Chapter 23 – Two Hills
Dr. Andrews had another dream. It was his first in years. Unlike the others, which were graphic and dreadful, this one was encouraging. He was walking a trail at Osage Village in the northeastern quadrant of Vernon County, and something good but undefined was about to happen. He awoke with an unmistakable understanding of what he was supposed to do. A strong imperative had taken up residence in his thoughts, and he announced his intentions at breakfast.
“Evelyn, I’d like to take you for a ride this afternoon.”
“Out in the country. I’d like to keep it a surprise.”
She was familiar enough with his eccentricities that she let it go at that. Janice helped explain.
“Whatever he has in mind, he doesn’t want to spoil the effect. I deal with this all the time. Adam, while they’re gone, you might like to take a walk. Have you been to Radio Spring?”
“Just around the lake,” he said between mouthfuls.
“I recommend exploring the woods up the hill. It’s rather secluded, and the scenery might surprise you.”
“Any particular reason?”
“Just a hunch. I get them, too, you know.”
It was a crisp morning in late October, but the temperature would warm into the fifties by early afternoon. Adam spent the morning working with Jonathan, Eve with Janice. After lunch, the men cleared the table and cleaned the dishes while the women crocheted and talked about nothing in particular. The car keys jingled in the physicist’s hand.
“That’s your cue,” Janice hinted, and Eve followed him outside.
“Thank you for agreeing so readily. I know I have a flare for the mysterious. I’m trying to avoid unnecessary embellishments.”
“That important, yeah?”
“It is, but I don’t know why.”
“So you had another dream.”
He smiled and nodded.
“It was a good one this time – good but incomplete. Would you care to drive?”
“No thanks. This is your party, Jonathan.”
“Actually, it’s yours,” he said as they got in and fastened their seatbelts.
He jockeyed the car out of his neighborhood and turned east onto Austin, which was the main drag as well as the path for U.S. 54 through much of the town. At the intersection with Centennial, a sign indicated that 54 East went to the left down that street. This was where Jonathan turned. They were going to the North now. Signs for “Life Church” and “54 Café A Fine Family Restaurant” passed by on the left, and the Vernon County Fairgrounds were on the right. They proceeded under the I-49 overpass, and the road made a gradual right curve, passed the Nevada Municipal Airport, and eventually made another curve to the right until they were driving almost straight east. Not quite six miles past the overpass for the interstate, they turned left onto a county road called “C highway” by the locals.
“This intersection is known as Walker Corner,” Jonathan announced.
“It’s where you turn to go to Walker.”
“Is that where you’re taking me?”
“No, but it’s on the way.”
After a little more than two miles, they came to a sign delineating the city limits of Walker, Missouri, population 270. To the right was a small park next to some railroad tracks and across a side street from a short line of one and two story buildings. No moving cars or pedestrians could be seen as they drove by.
“That’s the business district, such as it is,” Jonathan explained.
The road continued north for another two miles or so until it went into an S-curve at the junction with County Road OO. Coming out of the turn, their car was once again heading to the east. They saw a brown sign with white lettering after less than a mile. It indicated that Osage Village State Historic Site was 3 miles to the left. Following the sign, they turned north onto a gravel road. The gravel pelted the underside of the vehicle in which they were riding, and the physicist slowed their speed to just under twenty miles per hour.
“I need to save this low suspension,” he explained. “I’m not sure my car was intended for roads like this.”
“The historic site… is that where we’re going?”
Jonathan nodded as they passed some reclaimed gravel pits. Evelyn admired the artificial mounds, now overgrown with trees, which lined the branches of the small body of water.
“I don’t really know. You’ll find out before I will.”
For a few minutes, they rode in silence, undulating over some hills. In some of the fields, cattle were grazing. Patches of woodland dotted the countryside and humbly displayed their faint, fall colors.
“It’s kind of plain out here,” Evelyn observed, “but pretty.”
He gave her an amused look.
“You’ve never been this far into the country before, have you?”
“Only on interstates,” she answered. “The land doesn’t look this hilly from a bus.”
“It’s funny how much more you can see when you get off of the main roads,” he agreed. “The highest points in the county are north of Walker. You don’t really see them until you’re there.”
They eventually came to the parking area for Osage Village on their right. Except for a paved spot for handicapped parking, it, too, consisted of gravel. Their car pulled into the small lot and came to a stop.
“Okay,” Jonathan announced. “This is it.”
Evelyn opened the door on her side and got out. Her driver remained in his seat and rolled down his window. Confused, she walked around the back of the car and stooped to look in.
“Aren’t you getting out?”
“I’m to wait in the car. Go ahead without me. It’s safe.”
“What’s supposed to happen next?”
“I have no idea. This is your moment, not mine.”
“Does it have anything to do with what we’ve talked about before?”
“Most probably. Why don’t you find out?”
She was in strange surroundings, and her eyes darted about nervously. The site was surrounded by farms. This produced an impression of remoteness and overexposure in one accustomed to urban areas.
“Where should I go?”
“Follow the path. You shouldn’t have trouble with ticks at this time of year if you stay out of the high grass.”
She straightened and looked over the roof of the car. A gravel path from the parking lot led through an informational kiosk and then to a small, wooden footbridge over a low spot in the ground. Water stood there now to a depth of a couple of inches. She took a deep breath and proceeded as she had been instructed. Her feet scuffed over the gravel then made a pleasing sound on the wooden planks of the bridge. Some distance past this was a second footbridge, and then the trail turned to mown grass.
Following the slightly winding path, Angel started up a small hill. She was surprised at how short her breath became as she walked the incline. It was deceptively steep. She had become unaware of the car and the parking lot behind her even though they were still easily within sight. This was a calming environment which at the same time created a sense of anticipation. She stopped momentarily to drink in her surroundings.
Wind animated the high grass on either side of the trail. Trees and clusters of sumac bushes – their leaves turned to scarlet – dotted the landscape at irregular intervals. As she started upward again, her view to the side was infused with an almost surreal sense of depth, and the small hillside seemed to breathe. The overall effect was of being in an expansive, sunlit interior. To the immediate north, a few vultures circled and floated on invisible currents of air, their wings held aloft in V-shaped postures and the long, outstretched feathers at their wingtips resembling the fingers of reaching hands.
At the top of the hill, the trail branched in front of another informational kiosk. It was a loop through the former location of a settlement of the Osage people. Nothing in the way of artifacts remained, and numbered posts along the path indicated points of interest. Instinctively, she took the right branch, the one leading farther away from the county road by which she and Jonathan had arrived. She wanted to go further into this mystical atmosphere. The path snaked to the east through prairie and then curved north. Looking across the field where she walked, she could see a small forest. The trail took a turn to the west, and she was greeted by some larger, scattered trees with thick, characteristically-shaped trunks. By now, the parking lot and the car were completely out of sight. Then it happened.
Her manner of perception changed almost subliminally, and she realized that she was not alone. Nobody else was visible or audible, but someone was there. The atmosphere reminded her of being with Tommy, and she remembered him saying that something surrounded them when they were together. This sense of presence was distilled and concentrated beyond any former experience of it, and its appeal pressed gently upon her. A conversation, alternately whispered and silent, ensued.
“Are you what I’ve been looking for?”
“Who are you – an alien?”
To some. Are you?
Her eyes went vacant for a few seconds as she moved through her memories.
“I’ve felt that way most of my life.”
There were so many questions, and she felt she would explode if she could not get them all out. One overshadowed the others. For years, it had been in the hidden recesses of her mind, waiting for the slightest clue to provoke its emergence.
“Do you intervene?”
Within the turbulence of chaos.
This wasn’t spooky at all. It felt like thinking, but the ideas which came to her were more persistent than ordinary thoughts. A poorly understood lesson in Chaos Theory from her college days came back to her.
“Is this about randomness?”
Nothing is as random as it seems.
“Then why didn’t you intervene sooner?”
Did I not?
She thought of her abilities and the circumstances of her conception and birth. She thought of Adam, Jonathan, and Janice.
“I don’t mean any disrespect, but couldn’t you have saved me before any of this happened?”
I could not save myself.
I have battled monstrous forces in this world. So have you.
Somehow, this being – this intelligence – knew. She drifted through incidents in her past and extrapolated them onto the world at large.
“All those people… so many of them innocent and hurt.”
Have I committed such abominations?
“No,” she admitted sadly. “Human beings do these things to each other.”
Should wickedness remain unexposed?
She bit her lip.
Are those of your kind who do nothing any less responsible? What of those whose neglect leaves the weak unprotected? Should their guilt remain hidden?
Eve thought of her mother. She remembered articles, news reports, and documentaries which recounted the cowardice and lack of involvement of others who should have known better. Child abuse and neglect, assault and battery, murder, molestation, rape, and other kinds of criminal offenses had, under various circumstances and in different instances, gone unreported. Sometimes, the witnesses were many, but collective inaction was merely an expression of the fear and callousness expressed by each individual.
“No. Sin by omission should be brought to light.”
What would become of your kind if all monstrosities were prevented?
This question appealed to her educational background in philosophy. She made the next logical connection.
“With no demonstration of the consequences of evil, we’d grow worse.”
Yes. To prevent all is to restrain all, to violate all.
The gears were turning.
“And the other option…”
To destroy all.
Did you care for those you destroyed?
“Not then, but it bothers me now.”
I care for all. I must destroy some. There is a balance.
“Whom to destroy,” she pondered, “whom to save, and when – it must be a difficult decision.”
It is a terrible decision. The price of vengeance is too high for you to pay.
Eve could not avoid the logical consequence of this statement.
“What happened to me… what got me started… it wasn’t my fault.”
Of course not.
She knew the answer to her next question in advance, but she asked it anyway.
“Was I wrong to respond the way I did?”
It was done in ignorance. You meant well, and you suffered for others.
“Should I turn myself in?”
To whom? You have broken no laws.
“But I was wrong. Men have died. I killed one deliberately.”
You killed them all deliberately. Is this a matter for terrestrial authority?
She thought deeply for a moment.
“I suppose not. Can you make the faces go away?”
Do you want me to obliterate your memory?
“No,” she sighed, “but what can I do?”
Direct your attention to something better.
Do you want my assistance?
She closed her eyes and felt the breeze on her face.
Eve lapsed into silence once again, feeling the presence but receiving no additional thoughts. At length, something else came to her. It was mixed with a shared pain.
Matter and energy are different forms of the same substance. I control energy. I can change matter. Will you trust me?
Her breathing grew rapid and shallow.
“Definitely,” she answered. “You’ve suffered.”
The first thing she felt after saying this was an absence. Despite her efforts at self control, despite the wholesomeness of her outward appearance, emotional distress and a desire for revenge had been her companions since childhood. Now that they were gone, she could tell they had been there for as long as she could remember. What she noticed next was a prickly sensation throughout her skin, and then heat radiated from her entire body. The memory of regenerating next to Adam on the couch in her former apartment became vivid.
Your touch no longer kills. You have new abilities.
Her grateful thoughts turned to Adam.
“Will you help my friend?”
Even as you speak.
Though she did not fully understand what this meant, she went on to make what she thought was the next logical connection.
“So we’ll finally be sufficient?”
No. You will be more effective.
“But how will we take care of ourselves?”
Do you wish to be alone?
“No. I like having friends.”
Then take care of each other.
This last impression seemed to come from farther away.
“Wait – please. Where are you going?”
I am not bound by time and space. There are things even one such as you cannot see.
“May I come back here?”
The effect of increasing distance was becoming more pronounced.
What is your definition of here? You have confused effect with cause.
Her mind switched modes back to her physical environment. The mysterious presence had not departed, but it was less palpable. She remained on the hill and communed in silence for several minutes. All was in motion. All was calm. Clouds, brightly outlined, briefly covered the sun before withdrawing. Stirred by the wind, the surrounding grasses waved back and forth. It was as if time had stood still or no longer mattered.
While Eve was conversing with the entity at Osage Village, Adam was taking a contemplative walk. His PTSD treatments were recently concluded, but troubling notions remained in his mind. The familiar rage was a beast. Had it been tamed or merely confined? Would he ever be truly free of it? He had taken Janice’s suggestion. To clear his head in peaceful surroundings, he was following a trail that ascended from near the lake at Radio Spring Park. Wide and somewhat overgrown, it rose past some houses on the right. Nothing but woods could be seen to the left. Many leaves had fallen, but many still clung stubbornly to the branches of the trees. At its peak, the trail turned left and descended gradually. Undulating, it was almost level.
He moved deeper into the wooded area. His path pitched down from a large, exposed rock, and he could see that he was on the lip of a small ravine. Exposed boulders on the near and facing sides extended down toward the bottom. A small creek, partially full of water, trickled through this depression. The ground he walked over was covered with moss and lichen and was soft as a carpet. The deep green provided an almost magical contrast to the grays and browns of sticks and fallen leaves. Life was continuing to spring up beneath death.
Adam stopped suddenly, aware that he had entered something unseen. He recognized it. This was the same urgency that had led him to where the woman he knew then as Angel had lain beaten and unconscious. What had seemed to pull from within his chest on that occasion now surrounded him as well, but instead of dread, he felt a deep calm. The dynamic tension between peace and anticipation, between repose and urgency, arrested his attention. A silent voice called out from the center of his brain and spoke to him in impressions which would not allow themselves to be ignored. Perhaps because he was a man, the exchange was direct and concise. He did not whisper in response to the mental prods. Rather, he spoke as he normally did when talking to real people.
“You led me to her.”
“You’ve been with us the whole time.”
In light of this revelation, he realized something that no longer made sense.
“Since before I met her, I thought it was up to me.”
You were not enough.
The point was obvious to its recipient. He had admitted it out loud when he was near the point of death. No attempt at self-justification was made or even considered.
“I know I messed up. Before I passed out, you asked me why.”
“What should I do?”
More than you are capable of doing.
He thought again of Eve. She was never far from his conscious deliberations.
“Is she alright?”
He lowered his head.
“I don’t think so.”
That is enough.
There was an itching sensation, like the healing of wounds, in various spots on his body, and the air surrounding where he stood vibrated oddly for a second.
You are more than you were. Pay careful attention. Your greatest abilities are beyond your physical strength.
“What are they?”
What you must find. Listen.
That was it. He knew that the audience was over. Feeling simultaneously powerful, weak, and disoriented, he lost track of time. He must have wandered, for he was walking on an unfamiliar street when he came to. The sun had gone down. The mottled man eventually crossed an intersection he recognized and got his bearings. Dazed, he staggered back toward the address that had become his refuge.
They were waiting dinner for him when he arrived. There must have been an obvious difference in the way he looked, for they were all staring at him oddly. As he took his place at the table, Eve watched him carefully. Her brain made the modal transition, toggling between the material and the immaterial, and her vision expanded. She could still see everything – including Adam – in her physical environment, but this perception was overlaid with that of another dimension. She could see into the man sitting next to her – not anatomically but in a way far more real. A faint light, the ember of a sheltered fire, was glowing inside him. Her friend was going to be alright.
Using his fork, Adam aimlessly pushed around the considerable amount of food on his plate. No one had uttered a word since he had entered the room.
“Thank you for waiting on me,” he began. “I was delayed by something – uh, someone amazing. Eve, look.”
He scooted his chair back, stood up and removed his shirt. She already knew he was large and strong, but she had never seen the near perfect muscularity of his physique. Janice and Jonathan exchanged knowing glances as they watched her face.
“Adam,” she protested, “stop showing off, and put your shirt on.”
“Aren’t you missing something?” he suggested. “Take a closer look.”
“I don’t want to. We’re at the table.”
‘Just inspect my mid-section,” he conceded as he pulled his shirt over his head and shoulders. “You should see a difference.”
Her mouth dropped open.
“No scars,” he emphasized as he pulled the fabric back over his skin. “Remember the ones I showed you when we were talking that second time in Kansas City? What about my surgery? They’re all gone.”
Her eyes went blank with recollection.
“He did say he could change matter…”
Momentarily astonished, Adam stopped and looked at Eve. Their thoughts began to meld.
“You heard it, too. When did this happen?”
“I’m not sure, I think…”
She stole a glance at her wrist.
“Hey! My watch stopped.”
He looked down to check his own and then showed it to her.
“Mine, too. Three in the afternoon, right?”
“Yeah. Three in the afternoon.”
Their hosts had been following this exchange, the husband with a bit more clarity than his wife.
“The batteries were new when we gave you those watches. You’ve both experienced what I waited years to discover. Those wretched dreams weren’t for me. They were for you.”
Adam looked quizzically at Eve.
“Were we communicating with the same personality at the same time in two different places?”
Jonathan muttered to himself so quietly that only Eve heard him.
“I don’t have to see for myself. This is enough. Thank you.”
Janice sought to re-establish some semblance of normalcy.
“Shall we eat?”
“Oh, sure,” the chimera agreed. “Now that I’m thinking of it, I’m awfully hungry.”
“Oh, why fight it,” Jonathan said with exasperation. “I was going to wait, but I’ve decided not to delay gratification. I want to be able to sleep tonight. Owing to the amount of sleep I lost for over twenty years, I think I’m within my rights to ask both of you more about what you heard.”
The food on everyone’s plates grew cold as Adam and Eve told of their encounters and answered questions when clarification was needed. They were articulate, and they did a commendable job of explaining what many would have found difficult to grasp. At the end of their accounts, the former professor slipped into a lecturing frame of mind. Thinking better of it, he opted for the Socratic Method.
“Evelyn,” he chuckled and momentarily lost his train of thought. “I’m sorry. It still feels strange calling you by a different name, but I’m getting used to it. Getting back to what I wanted to say, my background in physics picked up on what you said about nothing being as random as it seems. Have either of you really considered the circumstances of your conception and birth?”
“Sure,” Adam answered. “I wanted to know how I happened. You know I looked it all up.”
“You told me while we were working on the car once, but I’m referring to more. Yes, you know the details. Have you thought about what the details mean?”
“Someone screwed up, and my parents didn’t want to live with the results.”
“There’s a deeper significance,” the physicist emphasized. “What was the probability of all the details of your creation occurring in a fertility clinic equipped with safeguards to prevent it? And what was the likelihood of the embryo fusion that occurred in your, uhm, half-mother’s womb?”
“Not very high for either,” the chimera confessed.
“Extremely low would be more accurate.”
“Okay. You’re right. Do you think life begins at conception?”
“When else would it begin?”
“I know you think we have souls. So do I, but am I two souls combined into one? If that fusion hadn’t occurred, I’d be two different people.”
“It’s impossible to determine the origin of a nonmaterial soul, Adam. Nobody knows at what stage of development that’s established in a human embryo. If that fusion hadn’t taken place, you wouldn’t be at all. Two different people would be instead. I find that significant.”
“With all the drugs my mother did before, during, and after my conception, it’s a wonder I wasn’t born with serious physical problems,” Eve stated. “She told me once that she never stopped using, not even when she was pregnant with me.”
“Do you remember our conversation in the garage – the first one?”
“Of course you do,” he reminded himself. “Your memory is incredible. You said you were loaded with mutations.”
“And I said they must have been good ones, but most mutations are deleterious or neutral. Yours are beneficial adaptations, ones that helped you survive.”
“And the voice told me at least one of those got fixed,” she reminded him.
“Or altered. You might have a new or emerging physiological ability. It’ll be interesting to find out.”
“Well, I guess I’m free to explore that, especially now,” she concluded. “I’d like to know what it is.”
“You know that the odds of conception are low under normal circumstances,” Jonathan expounded further. “That’s why so many sperm are released during one ejaculation. Conception can happen at any time, but, statistically, it takes several efforts, whether intentional or not. The probability of a particular sperm fertilizing an egg is significantly lower. Throw in the probability of surviving the chemical insults you endured while in your mother, and you’re a walking miracle. You’re both miracles.”
“So the odds were against us,” Adam admitted.
“In more ways than one and for a long time. Yet here both of you are, physically healthy and gifted beyond credibility, and I have a hunch you’ve both been holding out on us. Could it be that some higher intelligence had a hand in all this?”
“That brings us back to Aristotle’s source,” Adam lamented. “I still don’t understand that book, and it won’t let go of me.”
“There’s a flip side to that coin,” Jonathan said with a grave tone. “Something sinister has been aiming at both of you since before you were born.”
None of them said anything for a long moment. Janice took it upon herself to break the silence.
“That does it. This has been interesting, but we still haven’t eaten. After the work I put in on this meal, you’re all going to consume it. Give me your plates, and I’ll warm them up in the microwave.”
Much later, Adam lay awake in his darkened room. He peeked briefly at the clock on the nightstand next to his bed then stared at the ceiling. It was three in the morning, but he was nowhere near falling asleep. He had been instructed to pay careful attention. What would he learn and when? Save for the memory of his encounter on the hill, nothing out of the ordinary impressed itself upon his consciousness.
His distracted reverie was interrupted by insistent tapping, and he got out of bed. He was clad in sweat pants and an old T-shirt as he opened his door. With bare feet, and wearing a flannel nightgown that Janice had made for her, Eve was standing in front of him. She looked groggy.
“No, not Tommy. I’m Adam, now. Remember? You’re not fully awake.”
She giggled softly.
“Yeah… and I’m not Angel, anymore.”
She rested her forehead on his chest. In doing so, she reminded him of the child she should have been allowed to be when younger.
“Adam,” she repeated belatedly, “what happened to us today?”
“I’m not sure. Something we couldn’t have done ourselves – only it was yesterday. Whatever it was, it had to be good.”
“Yeah. I’m not toxic.”
She tugged at his T-shirt and raised it. Oddly enough, this was an innocent action, and he allowed it. She traced the fingertips of one hand across his torso and smiled sleepily.
“No more scars,” she whispered as she lowered the shirt. “Good night, Adam. It’s late – I mean, early.”
She hugged him briefly. Not knowing what to do, he held his arms out from his sides until she released him. Then, like some beatific spirit, Evelyn glided down the hall and back up the stairs. Confused, Adam stood in his doorway for a few minutes until he remembered that he could go back to bed. Lying down again, he noticed that his thoughts were starting to scramble. Ideas made sense, and then they didn’t. He gave up trying, and he was gone.
Chapter 24 – Gifts
The world had changed for Eve. She was no more sensitive to stimuli than before, but the sensate young woman now interpreted her physical and social environment from an enhanced perspective. She and Adam were extreme examples of everybody else. Each person she saw when working at Walmart, every individual seen walking or driving along the streets of Nevada, was a story in motion. They were all actors in a drama of cosmic importance.
Right now, her role was to re-stock some shelves in the sporting goods section. Adam was doing likewise over in electronics. Steadily applying themselves to these mundane assignments, they were working their shift at Walmart. The hour was late and the supercenter’s population had thinned out. Suddenly, the tedium of Eve’s routine was punctuated with alarm. A shadow in her periphery was moving down the aisle. It encased a man in its morbidity.
Watching out of the side of her eye, she continued with her task. The shadow was passing her when she felt the sharp pressure on her rear end. She did not have to put up with this. Quickly, she reached back and grabbed the offending fingers before the hand to which they were attached could completely withdraw. She completed this movement with a twisting motion she had been taught in her martial arts sessions as she spun around to confront the masher.
“Just what do you think you’re…”
There was no need to finish her sentence, for the man had fallen into a dead faint.
“Not again, not ever,” she whispered to a hidden personality. “He can’t die. You promised.”
Adam went looking for her when he was finished in electronics. He often did this between jobs just to say hello, make a comment, or tell a joke. She enjoyed this, and these expected surprises helped their shift go by faster. He liked knowing that, no matter how tedious work became, she was always somewhere under the same roof. He found her brooding over the prostrate man.
“He pinched me,” she answered with determination.
Adam knew that tone of voice.
“Bad idea,” he commented. “Is he alive?”
“Yeah. I can hear him breathing. If you watch, you can see his stomach moving.”
Adam stood there, examining the boor impassively.
“Serves him right. Any idea when he’ll wake up?”
“I haven’t a clue. It’s not like I’ve done this before.”
“Good. I’m relieved to know that you’re not in the habit of passing out strange men.”
She punched him lightly on his bare forearm. He looked at the imaginary wound and then at her.
“I hope whatever your skin produced doesn’t do to me what it did to him.”
Eve smirked competitively.
“Well, we’ll just have to wait and find out, won’t we?”
Her quiet laughter drifted down the aisle as she resumed stocking the shelf.
“Whatever it is, it’s fast-acting, and it doesn’t leave a residue on my skin. It must evaporate quickly. You’re clear, but watch your step in the future.”
She laughed again.
“So,” he said with mock chagrin, “it looks like you’ve discovered your new capability.”
Something occurred to her, and she chuckled.
“… and as promised. I hadn’t considered that. So what about you?”
“Me? I need to go back to the mall.”
“The Northpark Mall in Joplin? You hate shopping. Why do you want to go there?”
“To find my hidden ability,” he said pensively.
“Are you serious?”
“At least half. You don’t forget much of anything, so I know you remember what happened to me. It’s what I was told to do in those woods on the hill. I was also told to pay attention. I have for the last three days, and all I’ve gotten so far is that I need to go to the mall.”
“Do you know when?”
“I think by early afternoon this Saturday, so I’m going to say one.”
Eve shook her head with that characteristic giggle.
“You in a mall. I’d blow the afternoon just to go along and watch.”
The fallen offender began to snore loudly. Adam looked down at him with comic disdain.
“What do you think we should do – draw a chalk line around him?”
“Leave him. I’m done here, and we both have more work to do. Someone else can find him. Maybe he’ll be embarrassed when he wakes up.”
“Oh, I’ll make sure of that. You go ahead.”
He went back to the counter in the electronics section and procured a piece of paper and a pen. He wrote a note and then went into the back section behind the store to find some packing tape. Once everything he needed was in hand, he returned to the slumbering body and affixed the note to its forehead. It read as follows:
The next time you think about molesting a woman, remember how you were found. It could happen again.
Had somebody found him, it could have created a stir, but the man woke up after a few more minutes. Groggy, he sat up, peeled the tape off of his forehead, and read the note. He looked around nervously and struggled to his feet. Then he hurried down the aisle, past the checkout lanes, and into the parking lot.
That Saturday, Adam stood amid the bustling but languid flow of humanity. He watched as they drifted in and out of stores beneath the artificial lighting of this enclosed space. Some walked with purpose. Others drifted as if pulled along by some hidden magnet. He was entirely out of his element, whatever that was, so he was effectively lost despite knowing exactly how he had gotten there.
“Well, here I am,” he announced under his breath.
His eyes drifted to an unoccupied bench.
Sit down and wait.
At least an hour passed. Faithful to his instructions, he remained sitting even though he wanted to get up and move around. He was bored into numbness, and he was feeling stiff and restless. After maybe another quarter of an hour, a man in his forties sat down next to him. This in itself was unusual. When one male saw another sitting on a two-person bench, he would normally opt to leave the other seat vacant. Then there was the matter of Adam’s unusual appearance. The newcomer was pale and perspiring visibly. He wore a wedding ring. Adam glanced at him briefly.
“Are you okay?”
“I just saw a ghost.”
So this was why he was here.
“Over by J. C. Penney. I haven’t seen her in over twenty years. She’s gained a little weight, but it had to be her. What’s she doing here?”
“I’m afraid you’ve got me. Who are you talking about?”
“The girl I raped in college.”
In an extreme example, this middle-aged man had unburdened himself as many Americans were prone to doing. It was, to foreigners, a baffling characteristic. More than a few citizens of the United States were in the habit of divulging personal details – divorces, medical conditions, past sins, and so on – to complete strangers. Such people felt the need to tell someone, so it was an emotional release. It was also a false intimacy, something approaching an anonymous outlet without the obligation or accountability of friendship.
But this was especially unusual. Adam wasn’t just another stranger. He was a huge, strangely distinctive man, and he had just heard a damning confession with legal implications. Was this his new gift? Would people feel comfortable enough around him to open up like this, or would they do it by compulsion of conscience? Neither option had to be mutually exclusive. As he considered this, both explanations struck him as consistent with what had happened to him on the wooded hill above Radio Spring Lake.
“She didn’t recognize me,” the married man continued. “How could she? I found her passed out in a room at a frat party. No one else was in there.”
His listener watched him calmly, taking pains neither to interrupt nor prod him on.
“So I took advantage of the situation.”
“Why’d you do it?”
“The way I saw it then, that’s what girls were for. Over and over again, I heard they were just playing hard to get when they said no. Getting them to say yes was just a matter of perseverance and skill. I saw a chance to skip the preliminaries, that’s all.”
He burst out in a quiet, bitter laugh.
“I didn’t even enjoy it. She was just low-hanging fruit, an empty conquest. She never knew it was me.”
“But she knew?”
“She had to. I was in too big a hurry to leave her dressed. I was afraid of getting caught.”
They fell silent for a few minutes. Adam noticed that the man’s gaze settled on an attractive blonde standing by a kiosk some twenty to thirty feet away. Given their conversational topic, this struck him as rather seamy. The impression was made worse by the fact that this was an older man checking out a younger woman. The ring on the speaker’s finger glistened in accusation.
“The weird thing is… you think you change after so many years. Right now, I don’t feel like I have. I was a coward then, and I’m a coward now. I felt guilty then. I feel guilty now. I did the same thing again – got out of there like a scared rabbit. She was with some guy – husband, boyfriend, whatever.”
“So the question is what do you do about it?”
The man buried his face in his hands then sat up straight and stared at the distant ceiling.
“I don’t know. Is the woman married? Would apologizing help?”
“Would she even want to have that dragged back up? What if she tells the authorities? I could go to prison, lose my wife, my reputation – lose everything. It was over twenty years ago. I was just a kid.”
“Does that lessen your responsibility?”
No answer was forthcoming. Why didn’t this man get up and walk away? In light of all that he’d said, his obsession with himself and his feelings was annoying Adam.
“From what you’ve said, I take it your wife doesn’t know.”
The other man held his hands up helplessly.
“I’ve been lying to my family without saying a word. How am I supposed to go on living with this?”
Adam adopted a respectful manner to mitigate the bluntness of his reply.
“Perhaps it’s not about you, sir.”
“Take my advice,” the man snapped back. “Keep your hands to yourself, and keep your pants zipped. If you ever get married, you don’t want the baggage I’m carrying.”
However far his penitence went, it evidently fell short of meaningful action. He stood up and waved. Still far enough away that they couldn’t hear what he was saying, a trim, well-dressed woman with two teenage sons was walking toward him. Adopting an outwardly calmer demeanor, he made one last entreaty to no one in particular.
“What am I going to do now?”
Looking as if this wrenching conversation had never taken place, the conflicted husband and father sauntered away and joined his family. After they had wandered out of sight, the attractive blonde came and sat next to Adam on the bench.
“Pretty interesting, yeah?”
He spoke with a sense of mild wonder in his voice.
“That guy told me everything.”
“I figured you were listening. Did this turn out to be more entertaining than you’d expected?”
“I wasn’t really expecting anything in particular. It was worth it, coming with you. I’d say you’ve found your hidden ability.”
“I’m not certain of that yet.”
“Look. You just said he told you everything. So did I when I didn’t really know you, and I had never done that before. Up until then, I’d made a conscious decision not to, but out it spilled. Don’t you see? Adam, the truth just happens around you.”
He frowned and nodded.
“Almost like it has to, like water running down a slope.”
“I found a new gift,” Eve expounded. “Yours is older.”
“But people avoided me. Every now and then some woman would proposition me, but I never had a revealing conversation until I met you.”
“Did those women ever fool you?”
“No, but sometimes I gave in just for something to do.”
“You don’t need to say that. You’ve told me before. What matters is that their motives were revealed, and you could tell. The truth happened. People avoided you in all other circumstances until we came across Jonathan, but today a total stranger sat down next to you and opened up. That gift of yours is developing.”
She slipped her hand through his arm.
“Yes, ma’ am.”
“That’s enough sarcasm. Take me home, Adam.”
“Gladly – only, could we walk around outside somewhere for awhile? I don’t like the air in here.”
She thought for a minute.
“That sounds good. You know something? This is okay. I should go shopping with you more often.”