Shall I flaunt my beauty on stage? Dread my hair? Shoot some heroin?” Pivoting on his heels, the clone laughed and exclaimed, “I know about you!” Walking backwards, he continued, “Shall I fake my way through college? Earn a degree? Grow a beard? Become a certified burnout? I know about you, too!” Placing one foot behind the other, he continued walking backwards, hopping and kicking his feet like a jester at a queen’s ball dancing for his life. “Shall I decry my maker?” he asked. “Bleach my hair? Chase ghosts from a pointless past? I know all about you, girl!” Placing his hands on the wooden railing, he kicked his feet up into the air and mastered a roundabout, landing flatfooted with his arms extended–he took another bow.

Michael smiled and clapped his hands, “Bravo, Me #2! Where’d you get the medicine?”

The clone grinned and loudly clapped his hands, “Shall I continue?” he asked.

“No, you shan’t,” Ashley answered. “Unless you’d like to join your brothers and sisters.”

Pointing his finger, the clone squatted down and replied, “I know about you too, Ashley. Your dead son would hate what you’ve become. He tried to save my kind, like that one over there.”

Abbey climbed the rest of the stairs and joined them on the porch, pale and glossy-eyed, he wrapped his arms around himself and stood against the wall. The clone cornered him with his glowing green eyes.

“That one over there, he’s just like me.”

Ashley took him down. Before the clone could rest his case or hop to safety with drug-induced acrobatics, Ashley yanked him from the railing and held him down with a crushing chokehold. He meant to kill him. The last of Vincent’s creations, the supposed soulless ones who lacked free-will, he meant to flex his arm and put an end to Frankenstein’s orphaned monster. Paige saw it pour from his eyes and flow through the fat vein that throbbed down his forehead, but while the others stood idly by waiting for the inevitable, she refused.

“Ashley, please!” she yelled. “No more death!”

He glared at her, his cheeks streaked with tears and his small pupils swallowed by infinite sorrow, Ashley finally blinked and released the clone from his grip. Scurrying across the porch, the clone dove for the yellow hat and cane. He jumped at a loud clap of thunder and cowered against the wall with the hat lowered over his face, the cane serving as a long skinny shield. Ashley stepped over him and threw open the front door; the others followed behind. Curled up with his face buried in his arms, the clone lifted his head to see Abbey standing before him. Reaching out his hand, Abbey pulled him to his feet and motioned for him to join them. Slinking behind like a feral cat, the clone crept inside and darted up the curved stairwell disappearing from sight.

The black and white checkered floor spread out before them as they entered the grand library. Paige walked ahead of the others and stood beside the cherry oak desk where Vincent’s box of cigars sat empty. Broken glass and spilled wax covered the floor where the altar candles melted away into colorful swirls of hardened wax. The big white square lay at her feet and she trembled as the others gathered around her.

“Ready, Dorothy?” Michael asked.

She nodded.

“Let’s not waste time on long goodbyes,” he said, “we’ll see each other soon enough.”

Holding up the gold pocket watch, Paige struggled to steady her hands and fumbled with the watch, letting it slip from her fingers and fall to the floor. She cursed herself while Michael bent down to retrieve it. Tapping on the glass face, he held it out for her to take and then yanked his hand away.

“I’m not sure I trust you with it,” he said.

Paige grabbed the watch from his grip and looked it over for herself, tapping the glass, she sighed a breath of relief when the second hand moved down another notch. The preset date at the bottom left corner read October 31, 1995. Her stomach convulsed and digested fear with nauseating efficiency, churning and breaking it down until the potent fluids entered her bloodstream. The dizziness returned. She fought to keep her balance. Michael reached out and pulled her close, wrapping his arms tightly around her frame, he rubbed the middle of her back while she rested her head on his shoulder, shrouded by his long dreadlocks. It’s okay to back out, he said privately, but Paige gently pulled away and shook her head. Smiling, Michael cupped her face and kissed her on the cheek.

“Okay,” he said, “let’s do this thing. The Ghost of Halloween Past is armed and ready to go.”

Paige looked at Ashley and hesitated before hugging him. He appeared defeated, beaten down in his tattered and blood-stained clothing, but she saw the faint glimmer of hope peek through his tired eyes. Tightening her embrace, she privately said, I won’t leave him behind. Ashley squeezed her shoulder and stepped away. Bowing his head, he took his place next to Michael. Abbey stood with his hands stuffed into his pockets, somber and reluctant to speak, he glanced around the room and shifted his weight when Paige demanded his attention.

“Aren’t you going to tell me goodbye?” she asked.

“Why should I?” he shrugged.

She grabbed his shirttail and pulled him into her arms, bothered by the familiar embrace but determined to mask her discomfort. His tall slender frame enveloped her as she closed her eyes and longed for the ocean where sandalwood christened the air. Holding back her tears, she privately said, you don’t inspire grief. Abbey kissed the top of her head and pulled away. His mood ring eyes faded into a soft gray as he held her gaze. Liar, he replied. Paige curbed her stare and looked down, troubled by his unfair disposition. No matter how different his personality or how dissimilar his character, Abbey would never truly be his own person. His curse was his very creation. She struggled to find the right words but there weren’t any, and Abbey knew it; she offered one last attempt, If Gabriel comes back, she thought, there won’t be a need for grief. A green tint darkened his watery eyes and his dull, sulfuric aura mingled with shades of pink. “Only time will tell,” he whispered.

Professor Faraday patted Abbey on the back and sighed, “I’m sure going to miss you, Miss Holland. Who knows, maybe it’ll be like you never left.”

Paige wrapped herself around his waist and cried into his chest. She wanted to take him with her. She wanted him to hold her hand, protect and guide her across the threshold of time. She wanted the deed to be done. The professor cradled her and softly reassured her that everything would be okay, a statement without merit but comforting to hear. Drying her eyes, she looked up and yanked his beard before standing on tiptoe to kiss his exposed cheek.

“I’ll see you in a better time,” she said.

Flitting his eyes, the professor replied, “I’m counting on it.”

Lightning tapped the small circular window positioned high on the far right wall. Silence blinded the room with a freeze-frame of electricity until a crash of thunder shook the building free. Paige jumped and looked at the watch. Preset for eleven o’clock, Halloween night, she wound back the arms and watched the second hand resume its journey. Rubbing her palms on her jeans, she looked down at the large white square and felt her heart merge with her troubled stomach. Lightning crashed through the window. The ground trembled. Michael’s voice replayed through her head, it’s okay to back out.  Positioning her finger on the small round button, Paige closed her eyes and stepped forward.

White noise flooded the room as the library walls crumbled to the floor revealing patches of empty space. Chunk after chunk, another brick fell to the ground and disappeared through the black and white squares. Paige held Michael in her sight, his distorted form illuminated by a brilliant yellow glow that outlined his frame all the way down to his green army boots. A blinding flash erased her vision as a high-pitched ring split the vanishing library. The ground grew soft beneath her feet. She uncovered her eyes to see streaks of bright colors beam through the white light, overlapping and melding into one like an abstract rainbow. She reached out in a knee-jerk reaction but the ground swallowed her whole.

Paige spiraled through the great void and raced through whitewashed space, weightless and disoriented. Moving faster and faster, the rate of her speed threatened to rip her in half as she continued her freefall, struggling to remain intact. A tunnel of stars surrounded her and cuckoo-coo clocks chimed out of tune from every known direction as north became south and east became west, she plunged deeper into oblivion. Consciousness dimmed with the stars. Distorted shapes and muted colors came into view and she clung to the pocket watch with a white-knuckled grip, but the dizziness consumed her. Like the opening of a parachute, her body slowed its pace as a chessboard unfolded and stretched out beneath her feet waiting to catch her fall. The twentieth century welcomed her home, but sleep robbed her of the moment as the gold pocket watch slipped through her fingertips and fell to the floor.

Chapter Twenty-four

He told himself he’d only have one drink. A light drizzle coated the sidewalks where cigarette butts soaked up a new batch of vomit. Twenty-something’s sat huddled together in dirty corners, some sad and dejected and others too high to care about their homeless dispositions. He could be one of them if it wasn’t for his high-profile face and bloated bank account. They didn’t seem to recognize him as he stopped to pet their dog and slipped them a fifty. He wanted to be nameless; he wanted people to pass him by without noticing, without chasing him down and making him a spectacle. He wanted anonymity. So far so good, but on a night like this the entire city became a spectacle. Stopping to light a cigarette, he stood against the wall and admired the masses of people laughing, drinking and stumbling across the street oblivious to honking traffic. He loved this city, the art, the music, the vibe—he got lost in it. He stood against the stone wall and marveled at the assortment of creative costumes, some identifiable, some completely original. Celebrity look-alikes, movie characters, fantasy creatures—some inspired fear and others made a statement, but everyone’s effort was appreciated. He smiled, bummed a cigarette to a bearded man in a pink tutu and kept walking.

His father hated New Orleans, but his father was in New York attending a grand opening for some new art gallery. He envisioned his dad surrounded by eccentric hoity-toity aristocrats sipping champagne and spouting off nonsense about the significance of black paint splashed onto a white canvas. He grinned and made a mental note to call him later. His father’s hate for New Orleans centered more on a family who lived there than the city itself. He’d just visited that despised family, even had a drink with the well-dressed beast. Vincent, the great deceiver, and one of the biggest drunks he’d ever known. By the end of his visit, the soused beast spoke gibberish, rattling out incoherent words in a foreign tongue, guess it could have been French, he shrugged. He stopped walking and observed a mermaid seated in the middle of the street, statuesque and beautiful, he slipped a fifty into her tip basket; she broke character and stuffed it into her clams. His father was in New York playing the game, blending as best he could into a society he secretly loathed. Like father like son, he played the same game in Hollywood, but down south in New Orleans, he played a different game—he played the game of survival.

The baby he stole from Vincent’s house was safely on its way to Houston where his good friends, Matthew and Robin, would take care of it. Him, he thought, it’s a him, it’s me, it’s not me. Whatever it was, he saved it from being a tortured soul. He wouldn’t let it become a tool, or some useful idiot who bends to the powers that be, especially if it looked like him. He wouldn’t let Vincent have his robotic army of human clones. When he wasn’t playing the celebrity, his goal remained clear—de-thrown the all-seeing-eye. Hate that stupid eye, he thought, kicking trash off the sidewalk, and who cares about ancient Egypt anyway? They hoarded gold and married their sisters, speaking of sister… He picked up the pace and turned the corner onto Bourbon Street.

A large group of people gathered outside The Cottonmouth as he pushed through the crowd with his head down. Smoke fogged the air and a screeching saxophone compromised speech as he entered the dark club and found a spot at the bar, ignoring the heads that began turning his way. The bartender brought him a drink despite his underage status, but the employees knew the drill, serve him up, no questions asked and big tips were on the way. The crowd roared as the band ended their first set and he knew he’d been spotted by the last person he wanted to see, make that second to last, Vincent always took first place. He slurped down his pink hurricane and prepared for a barrage of deceitful niceties. It began with a slap on the back.

“Gabriel! Didn’t expect to see you here tonight, being that it’s Devil’s Night and all. Shouldn’t you be at home praying the evil away?”

“Already did,” he answered, “guess I need to pray a little harder. How’ve you been, Alain?”

“Can’t complain. What brings you here tonight? I didn’t know you were in town.”

“Why would you?” Gabriel asked. “I’m waiting for someone.” Don’t let him in, he thought.

Alain smiled and rubbed Gabriel’s shoulders as he leaned in and whispered in his ear, “I’m already in.” Gabriel winced and jerked his shoulder away. Alain pulled up a seat.

“Next round’s on me,” he said, slipping the bartender a one hundred dollar bill. The bartender turned pale as he scanned the club and stuffed the money into his pocket. Gabriel sipped his drink.

“We need to talk,” Alain said, lighting a cigarette.

A large crowd of people entered the bar, and Gabriel, craning his neck, jumped up from his stool and yelled, “Hey look, it’s John Lennon! John, over here!” Dressed in a white suit, a man with long brown hair and granny glasses smiled and shot him the peace sign. Gabriel laughed and returned the gesture before sitting back down. Stirring his half empty drink, he used the long black straw to fish out a submerged cherry. Alain shook his head and tapped him on the shoulder.

“Gabriel, we need to talk.”

“About?”

“Your loyalty.”

Gabriel scoffed and slurped his drink. “My loyalty is none of your concern.”

“That documentary you plan on releasing is everyone’s concern,” Alain said. “You can’t save the world, Gabe. You can warn people till you’re blue in the face, but they’ll just laugh and call you a freak, another Hollywood idol gone off the deep end.”

“And they’d be right,” Gabriel answered. “You sounded horrible up there, by the way, like your sax was giving birth to a donkey or something.”

Alain smiled and reached over to brush Gabriel’s long dark hair out of his eyes, but the teen dream flinched back and almost fell off his stool. Grabbing his arm, Alain pulled him back up.

“You’re drawing attention to yourself,” he said. “People are starting to realize who you are. I’m surprised you didn’t wear a costume.”

Gabriel sucked down the rest of his drink and let his hair shield him from the crowds of outsiders. Clueless and blissfully ignorant, the other half trusted that life was exactly how they saw it, that space aliens and Bigfoot were the only real conspiracies, but he knew otherwise. He was the conspiracy. He and Paige and the rest of his family, they were the mythical creatures hiding in plain view. Alain was right, he should have worn a costume, a green rubber mask with big black eyes and tiny nostrils would have been fitting. Gabriel pushed his empty glass aside and studied the John Lennon impersonator as he joked with his friends, throwing his head back and laughing freely, his granny glasses crooked on his red stubby nose. He’s the lucky one, Gabriel thought, he’s the celebrity.

“Hey, do you think John would mind if I asked for an autograph?”

Alain gently rested his hand on his shoulder and gestured for the bartender to bring them another round. “We’re not alone, Gabe. I need you to be serious for a moment. The others are watching us.”

Gabriel turned his head and pulled the hair away from his face. He looked around the bar in a vain attempt to pick them out of the crowd, but they could be anyone, they could be the bartender, they could be John Lennon, they could be Alain, they could be Paige, where is she anyway, he thought. A hand reached out and grabbed the bottom of his chin.

“Gabriel, look at me, they insist you not release that film. Understand?”

He nodded.

Alain grabbed him by the shoulders and pulled him close, “You need to sober up real fast and pay attention to your surroundings. Time is running out.”

Gabriel rolled his eyes and answered, “I am sober. I’ve only had one drink.”

“You’re lying,” Alain said, holding him steady on the stool, “you scored some heroin from Regan. I just saw her, her eyes looked as red and glassy as yours. Bad night to relapse, kid.”

“I’ve only had one drink.”

Hunched over and burning from the inside out, Gabriel placed his elbows on the bar. He felt the sickness build in his stomach and remembered why he quit drinking. Alcohol had never been kind to him. While his sobriety was an accordion of sorts with the good, the bad and the ugly extending, blending and folding into one, heroin was the show stopper. Relapse was a dirty word, and although alcohol qualified as a drug, Gabriel had yet to fall completely off the wagon. He’d resisted Regan’s offer earlier that night despite Alain’s accusations, but the hurricane went straight to his head. Gabriel pushed the freshly-made pink hurricane to the side and asked for a glass of water. The bartender gladly dumped the drink down the drain and jammed the one hundred dollar bill into Alain’s coat pocket.

“Water’s on the house,” he said, nodding at Gabriel before abandoning his post and disappearing into a room behind the bar. Securing the money in his pocket, Alain watched him leave and then waved to one of his bandmates across the room.

“I’m back on in five,” he said. “I was told you’d have two drinks, looks like things have already changed. Who knows what to believe these days, am I right?”

“The hell are you talking about?” Gabriel asked. “Who told you I’d have two drinks?”

Flagging down another bartender, Alain ordered a shot of absinthe and one glass of water. A slender young woman with long blonde hair returned with the order and grinned as she set the drinks down–a small plastic cup and a glass of water bearing a submerged cherry. Winking at Gabriel, she slid him the glass and commented before turning to leave, “I know how much you like cherries.” Alain laughed and slammed his shot; Gabriel eyed the waitress. He recognized her, a seemingly generic blonde bombshell but somehow different than the rest. Her hypnotic blue eyes, high cheekbones, radiant skin, the way she moved her mouth, the confidence in her posture, the curve of her back, the glide in her step–everything lined up as perfectly as her teeth, everything about her suggested that she was one of them. He jumped when Alain slapped him on the back, breaking his trance.

“Looks like you’ve been given a reprieve, but I did my part,” he shrugged. “I did what was asked. The spirits control the past and the future, Gabe. You’re praying to the wrong god.” Alain tossed the small plastic cup into the trash, rubbed his shoulders and whispered into his ear, “Go home.”

Gabriel scowled and flinched his shoulder away. He watched Alain return to the stage and then looked across the bar for the blonde-haired waitress, but saw instead the first male bartender. He stirred his water and picked at the cherry with his straw. He wanted to call his dad, he needed to talk to Paige, but Gabriel held his position and waited for discernment to filter through the fog of alcohol. He prayed for discernment to save him.

If Alain accused him of praying to the wrong god, then Gabriel knew he was on the right path. Alain and Vincent worshipped spirits. They were their own gods, but Gabriel received endless ridicule for his religious beliefs, something that never bothered him too much. If anything, the constant mockery only strengthened his faith, for if Vincent and Alain snubbed their noses at something, he knew to embrace it, but his spirituality sparked unexpected grief. He worried that God didn’t want him; he feared he was a lost soul.

The crowd cheered as Alain’s new band plunged into their second set. Gabriel rubbed his eyes and turned away from the stage. He knew the others were after him, and his paranoia was well founded, but he feared less for himself and more for his loved ones. Evil invoked misery, and what better way to force someone’s hand than to threaten their family. He feared for Paige’s life more than his own and searched the bar again, becoming increasingly worried by her tardiness, then again, she’s always late.

The others watched him from dark corners. They pretended to be his dad, or Michael, or Billy, or Paige; they could shape-shift, induce heart-attacks or summon disease and illness. The others were far more advanced than Vincent’s camp, but seemingly void of compassion, humility and empathy. They were Dr. Faraday’s superior race, and they despised competition. Gabriel knew they wanted him. To become like them, to learn from them and evolve, to switch sides and turn his back on his family, crude prototypes, they had called Vincent and Justin’s lineage, but he refused. The others dominated Hollywood circles, manipulated Wall Street and blackmailed politicians, but Gabriel wouldn’t let them steal his soul.

John Lennon left the building but the grim reaper, joined by a demented clown, now stood in his place. Gabriel pulled his glass of water closer and punctured the cherry with his straw, squishing and mashing it up into a shriveled red clump. When he left Vincent’s house a few short hours ago, where sugarcane perfumed the air and owls conversed from treetops, he knew something big was about to go down. Vincent, inebriated and crazed, had ranted about time travel and second chances, menacing spirits and redemption, but Gabriel shrugged off his wild tirade. He knew the endgame. He knew what the future held. Vincent’s army, Dr. Faraday’s army, the green agenda, population reduction, spiritual warfare, the battle between good and evil–he knew which side to serve, but discernment, for the crucial moment at hand, escaped him.

Gabriel turned away from the stage and swallowed his first drink of water, gulping it down until the mangled cherry rested on top of the ice. The effects were immediate. His vision dimmed and he pushed the empty glass aside, recognizing the familiar sickness as his stomach burned from the inside out. His clammy hands gripped the bar and his body trembled as he rubbed his forehead and attempted to stand before falling to his knees on the floor. Blurred faces pointed and laughed, their voices distant and muffled as he sank to the ground and leaned against the bar murmuring incoherently. He felt himself drowning in a salty sea, swallowed by the frothy fog and overcome by sickness as brown vile spilled out onto his clothes. Wiping his mouth, he slowly pulled himself off the floor burdened again by the sensation of rapid dehydration. As if being drained of all fluids and left with only salt, Gabriel struggled to stand as his body burned from head to toe. Smoking a cigarette behind the bar, the blonde-haired waitress smiled as her hypnotic blues eyes followed him into the bathroom.

The door slammed shut as Gabriel pushed past the grim reaper and stumbled into the last stall. Greeted by the smell of sewage, he fell to his knees and gripped the warm rim of the toilet seat. Frightened and confused, he jerked and twitched on the bathroom floor as a saxophone screeched out of tune and masked the sound of his sickness. His body constricted; he choked to catch his breath. The band played on with Alain clamoring into his mid-song solo while the crowd roared with uninhibited pleasure. Gabriel released his grip, closed his eyes and collapsed against the wall. He tried to contact his dad, or Michael or anyone who could hear his SOS, but his diluted mind failed to transmit the message. He wrestled against darkness. His damp hair veiled his face as he slumped to the side and rested his head on the toilet. He was losing the fight but postponed the last breath—he refused the last breath. Enormous red shoes poked through the gap underneath the door. A knock vibrated the stall. His eyes jolted open.

“You okay?”

Trembling and soaked in sweat, Gabriel flushed the toilet and emerged from the stall to find the grim reaper and his sidekick clown snorting a line of white powder. He stumbled to the sink and splashed water onto his face. Cold yet hot, tormented yet numb, his pale hands shielded his fading reflection but the overdone clown managed to state the obvious.

“Dude, you look like death. You want some of this, bro?”

Gabriel staggered out of the bathroom and rejoined the patrons of the dark club. He stood to the side of the stage and leaned against the wall, desperate to catch his breath as violent chills defeated his body. Stuffing his hands into the pockets of his green army coat, he slid across the wall. He needed out, he needed fresh air, he needed to breathe. Alain’s saxophone squawked and fell out of rhythm as Gabriel crawled past the stage and stumbled through the backdoor exit into the courtyard. Greeted by the cool October air, he blinked his eyes into focus as the rain cleansed his face and the clouds caressed his tortured limbs. Everything’s fine, he thought, I’ll be okay, but the sound of a howling train drew closer. He wanted his dad, the man who always protected and nurtured him, the man who rescued him over and over again–a superhero with a sixth sense for danger, he prayed for his father’s hands to save him. A female voice called out his name and as he glanced around the courtyard, his vision rolled back into the whites of his eyes. Gabriel trembled and cowered to the sound of the approaching train, hissing and rattling closer, he lost his balance and collapsed into darkness. The pavement caught his fall. His head hit the ground and thrashed from side to side, but his mind detached itself. He avoided the final scene as his loved ones appeared like angels, sheltering him until his Father’s gentle hands carried him over the threshold.

Chapter Twenty-five

Where haunted snapshots translate into dreams, Paige trekked across a rocky terrain. Clusters of waterfalls cascaded down from the high cliff and emptied off into a vast blue ocean. A tall neon sign towered in the open water flashing the words, wake up, on a hypnotizing loop. Collapsing waves crashed against the rocks and sprayed white foam into the air, mingling with the birds and the bees that darkened the clear blue sky. Dolphins laughed and soared across the sea as Paige stood transfixed, admiring the beauty of a renewed earth. She held out her arms and let the waterfalls cleanse her body until a soft voice inhaled the humid air. Smiling, she turned around and gazed into Gabriel’s bright green eyes.

“Do you believe dreams can come true?” he asked. Running his fingers through his dark hair, Gabriel turned and began tracing the rim of the cliff. The sun prepared to settle behind a wall of mist and limestone, but he chased the light, stopping only when his toes dangled off the edge. She called out after him and followed behind as Gabriel stretched out his arms and threw his head back.

“Take my hand!” he shouted.

“No,” she answered. “This is my dream, you don’t get to jump.”

“Take my hand,” he said again, “we’ll jump together.”

Paige grabbed him by the waist and asked, “What’s at the bottom?”

“The future.”

She closed her eyes as they jumped off the cliff and plunged through the dense clouds. Weightless and eternal, she embraced Gabriel until the coolness of the soft white sand enveloped her bare feet. She opened her eyes to see the wind tousle his hair and reveal his broken face. Covered in bruises and deep scrapes, Gabriel shivered and pulled his green army coat tighter around his slender frame. Paige gently ran her hand across his cheek as he scowled at their surroundings–cryptic and unsettling. The once sparkling ocean sat muted, the roaring waves silenced and replaced with stagnant, blood-stained water. Beached whales and dolphins lined the shore for miles on end and the clear blue sky turned black, shrouded with vultures circling closer to the dead. Towering from the red sea, the neon sign doubled its speed, flashing the same urgent message, Wake up! Wake up! Wake up! Before Paige could obey the command, Gabriel braved the nauseating air.

“Everything’s dead,” he said. ‘They won this round.”

Paige shook her head, “No, no I just came from the future. It’s not this bad yet, we still have time.”

A shadow fell across Gabriel’s face and his eyes filled with tears, “What time is it?” he asked. “How many second chances do we get in a lifetime?” The vultures swooped down and devoured the dead while the birds and the bees rained down from the day-glow sky. Fluorescent green, orange and red, the painted sky reminded Paige of something–she recognized the unnatural tint. A stampede sounded behind them and they whipped around to see hundreds of look-alike men charging down the beach, their blue jumpsuits torn and stained, and their mouths covered with white medical masks. They swept past and disappeared into the ocean as Paige clung to Gabriel and focused on the neon sign.

“I need to wake up,” she said. “I’m supposed to be saving your life.”

“You never showed.”

“But it hasn’t happened yet!” she exclaimed. “Why am I even asleep?” Paige reached into her pocket and pulled out the small vile. “I’m supposed to give you this. I need to wake up!”

The red tide continued dumping its victims onto the shore and Gabriel knelt down beside a small beached whale. Gently rubbing its head, he sat down on the sand and dipped his feet into the stagnant water. Sickened by the putrid air, Paige covered her nose and mouth.

“Get up!” she yelled through her hands.

Gabriel removed his jacket and laid it across the young whale.

“Get up!” she yelled again. “You don’t belong here!”

Blood trickled down Gabriel’s head and dripped into his ashen face. He shivered and wrapped his bare arms across his chest. “They’re moving fast,” he said, “but I never saw it coming. I guess that’s the best way to go.” His feet sank deeper into the watery sand as Paige tugged on his arm and pleaded with him.

“I need to wake up!” she yelled. “Please, do something! Stand up!”

His voice soft and distant, Gabriel answered, “I thought the fall would do it.”

Paige dropped his arm and cupped her hands to her face. Turning her back, she inhaled the putrid air and gazed upon the world around her, a wasteland unable to sustain life where scavengers survived off the dead. She whipped around, rolled up her sleeve and held out her arm.

“Pinch me!” she yelled.

Gabriel smiled and squeezed her arm, twisting her skin until she shrieked and pulled away. Rubbing her arm, she paused and then held out the other one.

“Do it again.”

Gabriel shook his head. “You have to let me go, Paige.”

“No!” she yelled. “Get up!” She kicked at the sand and glared at the flashing neon sign until something cold appeared in her hand. Frowning, she held up the gold pocket watch and examined the face.

“It’s blank,” she said. “No numbers or anything, just… blank.”

Gabriel’s feet sank deeper into the sand as a faint smile passed over his lips. “Time has no relevance here,” he said. “Please, just leave me be.”

Paige knelt down beside him and gently brushed back his hair, wiping the blood from his face and kissing his scraped forehead. The faint sound of a piano played an upbeat, jazzy tune as Paige looked down to see a checkerboard pattern overlaying the sand. When she looked up, the tapered eye with its long curly tail appeared in the day-glow sky. A large, oversized owl shot out from the ocean and flew towards the eye, letting out a screech as its elongated wingspan regenerated the ocean’s waves. She gasped and looked away. A blue tint coated Gabriel’s tender face as the checkerboard pattern revealed a large white square beneath Paige’s feet. Gabriel closed his eyes, crossed his arms and surrendered to the sand.

Chapter Twenty-six

She tasted the change in the air. Lighter and easier to swallow, she sucked it in and held her breath letting her lungs absorb the familiar oxygen. The full moon shone down upon her with a knowing smile and led the way to her destination, ducking behind rows of colorful shotgun houses and reappearing when the coast was clear. Water dripped onto the sidewalk from balcony gardens where wandering ivy decorated the residential streets. It was hard to tell the flowers from the weeds in the future, but Paige was home, a subtle yet glaring difference. Trends came and went and technology advanced, but the good ole days offered more than nostalgia, they offered comfort and understanding. Paige felt the ground settle beneath her feet providing support and sustenance after her temporary misstep. She wanted to kiss the rain-soaked pavement but postponed her welcome home. Short on time and dangerously late, she stopped traffic while crossing the street onto Bourbon.

Regan gave her a ride to the French Quarters. Paige awoke on the floor of the library with the gold pocket watch resting at her fingertips. After scanning the room for Vincent and Alain, she darted for the double wooden doors. Regan was exactly where she said she’d be, curled up on a wicker chair in the upstairs room with the piano. Nodding off to the glow of a small television, she’d been unresponsive to Paige’s sudden arrival. Michael J. Fox rocked out to Johnny B. Goode as Paige shook her awake and demanded her car keys. Regan refused. Paige panicked. Tears poured from her eyes as she begged and pleaded offering money she didn’t have and knew Regan didn’t need, but the dramatic performance finally worked. She took the wheel and Regan rode passenger as they barreled down that tiresome highway counting the bumps and anticipating each curve in the road–Paige could have driven with her eyes closed. They arrived at the yellow house on the end of the street five minutes past the midnight hour. She left Regan asleep in the car and raced down the sidewalk ignoring the shouts of angry pedestrians as she pushed them out of the way.

Orange cones blocked off Bourbon Street where drunken spectators roared with unbridled festivity. Sirens wailed behind her as Paige plowed through the gathering crowd and forced them to allow passage. The ambulance followed her lead and parked on the curb next to The Cottonmouth Club, but Paige stopped dead in her tracks before reaching the door. She intended to beat the paramedics inside, but Alain crashed through the exit of the club with a distraught vampire nurse at his side. Flattening herself against the wall, Paige watched her other self being dragged away crying and screaming for help. She remembered the nightmarish moment. She remembered being stripped away from her dying brother by someone she thought was trustworthy. She remembered trying to resist, but Alain easily overpowered her. Paige stood against the wall and watched as he forced her into a black limousine and sped away from the scene. The pocket watch, she panicked, and cursed herself for leaving it on the floor.

Bouncers stood outside blocking the entrance to the club, but Paige charmed the well-intentioned guards and slipped past the angry crowd. Voices protested behind her and demanded to be let in, but the steel door silenced their outcries. Reaching into her father’s jacket pocket, she pulled out the syringe she’d borrowed from Regan. Vincent may have given her more time on the clock, but falling asleep on the library floor cost her at least thirty minutes. Onlookers overwhelmed the backdoor exit and spilled out into the courtyard where paramedics hovered above the fallen idol. Paige forced her way through.

Surrounded by a tall iron fence, the courtyard served as an outdoor patio for three separate bars. A light drizzle darkened the cobblestone ground and the wind cut through the private enclosure where vampires, witches and a flock of drunken flamingoes stood watching, some even snapped pictures of the lifeless celebrity. A police officer grabbed her arm and attempted to hold her back, but Paige threw off the obstacle and moved in on the paramedics. They lifted Gabriel onto a stretcher but she ordered them to stop, flailing her arms and yelling obscenities while pushing them aside. She knelt down beside him. Her twin brother, bloodied and wet from the damp air, she removed the oxygen mask from his mouth and kissed the open wound on his forehead. Tears blurred her vision as she stroked his hair and lifted his head into her lap, his broken face tinted blue and his green eyes hidden behind dark slits. She checked his pulse and held her hand over his heart, his body warm but clearly vacant. Lifting his arm, she held the needle in her mouth and rolled up the sleeve of his green army coat. She knew it was the wrong thing to do. She knew the consequences. Gabriel would never be free, always dependent on Vincent and a slave to the medicine until death had his way once again. She knew it was the wrong thing to do, but as she cradled his lifeless body and kissed his gentle face, grief had the final say.

The crowd stirred and turned away from the grim scene, distracted by another high profile celebrity. Gasps filtered through the onlookers and bright flashes lit up the courtyard as a familiar voice spoke out, demanding their attention. Doused with infectious confidence, he held them captive with his amber-green eyes and flipped back his long dreadlocks.

“Listen up everyone, here’s what happens next! On the count of three, everyone empties their cameras. Leave the film on the ground by your feet. Okay, here we go, one, two…”

Paige finished injecting the medicine while Michael controlled the crowd, looking exactly as he did in the future, minus the small patch of white hair. His return from death had yet to occur, but Gabriel’s was well underway. His body jerked as he coughed and lifted his head, trembling and gasping for air, he shot up and met Paige’s gaze. The fragrant smell of sandalwood filled the courtyard as she absorbed his electric green eyes–confused, bloodshot and beautifully tormented. Michael lost control of the crowd as they turned and stared at Gabriel, their film at their feet, their eyes transfixed and their mouths wide open. Silence gripped the moment until a man’s voice shouted Gabriel’s name and crashed through the sea of costumes. Dressed in a designer suit with short dark hair, he charged past Michael and fell to his knees beside Gabriel, grabbing his shoulders and pulling him close. Paige moved out of the way and turned to see a deep red glow surrounding Michael as he regained control of the masses.

“Show’s over people. Forget what you saw and move on out, paramedics included.” Obeying like a herd of circus animals, the onlookers turned and filed into the three adjoining clubs leaving their film on the ground without looking back. The paramedics trailed behind two stragglers whose slow pace prompted Michael to call them out.

“Unless Bozo wants to meet the real Grim Reaper, I suggest you two hurry it along, you’re holding up the line. I hear the ambulance is double-parked.”

Gabriel clung to his father and hid his face against his chest until the courtyard cleared and the crowd dispersed. Ashley cradled his son and brushed the hair from his eyes, cupping his face and rubbing his arms before draping his suit jacket around his shoulders. He demanded to know what happened but Gabriel only shook his head and glanced at Paige with frightened eyes. Trembling in his father’s arms, he turned away and stared into the shadows of a fat oak tree over-hanging the wrought-iron fence. He flinched and attempted to stand, his limbs failing him as he fell back into his father. Ashley caught his weight and calmed his troubled mind.

Paige caught the weight of her own troubled mind. Crouching down on the wet ground, she covered her face and silently cried into her hands. The deed was done. Come tomorrow or the next day, she’d have to reveal her hand and confess her altercation with fate, but how could they understand? How could they know what the future held and how could they ever believe her story? The updated version of the medicine didn’t exist yet, but the recipe, wrapped in thin plastic, remained safe in her pocket. Wiping her face, Paige lifted her head and looked at her twin brother, the blue tint erased from his tanned skin and his out-of-control hair beautifully wet and tangled. She hoped he could forgive her. Ashley and Michael knelt by his side bombarding him with a thousand questions for which he held no answers, but his frightened eyes looked to Paige every few seconds. She turned away from Gabriel, brushed herself off and stood to fetch him some water until the shadows from the oak tree stopped her.

Standing against the wrought-iron fence, a tall woman with long blonde hair watched them from the shadows. Translucent yet solid, she camouflaged herself, melded into the fence with only an outline of her frame visible, but her stark blue eyes deceived her. Paige attempted to read her mind until a sharp pain pierced her forehead and a female’s voice intoned, you’re in over your head, Paige. Gabriel’s mine. The tall blonde stepped forward, separating herself from the iron fence as her full body became visible and her tight black clothing flaunted her perfect curves. She darted. Slipping through the closed gate and disappearing around the corner, the woman defied physics and moved like water through a solid object. Paige yelled out after her, slamming her body against the iron fence before finding the latch and opening the gate. She raced down the street in a futile attempt to track her down, but the woman could be anywhere, she could be anyone, or anything. She stopped to catch her breath and smiled when a familiar voice called out after her.

“Hey! What gives?”

“You didn’t see her?” she asked, turning to face Michael.

“See who?”

“The woman,” she said. “One of them. I think she poisoned Gabriel.”

Michael stared at her through unreadable eyes and calmly demanded an explanation. Hesitating, Paige attempted to clarify things in her head before offering a believable answer. She wanted to tell him the whole truth, but unable to speak the words aloud, she supplied a half-truth instead. Michael listened as she explained how the woman slipped something into Gabriel’s drink, to which he suffered a severe reaction and convulsed on the pavement. Paige called the paramedics and they arrived just in time, saving his life.

Michael pursed his lips and scratched his head. “You sure that’s the story you’d like to stick with?” he asked.

“Why? What do you think happened?”

“I don’t know,” he answered, “Alain’s hard to read sometimes. Got something in your pocket?”

“Yes.”

“Is it a recipe?”

“How do you–”

Michael held up his hand, “Later.”

The rain cleared the streets as every bar on Bourbon reached maximum capacity. Painted faces melted away into normality with smeared makeup exposing their true identity. Paige and Michael returned to the courtyard where Ashley and Gabriel stood waiting. Father and son reunited, unaware of their separation and naïve to the awful fate that almost played out again, Paige felt the change reverberate through time and space. Her twin brother reclaimed his spot in the universe and once again graced the earth with his delicate charm, his strength gaining traction but still dependent on his father’s arm. She wiped her eyes and thought about the future, the place where Ashley eternally mourned his deceased son, the place where anger and sorrow consumed him, she hoped he felt the change. She hoped things were different now, that Gabriel appeared in the blink of an eye and Abbey no longer inspired grief, but she had her doubts. Paige didn’t know what the future held, despite her short-lived visit, she wondered how many detours or alternate paths veered from the main timeline, but she knew she was home, a bitter-sweet return.

Gabriel leaned against his father as they left the courtyard and crossed the street onto Royal leaving Bourbon to the rain-soaked crowds. Ashley held close to his son, hugging his shoulder and helping him along as they walked towards the yellow shotgun house two blocks away. Paige followed behind, rejuvenated by the rain and the freshness in the air, but homesick for the future. In a cruel twist of fate or just plain irony, she felt alone and out of place, it never ends, she thought. She’d have to come clean, but regretted nothing. Gabriel was alive, and with the remedy held safe in her pocket, death no longer posed a threat. She’d have to come clean, but not tonight.

The others moved between realms. Where past and future collided with the present, the others possessed the ability to move through the walls of time and space. Paige agreed with the blond-haired woman, she knew she was in over her head, but that wouldn’t stop her from trying to expose their agenda. Things have already changed, she thought. Ashley returned early from New York, Alain failed to poison Gabriel, and Vincent’s game-changing discovery would now be unveiled a year early. She figured they had a chance at saving the future, with Gabriel by her side and new insight into how the agenda would play out, she retained a sliver of hope and vowed to fight to the death, for the future, sure, for humanity, of course, but most of all, for her beloved twin brother. Gabriel looked back as he turned the corner and Paige cherished the moment. Fear lurked behind his eyes and confusion drenched his face, but he was authentic, a beautiful mess with a reckless spirit and a tender heart–they can’t have him, she thought, and turned the corner behind him. A familiar voice penetrated her mind as she slowed her pace and strolled down the narrow sidewalk.

Hey, Paige, let me ask you something, am I still hot in the future?

She turned and stared at Michael as he walked up behind her with a proud grin. Tears streamed down her face as she returned the smile and replied, you’re still obnoxious. Michael wrapped his arms around her waist and held her close as she cried on his shoulder and pinned herself against his chest. He stroked her hair and gently swayed back and forth, the light drizzle catching in his hair and glistening under the streetlamp. Sirens howled into the night chasing the call of another emergency, but Paige took comfort knowing Gabriel was only a short distance away. Reluctant to leave Michael’s embrace, she talked into his chest and asked what he knew, exactly.

“I know you’ve been on quite a journey,” he answered. “I suspect we’ll be visiting my father tomorrow?”

She nodded into his chest. They walked together towards the yellow shotgun house where an old white van sat parked on the curb. Michael held her hand and stomped through the puddles, splashing water onto her black canvas shoes and whistling a familiar tune about an artist named Andy. Two lone flamingoes passed them on the other side of the street and Michael called out after them, “Hey, where’s your flock?” She laughed and ran to catch up with Gabriel leaving Michael behind with the drunken birds.

Gabriel stood on the porch smoking a cigarette and leaning against his father. The protective guardian to a son who required around the clock surveillance, Ashley stood behind him with his arms draped across his shoulders. Thankful for the rain, Paige wiped her face and skipped up the steps. Looking her over, Gabriel pushed himself off his father, grabbed her arms and held them up to her side.

“You don’t look like a vampire nurse,” he said.

Paige smiled and forced her arms down. “Yeah, uh, that was a stupid idea. I decided to go as a time-traveler instead.”

“Past or future?” he asked, but turned away before she could respond. He pounded on the front door of his house impersonating a police officer, snickering when Billy’s panicked face peaked through the curtains. The smell of chicory coffee filled the air as he unlocked the door and stood before Gabriel with crossed arms, his short brown beard a shadow of its future self. Michael arrived on the porch and moved Gabriel out of the way, grabbing his waist, pulling him back and beaming at the sound of his laughter. Ashley caught his son and scolded Michael for his playful antics. Cupping Gabriel’s forehead, he then felt his cheeks and slipped off his jacket. Stained with blood and ripped at the sleeve, the green army coat stayed behind, hung out to dry and abandoned on the front porch as they filed inside.

 

Author: Lindsay Niemann

Writer | Graphic Artist